The Character of Puritan Preaching, Part 4
The sermon was the minister’s attempt through reason to encourage faith as it affected this life and the next. They were committed to a style that was plain but not dull. Each minister was pledged by his own creed to use a balance of doctrine and practice, faithfully devoted to the exposition of the Word of Scripture, and understood by all. Every Puritan sermon began with a definite Biblical text. Once a text was selected, the preacher’s immediate duty was to clarify it in all possible ways. Thus the lengthy Puritan sermon had a structure of its own. It had a triple division into Doctrine, Reason, and Use. In contrast to the sermons of the Anglican divines such as Andrewes and Donne which were weighted down with classical quotations, the sermons of the Puritans were restricted almost entirely to Biblical citations because evangelical teaching was the first aim of the sermon. They did, however, refer to a Luther, a Calvin, or even each other on occasion, in addition to citing several of the church fathers, such as Jerome or Bernard.
Each sermon was an attempt to identify from the text an axiom of theology and to discuss its practical applications. In procedure, the text was taken apart by the method of analysis into its component parts and usually set out again as a proposition. After the logical analysis of the passage, the practical appeal was made by the pastor who attempted to make the Bible applicable to real life.
In defining the process, Horton Davies observes, “The doctrines had to be explained to the congregation and their contraries refuted. The second division of the sermon was a logical defense of the assumptions of the first section. It was insisted that apparent contradictions were to be reconciled, and that little time was to be spent in answering trivial objections or mere cavillings. The third section intended to drive home the practical advantages of belief in the particular teachings and concluded with encouragements.”
Richard Baxter affirmed this tradition by stating, “The preacher’s aim should be first to convince the understanding and then to engage the heart. Light first, then heat. Begin with a careful opening of the text, then proceed to the clearance of possible difficulties or objections; next, to a statement of uses; and lastly to a fervent appeal for acceptance by conscience and heart.”
While being masters of divinity, the Puritans were also masters of practical divinity. To these men of the Word, there was no doctrine that could not be practice. To them, all that was practiced had to be founded on sound doctrine.
Lastly, Puritan preaching was bold preaching. The Puritan preacher was not afraid to let the preaching of the Word of God offend sinners. As Samuel Hieron said in his Preacher’s Plea, in 1629, “As men love nothing more than their sins, so they loathe nothing more than the discovery thereof.” The Puritans realized that there would always be a violent reaction to bold preaching, but that it was absolutely necessary.
To re-quote Baxter, “You cannot break men’s hearts by jesting with them, or telling them a smooth tale, or pronouncing a gaudy oration. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures at the drowsy request of one that seemeth not to mean as he speaks or to care much whether his request be granted or not. If you say that the work is God’s, and He may do it by the weakest means, I answer, it is true, He may do so; buy yet His ordinary way is to work by means, and not only to make the matter that is preached, but also the manner of preaching instrumental to our work.”
Again, quoting Baxter from The Reformed Pastor, “There is nothing more unsuitable to such a business than to be slight and dull. What! Speak coldly for God, and for men’s salvation? Can we believe that our people must be converted or condemned, and yet speak in a drowsy tone? In the name of God, brethren, labor to awaken your own hearts before you go into the pulpit, that you may be fit to awaken the hearts of sinners. Remember they must be awakened or damned, and that a sleepy preacher will hardly awaken drowsy sinners. Though you give the holy things of God the highest praises in words, yet, if you do it coldly, you will seem by your manner to unsay what you said in the matter. It is a kind of contempt of great things, especially of so great things, to speak of them without much affection and fervency. The manner as well as the words must set them forth. If we are commanded, ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might,’ then certainly such a work as preaching for men’s salvation should be done with all our might. But alas, how few in number are such men! It is only here and there, even among good ministers, that we find one who has an earnest, persuasive, powerful way of speaking that the people can feel him preach when they hear him.”
Peter Lewis in his The Genius of Puritanism, p.22, tells of the Puritan John Rogers, one of the most forceful and “awakening” preachers of his age. His complete self-forgetfulness in the pulpit led him to extremes of turbulent, tempestuous, and even desperate delivery. His packed congregations never forgot the occasion when he imitated the screams of the souls in hell!
Another famous divine, John Howe, tells the following story about Rogers, “Mr. Rogers was on the subject of the Scriptures. And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible. He personates God to the people telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible, yet you have slighted it; it lies in such and such a house all covered with dust and cobwebs. You care not to look at it. Do you use My Bible so? Well you shall have My Bible no longer.’ And he takes up the Bible from his cushion and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately he turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatsoever thou dost to us take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’ And then he personates God again to the people, ‘Say you so? Well, I will try you a little while longer; and here is My Bible for you, I will see how you use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more and live more according to it.’ By these actions, he put the congregation into such a posture that the people were generally deluged with their own tears, having been expostulated with for neglect of the Bible.”
Finding Isaiah 58:1 (“Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to My people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sin.”) as a text in support of bold preaching, Thomas Brooks said, “The worst of men are in a dead sleep and the best of men are too often in a sinful slumber, and therefore ministers need to cry aloud. They had need to be courageous and zealous, to awaken both sinners and saints, that none may go sleeping to hell.” Brooks also said, “He is not the best preacher that tickles the ear or that works upon the fancy, but he that breaks the heart and awakens the conscience.”
The American Puritan, Jonathan Edwards, once was so bold as to tell his congregation in his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”: “There is no other reason (but that God’s hand has held you up) to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have at here in the house of God, provoking His pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending His solemn worship.” How few ministers today would dare to address the matter of sloppy worship to their congregations! But the Puritan preacher was far more afraid of offending his God than he was of offending his congregation.
We would do well to model our ministry after these men. They were men of integrity. They saw their calling as one of dignity and worth. They loved the church because Christ loved it. They poured themselves into their study because of the command of Christ that they were to do with all their might whatever God had given them to do. They loved their people because Christ loved them. They had a passion for souls because Christ died for the soul. They were truly “men of whom the world was not worthy.”
Dr. Don Kistler, founder of the Northampton Press, is an ordained minister presently residing in Orlando. He is the author of, A Spectacle Unto God: The Life and Death of Christopher Love, and Why Read the Puritans Today? The editor of all the Soli Deo Gloria Puritan reprints, Kistler has edited over 150 books and is a contributing author for Justification by Faith ALONE!; Sola Scriptura; Trust and Obey: Obedience and the Christian; Onward, Christian Soldiers: Protestants Affirm the Church; and Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching. Visit donkistler.org.