By: Joel Beeke
Although evangelism differs to some degree from generation to generation according to gifts, culture, style, and language, the primary methods of Puritan evangelism—plain preaching and catechetical teaching—can show us much about how to present the gospel to sinners. This week we will consider plain preaching.
The Puritan “plain style of preaching” avoided all that was not clear or perspicuous to an ordinary listener. The greatest teacher of this preaching style was Perkins. Perkins, often called the father of Puritanism, wrote that preaching “must be plain, perspicuous, and evident…. It is a by-word among us: It was a very plaine Sermon: And I say again, the plainer, the better.” And Cotton Mather wrote succinctly in his eulogy for John Eliot, a great Puritan missionary to the Indians, that his “way of preaching was very plain; so that the very lambs might wade into his discourses on those texts and themes, wherein elephants might swim.” The Puritans used the plain style of preaching because they were evangelistic to the core—they wanted to reach everyone so that all might know the way of salvation.
The first part of a Puritan sermon was exegetical; the second, doctrinal and didactic; and the third, applicatory. The third part, often called the “uses” of the text, was quite lengthy and applied Scripture in various ways to various listeners.
Perkins gave distinct directions on how to shape Scripture’s applications to seven categories of listeners: ignorant and unteachable unbelievers; teachable but ignorant people; knowledgeable but unhumbled people; the humbled who lack assurance; believers; backsliders; and “a mingled people”—those who are a combination of several categories. Puritan preachers addressed all seven types of people over a period of time, but not in each sermon. Each sermon included at least directions to believers and unbelievers. The unbeliever was usually called to examine how he was living and what behavior needed changing; then he was admonished to flee to Christ, who alone could fulfill his needs. For the believer, “uses” usually contained points of comfort, direction, and self-examination.
3 Characteristics of Plain Preaching We Need to Rediscover
Three characteristics associated with Puritan plain preaching need rediscovery by today’s preachers.
First, Puritan preaching addressed the mind with clarity. It addressed man as a rational creature. The Puritans loved and worshiped God with their minds. They viewed the mind as the palace of faith. They refused to set mind and heart against each other; instead, they taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration.
Second, Puritan preaching confronted the conscience pointedly. The Puritans worked hard on the consciences of sinners as the “light of nature” in them. Plain preaching named specific sins, then asked questions to press home the guilt of those sins upon the consciences of men, women, and children. As one Puritan wrote, “We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness.” They believed that such an approach was necessary because, until the sinner is drawn from behind that bush, he’ll never cry to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Modern evangelism seems to be afraid to confront the conscience pointedly. We need to learn from the Puritans, who were solemnly persuaded that the friend who loves you most will tell you the most truth about yourself. Like Paul and the Puritans, we need to testify, earnestly and with tears, of the need for “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).
Third, Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately. It was affectionate, zealous, and optimistic. Puritan preachers did not just reason with the mind and confront the conscience; they appealed to the heart. They preached out of love for God’s Word, love for the glory of God, and love for the soul of every listener. They preached with warm gratitude of the Christ who had saved them and made their lives a sacrifice of praise. They set forth Christ in His loveliness, hoping to make the unsaved jealous of what the believer has in Christ.
Next week we will consider the Puritan’s use of catechetical evangelism.
Excerpt adapted from Joel Beeke’s Living for God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism.