|  June 17, 2024

The following article is part of a series of articles that will traverse church history to examine the preaching of great preachers.

Labor in the Text: The Style and Methodology of William Perkins’ Preaching

“Few men have been as influential in their lifetime as William Perkins, and few men of such fame have been so widely forgotten with the passing of time as Perkins.”[1] While he deserves a seat at the table of the great preachers of the past, this observation highlights one of William Perkins’ greatest contributions. His style and methodology of preaching revolved around focusing on the Scripture over his own personality and presentation. “Scripture is the exclusive subject of preaching, the only field in which the preacher is to labour.”[2]

Little is known about Perkins’ early life until he began his studies at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He came under conviction of sin and was converted after he overheard a mother admonishing her child not to become like “drunken Perkins.” Changing his major and pursuing theology, he was appointed in 1584 to Great St. Andrew’s Church, where he served until his death at age 44. He was also elected in 1584 to a fellowship at Christ’s College, teaching until 1595. “In this role, Perkins influenced a generation of young students, including Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, John Preston, and William Ames.”[3]

Plain Style

In the late 16th century, much of the preaching in the Anglican church was revered for how ornate sermons could be organized. Preachers were lauded for their cleverness and their use of rhetoric. The Scripture was often lost or non-existent in the sermon. The plain preaching style was born from a conviction that Scripture must always be the focus.

Perkins’ passion to help purify the Church of England by training young preachers led him to write, The Art of Prophesying. It was the first preaching guide from England written since the Reformation. This short, practical book reveals his style and methodology for preaching. Perkins reinforces the weightiness of preaching by labeling it prophecy. “Preaching the word is prophesying in the name and on behalf of Christ. Through preaching, those who hear are called into the state of grace, and preserved in it.”[4] For Perkins, it is through preaching the Scripture and prayer that the Holy Spirit brings about transformation.

While his style is labeled as plain, it should not be mistaken for mundane or boring. For Perkins, preaching was an art. “The purpose of the plain style was not simplicity for the sake of simplicity, but simplicity for the sake of communication.”[5] His preaching included varied rhetorical devices, analogies, and illustrations but only as a tool for highlighting the text.

Consistent Methodology

In The Art of Prophesying, Perkins lays out his methodology of the sermon in three main priorities:

1) Explain the text

Every sermon must include the reading of Scripture and an explanation and interpretation of its meaning. He encourages the reader to look at the individual text and how it fits within the whole of Scripture. “Interpretation is the opening up of the words and statements of Scripture in order to bring out its singly, full and natural sense.”[6] He uses a literal and grammatical approach to interpretation and encourages using Scripture to interpret Scripture.

2) Highlight doctrine(s) found in the text

After explaining the text, Perkins seeks to draw out distinctive theological doctrines in what he calls “the right cutting or dividing of it.”[7] He encourages preachers to present resolutions from the text, “like the untwisting and loosening of a weaver’s web.”[8] Like the main point(s) preachers use in the modern-day sermon, doctrines become the bridge from the text that leads to application. One caution Perkins lays out is that the doctrines must come from the text of the sermon itself. “Otherwise we will end up drawing any doctrine from any place in the Bible.”[9]

3) Apply the text to your specific audience

A large portion of the sermon for Perkins focuses on applying the text to the specific audience. He lists seven different types of congregants that must be considered: 1) The ignorant and unteachable, 2) teachable, but ignorant, 3) knowledgeable but not humble, 4) partially humbled, 5) believers in need of teaching, 6) those fallen back into sin, and 7) congregations filled with believers and unbelievers. For Perkins, an application must be directed at the congregation with plain speech. He calls the preacher to help hardened souls hear what the law says about their sin. Then, the preacher is to help the afflicted “hear the voice of the gospel applied especially to it.”[10]

In looking at the effectiveness of Perkins’ preaching in his day and his influence on future generations, these five areas play a crucial role and deserve to be emulated. 1) He rests in the efficacy of Scripture as a means for the Holy Spirit to transform the congregation. 2) He always seeks to let the text be the central focus of the message. 3) He views preaching as an art and uses various tools to engage his congregation in proclaiming the Scriptures. 4) He preaches to his specific congregation and seeks for everyone, regardless of education or background, to know what the Scripture has called them to do. 5) He invests his life into training pastors to reject personality-centric sermons and proclaim the Scripture.

Much of Perkins’ style and methodology can be traced to previous influences, but he solidified the plain preaching style in demonstration and book form. Because of this, he is known as the “Father of Puritanism.” His influence spans centuries and challenges the preacher to labor in the text, asking, “Is there anything that needs to be removed in my sermon this week because it draws attention away from the Scripture?”

[1] J Stephen Yuille, “‘A Simple Method’: William Perkins and the Shaping of the Protestant Pulpit,” Puritan Reformed Journal 9, no. 1 (January 2017): 216.

[2] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 9.

[3] Yuille, “‘A Simple Method,’” 218-219.

[4] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying: And the Calling of the Ministry, Revised (East Peoria: Versa Press Inc., 2021), 8.

[5] Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., “William Perkins and the Development of Puritan Preaching” (PhD diss, Glenside, PA, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 35.

[6] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 28.

[7] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 53.

[8] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 53.

[9] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 57.

[10] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 70.

Benjamin Bolin serves as Lead Teaching Pastor at Travis Avenue Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

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