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TEXT: II Timothy 4:2
SUBJECT: Puritans #6: Preaching
This is the third Sunday afternoon of the month, and so, with the Lord's blessing, we'll continue our study of the Puritan view of life. The book we're using to guide us is Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were. The author is Leland Ryken, a professor of English at Wheaton College. The book was published in 1986.
Thus far, we've looked at the Puritan view of work and money, sex, marriage, and the discipline of children. Now we'll see what they have to say about Preaching.
On this topic, the Puritans spoke with an authority no one can match today. 300 years after most of them died, Puritan sermons are still in print and are being read all over the world. For the most part, the people reading them are not scholars doing research in English history, but ordinary believers who find something in their sermons they can't find anywhere else. What we find is a rare combination of substance and passion. Like John the Baptist, the Puritan preacher was
"A burning and shining light".
Emitting both light and heat.
When comparing himself to the Puritan preachers, Spurgeon called himself a pygmy! Well, if he was a pygmy, I wonder what I am?
Puritanism flourished from about 1550-1700. This means the people were mostly farmers, with a lot of work to do, little money to spare, and big families to take care of. Also remember that most travel was by foot in those days, and the roads were muddy for months at a time.
Yet despite the difficulties, they found time for sermons-long sermons and a lot of them. Most Puritan sermons lasted for more than an hour and some of them went on for two or three hours! Ryken tells a story at the beginning of his chapter,
"To set the stage for my remarks about Puritan preaching,
I invite you to accompany me to England near the turn
Of the Sixteenth Century. Laurence Chaderton, first master
Of Emanuel College, Cambridge, is preaching in his native
Lancashire.People do not often hear good sermons there.
Chaderton has preached for two hours. He is about to conclude
And says something to the effect, that he would no longer
Trespass on their patience.
But the audience will not allow the preacher to stop. `For
God's sake, Sir, go on, go on' they urge. Hereat, Mr. Chaderton
Was surprised into a longer discourse, beyond his expectation,
In satisfaction of their importunity".
That's the story. But here's the punch line. Ryken says,
"The incident is noteworthy, not because it was rare
during the Puritan movement, but because it was common".
It was common for people to walk for miles to hear a two hour sermon-and then call for more!
Puritan pastors typically preached twice on Sunday, taught catechism during the week, and free-lanced as much as they could. Many preached five sermons a week; the more popular ones did far more than five a week. And again, it wasn't to a handful of sermon-fanatics. The churches were normally full, and some times, packed to overflowing. With no entertainment; with no programs; with nothing for the kids-except the Word of God.
Why did they love preaching so well? The cynic would say "Because there was no TV in those days!" In other words, they had nothing else to do, or that preaching was their form of entertainment.
In fact, there was a lot of entertainment in those days! In his book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, John Bunyan says he was addicted to it-dancing, ringing bells, singing. And, of course, there were pubs or taverns in every village.
But, more to the point, if one liked religious entertainment, there was an easier option: The Church of England. The Anglicans had a church in every village. Every day, morning and evening services were held in them; and on Sunday homilies were read, the Lord's Supper was served, and so on.
Yet the weekday services were often conducted without a single hearer. The Sunday meetings were better attended, but very few Anglican churches ever had a house full on the Lord's Day.
The people packing the Puritan churches, therefore, were not just looking for something to do!
They came to worship the Lord, to sing His praises-and most of all-to hear His Word preached. It's hard to overstate the importance they assigned to preaching.
THE SERMON PREPARED
The Puritan sermon was usually made up of three parts: (1) the text was read and explained in context, (2) from the text, a doctrine or duty was identified, and (3) the doctrine or duty was applied to the hearers present at the meeting.
I know this is a little technical for someone who doesn't preach, but each point is worth thinking about.
The sermon always began with a text of Scripture, usually one verse or even a part of a verse. Ordinarily, this is a recipe for disaster. Men, wanting to sound Biblical, start off with a verse and then preach something else. I know a pastor who does this all the time. I often wonder if he doesn't prepare his sermon and then find a verse to fit it!
