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Packer, Preaching and the Puritans

Aug 29, 2018

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: www.koorong.com/search/product/a-quest-for-godliness-j-i-packer/9781433515811.jhtml )

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9 Responses to Packer, Preaching and the Puritans

  • The methods of many ‘modern’ churches will never produce true believers in the Lord Jesus as the only way to the Father, the Lord Jesus as the only way, Truth, and the Life. If what the world had to offer was such great shakes, I would have and could have stayed there. If the way the world operates and all its marketing schemes were helpful, enriching, and filled me with hope and provided the answers to questions of eternal significance, I would have just stayed there. Instead, the world left me empty, depressed, despairing of any form of comfort, hope, and even a reason to continue living.

    Lost, hurting people don’t need more mamby-pamby garbage from a bunch of losers who want to add numbers to their church headcount by using crafty, deceptive, worldly marketing techniques. God help us! We need the Word of the living God just like the Puritans gave the lost. We need that word that is alive and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword. And once we believe, we need that word to continue equipping us, and shining it’s searchlight on us so we grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord, so we produce fruit for His kingdom.

    We don’t need to hear sermons about “Angels on Assignment,” or some kid’s claims to have died and gone to heaven. I know I’m not expressing this all that great, Bill, but Mr. Packer nailed it so well, and your writing about it, also nailed it. I’m ordering this book pronto, and I pray others will do the same. Super, great article, Bill! Thanks!

  • Thanks Vicki. I have 87 kazillion people reading this site, and only one Puritan fan – bless you!

  • Gosh, I’m shocked, Bill! I know the Puritans are misunderstood, but your article makes it clear what their views were, their Biblically-based goals for the listener, and the importance of expository presentation of the Word of God. Without that, how could a person rightly divide the Word of Truth? When I first understood the Gospel, I had what I can only describe as this “joy bubble” going on. I truly believed on Jesus as the only way of salvation, but I knew so very little of the Truth. One day, that bubble burst. I still believed, but felt a deep need for deeper roots, the kind that would sustain me through temptation, and, in particular, persecution. My pastor recommended I read books by Francis Schaeffer. And so I did. That, and of course, the Bible itself, gave me the solid foundation I needed.

    I moved away from that area, and have been told by other pastors their congregations don’t want to hear sermons on doctrine. They don’t want expository sermons. They have yielded to their congregations so they don’t lose vital ‘revenue’ and have to close their doors. This breaks my heart, as well as explaining another reason for the failure of the ‘modern’ church.

    How I long for the kind of bold preaching of the Puritans! They truly “got it” and were real heroes of the faith. Not everyone has to die a martyr’s death to be a hero of the faith. You hang in there, Bill. I’m not going to go on about your role in all this because you’d pass out of embarrassment. Just know that you are faithfully doing what God has called you to do. You are much appreciated and prayed for.

  • Many thanks Vicki – bless you.

  • Given the overall uplifting thrust of this article and the two wonderful soundbites in particular …

    “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.”

    “The churches of the West are currently in confusion about the way to make preaching spiritually significant for the modern congregation, ”

    … I’m reluctant to be a ‘wet rag’, but feel readers of JI Packer’s books should not be naive about his having a certain blind spot to what many today regard as a key battleground:

    “The biblical narratives of creation, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, don’t obviously say anything that bears one way or another on the question of whether the evolutionary hypothesis might be true or not.”

    [Quote taken from the 19:52 minute mark of the audio at https://sydneyanglicans.net/media/audio/creation_evolution_problems/.%5D

  • Bill, this reminded me of something an old clergyman said at a conference I was at many years ago. He said “the pastor’s role is to lead his people through the pasture of God’s word”, it’s true and something I’ve never forgotten. Whether it’s in somebody’s lounge room, or by a hospital bed or from the pulpit on Sunday, the same principle holds. The Bible is the pastor’s “stock in trade”, to be wisely used in every ministry situation. And we’re certainly blessed to have the likes of Packer and his ilk to spell out these basics so well.

  • Bill, many earlier Puritans would reject Packer’s claim: “The biblical narratives of creation, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, don’t obviously say anything that bears one way or another on the question of whether the evolutionary hypothesis might be true or not.” (as David quoted).

    While Packer laments that: “The churches of the West are currently in confusion about the way to make preaching spiritually significant for the modern congregation, ” such confusion is partly due to beliefs, like Packer’s, that weaken trust in the Bible.

    Most theologians would have to admit, if pressed, that Hebrew Scholar James Barr was correct:
    ‘… probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1-11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that:
    a. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience
    b. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story
    c. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.’

    Clearly Genesis as written leaves no room for long ages of evolution. But, sadly, many otherwise excellent theologians, apologists and pastors compromise on the clear Hebrew of Genesis.

    Why re-interpret scripture? Has Hebrew scholarship improved? No. Rather, sound exegesis and sola scriptura have been sidelined by belief that we must accept long ages of evolution.

    I agree with David that this is a key battleground. In street outreach I often find ex-Christians and non-Christians who reject Christianity because they believe science has proved the Bible wrong. Attempts, such as Packer’s, to re-interpret Genesis invite responses that are variants of: “If you don’t believe what the Bible says in Genesis (about – – -), why should I believe the rest of it?“ In other words, compromise on Genesis introduces more stumbling blocks than it supposedly clears.

    On the Sydney Anglican link above, Packer dismisses and denigrates the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) as naive, barking up the wrong tree, indefensible, etc., with no logical argument refuting their detailed and logical exegesis, sola scriptura, or scientific arguments. Now Packer restricts himself to theology rather than science, so lets leave the science to ICR and CMI etc. But Packer doesn’t defend his ideas on Biblical grounds either. Rather, he says his opinion is that of most scholars and laments the fact that their opinion has not trickled down to many churches – (does he think: We THEOLOGIANS know better?).

    But Packer’s theology does not pass the sola scriptura test here. He ignores Biblical counter evidence of the Framework/Literary Hypothesis. E.g. :

    How can Adam be blamed for sin and death entering the world and for the whole of creation groaning if death was a feature of creation and evolution long before Adam?

    If Adam’s sin caused spiritual death only, why did Jesus have to die a very real physical death?

    If God calls the created world of death and disease very good, how can death be the last enemy?

    If Gen 1:26-27 refers to soul-less mankind, why would God give them explicit sovereignty over the earth in Gen 1:28?

    If God states in Gen 1:29-30 that seeds, fruit and green plants are food for man and animals “and it was so”, how can it have been so if both man and animals were carnivorous?

    Does it make sense for God to declare (Gen 1:31) that everything he had made was very good despite his explicit plan re diet being ignored?

    Why do those who want to allow soul-less pre-Adamites tend to be loose with Hebrew, claiming that Gen 1:26-27 refers to the creation of mankind, excluding the creation of Adam and Eve, which they say was later in Gen 2:7, often emphasizing the fact that the Hebrew (a dam) in Gen 1:26-27 can refer to generic man or mankind, while in Gen 2:7 the Hebrew is different (ha a dam) referring to the man (Adam). But I have yet to find any discussion on why they do not discuss the fact that Gen 1:27 uses the Hebrew ha a dam, or the man, which does not support their hypothesis. Nor do they discuss the fact that English translations of Gen 1:27 have, until recent times (1970?), always followed the Hebrew ha a dam, or the man, a man, or man rather than mistranslate as mankind or humankind.

  • Phew, I ordered the last one in stock at Koorong across Australia. Thanks Bill.

  • Well done Matt. Yes it is a terrific volume by one of God’s great champions. So many millions of people have been so very much blessed by, and have so greatly grown in Christ because of, both the Puritans and Packer.

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