Puritan Preaching #6 – A Feast of Instruction

December 9, 2009

One thing you do not find in Puritan preaching is elaborate stories.   I think this arises from their conception of what a sermon was to do.  Many today teach that a sermon is to drive home a couple of points.  It is designed to make an impact on the hearer while he is listening.   Telling stories keeps people’s attention without overwhelming them with information.

Our Reformed Fathers, on the other hand, saw the sermon as a feast of instruction that would take time to digest.  Its impact would come as hearers remembered and meditated on the sermon during the rest of the Sabbath and throughout the week.  They had a lot to accomplish in an hour’s discourse.  They had to put their text in context; develop the doctrine; answer objections as needed and apply the truth to the consciences of various sorts of hearers they could anticipate might be present at each service.  Some would be strong Christians; others could be converted, but full of doubts or fears; others might be young in the faith and fairly ignorant and still others who were beset with temptations of one sort or another and needed encouragement and direction.  On the other hand, there could be those who professed the faith, but were in fact unconverted; some who were unconverted and did not profess to be anything else.  There were formalists and enthusiasts; the latter looking only on the externals of worship and the latter without any regard for doctrine or ecclesiological structure.  If not in each sermon, then at least in the scope of their ministries, each kind of person needed to be addressed and directed appropriately to Christ.

Their kind of preaching required that their hearers work hard at remembering what they heard.  Around the table after service, the family was taught to gather and ‘repeat’ the sermon.  The head of the household would question each one, adults and children, in order to reconstruct the sermon.  The outline with each point and its supporting Scriptures or illustrations was rehearsed so that everyone was sure to have gotten the message.

But even then the sermon would profit hearers little if the things remembered were not digested.  Meditation is the essential element in bringing the Word home to the heart and life.  Their favorite analogy for it was a cow chewing its cud, that is, having chewed on its food, a cow brings it back up to be chewed some more.  Thus, Puritan preachers counseled their hearers to bring the Word ‘back up’ to chew on it repeatedly so as to get all the benefit they could from it.

One could hardly overemphasize the importance ascribed to meditation for the work of the minister to be effective.  The goal was not simply better comprehension of the truth, nor even persuasion that it was the truth, but rather to apply the Word to one’s own heart and spiritual condition.  By meditation, one stoked the embers of the heart into a glowing flame.  Faith in and love for God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and turning from sin was the intended result of this exercise.   True religion reaches the heart, the affections, not just the mind.

We all know the problem of going to bed with a heart afire for God, only to wake in the morning having to scratch around to find what few embers are left.  Our Reformed fathers instructed their people in the art of meditation so that they could stir up their faith, hope and love in preparation for facing the world, the flesh and the devil.  Caveat lector!

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