The Westminster Directory for Public Worship (WDPW) specifies several sources from which objections to sound doctrines may arise. “If any doubt, obvious from scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers, seem to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by reconciling the seeming differences, answering the reasons, and discovering and taking away the causes of prejudice and mistake.” Let’s look at each in turn.

(1) Doubts arising from Scripture: Roman Catholics, Arminians, Quakers and Socinians were the principle opponents targeted in the Westminster Standards. All were noted for quoting Scripture in support of their views. Dr. Carl Trueman has pointed out how orthodox writers had to relinquish various texts that had traditionally been used to prove the doctrine of the Trinity because of Socinian exegesis of those texts. So, too, Roman Catholics were more than happy to quote numerous Bible verses. The Enchiridion of John Eck (Luther’s dogged opponent) is little more than a topical list of Biblical texts that supported Rome’s distinctive doctrines. He has thousands of Scriptures listed. (See the translation by Ford L. Battles that was published by Baker in 1978). Showing the harmony of Scripture’s teaching would be the first and foremost kind of objection to a Puritan pastor.

(2) Doubts arising from reason: We are unaccustomed in our day to think of the Puritans as putting a lot of emphasis on reason. Yet it is much more prominent in their sermons & other writings than commonly recognized. “Good and necessary consequence” is one area where reason is used to develop Christian doctrine. But they were not shy about showing the logical consistency of Bible truth or, at a minimum, of showing that our deepest truths were not internally inconsistent. To show that a doctrine was inherently contradictory was to consign it to the scrap heap for our Puritan fathers. They understood that what is contradictory could not be true. They expected their hearers to be able to follow their rational defenses of orthodox truths.

(3) Doubts arising from the prejudice of the hearers: These great physicians of soul were well aware that oftentimes a person’s rejection of Biblical revelation was not due to a lack of compelling evidence, but to prejudice which can arise from any number of sources, such as hatred of the truth or loyalty to a former teacher or loyalty to one’s religious/political party or enmity arising from differing geographical settings, that determined a person’s belief. Here, more than in the previous two sources of doubt, the preacher had to know his people. They fully embraced the belief that, ordinarily, a preacher could not preach well, who did not know his people well. For instance, the learned in the universities often despised Puritan preaching because it came in a plain style. Puritan preachers would rebuke such attitudes, by pointing to the serious implications of the Word preached. We would do well to consider all three sources of doubt today if our purpose is to help our hearers whole-heartedly embrace the truth of God’s Word without doubting.

One last point on this topic, the WDPW also notes that not every objection is worthy of reply. “Otherwise it is not fit to detain the hearers with propounding or answering vain or wicked cavils, which, as they are endless, so the propounding and answering of them doth more hinder than promote edification.” Dealing with objections from the pulpit requires prudence else-wise a pulpit ministry could degrade itself into trivialities or negativity. The Puritans were essentially a happy people. They lived in the consciousness of the love of God. This marks their preaching. Caveat lector!



November 26, 2009

This morning I’ve been reading a sermon preached before Parliament in 1645 during a Day of Thanksgiving called to praise God for a military victory of Parliament’s armies over those of the King.  The preacher was Thomas Case.  His sermon was entitled, A Model of True Spiritual Thankfulness and is based on Psalm 107:30-31.*  Enjoy this spiritual feast on this Thanksgiving Day, 2009.

After putting these verses in the context of the rest of the psalm, Case talks about the ground of the sailor’s gladness – “Then are they glad because they be quiet:  so he brings them into the desired haven.  O that men would praise the Lord for his goodness and for His wonderful works to the children of men!”  He points out that life is full of good and evil.  Change is all around us.  “O, the various changes that have been upon us!  Sometimes up and sometimes down; sometimes raised up as high as heaven by wonderful deliverances and glorious victories; anon cast down even as low as hell, by sad breakings of our armies and the loss of our strongholds.”  “Surely our souls have been melted because of trouble.  Our hopes have been melted and our hearts have been melted.”

