Rev D J MacDonald
4. The primacy of preaching
By the primacy of preaching the Puritans meant that preaching was the most important part of a ministers life. Whatever gifts, learning or attainments a minister possessed were to be used to the great end of making him a preacher. The Apostle says, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor 1:17). This does not mean that baptism is not important but that preaching is more important2. Paul himself states this again when he says, “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel”. The importance of preaching and the preparation for it, as seen in the writings and the practice of the Puritans, is summed up succinctly in the words of J C Ryle: “Some may be ready to say, I have been working for God the whole of the week. I have been attending the school, visiting from house to house, distributing tracts, and if my sermons on the Lords day are not quite what they might be, at any rate I have not been idle. We should remember that all work of this description, if it interferes with the preparation of our sermons, is work ill spent.”3 How many of us would be glad to say, “We have spent this week visiting from house to house, distributing tracts etc”? How much more worldly is what occupies too much of our mind during the week, and how can we make it an excuse for our lack of sermon preparation?
Henry Smith (1550-91) Lecturer at St Clement Danes, London, writes, “If you must take heed how you hear, then we must take heed how we preach. Therefore Paul putteth none among the number of preachers but those who divide the Word aright (2 Tim 2:15), that is, in right words, in right sense and in the right method; and because none can do this without study and meditation, therefore he teacheth Timothy to give attendance to doctrine, that is, to make a study and labour of it. For as Peter saith that in Pauls epistles there be many things hard to understand, so in Peters, Johns and Jamess epistles there be many things too which David before called the wonders of the law, and Paul called the mystery of salvation and Christ calleth a treasure hid in the ground.” “Wheat is good,” Smith continues, citing Amos 8:6, “but they that sell the refuse thereof are reproved. So preaching is good, but this refuse of preaching is but swearing, for one takes the name of God in vain, the other takes the Word of God in vain. As every sound is not music, so every sermon is not preaching, but worse than if he read an homily. For if James would have us consider what we ask before we pray, much more should we consider before we come to preach.”4
In stressing the importance of preaching, Perkins says, “The first title of a minister of God is messenger. He is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. In Revelation the ministers of the seven churches are called the angels of these churches; in one place a minister is an angel of God, and in the other place, the angel of the church that is, an angel or messenger sent from God to the church. This point has widespread application:
“Firstly, for ministers themselves. You must understand your duty. Ministers are messengers: that is the very nature of their calling. Therefore you must preach Gods Word as Gods Word and deliver it just as you received it. Ambassadors do not carry their own message but the message of their lords and masters who sent them. Similarly, ministers carry the message of the Lord of hosts and are therefore bound to deliver it as the Lords and not their own. Gods Word is pure. It must therefore be purely studied and delivered. Let all those who are Gods angels and desire to be honoured as His angels and ambassadors fulfil the responsibility of Gods angel lest, as many men mar a good tale in the telling, they take away the power and the majesty of Gods Word in the way they deliver it.
“Secondly, if ministers are Gods angels they must preach Gods Word in a way that expresses and demonstrates the Spirit of God. To preach in the demonstration of Gods Spirit is to preach with such plainness, and yet with such power, that even the least intellectually-gifted recognise that it is not man but God who is teaching them. Yet at the same time the conscience of the mightiest may feel not man, but God, reproving them through the power of the Spirit. It is taken as high commendation in the worlds eyes when they say of a preacher, He is a real scholar, because he is scholarly, well-read, has a retentive memory and a good delivery. But what commends a man to the Lord his God and his own conscience is that he preaches with a plainness suitable to the ability, and so powerfully to the conscience of a wicked man that he realises that God is present in the preacher.
“Thirdly, there is an important application to hearers. They are taught here that if their ministers are angels sent to them from God then they should hear them gladly, willingly, reverentially and obediently because they are sent from God, and it is His message they deliver. All Christians must do this, not only when the doctrine which is preached pleases us, but also when it cuts across our corruption and is completely contrary to our dispositions. It may be highly distasteful and hurt our natural desires, but since it is a message from our God and King and the teacher is the messenger of that God, both he and it must be received with respect and with an obedience that comes from our hearts and souls. This is the reason why respect and honour should be given by all genuine Christians to Gods ministers, especially when they adorn their high calling with a holy life: they are the angels of God, delivering the messages and charges they have received from God.
“The minister of God is also an interpreter. He is someone who is able to deliver the reconciliation made between God and man; that is, first of all, he is someone who can expand and explain the covenant of grace, and rightly lay down how reconciliation is accomplished. Secondly, he is someone who can properly and accurately apply the means for its outworking. In Revelation, John receives from Christ. He must take the book that is, the Scripture and eat it. Then, when he has eaten it, he must go to preach to peoples, nations and tongues (Rev 10:8-11). Through John, Christ teaches His Church in a permanent way that ministers are not fit to preach to nations and to kings until they have eaten the Book of God, that is, until above and beyond all learning that man can impart, they are also taught by the Spirit of God Himself. It is this teaching that makes a man a true interpreter. Without it he cannot be one. How can anyone be Gods interpreter to His people unless he knows the mind of God Himself? And how can he know the mind of God except by the teaching of the Spirit of God?
