Pulpits today are often shallow, imprecise, and anti-doctrinal. They lack biblically saturated and affection-lifting truths and do little more than encourage people to “think more positively.”
They painstakingly cater to felt needs, cultural ideals, and labor to identify more with the watching world than Christ Himself. The minister’s sacred desk, then, has been reduced to a lectern of hubris, where so-called preachers facilitate conversation and offer tips, tricks, and anecdotes promised to heal one’s marriage, grow their flailing business, and much more, as long as they follow the prescribed steps, that is. In other words, pulpits today are entirely man-centered, God-deficient, and dangerously anemic.
However, this sad state in which we find ourselves has not always been the status quo. Many of the pulpits of yesteryear were vibrantly God-honoring, rich, and robustly Biblical. One era of colossal importance is that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: when the Puritans occupied many pulpits and proclaimed God’s truth with a fervor and flavor that has scarcely been imitated since.
The preaching of the Puritans was extraordinarily unique. Historically speaking, it has no rival. It was rich and deep, yet easy to follow and straightforward: something the Puritans called “plainness.” It was theologically robust but also doxological and highly applicable. It was daunting but also life-giving. It was innovative but strictly Biblical.
Moreover, it was so fiercely influential in its time that its era has been called “the golden age of preaching.” Joel Beeke has said of the Puritan preachers that “no group of ministers in church history has matched their Biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical preaching.”
Nevertheless, what made it so?
For starters, their sermons were pointed and helpful to all who sat and heard them: a pillow for the soft-hearted Christian who needed comfort and consolation, and yet an anvil where the hard-hearted Christians were fashioned into trophies of God’s wooing and winning grace. In addition, they were thorns annoyingly jabbing the skeptic and self-deceived, pointing them to certain judgment.
The theology of these sermons was profoundly God-centered and anthropologically sober. And the list goes on, and it shall in the posts to come, as we attempt to ascertain what made Puritan preaching so magnificent and God-honoring. But suffice it to say there is nothing like Puritan preaching. It stands towering over all redemptive history.
The Puritan View Of The Preacher
Before we can even explore the preaching of these sixteenth-century and seventeenth-century Puritans in detail, we must first look at the lives of those who preached.
This is because the Puritans believed that the preacher had to be prepared for the pulpit. He could not just walk into it. To think the Puritans divorced the act of preaching from the life and holiness of the preacher would be a grave mistake; it would mar their theology of preaching, hinder the work of the Holy Spirit, and heap future wrath upon the impure vessels which would arrogantly assume they could speak on behalf of a thrice holy God without holy lips, limbs, and lives.
In other words, simply being able to communicate a robust Theology Proper and winsomely wooing hearers to a set of ideas was not enough. For the Puritans, godliness was of first importance. Without it, there is no faithful preaching of God’s word!
God’s messengers needed to be God’s men before they could impart God’s Word to God’s people properly and effectively. As much as a sinner can, the preacher needed to be a living portrait of the message preached. This is why John Owen could say, for example, “I think truly that no man preaches that sermon well to others who does not first preach it to his own heart.”
The Puritan View Of The Pulpit
After the preacher’s heart had been dealt with by the Lord, and the truth of Scripture fiercely gripped him, he was then, and only then, ready for the pulpit.
The Puritan pulpit directed everything, from the home to the civil government. “It was in the Pulpit that [the Puritans] offered their greatest assault on the world system, the flesh, and the devil.“ But why was the Puritan pulpit so prized? The reasons, of course, are legion. We cannot even scratch the service with such limited space. With that said, there are numerous looming realities that help us better understand such an emphasis that we can and must explore.
Firstly, preaching was essential to the Puritans because hearing was necessary. Referencing Isaiah 53, one of the most helpful Puritans, Thomas Watson, once wrote: “It was by the ear, by our first parents listening to the serpent, that we lost paradise; and it is by the ear, by hearing of the word preached, that we get to heaven.” For the Puritans, there was a Biblical pattern God had set forth in relation to how He relates to His people. This was no different when it came to the act of preaching. “Hear, and your souls shall live.”
Secondarily, preaching was essential to them because they understood that God’s sheep are saved and sanctified by hearing God’s Word. The Puritans understood preaching to be the instrumental means by which God saves and sanctifies sinners. It was not lost on them that God chose to use the foolishness of preaching to woo people to Himself and transform wicked, God-hating hearts into ones that beat red with blood for him. “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14, LSB). You can see here, Biblically speaking, that belief is directly linked to hearing, and hearing is only made possible when a preacher opens his mouth and preaches.
It was also not lost on the Puritans that preaching was the bread and butter of sanctification. This is why the Puritans painstakingly tried to apply the text’s theology to every area of life. They left no stone unturned so that the word could be seen as helpful and necessary for their everyday lives.
Thirdly, and certainly not lastly, the Puritans “viewed preaching as the minister’s principal work and the hearers’ principal benefit.” In a world where churches prize everything but the preaching of God’s word, it is often surprising to us that generations of preachers thought it was the most essential aspect of gospel ministry. Nevertheless, the Puritans believed that there was no task more important.
John Owen says it like this:
“The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word. It is a promise relating to the New Testament that God would give unto his church ‘pastors according to his own heart, which should feed them with knowledge and understanding’ (Jeremiah 3:15). This is by teaching or preaching the word, and no otherwise. This feeding is the essence of the office of pastor, as unto the exercise of it; so that he who doth not, or canto, or will not feed the flock is no pastor, whatever outward call or work he may have in the church.”
Thus, the conviction that there was nothing more pressing for God’s people than to hear God’s Word preached stood powerfully alongside the minister’s call itself.