William Perkins on Preaching

PerkinsThe great Puritan preacher and writer William Perkins (1558-1602) lived only 44 years (!), but has had a tremendous impact on preachers of the gospel of Christ for well over 400 hundred years. He is often referred to as “the father of puritanism.”

His influence lives on through his written works, one of the most helpful of which is his book, The Art of Prophesying, which deals with the work of the pastor in preaching and in prayer. In his Foreword to the Banner of Truth Trust “Puritan Paperbacks” edition of that very book, Sinclair Ferguson notes that “Perkins’ pulpit ministry was characterized by biblical exposition marked by great ‘plainness of speech’ (2 Cor. 3:12).” That same plainness of speech is also evident throughout the book.

Perkins there gives a very brief summary of what is involved in preaching. He notes that true biblical preaching basically involves four (4) things:

  1. Reading the text clearly from the canonical Scriptures.
  2. Explaining the meaning of it, once it has been read, in the light of the Scriptures themselves.
  3. Gathering a few profitable points of doctrine from the natural sense of the passage.
  4. If the preacher is suitably gifted, applying the doctrines this explained to the life and practice of the congregation in straightforward, plain speech. (p.79)

That list may seem rather simple, but how often are these things neglected or ignored? How common is it really to hear preaching that conforms to these basic standards? Consider Perkins’ fourfold description of preaching re-stated in the form of a set of diagnostic questions:

  1. Is a particular text of holy Scripture read? (Do the people hear the clear reading of the Word of God?)
  2. Is that same text then clearly explained? (Are the people made to understand meaning of that text of Scripture?)
  3. Are a few profitable points of doctrine being expounded from the text? (Are the people really being taught the great doctrines of the gospel?)
  4. Lastly, are those doctrines being applied to the life and practice of the congregation? (Are the people being made to see the difference that the gospel should make in their daily lives?)

If you are a preacher, how do you answer those simple questions with regards to your own preaching? I hope that you can say with a clear conscience that you preach the Word of Christ like this from week to week. It may not impress many of your hearers, but that is the way that sinners are led to the Savior; and that is the way that saints are built up in their most holy faith as well. Such preaching no doubt pleases God, and that should be our first concern, shouldn’t it?

If you are a church member who attends public worship regularly and so listens attentively (right?) to the preaching of the Word of God, are these the kinds of things that you look (or listen) for? Are these the things by which you judge preaching to be good or bad? If this is the kind of preaching that you hear from week to week, no matter how unimpressive and unspectacular it may seem – thank God for it! Count yourself truly blessed indeed! Many who sit under far more impressive-sounding preaching are not being fed and built up the way that you are.

What the church needs today (and has always needed) is not so much talented preachers who are able to captivate an audience (not that there is anything wrong with talent), but rather men of God who are willing to do the hard work of prayerfully studying the Scriptures, and plainly making known what is taught there.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to grant more such men in our pulpits – that His church may be built up, to the glory of His great Name.

The Westminster Standards on Preaching

Directory_for_Public_WorshipThe Directory for the Publick [sic] Worship of God (circa 1644) is a very helpful (even if much neglected) part of the Westminster Standards. It gives us clear instructions on nearly every aspect of the public worship of God in the church, including such things as how the Scriptures are to be read (and by whom!), the right manner of corporate prayer both before and after the sermon, the proper way to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as many other things.

Not surprisingly, it also contains a brief section outlining the right manner of preaching the word of God. These directions are as helpful as they are simple, and it would no doubt be of great benefit to the church to get back to these basics of biblical preaching.

In the Directory the Westminster divines note that the preacher ought to have three (3) primary concerns in his preaching:

First, the preacher must ensure that the matter be the truth of God. In other words, is what the preacher says truly biblical? Not just the truth, but specifically the truth of God. That is to say that the matter of the sermon must be found in the Word of God. Many things might be true enough in and of themselves, but are not really the subject matter of Scripture. A sermon simply must be true and biblical.

If what is being said in the pulpit is not the truth of God, then it really isn’t a sermon (at least not a Christian one) at all. It may be truly rousing oratory; it may be a very informative lecture; it may even be a fine motivational speech; but it is not a sermon in any meaningful sense of the word.

Second, the preacher must see to it that the truth that he preaches is contained or grounded in the specific text of Scripture that he is preaching. Sometimes preachers preach the right doctrine (see #1 above), but do so from the wrong text. In other words, the matter of the sermon must actually be the matter of the text itself. If not, how will the hearers understand how the preacher arrived at the points or conclusions that he is seeking to impress upon them?

You could say that every time a minister preaches a sermon (if he is doing so according to what the Westminster divines say here), he is not just teaching the flock what the Word of God says, but is also implicitly teaching them how to study the Word of God for themselves! What a blessing and added benefit that would be for any church!

Third, the preacher must primarily emphasize what the text itself primarily emphasizes. In other words, the preacher’s main point(s) ought to be so derived from the main point(s) of the Scripture text, that they are one and the same. And in this way the hearers are to be best edified. The central message of the sermon should be the central message of the text of Scripture. If not, can it really be said that the text itself was properly preached?