Yet Case chooses not to focus on the specific deliverance of the sailors in the Psalm but on their response to it:  (1) ‘Then are they glad,” (2) “O that men would praise the Lord.”

DOCTRINE: “There is a great difference between gladness and thankfulness.  They differ in these three things, namely, their natures, their ground, and their duration.

(I.) Gladness & thankfulness differ in their natures: Gladness is a natural affection where the heart is lifted up with the coming in of any suitable and desirable good.  Even animals, after a manner, experience gladness.  But thankfulness “is a divine grace wrought in the soul by the Spirit of God, whereby the heart is drawn out towards God in gracious and holy desires and endeavors to praise and exalt the Lord, who is the author and donor of the mercy.”  This is only found in the saints (Ps. 33:1; 149:5-6)  “And indeed grace is nothing else but the natural affection baptized (as I may so say) and regenerated by the Holy Ghost and the blood of Christ, directed and pointed toward God as its proper and highest object.”  Colossians 3:2 “’Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.’  Note the two exhortations, to set and not to set:  the affection is not changed in the matter of it, but in the object.”

Case follows this observation by showing examples of other natural affections and what they become when directed towards God.  “So natural sorrow and grief, spiritualized and set upon the right object, upon an offended God is the grace of repentance.  Anger sanctified and faced upon God’s dishonor is zeal.  Love fired with a flame from Christ and carried up in that flame to Christ is no longer the affection (of) but the grace of love.  Thus natural joy and gladness ‘heavenly-ized’ and set upon God is the grace of thankfulness.”

(II.) Gladness and thankfulness differ in their ground: In the text, the ground of their gladness is their state of quietness, having been delivered out of those fears and dangers which made their hearts work as tempestuously as the sea itself.”  “Gladness rises not higher than the good itself.  So the rich fool in the Gospel looked upon his wealth and was glad.”  Psalm 111:5 – “He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.”  But the ground of thankfulness in the saints is much higher and nobler than for persons of this world.  Case finds four grounds of thankfulness; four reasons for thankfulness to arise in our hearts.

(1.)       The First ground of thankfulness is the saints’ spiritual and divine right to His mercies and these in two privileges.

First, the saints have “a right of sonship…. Whatever mercy or deliverance they have, it is part of their child’s portion (Romans 8:17).  Although they are not joint-purchasers, they are joint heirs with Jesus Christ.  They have all by inheritance.  As Christ is the heir of all things (Heb. 1:2); so they in him.  (I Cor. 3:22-23)

Second is that the saints have a right of promise or covenant to all their mercies.  Saints are called ‘children of promise’ because they were begotten, as well as maintained, by promise.  “So that if his portion is but bread and water, yet it is served to a child of God on the silver and golden vessels of the promises.  This affects them more than all the heap of mercies and comforts which worldly persons possess.  Psalm 4:7 – “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”  This is because they have their portion served to them along with God’s favor.  “This is the rise of a gracious joy and thankfulness, namely, that what he has, he has not only by God’s leave, but with God’s love; not by creatureship only, but by Sonship; not by providence only, but by promise.”

(2.)      “A second ground of thankfulness is in seeing ‘the return of prayer.’  “The children of God, when they have prayed, do not forget their prayers as carnal people do, but when they have prayed, they look after their prayers (Ps.5:3).”  When he sees an answer to his prayers, “this affects his heart and this raises up his soul in love and praises of God.  Psalm 116:1 – “I love the Lord because He has heard my voice and my supplication.”  “A speedy return of prayer; I kept a day of prayer, wherein I sought Him for such and such mercies and deliverances, and in due time, He gave me occasion to keep a day of Thanksgiving.  This endears his heart to God more than the mercy itself.”

