Westminster & Preaching: Preparation & Hearing

The Puritan movement was known firstly as a resurgence of biblical of preaching; its focus was upon the right preaching of God’s word which would transform and revive not only the Church but also the nation, and if the Lord so willed, also the world! As Dr. Irvonwy Morgan understood it, “the essential thing in understanding the Puritans was that they were preachers before they were anything else.... Into whatever efforts they were led in their attempts to reform the world through the Church, and however these efforts were frustrated by the leaders of the Church, what bound them together, undergirded their striving, and gave them the dynamic to persist was their consciousness that they were called to preach the Gospel.”[1]

If William Perkins is regarded as the Father of Puritan preaching with his publishing of The Art of Prophesying, a book which planted the seeds of Biblical exposition in the Puritan psyche, then it may also be said that the Westminster Assembly was the flowering of that seed. Indeed, in the Assembly’s outlining of what proper preaching ought to look like, it was to William Perkins where they found their model.[2]  The emphasis which both Perkins and the Assembly aimed to establish was that the preaching ought always be centered upon and grounded in the Word.

Hence Perkins claimed, “The Word of God alone is to be preached, in its perfection and inner consistency. Scripture is the exclusive subject of preaching, the only field in which the preacher is to labor.”[3] It was from this that the Westminster Divines wrote that “the subject of [a preacher’s] sermon is to be some text of Scripture... he may go on in some chapter, psalm, or book of the holy Scripture, as he shall see fit.”[4]  In fact, they go on to advise that when applying or bringing about any doctrine in their sermons, preachers are to make sure “it be a truth contained in or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence... The doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms... it is to be opened, and the consequence also from the text cleared.”[5]

For the Puritans, and the Westminster Assembly especially, preaching was only right preaching when the text was central; for the responsible preacher, the Scripture passage was to guide the sermon, not allowing his sermon to mold the Scripture or to go beyond what the text was saying. William Gouge, an Assembly member himself, noted that preachers must “ground what they preach upon the Scripture, and deliver nothing but what is agreeable thereunto, preach the word of God... So close ought ministers to hold to God’s word in their preaching, as not to dare to swerve in anything from it.”[6]

Chad Van Dixhoorn helpfully reminds us that for the Puritans, the right preaching of God’s was to be heard as God’s word! This is startling to modern ears, but Van Dixhoorn notes that “older theologians believed that the preached Word was the Word of God only derivatively and only when it faithfully expounded the inscripturated Word.” He goes on to quote Jeremiah Burroughs who exclaimed that “when you come to sermons to hear the Word of God, O labor to keep your hearts in a constant trembling frame, and the Word that you do now tremble at will forever hereafter comfort your heart.” [7]

The Westminster divines defended their high estimation of preaching from passages like, 1 Thessalonians 2:13 wherein the Apostle Paul explains that when he and his fellow workers in the ministry preached, their hearers heard their sermons “not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” It was out of this understanding that Jeremiah Burroughs could advise his hearers that “many times you will say, ‘Come, let us go hear such a man preach.’ Oh no, let us go hear Christ preach, for as it doth concern the ministers of God that they preach not themselves, but that Christ should preach in them, so it concerns you that hear, not to come to hear this man or that man, but to come to hear Jesus Christ.”[8]  In another setting though, Burroughs reminds us with balance that “it is not the means that works, but God in the means.”[9]

This is why the Assembly can advise in The Directory for the Publick Worship of God that a preacher must be “as taught of God, and persuaded in his own heart, that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ... So shall the doctrine of truth be preserved uncorrupt, many souls converted and built up, and himself receive manifold comforts of his labours even in this life, and afterward the crown of glory laid up for him in the world to come.”[10]

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] Irvonwy Morgan, The Godly Preachers of the Elizabethan Church (Epworth Press: London, 1965), p 11. I found this quote through J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway Books: Wheaton, 1990), p 37.

[2] Richard A. Muller and Rowland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & The Directory For Worship (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, 2007), p 126.

[3] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Banner of Truth: Edinburgh, 1996), p 9.

[4] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications: Glasgow, 2009), p 379.

[5] ibid. p 379.

[6] Gouge, Hebrewes, part 4, p. 76 (Sec. 98), as seen in Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653 (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, 2017), p 122.

[7] Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the Reformation of the English Pulpit, 1643-1653 (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, 2017), p 124.

[8] ibid. p 125.

[9] Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel-Fear, 91 as seen in Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors, p 166.

[10] “The Directory for the Publick Worship of God” in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Free Presbyterian Publications: Glasgow, 2009), p 381.


Stephen Unthank