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, grant that His ministers would preach His Word faithfully. And may they preach according to these simple rules found in the Directory – that their preaching might be biblical, that it might be based upon the text of Scripture itself, and that it might emphasize what the text itself emphasizes.


bible-808633_1280This is the sixth post in our series on the biblical view of the Bible. This time we want to turn our attention to the unity of Scripture. To speak of the unity of Scripture is to say that the Bible speaks with a one voice. In the Bible we do not have two separate books with two different messages, but one book (even if given in two Testaments) with a unified & consistent message. Not only does the Bible not contradict itself, but its message from start to finish (from Genesis to the book of Revelation) is indeed a consistent, unified one.

Look at how often the writers of the New Testament quote from, refer to, or in some way allude to the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, read through the book of Matthew (the very first book of the New Testament), and notice how often Matthew states that something about the person, work, or words of Jesus Christ are actually the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. It is practically the theme of the entire book! Or read through the book of Romans. In Paul’s extensive explanation of the gospel throughout that book, he quotes from or refers to the Old Testament over and over again (including such books as Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, Isaiah, etc.) in order to make his case.

The Old and New Testaments together comprise God’s revelation of Himself to a sinful humanity. The exact same God reveals Himself in both the Old & New Testaments. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament God is referred to as “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3 & Revelation 4:8). In both the Old and New Testament God is described as a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24 & Hebrews 12:29). In both the Old Testament and the New Testament God judges sinners for their wickedness and unbelief. The same God who struck down Pharaoh and his armies (Exodus 14:26-31) also struck down King Herod for his attacks on His people and for not giving glory to God (Acts 12:20-24). God does not change.

Not only that, but the way of salvation does not change. The Old Testament (and not just the New Testament) is about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Him. Jesus Himself said that Moses (the human author of the first five books of the Old Testament – Genesis through Deuteronomy) wrote about Him (John 5:46). The Apostle Paul twice reminds us that Abraham (the father of the Jews) was saved by faith (Romans 4:3 & Galatians 3:6). And where did Paul get that notion? From Genesis 15:6, which says that Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

I hope that you have found this to be helpful and illuminating. But most of all I hope that you come to see Christ in all of the Scriptures and come to Him by faith for eternal life.

Berkhof on the Difference Between the Lutheran & Reformed Views of the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofIn part 5 of his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof includes a chapter on “The Word as a Means of Grace.” At the close of that chapter, he points out that there is often a distinction or difference between the way that Lutherans view the threefold use of the law (i.e. the civil, pedagogical, and normative uses of the law – see here), and the way that the Reformed view that same threefold use.

Now he is quick to point out that both groups “accept” or affirm the threefold use. Neither would reject any of the three uses of the law. The difference is rather to be found in the emphasis on one of the uses over the others. Berkhof notes that “Lutherans stress the second use of the law” (i.e. the pedagogical use, wherein the law of God reveals our sin to us and drives us to Christ for salvation). He writes,

“In their estimation the law is primarily the appointed means for bringing men under conviction of sin and thus indirectly pointing the way to Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners. While they admit the third use of the law, they do it with a certain reserve, since they hold that believers are no more under the law. According to them, the third use of the law is necessary only because, and in so far as, believers are still sinners; they must be held in check by the law, and should become ever-increasingly conscious of their sins. It is not surprising therefore that this third use of the law occupies no important place in their system” (p.615).

In other words, the emphasis is primarily a negative one. To the Lutherans, the primary use of the law of God for believers is to remind them of their sins, and to restrain them from sin. To be sure, the Reformed certainly acknowledge this aspect as well. The Westminster Confession of Faith (19.6) says that the law of God is of use even to the regenerate in order to “restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.”

What about the Reformed view? Berkhof continues:

The Reformed do full justice to the second use of the law, teaching that through the law cometh the knowledge of sin,” and that the law awakens the consciousness of the need of redemption; but they devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification. They stand strong in the conviction that believers are still under the law as a rule of life and of gratitude. Hence the Heidelberg Catechism devotes no less than eleven Lord’s Days to the discussion of the law, and that in its third part, which deals with gratitude” (ibid).

So, if you are a believer in Christ, which (if any) describes your approach to the third use of the law of God? Do you approach it “with a certain reserve” (as the Lutherans commonly do), or do you devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification” (as the Reformed commonly do)? By all means we should “do full justice to the second use of the law” (as Berkhof puts it), but that should in no way prevent us from ‘devoting even more attention’ to the third use of the law of God when it comes to sanctification. There is no reason to make an either/or choice out of what the Scriptures present to us as a both/and proposition.

Berkhof on the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofReformed theologians commonly speak of three (3) uses of the law of God. In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) explains the distinctions between the various uses (what he calls the “threefold use”) in the following way:

Use #1 – the Civil Use: “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large” (p.614).