(3.)      The third ground of thankfulness is that it affords saints, inward delight in the God who delivers them and affords them the opportunity “to show forth God’s praises.”  Psalm 9:13-14 – “O LORD, see how my enemies persecute me!  Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death, that I may declare your praises in the gates of the Daughter of Zion and there rejoice in your salvation.”  David was waiting for a deliverance from the persecutions of blood Saul.  He forgets himself and is caught up in the spiritual side of his deliverance, namely that “it would be fuel for the grace of love and thankfulness.  That so takes up all his thoughts, that he can speak of nothing else, but ‘praise,’ ‘praise;’ not, ‘I shall yet be delivered,’ but I shall yet praise Him.  Happy is he who ‘loses’ the mercy of God in the God of mercy!”

(4.)      The fourth and highest ground of thankfulness for mercies and deliverances is that God is exalted by them.  So, in Exodus 15, the thing that most moves Moses in the drowning of the Egyptians “was not so much their being freed from the fear of the Egyptians pursuit, as that thereby God was exalted:  Verse 1:  “I will sing unto the Lord; for He has triumphed gloriously.”  So in verses 6-7:  “Your right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power… and in the greatness of your excellency you have overthrown them that rose up against you.”  Verse 18: “Who is like unto You, O Lord, among the gods… The Lord shall reign forever and ever.”  “Thus, they lift up God because He has lifted up himself.”  Psalm 21:13 – “Be exalted O Lord, in your own strength, so will we sing and praise your power.”

(III.) Gladness & thankfulness differ in their duration.

Gladness, for the most part, is but a present movement of the spirit, a sudden impression upon the first arrival of unexpected or long-expected desires.  But it stays no longer than the sense of the good received is fresh upon the spirit.  “All natural men are fools and their gladness is like the crackling of thorns, it makes a great noise, but is quickly out (Ecclesiastes 7:6).”

Spiritual thankfulness is to last much longer.  God calls us to remember His deliverances.  Deuteronomy 8:2 – “And you shall remember that the LORD your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness…”  Likewise, David charges himself with remembering God’s mercies:  “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits (Ps. 103:2).”  “One ingredient in thankfulness is a good memory.”  We must remember to be thankful all the days of our lives (Psalm 52:9).

Indeed, we will be thankful after this life.  “I will bless your Name forever and ever (Psalm 145:1).”  “Nothing short of eternity shall terminate a saint’s thankfulness.  The reason is that thankfulness takes its rise from durable and unchangeable grounds, namely God’s covenant and His glory.”  Since these grounds cannot change, so our thankfulness will never end.

* This is actually a summary of half the sermon.  The second half discusses seven ways in which men are to express thankfulness to God.

It is a common motif of Puritan preaching to demonstrate the vanity of living for the things of this world. Vanity is a key category in their discussions of the sin of earthly-mindedness and the joys of heavenly-mindedness. In this first sermon M. notes two ways the creature cannot satisfy, namely, their imperfection and their uncertainty. Regarding their imperfection, he points out that they cannot meet the “whole desire of man…. That which makes a man happy must bear a proportion to all the wants, desires and passages of the soul so that the heart may say, ‘It is enough.’

A crucial area where the creature’s imperfection fails to meet the desire of the soul is in the area of conscience. It is highly characteristic of Puritan preaching that the demands of conscience are brought forward again and again. Guilt is a fundamental aspect of the convicting work of the Spirit. Usually a person cannot be converted without the Spirit bringing his sin home to his heart. If a person feels no need of Christ’s saving work, what will motivate him to cast aside sin and self-righteousness and embrace the righteousness of Christ?

Our culture wants to drown the cries of conscience in any way it can. Has this attitude entered into our pulpits? In wanting to be positive and uplift people have we neglected to stir up their consciences and then soothe them once they have been stirred? M. writes, “Until we provide for the hunger of the conscience we cannot be happy.”

