As we, for a moment, gaze back into the history of Puritan preaching, it is clear that Puritan preaching affirmed that all biblical doctrine assuredly points to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. J.I. Packer, when writing on the Puritans, noted that “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep.”J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision for the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 284–85. Therefore, it should be clear that Christ-centered doctrine was the substance of Puritan sermons, but what was the effect?
In other words, how did the Puritans “use” the doctrine they preached? That is a superb question that any preacher of today must be able to answer. Biblical doctrine demands to be used.
The Puritan understanding of the “use” of doctrine can also be understood as “sermon application.” The Puritans rightly identified that doctrinal knowledge was not enough, but that the hearers of sermons must, in some fashion, become doers of the Word (Jas 1:22). Therefore, Puritan preaching had an aim, a goal: to transform the listener. In fact, Puritan preaching has been incredibly effective, making its mark in history due to the strength of its powerful applications. However, the Puritan preachers also understood that in order to rightly apply the Word, the preacher must understand the listener and know the audience.
In The Art of Prophesying, the Puritan William Perkins lists seven different spiritual conditions of listeners in which the preacher must discern in applying the Word:
- “Those who are unbelievers and are both ignorant and unteachable.”
- “Those who are teachable, but ignorant.”
- “Those who have knowledge, but have never been humbled.”
- “Those who have already been humbled.”
- “Those who already believe.”
- “Those who have fallen back.”
- “Churches with both believers and unbelievers.”William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 54-60.
Perkins, then, also moves directly into the two kinds of application:
- “Mental Application: Concerned with the mind and also involves either doctrine or reproof (2 Tim 3:16–17).”Ibid., 61.
- “Practical Application: Has to do with life-style and behavior and involves instruction and correction.” Ibid., 62.
Many Puritan sermons would do well to fulfill this rubric in one way or another. However, this rubric would lead many to ask the question, “How can one man make so many applications in one single sermon?”
Packer writes, “It was not, of course, possible for any preacher to make all types of application to all types of listeners in any one sermon…But Puritan pastoral preachers would spend half or more of their preaching time developing applications, and anyone making an inventory of their published sermons will soon find examples of all…”Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 288.
The Puritans have simply been helpful for us today because powerful examples of sermon applications have fallen on hard times. In the classroom and in many preaching books the bulk of the emphasis is on exegesis, and rightly so. We desperately need preachers who clearly understand the Word of God in order that they may help others understand the Word of God. But, all the while, let us take notes when reading the Puritans. They understood, as we must all understand, that the words of the Bible must travel from our head to our hearts. It is not enough to understand the deep doctrines of Christ if the doctrines do not change your mind and life. In fact, preaching isn’t done until clear applications have been made and adopted.
As pastors and preachers, our listeners need direct applications, but we must not fail to recognize our complete inadequacy in the task. While the preacher can rightly labor in the Word and prepare powerful sermons, he has an absolute inability to bring about any actual change in the human heart. Therefore, the preacher must do two things:
First, preachers must whole-heartedly depend on the Holy Spirit in every aspect of the sermon. Preachers are merely the agents by which God works. If God is not working in the application of a sermon, then the sermon will not work. This is a very simple thing to understand, yet it is completely humbling for the preacher. The preacher’s power does not come from within himself, but from God. Therefore, we must plead with God to work on behalf of his Word. Thomas Watson writes, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 221.
Second, the preacher must rely on prayer. The sermon must be bathed in prayer before it is preached, because a man who will not commune with God is a man who runs a grave risk of being an ineffective preacher. Preachers must call upon God with an understanding of his own inadequacy in the task. In fact, the prayerless preacher should not expect God to do anything with his sermon. The prayerless preacher should not expect a single soul to be changed in any way – for God wasn’t brought by prayer into the study.
Therefore, brother preachers, pray. Pray for God to work mightily through you, through His Word, and through the hearts of the listeners. Pray for God to humble you and to make His own name great in the lives of the hearers. Pray for God to change men and women, boys and girls – to create his people by the simple preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what the Puritans did.