The Puritan movement from the mid-sixteenth century to the late seventeenth century has been called a golden age of preaching. Through the preaching and the publication of sermons, the Puritans sought to reform the church and the everyday lives of the people. With few exceptions, Puritan ministers were great preachers who lovingly and passionately proclaimed the whole counsel of God set forth in Holy Scripture. No group of preachers in church history has matched their biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical preaching. This article underscores the glory of Puritan preaching by looking at the primacy of preaching, passion for preaching, power in preaching, and plainness in preaching.
Primacy of Preaching
The Puritans had a profound sense that God built His church primarily by the instrument of preaching. This understanding created an ethos where preaching stood at the center of worship and devotion.
The substance of preaching is declaring God’s Word to men. John Preston said that the preacher is “an ambassador…who speaks to the people instead of God, in the name of Christ.”
Preaching is God’s great converting ordinance, they said. Seldom would anyone be converted apart from it. William Ames wrote, “Preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ.” Thomas Cartwright said preaching is vitally necessary above merely reading the Bible: “As the fire stirred giveth more heat, so the Word, as it were blown by preaching, flameth more in the hearers, than when it is read.”
Other than the Holy Spirit, the ascended Christ bestows no higher gift on earth than the call to preach to His New Testament church, said Richard Sibbes. “This is a gift of all gifts, the ordinance of preaching. God esteems it so, Christ esteems it so, and so should we esteem it.” Therefore the Puritans put the pulpit rather than the altar at the center of their churches, put preaching rather than the sacraments at the center of their worship, and regarded a personal call to the ministry as essential.
Such a perspective made each sermon a momentous occasion. “There is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell,” wrote John Preston. One of John Cotton’s listeners wrote in response to a sermon, “Mr. Cotton preaches with such authority, demonstration, and life that, methinks, when he preaches…I hear the Lord Jesus Christ speaking in my heart.” Richard Sibbes said, “Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world.”
Passion for Preaching
Puritan preaching was driven by an inward passion created by the Spirit of God. The Puritans loved the gospel of Christ. They loved to proclaim the entire gospel, which included diagnosing the plight of man in his sin, emphasizing the sufficiency of Christ in His humiliation and exaltation, and offering grace while proclaiming the demands of evangelical repentance and faith.
Puritan preaching involves declaring redemption by focusing on the saving work of all three Persons of the Trinity, while simultaneously calling sinners to a life of faith and commitment and warning that the gospel will condemn forever those who persist in unbelief and impenitence.
The Puritans loved to glorify the triune God by preaching Christ—biblically, doctrinally, and typologically. Preaching Christ with winsomeness and grace was the most essential task of the Puritan preacher. Samuel Rutherford said he had but “one joy” next to Christ, that is, “to preach Christ.” The best sermons, they said, are those that the preacher first preaches to his own heart—especially when that heart is ravished with Christ.
Furthermore, the Puritans loved the people they preached to and relentlessly sought their conversion and edification. Puritan preachers understood that the minister with great preaching gifts who failed to love his people would fail miserably in his calling. They knew that to fail in love is to fail in all.
They said a minister must strive to preach and shepherd his people with so much love that he mirrors the Father’s love as pictured in the father’s reception of the prodigal son and his response to his elder brother (Luke 15:11–32). They tenderly invited the weak, doubting Christians to draw near to the Father through Christ. Baxter wrote, “The whole course of our ministry must be carried on in a tender love to our people…. When the people see that you unfeignedly [sincerely] love them, they will hear anything, and bear anything, and follow you the more easily.”
Power in Preaching
Puritan preaching addressed the mind with clarity. This preaching was directed to people as rational beings. The Puritans viewed the mind as the palace of faith. They refused to set mind and heart against each other, teaching that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. John Preston stressed that reason is elevated in conversion, and Cotton Mather added that ignorance is the mother of heresy rather than of devotion. Thus they informed the mind with biblical knowledge and reasoned with the mind through biblical logic. They understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity.
Puritan preaching confronted the conscience pointedly. The Puritans regarded the consciences of sinners as the “light of nature.” 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.” Only then he will cry to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. So the Puritans preached urgently, directly, and specifically to the conscience, taking seriously Christ’s command “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name” (Luke 24:47).
Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately. Their preaching was affectionate, zealous, and optimistic. Walter Cradock said to his flock, “We are not sent to get galleyslaves to the oars but He sends us to woo you as spouses, to marry you to Christ.” The Puritans used compelling preaching, personal pleading, earnest praying, biblical reasoning, solemn warning, joyful living any means they could—to turn sinners from the road of destruction and to God via the mind, the conscience, and the heart—in that order.
Plainness in Preaching
In terms of style, the Puritans believed in a plain style of preaching. This plainness did not mean anti-intellectualism, but a simple and clear communication from the Bible to the mind, then into the heart, and then outward to direct the conduct. Henry Smith said, “To preach simply, is not to preach unlearnedly, nor confusedly, but plainly and perspicuously [clearly], that the simplest which doth hear, may understand what is taught, as if he did hear his name.” Cotton Mather wrote in his eulogy for John Eliot, a great Puritan missionary to the Native Americans, that his “way of preaching was very plain; so that the very lambs might wade into his discourses on those texts and themes, wherein elephants might swim.” Increase Mather wrote of the preaching of his father, Richard: “His way of preaching was plain, aiming to shoot his arrows not over his people’s heads, but into their hearts and consciences.”
The first part of a Puritan sermon was exegetical and expositional; the second, doctrinal and didactic; and the third, applicatory. First, Puritan preaching was biblical, that is, an exposition of the text of the Bible. “The faithful Minister, like unto Christ, [is] one that preacheth nothing but the word of God,” said Puritan Edward Dering. John Owen agreed: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.”
Second, the exposition of Scripture led the Puritans to develop clear and well-defined doctrines. Puritan preaching recognized that all biblical doctrine centers on Christ. According to Thomas Adams, “Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.” “Think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul, and scope of the whole Scriptures,” Isaac Ambrose said. Robert Bolton agreed: “Jesus Christ is offered most freely, and without exception of any person, every Sabbath, every Sermon.” Preaching the doctrines of Christ naturally led them also to preach other doctrines in connection to Christ, such as the doctrines of the triune God, of sin, and of sanctification and self-denial.
Third, the teaching of doctrine led to the application, often called the “uses” of the text, which could become lengthy as the minister applied Scripture to various listeners. The goal always was to drive the Word of God home or, as Baxter put it, “to screw the truth into their minds, and work Christ into their affections.”
Puritan preaching was experimental and practical. Experimental preaching stresses the need to know by experience the truths of the Word of God. It seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go and how they do go in the Christian life. It aims to apply divine truth to all of the believer’s experience in his walk with God as well as his relationship with family, the church, and the world around him.
These applications must target the right people or they might do more spiritual harm than good. Puritan preaching was marked by a discriminating application of truth to the non-Christian and the Christian. Puritan preachers took great pains to identify the marks of grace that distinguish the church from the world, true believers from merely professing believers, and saving faith from temporary faith, as Jonathan Edwards did in Religious Affections.
Puritan preaching aimed to be transforming. The applicatory part is “the life of preaching,” wrote James Durham. “Hence, preaching is called persuading, testifying, beseeching, entreating, or requesting, exhorting.” The Puritans taught that when God’s Word is preached experimentally, the Holy Spirit uses it to transform individuals and nations.
Conclusion: The Puritan Preacher and His Preaching
To aim for the goal of transforming the hearers for the glory of God alone, the Puritans called preachers to conduct themselves in the fear of the Lord. The preacher must walk in humility, not flaunting his abilities. “A crucified style best suits the preachers of a crucified Christ,” wrote John Flavel. “Words are but servants to the matter. An iron key, which fits the lock, is more useful than a golden one, which will not open the door to the treasure.”
Ministers must show a profound dependence on the Holy Spirit in everything they say and do. They must feel keenly their inability to bring anyone to Christ as well as the magnitude of conversion. “God never laid it upon thee to convert those he sends thee to. No; to publish the gospel is thy duty,” William Gurnall said to ministers. The Puritans were convinced that both preacher and listener are totally dependent on the work of the Spirit to effect regeneration and conversion in whom He will. As Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”
Dependence on the Holy Spirit requires the minister to pursue holiness in his own life. Owen wrote, “If a man teach uprightly and walk crookedly, more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.”
Therefore, ministers must give themselves to prayer: prayer for themselves and prayer for their ministries. Robert Traill wrote, “Some ministers of meaner gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.” The glory of Puritan preaching was not in the preacher, nor in the sermon itself.
The glory of Puritan preaching was the glory of their Lord.
Published by The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, used with permission.