He goes on to say, “Pleasures being enjoyed do not satisfy; being loved, they defile; being lost, they increase our trouble and sorrow.” I like to refer to this kind of memorable statement as a Pithy Puritan Proverb or P.P.P. The famous Reformation slogan, “We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” is another good example. Thomas Watson and Oliver Heywood are just two among many 17th C. preachers who were gifted in creating such phrases. I point this out because such proverbial statements can be incredibly useful in fixing truth in the minds of one’s hearers. I am often struck by how such phrases comprise the working theology of many Christians. “Let go and let God,” is as erroneous as it is a classic expression of Quietism.

The ordinary believer cannot remember lengthy discourses, no matter how excellent. Today’s preacher uses stories and illustrations to attempt to do what the Puritans accomplished with their pithy proverbs. I will be writing about Puritan views of illustrating sermons in a post on “Puritan Preaching” in a week or two, but let me say here, that we should not neglect such proverbs. The more we can imbue our people with them, the more weapons they will have to defend themselves from the world, the flesh and the devil. (Another classic set of categories! See my remarks in Mining Manton # 2)

Secondly, the creature fails to satisfy because it is uncertain. M. launches into the standard Puritan critique of the vanity of this world due to its transitoriness. M’s conclusion is that nothing but the favor of God is from everlasting to everlasting. We must always be prepared for changes in this life. (I Corinthians 7:30-31.) It is the Apostle’s virtue to be content whether he is abased or he abounds. But the worldly person finds it “hard to go back a step or two.” Therefore, even when he abounds, he is subject to worries about losing some or all of it. Caveat lector!

I would like to briefly reflect upon the place of doctrinal controversy in Puritan preaching.  After giving the Scriptural and logical reasons for a truth, the preacher had the option of answering objections to the doctrine.  This might come as a surprise to us because we are frequently counseled to be positive and not to criticize others in our sermons.

But why enter into polemics at all?  Our answer is two-fold.  First the Puritans saw polemics in the preaching of the Bible.  That the Holy Spirit-inspired Word of God contained polemical passages, proves that there is nothing inherently inappropriate or sinful in doing so.

Secondly, and even more importantly, they found a ‘psychology’ in the Bible, in which understanding the content of a truth and being persuaded of it are foundational to believing it.  For the Puritan all responses to God’s Word begin in the power of the mind (often conceived as a faculty) to understand words and concepts.  What is not understood cannot be believed, which is the basis for their critique of the ‘implicit faith’ advocated by Roman theologians.  In addition to understanding the truth, the mind also has the power to make judgments about it.  Is there explicit evidence for a doctrine?  Is there inferential evidence for it?  Is the evidence of such a character that I should find it persuasive?  Am I persuaded, or like Herod, “almost persuaded?”

Both of these things must take place before a person will experience the stirring of their affections towards any truth because, in regenerate persons, love of the truth follows knowing the truth.  For example, if I come to understand the meaning of Christ’s death and am persuaded it is God’s way of redemption, then my affections can begin to respond to our Lord’s atonement.  I will find myself increasingly filled with delight at the love that sent the Son of God to the shameful death of the cross.  I will find my heart broken because my sins nailed my Savior to the awful tree, etc.  Once my affections are stirred, then, and only then, am I willing to respond appropriately to the message of the Gospel.  I will trust God to save me by faith alone.  I will turn from my sins and resolve to obey all God’s commandments all the time.  (Of course, my understanding and affections being conflicted by indwelling sin, I find a war within; a war in which I lose many battles and suffer many wounds even in my victories.)

Given this ‘psychology’ they knew that to the degree a hearer had any lingering doubts arising from unanswered objections, to that degree he would be unable to respond to the truth from the heart or will to obey it.  Therefore, the preacher helped strengthen his hearers faith, by answering the common sorts of objections that they would likely encounter among their neighbors.

We are often concerned that polemics can arise from wrong motives such as pride in exhibiting one’s theological superiority over others, or in trying to isolate our people from anyone else’s influence.  Therefore, it is important to see that our Puritan fathers had a pastoral intention in their handling of objections.  Their motives for entering into polemics were for the protection and edification of their flock.  They sought to lead their flocks into unfettered joy in the Gospel by convincing the mind so that the heart could find delight and the will would be moved to Gospel obedience.  What does our preaching say about how we understanding the human psyche and how growth in grace is cultivated from the pulpit?  Caveat Lector!

