Preaching Practical Piety

Dear Timothy,

In my last letter, I wrote that the Puritans show us how to marry doctrine and practice in our preaching. I'd like to add that they stressed the practice of piety (praxis pietatis), or practical godliness, flowing out of sound doctrine—just as much as Augustine and Calvin before them.

The Westminster Directory for Worship summarizes the Puritans’ commitment to sanctified application: 

He (the preacher) is not to rest in general doctrine, although never so much cleared and confirmed, but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers: which albeit it prove a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.[1]

Believing that God’s way to the heart and life was through the mind, the Puritan preachers saw how Scripture and theology relate to the problems of daily life. They did not disjoin the sacred from the secular. That’s why their books contain so many “uses,” in which they show how to apply for practical good the texts they expound. The Directory of Worship identifies six types of application:

  1. Instructions in true doctrines
  2. Refutations of false doctrines
  3. Exhortations to perform duties
  4. Admonitions to repentance
  5. Consolations to the troubled
  6. Self-examinations for every hearer[2]

To pursue only one type, “uses” of exhortations embrace such primary virtues as intense personal and family exercises in godliness, wholehearted commitments to goodness and truth, diligence in work, exercise of brotherly love, responsible use of gifts and time, strict observance of the Sabbath, and, most importantly, experiential dealings with God. The Puritans loved the application of biblical texts to the full range of life, focusing both on God’s promises and on man’s duties.

Let the Puritans teach you how to employ a few of these “uses” in each sermon to various kinds of hearers. William Perkins distinguishes seven kinds of hearers—four of whom are unsaved (the ignorant and unteachable, the ignorant but teachable, those who have knowledge but are not humbled, and those who are humbled but are not yet brought to freedom in Christ) and three who are saved (those who believe, those who are fallen, and the “mixed”—i.e. fathers, young men, and children in grace). He shows us in less than twenty pages how to apply our sermons to each of these kinds of hearers. Read these pages often and examine your sermons by them.[3]

In short, preaching and theology are means to an end—the goal being sanctification. The Puritans saw theology as essentially practical. William Perkins called theology “the science of living blessedly for ever”;[4] William Ames, “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.”[5] As Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“To them, systematic theology was to the pastor what a knowledge of anatomy is to the physician. Only in the light of the whole body of divinity (as they liked to call it) could a minister provide a diagnosis of, prescribe for, and ultimately cure spiritual disease in those who were plagued by the body of sin and death.”[6]

The Puritans rejoiced to preach the whole counsel of God. Their all-embracing Christianity was integrated well into their daily lives. Their lifestyle was holistic, reflecting a whole gospel for the whole of personal and corporate life. Their biblical worldview—which embraced work and leisure, duties and pleasures—aimed for “holiness to the Lord” and to do all to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). Go and stress likewise, Timothy.

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.

Related Links

"Preaching the Good News" by Adam Parker

Preaching the Gospel (with Rick Phillips and Harry Reeder) [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon 


[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, p. 380.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Art of Prophesying (1606; edited and reprinted, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), pp. 56-73.

[4] The Works of William Perkins (London: John Legate, 1609), 1:10.

[5] William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, ed. John D. Eusden (1629; Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1968), p. 77.

[6] Compromised Church, p. 266. 

Joel Beeke