The Puritans were wary of this danger. Thus, after reading the verse, they explained it in context. In this way, their people would know they weren't just using the Word, they were preaching the Word. One man was so eager to show his people that the sermon came right out of the Bible, he spent 90 minutes setting the verse in it's context! After doing that, he preached the sermon! A woman in the church that day was asked what she thought of the preacher. Her reply is immortal,
"It took him so long to set the
table, I lost my appetite".
He overdid it, of course, but you have to respect his intent, if not his wisdom. Make sure the people know what the verse says and what it means. That's the first thing they did.
The second thing they did was to name the doctrine or the teaching of their text. From John 3:16, for example, they might start with the doctrine: God loves the world or, maybe, Whoever believes in Christ has eternal life or, Christ is the Gift of God for sinners.
After stating their doctrine, they would prove it by an appeal to other verses. Ryken says,
"They felt constrained to buttress each doctrine
with the examples and testimonies of Scripture,
and by the force of reason grounded upon the same"
No Scripture stands by itself! So many heresies are based on one verse. The Mormons, for example, practice baptism for the dead. They get it from a single verse, I Corinthians 15:29. But, if you look at the verse, you'll see it is not a command at all; the chapter is not about "baptism"; no other verse says anything about it; and the whole teaching of the Bible is against the idea of helping people after they're dead. Thus, even if you don't know what the verse means, you know it doesn't mean what the Mormons say!
If you're going to offer a doctrine, you've got to prove it from the Bible. That was their Second Rule.
Here's Number Three: apply it to the hearers. The Puritan sermon was always practical.
William Ames sharply criticized men who preached sermons that were merely informative,
"They sin who stick to the naked finding and explanation
of the truth, neglecting the use and practice in which
religion and blessedness consist. Such preachers edify
the conscience little or not at all".
Explaining the verse, therefore, is not enough; getting the doctrine right is not enough. Puritan preachers went for the heart; their sermons aimed at making their people holy.
William Perkins said,
"Our goal is holy reformation, to reform
the life of ungodliness".
And you don't get that by merely informing people of this doctrine or of that duty. James Durham,
"Preaching is called persuading, beseeching,
entreating, exhorting, etc."
Thomas Manton adds,
"That knowledge is best that endeth in practice.
the hearer's life is the preacher's best commendation".
Because the Word must be applied to the people present, the Puritans wrote out a large number of applications at the end of their sermons. One man had 63 of them!
This has been laughed at by people who've glanced at the Puritans, but haven't studied them. How in the world can you give 63 applications in one sermon? They didn't do that! They picked only a few of the many they had on paper. They chose based upon who was there! Richard Baxter,
"If I know my people are addicted to drunkenness,
why should I be tied down to preach only
against covetousness or the like?"
If Baxter was preaching on the guilt and misery of sin, and he noticed that several drunkards were in the church, he'd find Application #18, let's say, on the guilt and misery of drunkenness. But, if no drinkers were there, he'd bring up Application #44 on the guilt and misery of self-righteousness.
They believed Psalm 119:96,
"I have seen the end of all perfection,
and Thy Law is exceeding broad".
In other words, any Bible verse can be applied to anyone. But the preacher has to be prepared to do it in an appropriate way!
That takes a lot of work. But they were willing to do it.
That's the Puritan sermon prepared. Now, let's move on to its delivery.
THE SERMON DELIVERED
The first thing the Puritans wanted in a sermon was plainness. The Puritans demanded high learning in their preachers, but they despised its parading. Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were needed in the study, but had no place in the pulpit. Why not? Because people couldn't understand them. The same is true with learned references, the citing of Church Fathers, and so on. Some quotes,
"Preaching must be plain, clear, and evident.
It is a byword among us: `It was a very plain
Sermon.' And I say again, the plainer
The better!" (William Perkins)
"Preach plainly and clearly as if the simplest
man may understand what it taught, as if
he did hear his name". (Henry Smith)
Why did they hate sermons laced with foreign words and learned references?
