We conclude our series on Puritan preachers (see #1, #2, #3) with John Preston (1587–1628), whose preaching can be described as preaching great gospel themes. He was more topical and organized by theological categories and questions than the verse-by-verse biblical expositions of John Calvin. Hughes Oliphant Old wrote:
The text is studied briefly in order to draw out of it a specific teaching or theme, and then this theme is developed in a number of points which are then supported by various arguments, drawn mostly from Scripture. They are illustrated by examples or illuminated by similes. Then, finally, they are applied to the lives of the congregation. In this respect Preston’s sermons resemble those of medieval Scholasticism. . . . Preston usually takes one verse and develops from it a theme or a number of themes (The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, 4:284).
To continue reading Joel Beeke’s article, click here.
Continuing in our series on Puritan preachers (parts #1, #2), we come to Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). One source in which he reveals his view of preaching is The Fountain Opened, a collection of his sermons on 1 Timothy 3:16 (Works, vol. 5), where he addresses the office of the preacher particularly when he comes to the phrase “preached unto the Gentiles.”
When a king is enthroned, both his nobles and his common subjects must know it. Therefore, it is not enough for Christ to be “seen of angels,” His heavenly nobility. His kingdom must also be proclaimed to the entire world, all men called to submit to Him. He must be preached before He can be “believed on in the world,” Sibbes writes, for “faith is the issue and fruit of preaching” (Works 5:504). Sibbes says, “Preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ.” This is the ladder of heaven that we must ascend one step at a time: first preaching, then faith, then prayer (Works 5:514).
Richard Rogers (1551–1618) is best known today for his massive Commentary on the Book of Judges, which is a collection of 103 sermons. In it we see that his preaching was very practical and experiential. For example, in Sermon 74, he describes the Holy Spirit’s inward work of conversion upon the soul: “While we give heed to the doctrine of the Lord Jesus, which is plainly, soundly, and powerfully taught us, the Lord enlighteneth us with grace and power of the Holy Ghost, and giveth us another heart to serve him (as he saith in Ezek. 36), than we had before” (pp. 655–656).
Here again we see the Reformed doctrine of predestination applied to the personal experience of salvation. Referring, like Perkins, to “that golden chaine” of Romans 8:30, Rogers said, “There is no other way to seek out the certainty of our election” apart from “the gift of faith, and the Spirit of God sanctifying” in our effectual calling. He explains that “predestination itself is manifested in time, by the enlightening and opening of the heart to receive the glad tidings of the gospel,” so that “Christ is embraced by faith” and “the Holy Ghost is given to the believer, who quickens the heart with spiritual grace.” God gives different degrees of grace to different people, but the work of salvation is fundamentally the same (p. 656).
No Puritan was more concerned about preaching than William Perkins (1558–1602). Detesting the substitution of eloquence for the “lost art” of preaching, Perkins led a reformation of preaching. He did this in his instruction to theological students at Cambridge; in his manual on preaching, The Arte of Prophecying (Latin: 1592; English 1606), which quickly became a classic among Puritans; in advocating a “plain style” of preaching in his own pulpit; and, above all, in stressing the experimental application of predestinarian doctrines.
Joseph Pipa suggests three reasons why Perkins wrote his preaching manual. First, there was a “dearth of able preachers in Elizabethan England” (“William Perkins and the Development of Puritan Preaching.” PhD dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985, p. 86). By 1583, only a sixth of English clergy were licensed to preach, and even in 1603 there were only half as many preachers as parishes. Second, there were gaps in the university curriculum, with particular deficiencies in theology, preaching, and spiritual direction. Third, Perkins aimed to promote a “plain” style of preaching as opposed to the ornate style of high-church Anglicans (Pipa, “William Perkins,” pp. 87–88); the latter heaped up quotations from ancient authorities, often in Greek or Latin, together with many puns, extravagant and surprising analogies, rhymes, and alliteration.
I certainly do not wish to leave the impression from my previous post that the Puritans were bad examples as preachers. There are many ways in which we can and should imitate their preaching. Here are a few of the lessons we can learn from them.
1. Preach Well-Rounded Sermons
There are four dimensions of a good sermon. It must be biblical, offering an explanation of the meaning of the text in its biblical and historical context; doctrinal, deriving and defining truths from the text about God and man; experiential, addressing the truths to the hearts of the listeners with idealism, realism, and optimism; and practical, giving specific directions for how hearers should respond to God’s Word.
We may view these four words as the “golden chain of preaching.” All the doctrine we preach must be rooted in Bible, not in human traditions, experiences, or speculations. Christian experience must be informed by and conformed to the doctrines of Scripture, and must allow itself to be judged and measured by God’s Word lest we drift into mysticism and emotionalism. Our practical activity must always flow from the faith and love of our hearts, and must spring out of spiritual experience based in the truth of the written Word of God.