Psalm 119:1  – “Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the LORD!”

Having opened the text, Manton proceeds to state his first ‘doctrine.’ (See my  previous post on Puritan Preaching for a discussion of the Puritan method of developing a sermon.)  “Doct. 1. That it standeth us much upon to have a true notion of blessedness and blessed men,” which being translated means, “It is of the greatest importance to us to have a true understanding of what constitutes happiness and a happy person.”

As the Psalmist begins with blessedness, so M. begins with a discussion of blessedness or happiness and uses it to find a kind of common ground with all persons.  Everyone desires it.  Self-love is implanted in all at creation.  God has given us desires both to avoid what is bad and to desire what is good.  He writes, “To ask whether men would be happy or not is to ask whether they love themselves or not…” but then he immediately follows with this observation, “but whether holy is another thing.” Everyone desires happiness, but not all desire holiness.  (I have found it useful to pair ‘holiness’ and ‘happiness’ in a number of ways because, beginning with “h’ and ending with ‘ing,’ they form a memorable combination.)

Since sin twists this natural and good desire for happiness, the definition of happiness undergoes a change:  “For whatever a person desires, he desires it because he thinks of it as something good, that is, as something that will contribute to his happiness.  That would be fine, of course, if he knows where happiness can be found.  But before we move to that question, take a moment to consider what a useful way this is to approach people who do not know Christ!  To adapt a book title by J.B. Phillips, we can say to them, “Your gods are too small.)

Next he states that there are two ways in which people misunderstand how to be happy.  First, people err in not knowing what will make them truly and permanently happy.  They seek happiness in such wrong places as riches, honor, power and pleasures.  (Luke 16:25; Psalm 4:7)  It is common among Puritans to classify the things people pursue in a few memorable categories.  “Pleasure, wealth, power and reputation” are the four basic sin groups.  Here M. cites honor, wealth and the favor of great men (which is to be the beneficiary of their power.)  Wealth contributes both to power and pleasure.  So, we see that, while a variety of terms can be used, they are used to comprehend man’s sinful appetite.  The Puritans developed many such classifications as tools to assist memory.  They provide us with a filing system whereby we can organize the essentials of any truth and access them quickly to use ‘in time of need.’  Today’s pastors would do well to furnish their hearers with these kinds of mental furniture.

Before we go, let’s note that Manton is careful, once again, to teach the essential goodness of creatures and the legitimacy of desiring them.  Notwithstanding that these things become the focus of man’s sinful desires, these things are not evil in themselves.  They are “useful in their sphere and beneficial to sweeten and comfort the life of man.”  The Puritans learned from the Bible that all that God made was good, indeed, very good.  While carefully condemning the misuse of creation, they were equally careful in affirming its fundamental goodness.

Drop me a line if you’d like to let me know if and how this post has been helpful.  Caveat lector.

David White recently asked the following question:

I looking for material on the Reformers and Puritans exposition on ‘the gifts of the Spirit”. I am not doing this for modern charismatic motives but for research. I have a MA from Manchester England in which I wrote on Calvin and the Threefold Ministry of Christ and I want to follow up the section on Christ the Prophet.

I am fully aware of the views on tongues and prophecy etc but am concerned with the way the other gifts were seen especially to develop the way Calvin mentions there function in Rom.12. I am looking for expositions on 1 Cor. 12-14; Romans 12; Eph. 4 etc. I have all Calvin’s works.If you have any suggestions I would be thankful.”