For one thing, it took minds off Christ and put them on the preacher! Perkins-"We do not paint Christ, but ourselves". Bolton-"Such preaching is for self-praise and private ends".
John Cotton was a man of immense learning. One day, he was invited to preach at Cambridge University. In the morning service, he stuffed the sermon with foreign words and learned citations. But afterwards, he felt so ashamed of himself that he never did it again. That evening, he preached with great plainnesss to the edification of everyone there.
They opposed fancy sermons because they drew attention to the preacher and took it off of Christ.
The second reason they wanted plain sermons is so that everyone-from the scholar to the milkmaid could understand. Increase Mather was a fine scholar, but he said, the only art he cared for was
"The art of being understood".
The third reason is the Bible itself is a plain book. Not every word in it is a snap to understand, of course, but the high-falutin language we sometimes hear in sermons is entirely lacking in the Word of God. Benjamin Keach,
"There simplicity is joined with majesty, commanding
the veneration of all serious men; more than the elaborate
flourishes and long-winded periods of Tully".
Puritan sermons were plain: Not stupid, not full of aints and caints and so on, but clear to everyone in the congregation. Including the kids and the mothers chasing them.
The second thing they demanded in a sermon was seriousness. Let me quote two of the best known Puritans, John Bunyan and Richard Baxter,
"I preached what I felt, what I smartingly
did feel.Indeed, I have been unto them
as one sent from the dead. I went myself in
chains to preach to them in chains; and carried
that fire in my own conscience that I persuaded
them to beware of".
"I preached as never sure to preach again,
and as a dying man to dying men".
Their seriousness was a by-product of their view of preaching. What does preaching do? One said it brings every man closer to heaven or to hell. He was right. Preaching is serious because heaven and hell are serious.
Puritan sermons were put in plain words and delivered with awesome seriousness.
Puritan pastors were gifts of Christ to the Church. He gets all the glory for making them the men they were and giving them the success they had.
But though Christ did it, He didn't do it by a miracle. Second causes were used. The preachers studied hard, prayed much, and kept a close eye on themselves and their doctrine.
But what about the people? Did they help their pastors? Of course they did. A lot could be said here, but let me hurry on with four or five points and little elaboration.
They gave them time to study. The Puritans believed that preaching is the pastor's Number One responsibility. That means they gave him time to study, pray, and prepare his sermons with care. I have a pastor friend who, frankly, is not much of a preacher. And no wonder: His people want him to do everything! From mowing the lawn to chairing the ladies auxiliary to organizing youth outings, the man has almost no time to study! They call him the pastor, but, in fact, he's the church go-fer! The Puritans gave their pastors time to study.
They came to hear him. It's an awesome thing to see the church packed week after week, but it's also encouraging. Believe you me, when the pastor works hard to prepare a sermon and only six people show up to hear it, it is somewhat discouraging. When he knows that everyone else is home watching TV or something.
They paid attention. Jan Comenius came to England during the Puritan era and was shocked to see people listening and taking notes. He had never seen that in the Lutheran Church.
They talked about the sermon at home.
They put the sermons into practice.
They prayed for their pastors.
When asked the secret of his success, Charles Spurgeon said,
"My people pray for me!"
That's the Puritan view of preaching. Should we imitate it? In every detail? Of course not; the Puritans lived 300 years ago and the times have changed. In the TV age people cannot sit for three hour sermons-and frankly, I don't know a pastor who knows enough to preach one!
I've heard men trying to preach with Puritan sermons by using sentences with 100 words in them. That worked for them, but it won't work for us. English grammar has changed since the Puritans walked the earth.
We need to find ways to reach the people of today-not 1688! But we have to do it without changing the message or dumbing down the pulpit.
Because the big ideas of Puritan preaching are right for every age: It is preaching the Word-and not ourselves. It is preaching with substance-and not helium. It is preaching to change men-and not to entertain them. In short, it is preaching for eternity. That's Puritan preaching. May God revive it. For Christ's sake. Amen.
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