The Puritan Take on Good Preaching

Zac HicksUncategorizedLeave a Comment

In a recent post, I highlighted the fact that worship discussions throughout church history were based more on theology than pragmatics and how the reverse seems to be true today.  More narrowly, the same can be said of preaching, as well.  One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation was the rediscovery of the preached Word as a means of grace.  A fresh wind of the Holy Spirit inspired new generations of preachers to bring the Word of God to the people of God with power.  By the time of the Great Awakenings and revivals happening in the US and Great Britain, preaching had become quite diverse in its expression and methodology.  Out of biblical conviction, and partially in response to the variegated preaching styles out there, the Puritans developed a distinct angle on homiletics (the study of preaching) worth summarizing here.

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms are, in many ways, a summary of Puritan faith and practice in that era (the mid-1600’s).  Likewise, the supplementary work produced by the Westminster Assembly–The Westminster Directory of Public Worship–is very “Puritan” in its approach.  Zeroing in on preaching, on which the Directory spent much time (imagine if worship books today spent as much time on preaching!), Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson summarize six non-negotiables of preaching, according to the Puritans.  Preaching should be done:1     

  1. PAINFULLY: The Puritans refer to the practice of “taking pains” in preparation and presentation; they urge preachers not to treat their responsibilities casually.
  2. PLAINLY: “That the meanest may understand; delivering truth not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect; abstaining also from an unprofitable use of unknown tongues, strange phrases, and cadences of sounds and words.”
  3. FAITHFULLY & WISELY: “[Preachers should be] looking at the honor of Christ, the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people, not at his own gain or glory; keeping nothing back which may promote those holy ends…framing all his doctrines, exhortations, and expecially his reproofs, in such a manner as may be most likely to prevail.”
  4. GRAVELY: As Richard Baxter has said, “I preach’d as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men!”
  5. LOVINGLY: “[Preachers should preach] with loving affection…and hearty desire to do them good.”
  6. EARNESTLY: The preacher is to preach “As taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ; and walking before his flock, as an example to them in it.”

This recipe for a sermon probably tastes differently than modern recipes.  Yet I, as a preacher, find them right and challenging.  Would to God that more of our preaching were characterized by these criteria!

1The following are excerpted quotations from Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson, The Westminster Directory of Public Worship (Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2008), 64-69.

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