A condemned prisoner was climbing the gallows when William Perkins said to him, “What man! What is the matter with thee? Art thou afraid of death?” The prisoner confessed that he was less afraid of death than of what would follow it. “Sayest thou so,” said Perkins. “Come down again man and thou shalt see what God’s grace will do to strengthen thee.”
When the prisoner came down, they knelt together, hand in hand, and Perkins offered a powerful prayer of confession of sin. The prisoner burst out in tears. Then Perkins prayed the truths of the gospel. Now the prisoner wept for joy. The prisoner rose from his knees, went cheerfully up the ladder, testified of salvation in Christ’s blood, and bore his death with patience, as if he saw heaven opened to receive his soul.
The Puritans did not lack evangelistic zeal.
Characteristics of Puritan Evangelistic Preaching
Consider how the Puritans differed from what is used in evangelistic preaching today.
Puritan preaching was thoroughly biblical. Unlike many modern-day evangelists, the Puritan preacher found his message in God’s Word. John Owen said: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word” (Works 16:74). As Millar Maclure noted, “For the Puritans, the sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon is in the text. . . . Put summarily, listening to a sermon is like being in the Bible” (The Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1534-1642 [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958], 165).
Puritan preaching was unashamedly doctrinal. The Puritan evangelist saw theology as an essentially practical discipline. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “To them, systematic theology was to the pastor what a knowledge of anatomy is to the physician. Only in the light of the whole body of divinity (as they liked to call it) could a minister provide a diagnosis of, prescribe for, and ultimately cure spiritual disease in those who were plagued by the body of sin and death” (“Evangelical Ministry: The Puritan Contribution,” in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998], 266). The Puritans preached the whole Christ to the whole man. They offered Him as Prophet, Priest, and King. They did not separate His benefits from His person or offer him as a Savior from sin while ignoring His claims as Lord. As Joseph Alleine wrote in his model of Puritan evangelism, An Alarm to the Unconverted, “All of Christ is accepted by the sincere convert. . . . He is willing to have Christ upon any terms; he is willing to have the dominion of Christ as well as deliverance by Christ” ([1671; reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959], 45–46. This book was reprinted again by Banner of Truth Trust in 1995 as A Sure Guide to Heaven, a title first used in 1675).
Puritan preaching was experimentally practical, explaining how a Christian experiences biblical truth in his life. Experimental preaching seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth, how matters ought to go, how they do go in the Christian life, and how they will go by Christ’s ultimate triumph in His elect. In a Christ-centered context, Puritan evangelism was marked by a discriminating application of truth to experience. Discriminatory preaching defines the difference between the non-Christian and the Christian. The Puritans were very aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart. Consequently, Puritan evangelists took great pains to identify the marks of grace that distinguish the church from the world, true believers from merely professing believers, and saving faith from temporary faith. For example, in The Godly Man’s Picture (1666; reprint Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), Thomas Watson sets forth twenty-four marks of grace for self-examination.
Puritan preaching was holistically evangelistic. The Puritans used all of Scripture to confront the whole man. They called sinners to faith and they called them to repentance. They preached the law and they preached the gospel. In the work of conversion God does not normally begin with a conscious decision of faith but with conviction of sin and a sense of total helplessness to obey God’s commands. They also taught regeneration that produces a new nature and holy living.
The discrepancies between Puritan and modern evangelism should prompt us to revert back to the older message where the whole of Scripture is addressed to the whole man.
The Method of Puritan Evangelistic Preaching
The greatest teacher of the Puritan “plain style of preaching” was William Perkins. Perkins, often called the father of Puritanism, wrote that preaching “must be plain, perspicuous [clear], and evident. . . . It is a by-word among us: It was a very plain sermon: And I say againe, the plainer, the better” (The Works of Perkins, 2:222. Cf. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying [1606; revised ed., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996], 71–72; Charles H. George and Katherine George, The Protestant Mind of the English Reformation 1570–1640 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961], 338–41). Henry Smith, another great Puritan preacher, said, “To preach simply, is not to preach unlearnedly, nor confusedly, but plainly and perspicuously, that the simplest which doth hear, may understand what is taught, as if he did hear his name” (Works of Henry Smith, 1:337. Cf. Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were [Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986], 104–107).
Three characteristics associated with Puritan plain preaching need to be recovered by today’s preachers:
1. Puritan preaching addressed the mind with clarity. They taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. They understood that a mindless Christianity will foster a spineless Christianity.
2. Puritan preaching confronted the conscience pointedly. Plain preaching named specific sins, then asked questions to press home the guilt of those sins upon the consciences of men, women, and children. They believed that 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. The Puritans preached urgently, directly, and specifically.
3. Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately. It is unusual today to find a ministry which both feeds the mind with solid biblical substance and moves the heart with affectionate warmth, but this combination was commonplace with the Puritans. They set forth Christ in His loveliness, hoping to make the unsaved jealous of what the believer has in Christ.
Evangelism through Catechism
As much as the Puritans esteemed preaching as the primary means of evangelism, like the Reformers, the Puritans were catechists. They believed that pulpit messages should be reinforced by personalized ministry through catechesis.
Puritan catechizing reached evangelistically to children and young people by writing catechism books that explained fundamental Christian doctrines via questions and answers supported by Scripture.
Catechism followed up preaching with personal instruction and examination. Catechism involves patiently teaching, gently examining, and carefully leading family and church members to Christ through the Scriptures—it took time and skill (Thomas Boston, The Art of Manfishing: A Puritan’s View of Evangelism [reprint Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 1998], 14–15).
Catechism built foundations for lasting conversions. The Puritans were not looking for quick and easy conversions; they were committed to building up lifelong believers whose hearts, minds, wills, and affections were won to the service of Christ. How vastly different was that result compared to the results of today’s evangelists who press for mass conversions, then turn over the hard work of follow-up to others!
Do you thirst to glorify the Triune God in your evangelism? Soon you shall pray your last prayer, read Scripture for the last time, preach your last sermon, or witness to your last friend. Then the only thing that will matter will be the gospel.
Posted by Dr. Joel Beeke, pastor and professor of systematic and historical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.