I confess: I love these three Ps. James Packer is one of my favourite theologians; the Puritans are among my most respected and revered Christians; and solid biblical preaching is always terrific to sit under. So here we have all three in one go. Terrific stuff.
And it is all fabulously brought together in one superb volume. In his 1990 book, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway) Packer offers us tremendous truths on “The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life” as the subtitle puts it. Packer has long loved and promoted the Puritans, and this is one of his best books on the topic.
I must also confess that I did not get a copy of this book until 20 years after it was first published. However, I am now seeking to atone for my sin by pushing it and Packer at every opportunity. And here I just want to focus on one chapter of this invaluable book.
His 17th chapter – out of 20 – is on “Puritan Preaching”. Given how lacking and lacklustre so much of modern evangelical preaching is, we need to listen to these very wise words perhaps more than ever. And to do this, the ideal would be for me to just offer the entire chapter here, but that would be a bit long. Simply offering some key highlights will have to suffice.
And that will hopefully whet your appetite to get and read the entire volume. He begins by quoting several great Puritans on this, and then says:
Puritan preaching has had a bad press in these latter days: the caricature is that Puritan sermons were regularly long, abstruse, and dull. In fact, one hour was the recognised length, practical biblical exposition was the actual substance, and liveliness was a regular mark of the style…. What made Puritan preaching into the reality that it was, however, was less its style than its substance. Puritans preached the Bible systematically and thoroughly, with sustained application to personal life, preaching it as those who believed it, and who sought by their manner to make their matter credible and convincing, convicting and converting.
He looks at some Puritan preaching principles and then continues:
C.H. Spurgeon, J.C. Ryle and Alexander Whyte, self-confessed heirs of the Puritans, maintained the tradition with distinction to the close of the nineteenth century; Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, almost alone, carried it on through the twentieth century. Today, other models and styles of pulpit work prevail, and Puritan preaching is in eclipse.
He then looks at four axioms which underlay all Puritan thought about preaching:
First, belief in the primacy of the intellect. It was a Puritan maxim that ‘all grace enters by the understanding’….
Second, belief in the supreme importance of preaching. To the Puritans, the sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship. Nothing, they said, honours God more than the faithful declaration and obedient hearing of his truth….
Preaching is thus a very solemn and momentous enterprise. Both minister and congregation should recognise that their Sunday sermons are the most important and significant events of the week. Whatever else is neglected, sermons must not be. Therefore, the minister who knows his priorities will plan his week round the allotted time for sermon preparation. …
Third, belief in the life-giving power of Holy Scripture. The Bible does not merely contain the word of God, as a cake contains currants; it is the word of God, the Creator’s written testimony to himself. And, as such, it is light for the eyes and food for the soul. Recognising this, the Puritans insisted that the preachers’ task is to feed their congregations with the contents of the Bible—not the dry husks of their own fancy, but the life-giving word of God. Better not preach at all, they would tell us, than preach beyond the Bible, or without utter and obvious confidence in the quickening, nourishing power of the biblical message….
It is worth noting here that just because preaching is feeding men with the bread of life, the Puritans defined pastoral work in terms of preaching first and foremost….
The only pastor worthy of the name, in short, is the man whose chief concern is always to feed his people by means of his preaching with the enlivening truths of the word of God.
Fourth, belief in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. The Puritans insisted that the ultimate effectiveness of preaching is out of man’s hands. Man’s task is simply to be faithful in teaching the word; it is God’s work to convince of its truth and write it in the heart.
He finishes by looking at eight points “to describe the type of preaching which those convictions produced”:
1. It was expository in its method. The Puritan preacher regarded himself as the mouthpiece of God and the servant of his word. He must speak ‘as the oracles of God’. His task, therefore, was not imposition, fastening on to Scripture texts meanings they do not bear; nor was it juxtaposition, using his text as a peg on which to hang some homily unrelated to it…; the preacher’s task was, precisely, exposition, extracting from his texts what God had encased within them….
The Puritan method of ‘opening’ a text (their regular word, and a good one) was first to explain it in its context (they would have agreed with J.H. Jowett that ‘a text without a context is a pretext’); next, to extract from the text one or more doctrinal observations embodying its substance; to amplify, illustrate and confirm from other scriptures the truths thus derived; and, finally, to draw out their practical implications for the hearers. The Puritans were devotees of continuous exposition, and have left behind them magnificent sets of expository sermons on complete chapters and books of the Bible, as well as on single texts. Most of Matthew Henry’s wonderful Commentary, for instance, was first preached to his own flock at Chester.
2. Puritan preaching was doctrinal in its content. The Puritans received the Bible as a self-contained and self-interpreting revelation of God’s mind….
To be a good expositor, therefore, one must first be a good theologian. Theology—truth about God and man—is what God has put into the texts of Scripture, and theology is what preachers must draw out of them. To the question, ‘Should one preach doctrine?’, the Puritan answer would have been, ‘Why, what else is there to preach?’ Puritan preachers were not afraid to bring the profoundest theology into the pulpit if it bore on their hearers’ salvation, nor to demand that men and women apply themselves to mastering it, nor to diagnose unwillingness to do so as a sign of insincerity. Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers–in other words, to feed the sheep rather than amuse the goats.
3. Puritan preaching was orderly in its arrangement. The preachers knew the value of clear headings, and deliberately allowed the skeletons of their sermons to stick out….
4. Puritan preaching, though profound in its content, was popular in its style….
Preaching that exalts the preacher, the Puritans said, is unedifying, sinful preaching… They systematically eschewed any rhetorical display that might divert attention from God to themselves, and talked to their congregations in plain, straightforward, homely English.
5. Puritan preaching was Christ-centred in its orientation… Puritan preaching revolved around ‘Christ, and him crucified’—for this is the hub of the Bible….
6. Puritan preaching was experimental in its interests. The preachers’ supreme concern was to bring men to know God….
7. Puritan preaching was piercing in its applications. Over and above applicatory generalisation, the preachers trained their homiletical searchlights on specific states of spiritual need, and spoke to these in a precise and detailed way.
8. Puritan preaching was powerful in its manner. The Puritan coveted unction in the pulpit….
He concludes as follows:
Such was Puritan preaching, and such was evangelical preaching generally till recent times. It was preaching of this kind that made evangelicalism great in the past, and there seems little likelihood that evangelicalism will be great again without a return to it. The churches of the West are currently in confusion about the way to make preaching spiritually significant for the modern congregation, and are treating the problem as primarily one of devising appropriate techniques. Technique is, of course, necessary in preaching, and it would not be false to say that the Puritan technique of exposition and application has been our theme in this chapter….
Will the adoption of such preaching principles and practices turn around an ailing Western church? Perhaps not just by itself, but it would be a much-needed component in any larger revitalisation and restoration of the contemporary Christian church.
Thank you Jim Packer, and thank you Puritans.
(Australians can find Packer’s book at Koorong: https://www.koorong.com/search/product/a-quest-for-godliness-j-i-packer/9781433515811.jhtml )