Great Themes in Puritan Preaching

Preaching today is anemic at best and thoroughly unbiblical at worst! There is a solution! Learn from the past about what makes great preaching! Mariano Di Gangi has helped us by looking at the Puritans on preaching. Di Gangi, author of the new book Great Themes in Puritan Preaching from Joshua Press, is well known in Evangelicalism today having served in a number of well-known churches and taught in a number of schools. He received his M.Div. from Westminster and a D.D. from Gordon Conwell. He was written a previous book on the Puritans titled, A Golden Treasury or Puritan Devotion (P&R, 1999). With recommendations by Derek W. H. Thomas, John MacArthur, Jerry Bridges, and Joel R. Beeke and a forward by Michael A. G. Haykin, this book is surely to become a big hit! On a side note, Joshua Press will be distributing 6000 copies of this book to the Together for the Gospel 2008 conference attendees!

The table of contents reads as follows:

The infallible Word
No upstart sect
The Messiah revealed
Pastoral ministry
Guilt and grace
The second birth
Radical repentance
Justified and sanctified
Spiritual conflict
Bread and wine
Renewal and reform
Family values
Most blessed assurance
Advent to judgment

Below is the introduction of the book reproduced in whole to whet your appetite and encourage you to go out and buy this book (reprinted by permission of Joshua Press)! It is available from Sola Scriptura Ministries International. It is available in paper back or hard cover. Check out the website for Joshua Press for their other titles.

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Puritans have been caricatured by their critics as advocates of “the narrowest and most inquisitive clerical intoleranc, a gloomy Calvinism in doctrine, Sabbatarianism in practice, and a degrading mental slavery to the mere letter of the Bible.” “Where once one might be accustomed to see an altar, leading his thoughts straightway to Jesus and to ‘the Lamb in the midst of the elders as it had been slain,’ he sees a cushioned pulpit… The noble liturgies of the early church have given way to the extempore effusions of an individual. The place of worship seems to have become a preaching house… Catholicity appears to have yielded to a bald French Calvinism, capable of imagining nothing but a sermon.” The Puritans were suspected of having “one eager all-absorbing passion–to Calvinize the Church of England and assimilate its polity and ritual–in all respects–to those of Scotland and Geneva.”

Undoubtedly, there may have been Dissenters whose extremist excesses produced intolerance rather than renewal in the turbulent decades that followed the Reformation. The fact remains, however, that “Puritanism aimed at a radical purification and reconstruction of church and state on the sole basis of the Word of God, without regard to the traditions of men… Radical in its antagonism to the medieval church, it was a revolution and it ran into the excesses of a revolution.

The Puritans were people of austere morals, reformed in doctrine, and nonconformists in practice when confronted with the imposition of ceremonies and customs not commanded in the Scriptures. Puritan preachers did not major in minors. They would not trivialize the tremendous truths that had the power to change lives. Building on the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Christology of Chalcedon, they strongly opposed Pelagianism, Arminianism, and the Socinianism that eventually spawned Unitarianism. They also differed from the Antinomians who depreciated the authority o God’s moral law. Now would they compromise with the Semi-Pelagians who diluted the gospel of sovereign grace with doses of human merit.

Puritan theology expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-1648) and the Savoy Declaration (1658), was also in harmony with the Scot’s Confession (1563), the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) of the Reformation era. The Puritan movement was distinguished by a serious study of the Scriptures and the practical application of biblical doctrines. Accurate exegesis prepared the way for lively exposition and relevant conclusions. Puritan preachers “emphasized the importance of words in the text of Scripture… This wise and insightful use of words gave Puritan preaching an exactness and attractiveness that many other English pulpiteers lacked.”

The Puritans were noted not only for viewing the text in its context, and so avoiding a pretext, but also for comparing and contrasting biblical passages in such a way that Scripture was used to interpret Scripture. They knew how to distinguish between history and allegory and looked for Christ in texts that were typological. Above all, they believed that God’s eternal Word was timely and trustworthy. It spoke to the ethical, social, and doctrinal issues faced by God’s people in every generation. When the inspired Scripture is illumined by the Holy Spirit, it has an undoubted perspicuity.

It has been noted that “two emphases followed by the Puritans explain at least a part of their effectiveness… First, they educated the mind… They recognized that heat in the pulpit without light from the Scripture would not change people. Second, they appealed to an individuals relationship to God at each present moment. As they explained the Scriptures, they expected the Holy Spirit to honour their work by leading the hearers to judge themselves, and by producing response to the preaching.”

Puritanism developed as part of the Protestant Reformation in England. According to one writer, “Nonconformity was conceived during the days of King Edward, born in the reign of Queen Mary, nursed and weaned in the reign of Elizabeth, grew up a youth under King James, and shot up under Charles I to conquer the hierarchy–its adversary.”

Many of the Puritan pastors and leaders were prepared for the gospel ministry by their studies at Oxford or Cambridge. They preached the incarnate Word from the written Word with prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit and a clear sense of purpose: that God would be glorified as people repented and believed the gospel, and then obeyed Christ in the fellowship of his church and in their daily work in the world. In all this, they were continuing the ministry of the Reformers and the Lord’s apostles before them.

At that first Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection, when the Holy Spirit came with power upon those praying disciples, Peter did not dwell on his experience of glossolalia but proclaimed the Lord Jesus–his humiliation and his exaltation. Peter summoned people to repentance and offered them the forgiveness of sins through the work of Christ, as well as the gift of the Spirit. Paul was also devoted to preaching Christ, particularly Christ crucified, the Saviour who paid the penalty of our sins and opened the way for us to have peace with God.

Preaching is not universally held in high esteem these days. It is often depreciated, especially by those who lack the discipline and passion to do it well. A pastor’s day can be so involved in matters of secondary and even tertiary importance that the priority of preaching the Word is crowded out. Administration, visitation, counselling, and community relations have their place, but they should never rob the communication of the Word from its place of primacy. When this happens, the consequences may be catastrophic. “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “When I will send a famine through the land–not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11, NIV).

Let all who are called to feed God’s flock renew their commitment to preach the Word in season and out of season, correcting, rebuking, and encouraging, with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim. 4:2).

The Puritans provide us with a model of faithful biblical preaching. There are those who compare the multiple headings and abounding subdivisions of a typical Puritan sermon to the bones Ezekiel beheld in the valley of his vision: they were many, all were dry, and definitely quite dead. Undoubtedly, some of their homilies would have benefited from sensitive editing. But such criticisms say more about the shortness of the average listener’s attention span today than they do about a Puritan pastor’s supposed prolixity.

True, they produced sermons replete with introductions, expositions, clarifications, objections, exhortations, dehortations, illustrations, applications, doctrines, duties, invitations, promises, warnings and consolations. Yet we can derive lasting benefit from focusing on the insights of these biblical preachers. In studying their sermons, writings, and lectures, we will be enriched as their homiletical heritage prompts us to persevere in the reading and teaching of the inspired Scriptures.

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2 Responses to Great Themes in Puritan Preaching

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  2. […] A very helpful blog post on Great Themes in Puritan Preaching. […]

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