The only book I know on Calvin and charismatic gifts is a doctoral dissertation written at Aberdeen in 2005. It is by Gilbert, Daniel and is entitled: The pneumatic charismata in the theology of John Calvin: a study of Calvin’s pneumatology, focusing on his concepts and interpretation of the pneumatic charismata in his life and works. (Aberdeen, 2005)…

As for the Puritans, the pickings are a bit better. I would suggest you start with an article by Dr. Byron Curtis entitled, “‘Private Spirits’ in The Westminster Confession of Faith § 1.10 and in Catholic-Protestant Debate (1588-1652),” It is in the Westminster Theological Journal 58 (Fall 1996), 256-67. Dr. Curtis takes the position that the Westminster divines allowed for some kind of continuing private revelation.

Next I would look at an article that takes issue with Dr. Curtis’ conclusions by Garnet H. Milne, “‘Private Spirits’ in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in Protestant-Catholic Debates: A Response to Byron Curtis,” Westminster Theological Journal 61 (Spring 1999), 102-11

Thirdly, you could look at a third article in WTJ by Dean R. Smith, “The Scottish Presbyterians and Covenanters: A Continuationist Experience in a Cessationist Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (Spring 2001), 39-63.

Fourthly, Philip A. Craig has written, “‘And Prophecy Shall Cease:’ Jonathan Edwards on the Cessation of the Gifts of Prophecy,” Westminster Theological Journal (Vol. 64, No. 1 Spring 2002)

The footnotes to these articles would be an invaluable source for further bibliography.

Lastly, I came across an answer to this very question by Dr. Wayne Grudem. It appeared on Tim Challies’ website. You can read it here. In it Grudem reproduces an interesting note he received from J.I. Packer:

“I think it is somewhat of a historical aberration that cessationism – that the leaders of the Reformed movement have been cessationist. This was certainly not true in the seventeenth century among Puritans in England, for instance, like Richard Baxter. In The Christian Directory he has a number of statements that align almost exactly with my view of the gift of prophecy. And I quote those in the back of The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today. I took a couple of pages from Baxter’s The Christian Directory and I faxed those to J.I. Packer and said, “It looks like Baxter holds the same view of prophecy that I do.” Packer faxed me back and said, “Yes, you’re right. This was the standard Puritan view. They weren’t cessationists in the Gaffin sense.” Let me just find that. Jim Packer gave me permission to quote that. I am quoting John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, Richard Baxter. I quote this on page 353 to 356 of The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today. Packer, whose doctoral dissertation at Oxford was on Richard Baxter’s works, sent back the following: “By the way, some weeks ago you faxed me an extract from Baxter about God making “personal, informative revelation” (those were Packer’s words). This was the standard Puritan view as I observed it – they weren’t cessationist in the Richard Gaffin sense.” That’s J.I. Packer’s personal fax to me on September 9, 1997 and I quoted it by permission.

I am not sure that we should look at Richard Baxter as THE representative Puritan and there are scholars who would question using that term to describe him at all. That’s not an issue on which I am competent to comment, but it’s one more lead.

On Puritan Preaching #2

November 21, 2009

Yesterday we saw how Puritan expositors were very conscious of preaching a text in its context and in breaking the text down in categories that would make it memorable for their people.  Today we move on to the ‘doctrine’ of the sermon.

(3)  Every text of Scripture teaches some truth. A clear example of this is George Hutcheson’s Exposition of John.  Under each verse, he lists numerous doctrines that are taught or can legitimately be deduced from the text.  You can see what I am suggesting here.

“If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.”  The Puritans were interested in teaching the key truths of Scripture in every sermon.  Their goal is to reach each hearer’s mind, often referred to as ‘the understanding.’ In their psychology, nothing reaches the conscience, the heart(affections) or the will unless it first passes through the understanding and is retained in the memory.  “My people perish for lack of knowledge,” is the constant drum beat of Puritan preaching.

