By Nathan Finn
In his wonderful book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990), J.I. Packer includes a chapter titled “Puritan Preaching.” It’s a gem of a chapter in a book that is filled with many jewels. Packer argues that Puritan preaching was characterized by eight priorities:
- It was expository in its method. This in contrast to the topical pabulum that is served up too regularly in modern pulpits.
- It was doctrinal in is content. This in contrast to the overly pragmatic, self-help homilies that confuse law and gospel and, in turn, confuse God’s people.
- It was orderly in its arrangement. This in contrast to the meandering musings of many modern preachers. (Since I’m writing about preaching, I thought I’d include some free alliteration.)
- Though profound, it was popular in its style. This in contrast to the two extremes of shallow erudition or esoteric theological treatises, both of which are quite common in evangelical pulpits.
- It was Christ-centered in its orientation. This in contrast to moralistic preaching, especially of the Old Testament, and the tendency among many preachers to concentrate upon word studies and background information more than they do the life, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and return of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- It was experimental in its interest. This in contrast to preaching that is divorced from vital spirituality and has little concern for redirecting affections God-ward.
- It was piercing in its applications. This in contrast to preaching that artificially severs thinking rightly about God from living rightly before God.
- It was powerful in its manner. This in contrast to weak preaching that seeks to “inspire” or “educate” rather than transform as the Spirit works through the Word.
I appreciate what modern pastors can learn from the Puritans about the art of preaching. This is not to say that modern pastors should preach ninety-minute sermons or divide their sermons in exactly the same manner as the Puritans did. We don’t need to slavishly copy the Puritans (or anyone else). Nevertheless, as we seek out historical role models for faithful preaching, we could hardly do better than the Puritans. If you want to read a Puritan textbook on biblical preaching, see William Perkins’s The Art of Prophesying, which has been reprinted by Banner of Truth.
Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.