“What I am stressing is this: a minister must be a divine interpreter, an interpreter of Gods meaning. Therefore he must not only read the book but eat it. He must not only have the knowledge of divine things flowing in his brain, but engraved on his heart and printed in his soul by the spiritual finger of God. To this end, after all his own study, meditation and use of commentaries and other human helps, he must pray with David, Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy law (Ps 119:18).
“Furthermore, since ministers are interpreters, they must strive for sanctification and holiness in their own lives. In the prophecy of Isaiah, the Kingdom of Assyria is said to be sanctified, or set apart, to destroy Gods enemies. If a certain kind of sanctification is necessary for the work of destruction, how much more is true sanctification necessary for the great and glorious work of edification of Gods Church?”5
5. Some direct applications of Puritan principles
In 1688 John Flavel addressed an assembly of ministers on the words of the Saviour in Matthew 24:45: “Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season?” He says, “Faithful and wise both make up the character of the complete gospel minister his wisdom or prudence enables him to discern, and his faithfulness obliges him to distribute wholesome food to his flock. Faithfulness or prudence speaks of diligence. A slothful man cannot be a faithful servant. The labours of the ministry are fitly compared to the toil of men in harvest, to the labours of women in travail, and to the agonies of soldiers in the extremity of battle. Faithfulness involves constancy and steadfastness. Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life (Rev 2:10). Yea, we must fight in defence of the truth we preach, as well as study them to paleness and declare them to faintness.
“Ministerial faithfulness includes our impartially in all the administrations of Gods house. He that is partial cannot be faithful. How solemnly Paul lays this charge on Timothy: I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality (1 Tim 5:21). Brethren, you will shortly appear before an impartial judge, see that ye be impartial stewards. Remember that all souls are rated at one value in your Masters book. Your Redeemer paid as much for one as for the other. Take the same care, manifest the same love, attend with the same diligence the poor and weakest soul that is committed to your care.
“Ministerial prudence will direct us to lay a good foundation of knowledge in our peoples souls by catechising and instructing them in the principles of Christianity, without which we labour in vain. Except you have a knowing people, you are not liable to have a gracious people. All your excellent sermons will be dashed to pieces upon the rock of your peoples ignorance. You can never pitch upon a better project to promote the success of your labours than catechising.” I shall interrupt Flavel here to ask, If this is the stumbling block to the success of our labours, should it not be identified and the remedy applied?
Flavel continues, “Ministerial prudence discovers itself in the choice of such subjects as the souls of our people do most require. A prudent minister will study the souls of his people more than the best books in his library and will choose, not what is easiest for him, but what is most necessary for them. Ministers who are acquainted with the state of their flock, as they ought to be, will be seldom at a loss in their choice of subjects. Prudence will enable the man of God to give everyone his proper food and medicine in due season. This will make us spend more hours in our studies that by our labours we may save ourselves and them that hear us.
“Ministerial prudence will not only direct us in the choice of our subjects, but also in the language in which we deliver them to our people. A grave and proper style becomes the lips of Christs ambassadors. Prudence will never allow us to be rude or to engage in flowery expression. We are to strive to bring down the sublimest mysteries of the gospel to the capacity of the most unlearned of our hearers. The greatest credit we are to aim at is to approximate as nearly as possible the praise given to the greatest preacher of all time: The common people heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37).
“Ministerial prudence will direct the servants of Christ to strictness and gravity in their deportment, to maintain their peoples esteem. Prudence will not allow the ministers of Christ to intermix themselves with vain company, take liberty in idle jests and vain stories; nor will it allow on the other hand a morose and discouraging austerity, but will temper gravity with affability.
“To you that are juniors or students I will address one word of advice: have a care to avoid that light and airy spirit which is everywhere in this unserious age. The people have eyes to see what we do, as well as ears to hear what we say. We should strive to be able to say as Paul did: Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do (Phil 4:9).
“Ministerial prudence will send you often to your knees to seek Gods blessing on your labours. Know that all your ministerial success depends on this, as it is written: So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God who giveth the increase (1 Cor 3:7).
“Ministerial prudence will lead you to cultivate and cherish brotherly love, for once jealousies, pride, envy or carnal interest get in among the brethren, no words are able to tell what mischief and sins will break in amongst them to the dishonour of Christ and the gospel. I do therefore, in the name of Christ, as upon my bended knees, earnestly entreat and beseech my brethren, by all the regard they have to the honour of Christ, the souls of their people, their own comfort, and the success of their labours, that no envyings or strifes or disparagements be once admitted and named among them.”6
I close with a final quotation from Richard Baxter, where he confesses, “Some of these words of Paul have been so often presented before my eyes and impressed upon my conscience that I have been much convinced by them of my duty and neglect:
(a) Our general business: Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, and with tears.
(b) Our special work: Take heed to yourselves, and to all the flock.
(c) Our doctrine: Repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.
(d) The place and manner of teaching: I have taught you publicly, and from house to house.
(e) His diligence, earnestness and affection: I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears. This is that which must win souls and preserve them.
(f) His faithfulness: I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, and have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.
(g) His disinterestedness and self-denial for the sake of the gospel: I have coveted no mans silver or gold or apparel; yea, these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.
(h) His patience and perseverance: None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto me, so that I might finish my course with joy and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus.
(i) His prayerfulness: I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them that are sanctified.
(j) His purity of conscience: Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.”