Church HistoryMinistry

The Purpose of Preaching

Part of my job involves teaching people to preach. If I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s that you can’t learn to do something until you understand the goal. So I find myself asking the question, over and over again, what is the purpose of preaching? It’s a really important question. Understanding the purpose of preaching not only affects the preacher, but also the listener. What is a preacher trying to do when they preach? What is the hearer supposed to do with what they’ve heard? Anybody who goes to church regularly has listened to hundreds (if not thousands) of sermons over their lifetime. If Jesus doesn’t first come back, you’re likely to listen to hundreds more. So what’s going on when it comes to the sermon each week in church? It’s a question that we all need to think more about. (If you want to pursue it in detail, check out the recently released book that I had the privilege of editing with Chase Kuhn called Theology is for Preaching). 

Recently, I’ve learned a lot about that question from a guy called William Perkins. He’s been surprisingly helpful for someone who’s been dead for several centuries. Let me tell you a bit about him. Perkins was an Anglican minister during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was born in 1558 and died in 1602 and he was a ministry superstar. Between 1590-1600 more than twice as many editions of Perkins’ books were published as by William Shakespeare, who was a contemporary. (Imagine a world where the religious guy outsells the most famous playwright in English history!). But the most important thing to know about him is that after being converted as a student at Cambridge, he gave his life to preaching the gospel. One particular story tells how Perkins evangelised and prayed for a man as he went to the gallows to die for his crimes. Perkins was no ivory tower preacher; he loved people and gave his all that everyone might hear the gospel.  

So what did Perkins have to say about preaching? Fortunately for us, he wrote a short book called The Art of Prophesying, designed to train preachers. In it, he says that preaching involves four key things: (1) Reading out the text of Scripture, (2) Explaining the meaning of that text, (3) Gathering a few key points of doctrine from the text, and (4) Applying those doctrines “to the life and practice of the congregation in straightforward, plain speech”.[1] This might sound deceptively like what the preacher(s) in your life do, but we need to stop and think a bit about the differences between what Perkins was doing and what often happens in our sermons. 

In Perkins’ day, the passage to be preached was usually only two or three verses long. He believed that those verses had to be understood in their context and he spent a lot of time explaining how to do that. But for Perkins, at the point that you’ve understood the verses and can explain them, you’ve probably done less than half the work required to preach. Why? Because the goal of preaching is not to understand the passage; the purpose of preaching is to bring people to love and obey their Lord. Perkins puts it like this: “preaching is … the allurer of the soul, by which our self-willed minds are subdued and changed from an ungodly and pagan life-style to a life of Christian faith and repentance.”[2] 

So how, according to Perkins, do you move from what the passage says to applying it to the hearer? That’s where points three and four come in. By gathering some key points of doctrine from the text and applying them to the life and practice of the congregation. What did this look like? 

Perkins gives the example of preaching from Matthew 10:28 (ESV): “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In response to this text, he lists six possible doctrines that could be derived (although he acknowledges there are many more). For our purposes, let’s just look at his first three: “1. It is necessary for us to confess publicly the doctrine we know whenever the need arises. 2. We must make this confession even if it means risking the loss of our possessions and our lives. 3. We should despise the value of our lives by comparison with the value we place on Christ and his truth.”[3] 

When Perkins speaks about deriving doctrines from a text, he’s not talking about detached, third-hand descriptions of general truths. He means by doctrines, deep truths about God and his world that will shape what we believe and how we act. Notice that he expresses each of his doctrines as truths that we have an obligation to believe and obey. Further, each of these truths is expressed in a way that connects them with the hearer. 

However, even this is only part of the battle. Having derived these doctrines, Perkins then lists 13 possible implications for the hearers under three headings: Reproof, Instruction, and Correction. To give just two examples of what this looks like, he says, “You must, to the full extent of your power, strive to have a true fear of God in view, because you have now learned that the one God is to be feared above all men” and, “These words of Christ correct the negligence of those who do not pray for sincere love, so that inflamed with it they would not refuse to lay down their life for his name.”[4]

It’s important to notice a few key things here. First, to come up with these doctrines and possible applications takes time, thought and energy directed specifically towards the question: How do the truths of this passage challenge and encourage God’s people to live their whole lives before him in repentance and faith? As much as you might want to quibble with Perkins over the doctrines he derives or the applications he comes up with, the overall point is significant. Preaching is about bringing the truth of God’s text to bear on all parts of being human. This involves more than just understanding the passage; it involves thinking deeply about how the truths of the passage relate to the big picture of the whole Bible and, even more importantly, how these shape our beliefs, feelings and actions.  

I can’t help wondering whether our love for the truth cuts short this part of the preparation process for many of our preachers, and many of us as we listen to sermons. My own reading of our Christian culture (with many notable exceptions) is that our zeal to speak the truth leads us to use all our energy in preparation on what the passage says, rather than on bringing that truth to bear on our hearts and minds. Our preachers, in their busyness, prioritise getting the passage right, and so application often comes as an afterthought. At the same time, as listeners, it is easier to talk about what the preacher got right and wrong, rather than what God is challenging us to engage with as a result of hearing him speak.  

There is so much more that could be said, but here are two initial thoughts about how we might respond. Firstly, do we encourage our preachers to spend the time that is necessary on their preaching? Reading, understanding and making sense of the text is in itself hard work. But if we want our preachers to go beyond just understanding the text to what this means for us in our lives, we need to ensure they’re given the time they need to pray, read, reflect, and wrestle deeply and personally with the truth. Are you encouraging the preacher(s) in your life to take this time?  

Secondly, given the complexity of the task, do we encourage our preachers to keep growing as preachers? Preaching is such a spiritual, personal, and emotional exercise that we shouldn’t think that they leave theological college with all of the training they need for a lifetime of preaching. How could you encourage the preacher(s) in your ministry to invest in their ongoing training in preaching? Moore College, through the John Chapman Preaching Clinics, offer multi-day, residential training courses each year to encourage ministers to go away with others wrestling with these truths to grow together in the task. Maybe you should encourage your minister to think about doing something like this. 

Perkins reminds us to be thoughtful about how we listen to sermons. Do you come to the sermon in anticipation? Perkins believed that God spoke through the sermon and that everyone needed to hear what was being said if they were going to grow in their love and obedience for Christ. Do we come expectantly, prayerfully, and hopefully, asking God to speak through the preacher and to touch our hearts and minds? Do we come ready to be rebuked, corrected, and trained in righteousness? How will you come to the sermon this Sunday?  

This article was first published on the Moore College website here.

[1] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. With The Calling of the Ministry, Rev. ed, Puritan Paperbacks (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 79.

[2] Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 3.

[3] Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 66.

[4] Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 67.