Therefore, they established ‘doctrines’ so that they could aim at them. It is reassuring to hear what the WDPW says about how ‘doctrines’ are established, “In raising doctrines from the text, his care ought to be, First, That the matter be the truth of God. Secondly, That it be a truth contained in or grounded on that text, that the hearers may discern how God teaches it from thence. Thirdly, That he chiefly insist upon those doctrines which are principally intended; and make most for the edification of the hearers.”  In sum, it has to be true, true to the text and true to the primary emphasis of the text.

There are far too many ‘doctrines’ in any text to discuss them all.  Therefore, he must make choices.  He must consider not overburdening his hearers’ memories, as well as giving each doctrine enough attention to make it edifying.  Expounding the doctrine in some fullness, answering objections and fully applying it, necessarily limited how many he could raise.  Remember that the WDPW recommended that the doctrine(s) chosen are those “which are principally intended; and make most for the edification of the hearers.”

Consider also, what the WDPW has to say about how a doctrine is to be expounded:  “The doctrine is to be expressed in plain terms; or, if anything in it needs explication, it is to be opened, and the consequence also from the text cleared. The parallel places of scripture, confirming the doctrine, are rather to be plain and pertinent, than many, and (it need be) somewhat insisted upon, and applied to the purpose in hand.  The arguments or reasons are to be solid, and, as much as may be, convincing.”

In sum, this portion of the sermon consists of expounding and confirming the doctrine.  Two things enter into the exposition:  (1) bringing out what is explicitly revealed in the text; (2) bringing out what is implicitly revealed in the text by showing the good and necessary consequences of what is explicitly stated.

There are also two ways to confirm a doctrine:  (1) bringing in other Scriptures which teach the same truth; (2) bringing out arguments or reasons for believing that the doctrine is true.  Here the preacher’s ability to tie his doctrine into the system of doctrine taught in Scripture is paramount.  “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every truth will be confirmed.”

For instance, it is common for them to argue for the truth of a doctrine by showing how it glorifies each of God’s attributes.

Next up: using illustrations in preaching.  Caveat Lector!

On Puritan Preaching #1

November 19, 2009

I thought I’d say a few things about the Puritan method of expository preaching so that I can focus more on content than form in the forthcoming Manton posts.  Please note that when I speak of a ‘text” or ‘a verse,’ in what follows, I do not intend merely one verse only.  A text is however many verses the Preacher decides he needs to address. It could be one verse or it could be many, as the Westminster Directory of Public Worship (WDPW) says, in its chapter ‘On Preaching,’ “If the text be long, (as in histories or parables it sometimes must be,) let him give a brief sum of it; if short, a paraphrase thereof, if need be: in both, looking diligently to the scope of the text, and pointing at the chief heads and grounds of doctrine which he is to raise from it.”

Puritan preaching was designed to do several things, (1) put a text in its context; (2) analyze the verse logically or rhetorically; (3) establish one or more truths (doctrines) that are taught in the text; (4) discuss one or more of those truths; (5) answer objections to that truth if necessary and (6) apply the truth(s) to the conscience of those who hear it.

(1)  It is a great mistake to think that Puritans were shameless ‘proof-texters.’ By that I mean preachers who rip a verse out of context and twist it to their own purposes without regard to the purpose of the Biblical and Divine author.  This is what the Puritans would call, “doing violence to the text.” Their goal was to expound the mind of God as revealed in the text.  Well-trained in logic and rhetoric they were fully aware of the importance of context.  The WDPW states, “Let the introduction to his text be brief and perspicuous, drawn from the text itself, or context, or some parallel place, or general sentence of scripture.”

(2)  This analysis is always brief.  It identifies the logical connection between the various parts of the verse.  It addresses the question, “Why did the author say this?  Why did he use this particular word?  Why did he say this at this point?” If one wants to understand a text, one must seek to get into the author’s head.  He does this by trying think along with the Biblical author.  By seeing what he is doing, the expositor tries to discern his purpose.

