Marrying Doctrine and Practice

Dear Timothy,

In my last letter, I wrote that the Puritans show us how to shape our entire lives and preaching by the Holy Scriptures. But they also show us how to marry doctrine and practice in our preaching. They accomplished this by addressing the mind with clarity, confronting the conscience pointedly, and wooing the heart passionately. Let’s look at each of these.

Puritan preaching addressed the mind with clarity.

Their preaching addressed man as a rational creature. The Puritans loved and worshipped God with their minds. They refused to set mind and heart against each other, but taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. They viewed the mind as the palace of faith. “In conversion, reason is elevated,” John Preston wrote. And Cotton Mather said, “Ignorance is the mother not of devotion but of heresy.” Puritans thus preached that we need to think in order to be holy. They challenged the idea that holiness is only a matter of emotions. They reasoned with sinners through what they called “plain preaching,” using biblical logic to persuade each listener that it was foolish not to seek and serve God because of the value and purpose of life, and the certainty of death and eternity.

God gave us minds for a reason, the Puritans taught. It is crucial that we ministers become like Christ in the way we think. Our minds must be enlightened by faith and disciplined by the Word, then put into God’s service in the world. Timothy, be challenged by the Puritans to use your intellect to further God’s kingdom. Without clear thinking, you will never be able to feed God’s people, nor evangelize and counter the culture in which you live, work, and minister. You will become empty in yourself, non-productive, and narcissistic, lacking a developing interior life.

The Puritans preached that a flabby mind is no badge of honor. They understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectualistic gospel will spawn an irrelevant gospel that doesn’t get beyond “felt needs.” That’s what is happening in our churches today. We have lost our Christian mind, and for the most part we don’t see the necessity of recovering it. We do not understand that where there is little difference between the Christian and non-Christian in what we think and believe, there will soon be little difference in how we live.

Puritan preaching confronted the conscience pointedly.

The Puritans worked hard on the consciences of sinners as the “light of nature” in them. Plain preaching named specific sins, then asked questions to press home the guilt of those sins upon the consciences of men, women, and children. As one Puritan wrote, “We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness.” They believed this was necessary because until the sinner gets out from behind that bush, he will never cry to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

So the Puritans preached urgently, believing that many of their listeners were still on their way to hell. They preached directly, confronting their hearers with law and gospel, with death in Adam and life in Christ. They preached specifically, taking Christ's command seriously “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name” (Luke 24:47).

Today, modern evangelism is, for the most part, afraid to confront the conscience pointedly. Learn from the Puritans, Timothy, who were persuaded that the friend who loves you most will tell you the most truth about yourself. Like Paul and the Puritans, we need to testify, earnestly and with tears, of the need for “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).

Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately.

It was affectionate, zealous, and optimistic. It is unusual today to find a ministry that both feeds the mind with solid biblical substance and moves the heart with affectionate warmth, but this combination was commonplace with the Puritans. They did not just reason with the mind and confront the conscience; they appealed to the heart. They preached out of love for God’s Word, love for the glory of God, and love for the soul of every listener. They preached with warm gratitude for the Christ who had saved them and made their lives a sacrifice of praise. They set forth Christ in His loveliness, hoping to make the unsaved jealous of what the believer has in Christ.

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 in the Learning from the Puritans series. Read Part 1 here.

Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

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