So in this way God’s law is useful for the benefit of society generally (both believer and unbeliever alike). Sin and wickedness have detrimental effects on any community or society. Righteousness, on the other hand, is beneficial to any community or society. As Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (ESV). So the law of God (in order for the first use of the law to actually be of use in this way) must then somehow be published or made known to society in general. The less the law is made known, the less it will be of use to restrain sin (or to promote righteousness) in society. While such a use is certainly limited to common (not saving) grace, as Berkhof points out above, such common grace is a good thing. It should not be looked down upon or neglected.

Use #2 – the Pedagogical Use: “In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes a tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God’s gracious purpose of redemption” (ibid).

The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.96 speaks of this use:

“What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men? A. The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ; or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable, and under the curse thereof.”

In this use the law of God acts as a mirror of sorts, showing the unbeliever his sin, and driving him to look to Christ by faith for salvation. The law shows us our desperate need for the Savior.

Use #3 – the Normative Use: “This is the so-called . . . third use of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians” (p.615).

Simply put, after the law of God drives us to faith in Christ for salvation (2nd use of the law), it then becomes our rule of life (3rd use), showing us how we should live in light of our salvation in Christ. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.97 speaks of this use:

“What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate? A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good, and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.”

So to the regenerate (i.e. believers in Christ), the law is still of great usefulness, to show us our debt to Christ for our salvation (both in His active and passive obedience), to “provoke” us to thankfulness to Him for our salvation, and to express that thankfulness in striving to conform ourselves unto His law in our daily lives. In a sense, the believer now has even more reason to obey God’s law because of his salvation!


bible-808633_1280This is now the fifth post in a brief series on the biblical view of the Bible. In this post I would like to briefly examine what may be the most neglected attribute of Scripture in the life of evangelical Christians and churches today – the sufficiency of Scripture.

To say that the Bible is sufficient is simply to say that it is adequate or enough for what we need. We do not need something else, or something extra. When it comes to life and godliness, we need no substitute or supplement to the Word of God. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 the Apostle Paul writes,

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV)

Paul there tells us that all Scripture is “profitable” (or useful) for such things as teaching, reproof, correction, and training.  (Have you ever found yourself being reproved or corrected by Scripture? If so, that’s a good thing – it means that God’s Word is doing it’s job in your life!) But notice that Paul also tells us the purpose of Scripture in all of that teaching, reproving, correcting, and training – it is that the man of God may be “complete” and that he may be “equipped for every good work.” So God’s Word is enough; it is sufficient to build up believers and mold us to be the people God wants us to be, and to be able to do His will.

Individual believers and churches in general are constantly being tempted to rely on something other than Scripture or at least something in addition to Scripture, to do the work that God has called us to do. We are tempted to put our confidence in all kinds of other things that we are told “work.” (We are constantly being tempted by pragmatism.) But it is really the Bible alone that is sufficient for faith and life. It is in the Bible alone that we learn the gospel of salvation in Christ. It is in the Bible alone that we learn what God would have us to believe about Him. It is in the Bible alone that we find the will of God for our lives when it comes to ethics and morality, marriage, family, church, society, and even government. It is in the Bible alone that we are sufficiently instructed how to properly pray, worship, and make disciples of all nations.

So if we say that we believe the Bible, let’s act like it. Let us seek to apply it to our lives, our families, our churches, and our community. And let us rely upon it alone to know and do the will and work of God. Nothing else is sufficient; nothing else even comes close.

The Biblical View of the Bible (Part 4 – Clarity)

bible-808633_1280This is the fourth post in a series on the biblical view of the Bible. In previous installments we have briefly touched upon things such as the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible. And that brings us to another very important attribute of Scripture – its clarity. (Theologians commonly refer to this as the “perspicuity” of Scripture – somewhat ironically, not exactly the easiest term to understand!) In other words, the Bible is clear.

So the Bible can be understood without a secret decoder ring. And it can be understood by people other than religious professionals with advanced degrees and lots of letters behind their names. (There is nothing wrong with advanced degrees, of course, but they are not prerequisites for reading and comprehending the truths of Scripture.) The Bible is meant to be read and understood by both the simplest child and the most learned scholar alike. It is an open book.

Now to say that the Bible is clear does not mean that everything in the Bible is equally clear or easy to understand. The Bible itself even tells us so. No less than the Apostle Peter attested to this fact in one of his epistles. In 2 Peter 3:15-16 he writes,

“And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (ESV)

Even Peter himself said that some things in the letters of Paul “are hard to understand” (v.16)! Ever have difficulty understanding something in one of the epistles of Paul? Welcome to the club! Nevertheless, the essential message of Scripture (especially the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ) is abundantly clear.

We may not always know what to make of all of the different visions in the Old Testament prophetic books or in the book of Revelation, but it doesn’t take a Ph.D to read and understand the basics: that there is one true and living God who created the universe and everything in it; that we have all sinned against Him and are in need of a Savior; that God has sent His only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be the one and only Savior of sinners; and that whoever trusts in Christ will be saved! You can read and understand the Bible, and I sincerely hope this helps you to do just that.