In analyzing his text, the preacher is giving his people a ‘bird’s eye view’ of what is contained in it.  Part of his intention is to assist the people to be able to remember what the key parts of the text are after the sermon has ended. Note the teaching of the WDPW, “In analyzing and dividing his text, he is to regard more the order of matter than of words; and neither to burden the memory of the hearers in the beginning with too many members of division, nor to trouble their minds with obscure terms of art.”

Next up is the importance and practice of identifying key truths, or doctrines, in any text.  Until then, Caveat Lector!

I wrote my masters’  thesis on Thomas Manton’s spirituality under Dr. John Gerstner at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  I concentrated on his 190 sermons on Psalm 119.  Gerstner gave me the grade I desired, but expressed disappointment that my studies in Manton had not brought forth anything new or creative in his thinking.  Manton had not advanced Reformed thinking.  His remarks gave me a new understanding of Gerstner’s fascination with Jonathan Edwards, for he said that Edwards never left a subject on which he had focused unchanged.  For the most part Gerstner thought that Edwards improved and deepened Reformed theology.  I wonder how many realize that it is Edwards’ profound creativity, occurring in the midst of his orthodoxy that appealed to Dr. G.

Gerstner’s reflection on Manton, however, was quite correct.  There is nothing new or creative in his writing.  There is, however, something massive and profound in his sermons.  What I found over 30 years ago was a pastor/theologian who had an extensive understanding of Puritan thinking on the Scriptures.  He is easily one of the most useful writers if one wants to get a comprehensive grasp of how the Puritan’s doctrinal-spirituality works.  Full of helpful distinctions, Manton plumbs the depths of Scripture to illuminate the range of Christian experience.  He may not have been creative like Edwards, but he shows us just how beautiful ‘meat & potatoes’ Puritan theology can be.

Let me address any skeptics who might be thinking, “190 sermons on Psalm 119?!  The Psalm itself seems to be saying much the same thing over and over.  Won’t these sermons get seriously repetitive?”

I think you will be genuinely surprised at how little Manton repeats himself.  Two famous Puritans wrote letters commending these sermons.  Both expressed admiration for Manton’s ability to see something different in each text.  Here’s what they said:

William Bates, a great Puritan thinker, wrote “The following sermons were preached by him in his usual course of three times a week, which I do not mention to lessen their worth, but to show how diligent and exact he was in the performance of his duty.  Indeed, his ordinary sermons, considering the substantial matter, clear order and vigorous full expressions, may well pass for extraordinary.  I cannot but admire the fecundity and variety of his thoughts, that the same things so often occurring in the verses of this psalm, yet by a judicious observing the different arguments and motives whereby the Psalmist enforces the same requests,…  every sermon contains new conceptions, and proper to the text.”

Vincent Alsop’s remarks echo Bates’.  “I have admired and must recommend to the observation of the reader, the fruitfulness of the author’s holy invention, accompanied with solid judgment; in that … without force or offering violence to the sacred text, he has, either from the connection of one verse with its predecessor, or the harmony between the parts of the same verse, found out new matter to entertain his own meditation and his reader’s expectation.”

Dear Reader, I invite you to join me three times a week starting Monday, November 23rd, as I digest and comment on Manton’s sermons on Psalm 119.  I will discipline my writing to no more than 600 words per post.  (No side bets on whether I can keep to that, please!)  I welcome your comments.  I can assure you, it will be an exciting journey as we learn things from one of our Fathers such things as we may never have heard before.

You can download all of the works of Manton for free here.

James O’Brien Sermons

November 18, 2009


The Father Loves His Son (Mark 1:7-11)
When the Herald Comes, Can the King Be Far Behind? (Mark 1:1-8)
Terrific News About Jesus (Mark 1:1)


Foundations of Forgiveness (Genesis 50:19-21)
Guilt and Distrust (Genesis 50)
When a Great Man Dies (Genesis 49:29-50:14)
Who Loves You Baby (Genesis 49:22-26)
Be Careful What You Wish For (Genesis 49:13)
The Lion of Judah (Genesis 49:8-12)
Brothers in Cruelty (Genesis 49:5-7)