The Style of Puritan Preaching: the Content
The Puritan preacher’s concern was light and heat; light from the pure Word of God to penetrate the darkness of the heart and soul of the hearer, and heat from the passion and pathos of the heart and soul of the preacher to bring about conviction. The preaching was expository and Christ was the center of all. The Puritans shared Calvin’s conviction that God is a king who has been robbed of His honor by men who have revolted from their allegiance to Him. They should adore and worship Him alone. Again and again men insult God and rob Him of His due. Christ is a great king to whom we owe ultimate honor and allegiance regardless of anything He may or may not be pleased to do on our behalf.
As Edwards said, “Our obligation to love, honor, and obey any being is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority. But God is a being infinitely lovely, infinitely honorable, and his authority over us is infinite.” Therefore, to the Puritan preacher, the subject of his sermons was to be the loveliness of Christ, the honor of Christ, the majesty and authority of Christ. Thomas Goodwin once stated that he so loved Christ that if he were to go to heaven, and Christ were not there, he would leave immediately, for heaven without Christ would not be heaven at all.
Richard Sibbes speaks for the English Puritans with these words:
“To preach is to open the mystery of Christ, to open whatsoever is in Christ; to break open the box that the savour may be perceived of all. To open Christ’s natures and Person what it is; to open the offices of Christ: first, He was a prophet to teach, wherefore He came into the world; then He was a priest, offering the sacrifice of Himself; and then after He had offered His sacrifice as a priest, then was king. He was more publicly and gloriously known to be a king, to rule. After He had gained a people by His priesthood and offering, then He was to be a king to govern them.... He was all at the same time, but I speak in regard of manifestation. Now ‘to preach Christ’ is to lay open all these things.
And likewise the states wherein He executed His offices. First, the state of humiliation. Christ was first abased, and then glorified. The flesh He took upon Him was first sanctified and then abased, and then He made it His glorious flesh. He could not work our salvation but in a state of abasement; He could not apply it to us but in a state of exaltation and glory. To open the merits of Christ, what He hath wrought to His Father for us; to open His efficacy, as the spiritual head of His Church; what wonders He works in His children, by altering and raising of them, by fitting and preparing them for heaven: likewise to open all the promises in Christ, they are but Christ dished and parcelled out. ‘All the promises in Christ are yea and amen,’ II Cor.1:20. They are made for Christ’s sake and performed for Christ’s sake; they are all but Christ severed into so many particular gracious blessing[s]. ‘To preach Christ’ is to lay open all this, which is the inheritance of God’s people.
But it is not sufficient to preach Christ to lay open all this in the view of others; but in the opening of them, there must be the application of them to the use of God’s people, that they may see their interest (share) in them; and there must be an alluring of them, for to preach is to woo. The preachers are ‘paranymphi,’ the friends of the bridegroom, that are to procure the marriage between Christ and His Church; therefore, they are not only to lay open the riches of the husband, Christ, but likewise to entreat for a marriage, and to use all the gifts and parts that God hath given them, to bring Christ and His Church together.
And because people are in a contrary state to Christ, ‘to preach Christ’ is to begin with the law, to discover to people their estate by nature. A man can never preach the gospel that makes not way for the gospel by showing and convincing people that they are out of Christ. Who will marry with Christ, but those that know their own beggary and misery out of Christ? That He must be had out of necessity or else they die in debts eternally; He must be had, or else they are eternally miserable. Now when people are convinced of this, then they make out of themselves to Christ. This therefore must be done, because it is in order, that which makes way to the preaching of Christ for ‘the full stomach despiseth an honeycomb,’ Prov.27:7. Who cares for balm that is not sick?
Therefore we see John the Baptist came before Christ, to make way for Christ, to level the mountains, to cast down whatsoever exalts itself in man. He that is to preach must discern what mountains there be between men’s hearts and Christ; and he must labor to discover themselves to themselves, and lay flat all the pride of men in the dust; for ‘the Word of God is forcible to pull down strongholds and imaginations and to bring all into subjection to Christ,’ II Cor.10:4. And indeed, though a man should not preach the law, yet by way of implication, all these things are wrapped in the gospel. What need of a Saviour unless we are lost? What need of Christ to be wisdom to us if we are not fools in ourselves? What need Christ be sanctification to us, if we are not defiled in ourselves? What need He be redemption, if we were not lost and sold in ourselves to Satan, and under his bondage? Therefore all is to make way for Christ, not only to open the mysteries of Christ and the Church together, our aim must be, to persuade people to come out of their estate they are in, to come and take Christ. Whatever makes for this, that course we must use, though it be with never so much abasing of our selves (Richard Sibbes, The Works of Richard Sibbes, Vol.5, 1978, pp.505-506).”
