The Puritan tradition of preaching can be traced to the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, but the term is used across many centuries by people who fit the general mood or embodiment of Puritanism. Men like Charles Spurgeon and Martin Lloyd-Jones have sometimes been considered the “last Puritans,” but I will consider Puritanism proper, which includes the early generation of men like William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, John Cotton, John Preston, and Thomas Goodwin.

Of particular importance for Puritan preaching was William Perkins’s work The Art of Prophesying. This little book helped establish the markers of Puritan preaching. We can set aside whether prophesying in 1 Corinthians 14 is the best category for preaching (I am not sure that it is), but we should still recognize the influence of this book. If these points seem obvious, it’s because they became so dominant in Puritanism and many of us are downstream from the tradition. What may seem obvious and ordinary to us would have been codifying for them what the Puritan tradition was about.

Much of the preaching the Puritans witnessed around them focused on refinement and rhetoric. In some high-Anglican circles, preaching didn’t have the audience in front of the preacher in mind, but the publication of the sermons for an academic audience. Puritans, on the other hand, cared about how ordinary people in the pews would hear their sermons. They wrote their sermons for the ear, not the eye.

Here are five markers of Puritan preaching that can help you be a more faithful expositor and applier of God’s Word.

Puritan preaching can be summarized as:


Whatever else they did, they wanted to read a text and explain what it meant. Preacher, make sure the people listening to you know more about the text after you have spent ten hours with it than they can tell in ten seconds of reading. Do the difficult work and understand the meaning. Expository preaching gets to the meaning of the text and what to do with it.


Perkins said the sermon was supposed to make theological points. Many of us may be hesitant that our preaching will devolve into a systematic theology lecture if we linger on doctrine. Sometimes we may be too intent on being expository that we fear making larger doctrinal conclusions because we want to focus on the text at hand. We don’t need to be too shy, however, about teaching the doctrines of the faith. We should not be hesitant to draw out doctrinal implications from the text. Most church people are eager to learn doctrine if someone would slow down and explain what the words and teaching mean.


Perkins was influenced by Ramist logic that came out of Cambridge. This famous logic was highly structured and broken down into divisions and more divisions. It makes for very orderly preaching. By our standards today, Puritan Sermons may strike as overwhelming with all of their points. They may say things like “Fourthly of subpoint five under first point six.” But the purpose of points is to give signposts on where the sermon is heading. I am not so concerned if people remember the points of my sermon, but it can help people pace mentally. If your first point will be long, just let your hearers know. People’s minds also wander and get distracted, but points help listeners to focus and mentally regroup.


People sometimes argue that preaching should be like art, but art is a different kind of presentation.  Art often works with nuance and multiple interpretations. You don’t want people wandering how to interpret your sermons like they do art. Good preaching can make for bad art. The overarching point of 1 Corinthians 14 is that Paul wants maximum intelligibility in the service. You want maximum intelligibility, plain speaking.

Focused on Christ

J.I Packer lays out four axioms for Puritan preaching in his book The Quest for Godliness: the primacy of intellect, the supreme importance of preaching, the life-giving power of the Scripture, and the sovereignty of the holy spirit. To be focused on Christ is not just pressing for decisions, but exhorting, applying, and praying that the spirit will work to focus the message on Christ. One of the things I frequently pray for is that the Lord will send the Holy Spirit to preach a better sermon than the one I am about to preach. Let the Spirit do what only the Spirit can do. Let Christ be magnified as you apply each of these tips.

Perkins exhorts us to “Preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.” May we do the same.


Editors’ note: this article was adapted from the E.Y. Mullins lecture series delivered at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. View the series here.