Young John Bunyan (1628–1688) hardly seemed fit for preaching. He was a coarse person with little education and a mouth full of foul language. He had lost his mother and sister to death and was exposed to the evils of military service before his seventeenth birthday. As a young man, he worked with his hands as a tinker or worker in soft metals. His soul was probably much like his body after carrying his sixty-pound portable anvil: outwardly tough and calloused, though inwardly bruised and burdened. Marriage to a church-going woman brought some moral improvement and produced much self-righteousness, but it was not until Bunyan overheard a few poor women talking about the new birth and the grace of God in Christ for sinners that he realized his greatest need.
The faithful pastor of those women, John Gifford, taught Bunyan about the grace of God. Bunyan read Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and learned how Jesus Christ made satisfaction to divine justice for our sins by His death. Bunyan was transformed, and others soon called upon him to speak in meetings for evangelism and exhortation. Feeling very unworthy, he nevertheless was able to speak from his experience of the truth: “I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.” He was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher who looked down on unbelievers, but one who lived with a “fire in mine own conscience.”
As we’ve seen, the Puritans had a rich understanding of Christian marriage (part 1, part 2, part 3). In this final post, I’d like to show that they also believed marital love must be sexual. Both marital partners should give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy sexual relationship marked by fidelity. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin re-established this aspect of marriage by abandoning medieval Roman Catholic notions that marriage was inferior to celibacy leading to “religious” (clergy, monks, nuns) and “profane” (laity) classes of Christians, that all sexual contact between marital partners was only a necessary evil to propagate the human race, and that any procreative act that involved passion was inherently sinful. This negative view was rooted in the writings of the ancient church fathers, such as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, all of whom believed that, even within marriage, sexual intercourse necessarily involved sin (see Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 261).
Puritans preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that prohibition of marriage is a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, William Perkins (1558-1602) defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh” (“Christian Oeconomy,” 419). The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. William Gouge (1575-1653) said that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully” (Quoted in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 44). “They do err,” added Perkins, “who hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for the procreation of children” (“Christian Oeconomy,” 423).
Contrary to characatures, the Puritans had a lot to say about love, and marital love in particular. In our continuing series (post #1, post #2) we take up their teaching that marital love must be superlative.
A husband and wife are to love each other so dearly that both are persuaded that the other is “the only fit and good match that could be found under the sun for them,” William Whately (1583-1639) writes (A Bride-Bush, 8). Because of parental love, a godly parent would not trade his child for another parent’s child, even if that child were better-looking and had more ability or gifts; similarly, a godly husband and wife would not trade each other for a better-looking and more gifted spouse (A Bride-Bush, 8). Whately concludes: “Marriage-love admits of no equal, but placeth the yoke-fellow next of all to the soul of the party loving; it will know none dearer, none so dear” (A Bride-Bush, 9).
Surely, a wife is a man’s best companion and friend. Thomas Gataker (1574–1654) suggested that Adam was truly happy in Eden, but he was not fully happy until God had provided him with a wife, and he was joined to the woman as his closest friend and companion in all of life. Gataker said, “There is no society more near, more entire, more needful, more kindly, more delightful, more comfortable, more constant, more continual, than the society of man and wife” (Certain Sermons, 2:161). He was convinced that a house was “half unfurnished and unfinished, and not fully happy but half happy, though otherwise never so happy,” until it was completed with a wife (Certain Sermons, 2:161).
The Puritan ideal of superlative marital love appears in the poems that Anne Bradstreet (1612–1672) wrote to express her longing for her husband when he traveled away from home. She wrote to him,
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man was lov’d by wife, then thee….
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense. (Quoted in Nichols, Anne Bradstreet, 118)
Continuing with our series on the Puritans’ views of marital love (see introduction) we come to the theme of the spirituality of marital love, that is, that is must be in Christ and in accord with God’s commandments. Love must be rooted in the experience of being equally yoked together spiritually as believers. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) said that husbands and wives have the responsibility “especially to be helpers of each other’s salvation: to stir up each other to faith, love, and obedience, and good works: to warn and help each other against sin, and all temptations: to join in God’s worship in the family, and in private: to prepare each other for the approach of death, and comfort each other in the hopes of life eternal” (Practical Works, 4:234).
Although marriage is a universal institution ordained by God for the whole human race regardless of whether they are saved or not, marriage fulfils its deepest purpose and achieves its greatest stability only when grounded in Christian faith and the fear of God. If built on the sandy foundation of physical beauty or exceptional gifts and talents, it can easily be blown away by some storm.
The Spiritual Duties of the Husband
Marital love should be profoundly spiritual because, as William Gouge (1575-1653) observed, Christian marriage should conform to the pattern of Christ and His church. As Christ loves His church, so the husband must love his wife. He is to love her absolutely (v. 25), purposefully (v. 26), realistically (v. 27), and sacrificially (vv. 28–29). He must exercise a “true, free, pure, exceeding, constant love” to his wife, nourishing and cherishing her as Christ does His gathered people (v. 29) (Of Domestical Duties, 31).