Cotton Mather, the American divine, in his Directions for a Candidate for the Ministry, 1726, wrote far less subtly than did Sibbes,
Among all the subjects with which you feed the people of God, I beseech you, let not the true Bread of Life be forgotten; but exhibit as much as you can of a glorious Christ unto them. Yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be CHRIST IS ALL. It has been among the grievous things which I have seen in the days of my pilgrimage, that not only in some of the most celebrated sermons, which we have seen published on the most illustrious and memorable occasions, a CHRIST is not so much as once mentioned. But also some of your great men have it related of them as an instance of their wisdom that they gave it as their advice unto ministers that they should not preach much about the person of Christ! I have thought, ‘Would a blessed Paul have uttered such a word? A Paul who said, “I determined to know nothing among you, save JESUS CHRIST and Him crucified.” It is reported by some travellers, that in the Mahometan Mosques, there are sometimes whole sermons on the glories of a JESUS. And shall they who call themselves Christians, and would be honored as ministers of the Christian religion, preach as if they were ashamed of making the glories of a JESUS the subject of their sermons, and so rarely introduce Him as if it were an indecent thing to speak of Him! GOD forbid! I make no doubt of it, that the almost epidemical extinction of true Christianity, or what is little short of it, in the nations that profess it, is very much owing to the inexcusable impiety of overlooking a glorious CHRIST so much in the empty harangues which often pass for sermons.
The Holy Spirit of God forever aims at nothing more than what our Saviour has declared in that Word, ‘He will glorify Me.’ And that Holy Spirit withdraws from the ministry which has in it little concern to glorify Him, and therefore it is an unsuccessful ministry. What I wish for and urge to is this: that your knowledge of the mystery of CHRIST may conspicuously shine in your sermons, and that it may be esteemed by you as a matchless grace given you if you may preach the unsearchable riches of CHRIST unto the world. The heavens do praise that wonder, the angels in the heavens are swallowed up in the praises of that wondrous One! Be like them, never so much in your element as when the Person, the Offices, the Benefits, the Example, the Abasement, and Advancement of a glorious CHRIST are the subjects of your sermons. Yea, reckon that the truth is not well discerned, nor the Word of Truth well divided, until you have the truth as it is in JESUS. He is that light of God in which you will see light, and every truth will be set in its true light before you. In every article of the treatises which you bring into the Assemblies of Zion, ponder upon this: what aspect a glorious CHRIST has upon the truth now before you, and let your hearers be made sensible of it.
Yea, whatever point you are upon think, ‘What is there in my SAVIOUR which this point leads me to think upon?’ If you preach on the evil of sin, and the misery of man fallen by sin, still carry your hearers on to their mighty and only SAVIOUR. When you preach on the duties of a godly, and sober, and righteous life, still carry your hearers to their SAVIOUR, as not only affording a pattern for all those things, but also as offering to live, and act, and work in them as a principle of life by which alone they can live unto God. Let me tell you, to take the way of a Norris and company, to come at the love of God without a Christ by the Law of the Spirit of Life in us making us free from the Law of sin and death, verily ‘twill never do!
Be a star to lead men unto their SAVIOUR, and stop not until you see them there. Be assured of this: the infinite SON OF GOD is ineffably dear to His eternal Father, and our SAVIOUR has given us this assurance, ‘If any man serve Me, him will My Father honor.’ If you set yourself above all things, to glorify the Christ of God, and affect yourself and others with this, His great goodness and beauty, and use all the methods you can devise that He may be exalted, and be extolled, and be very high, you will be taken in among the favorites of heaven and be a man greatly beloved. The angels who with a perpetual veneration and astonishment stand about His glorious high throne, the ministers who do His pleasure and are never so well pleased as when they see Him glorified, these will with delight look upon you as their fellow servant, and will at His orders be on the wing to do marvelous kindnesses for you.”
In this day of “psychological” or “need-oriented” preaching, we would do well to follow the example of the Puritans that the end of preaching was the exaltation of “Christ and Him crucified.”
In our last post of this series, we will deal with the distinctive character of Puritan preaching.
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.