Preaching as Congregational Reformation

 |  July 22, 2019

The Puritan “plain style of preaching” is generally organized into three main parts: exegesis, doctrine, and uses (or application). While there is much to be gleaned from our Puritan forebears’ emphasis on interpreting a passage and unlocking the doctrines therein, perhaps most notable was their deliberate application of the text and doctrine. As David L. Larsen summarized, the aim of Puritan preaching “was the transformation of the individual and the reorganization of society.”[1]David L. Larson, The Company of Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 255.

In this way, Puritan preaching distinguished itself from both the reading of the approved homily and the ornate, rhetorical flourishes of skilled orators. This is where the notion of plain-style preaching is derived. It was not anti-intellectual, nor was it drab or boring. Instead, Puritan preaching was directed for application. As Increase Mather reflected upon his father’s preaching, he summarized their emphasis well: “His way of preaching was plain, aiming to shoot his arrows not over his people’s heads, but into their hearts and consciences.”[2]Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America: Magnalia Christi Americana, Book 3 (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 1:547–48.

Consider briefly the pattern of Jonathan Edwards, who has been deemed America’s greatest theologian. His sermons exhibit the emphasis upon application in preaching. His sermon, “The Sovereignty of God,” contains 12 pages of exposition and 3 of application. Likewise, his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” contains 4 pages of exposition, but 5 of application. His sermon, “The Excellency of Christ,” contains 13 pages of exposition with another 9 pages of application. “A Warning to Professors,” has equal parts exposition and application (5 pages each). And “A Farewell Sermon,” contains 9 pages of exposition and 10 pages of application.[3]Ralph G. Turnbull, Jonathan Edwards the Preacher (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 168ff.

In light of the Puritan emphasis upon application, what can preachers today glean from their example?

1. Do not neglect the application in preaching.

In various homiletical tribes, there is a reticence to apply the text to the congregation—for some, it is the fear of encroaching upon the work of the Holy Spirit; for others, it is the fear of over-specifying an application to the detriment of others in the audience. In my experience teaching preachers, however, most of those hesitant to apply the text to their hearers are simply too removed from the daily lives of those in the congregation to know how. We can only apply the text to our congregations to the extent that we know the text and the congregation.

2. Do not under-contextualize the application.

William Perkins, the fountainhead of all English instruction in preaching, offered 7 categories of listeners and instructed his readers in the art of directing the Scripture to each: the ignorant and unteachable believers, ignorant-yet-teachable believers, those with knowledge but lacking in humility, those who have been humbled, those who believe, those who stumble—in faith or practice, and a mixed congregation consisting of all.[4]William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, rev. ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 56–63. In my own practice, I endeavor to apply every sermon to the unbeliever in our midst, to the believer struggling in their faith or Christian walk, and to the saint who is consistently walking with the Lord. Every text has something to say to each of them. So must we.

3. Do not over-generalize the application.

The application of every sermon should flow from the explanation of the sermon text. Just as the Puritans moved from exegesis to doctrine to uses, preachers today should ensure that the application of a sermon is not simply cut-and-pasted into their outline. What does the text call for us to believe? What does the text command us to do? What does the text tell us about the work of Christ on our behalf and what difference should that make in our lives? Every text offers something specific. As we stand and proclaim the Word of God to the people of God, let us ensure that our application follows naturally from the text as well.

4. Do not under-estimate the role of preaching in congregational reformation.

Preacher, your church may be blessed with incredibly skillful and knowledgeable Sunday School teachers and small group leaders. You may have access to the best Bible study curricula ever written. But the Sunday-morning service sermon remains the single-greatest-tool in your discipleship toolkit.

The Puritans believed that the primary means by which God built his church—the most-consistent manner in which the Lord saved sinners and grew disciples—was through the regular preaching of God’s Word. By unpacking the text of Scripture, explaining doctrinal emphases found therein, and applying them to the hearts and lives of their hearers, the Puritans are considered to have ushered in “a season of spiritual revival as deep and extensive as any that has since occurred in the history of the British Churches.”[5]Alexander F. Mitchell, foreword to Introduction to Puritan Theology: A Reader, ed. Edward Hindson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976). May the lessons we learn from them be used of God to awaken hearts in our day.


David Norman is Adjunct Professor for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and California Baptist University. He is also the “Head Barista” of Caffeinated Theology.

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