Recovering the ‘Directory of Public Worship’ on Preaching

When the subject of preaching is addressed today, we are accustomed to asking only about the faithfulness of the message, but we avoid, almost altogether, the question of effectiveness. If T. David Gordon is at all correct, “that less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach even a mediocre sermon”…and that “of the sermons he has heard in the last twenty-five years, only 15 percent had a discernable point”, the question of effectiveness in preaching is an important one.

One of the most helpful things ever written on the question of faithfulness and effectiveness in preaching comes from the “Directory of Public Worship” published and authorized in 1645 by the Assembly of Divines at Westminster and subsequently adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Yes, I’m continental Reformed pastor but I love this Presbyterian document! It is my humble opinion that if the things written in On the Preaching of the Word were diligently followed, the church would we see a much more widespread response in our day to the ministry of the gospel.

In what follows, I provide a brief summary of the contents of the Directory on preaching, with a few words of annotation to help people reflect on what the divines were emphasizing.

In the Directory’s Of the Preaching of the Word there is an initial encouragement that the public preaching of the Word is God’s power to save and is one of the most excellent works of gospel ministry. Preaching should be performed diligently and without shame. The pastor must have skill to discern the truth in the study of the original languages, arts and sciences, the whole body of divinity and the Holy Scriptures, beyond the “common sort of believers.”

This is a really important observation. Not just anyone can or should preach officially in the church of Jesus Christ. Too often people listen to a sermon that evidences no demonstration of the Spirit and power. The consequence is that nothing spiritually edifying happens beyond what a layman could accomplish by simply reading a Bible text to the congregation. There should be no question that the pastor, through much humility and prayer, has been sent by God to preach this chosen power unto the salvation of people.

What the Sermon Should Look Like

1. What to Preach: “Ordinarily the subject of the sermon is to be some text of Scripture, or some head of religion; or suitable to some special occasion emergent, or he may go on some chapter, Psalm, or book of the Holy Scripture as he sees fit.” The Directory calls pastors to the strenuous work of preaching the text of Scripture and not their own ideas; encouraging a thoughtful trajectory of instruction. That book preaching has proven to be spiritually edifying to God’s people is without question and should be a priority of pulpit ministry. Too many sermons today are nothing more than a collection of Bible verses recast into a topical message that panders to the wants of the hearers to the neglect of what they need.

2. How to Preach:

a. Introduction: “Let the introduction to his text be brief …drawn from the text.” Introductions are overrated. The Directory encourages brevity of sermon introduction, moving right to the point, with words that are directly drawn from the Bible. This is, undoubtedly, the most effective way of introducing a sermon.
b. Dividing the Text: “He is to regard to order of matter, then of words.” Observe the intended purpose of the pericope, structurally. Don’t be burdensome with too many divisions; there’s a reason three points has been used throughout history, it’s a good general rule for the capacities of the hearer in one sermon.
c. Preaching Doctrine from the Text: Make sure it’s truth of God; make sure it’s grounded in the text; make sure you are taking those that are most edifying to the church.
d. Manner of Preaching: Be plain and be clear. This can’t be overemphasized.
e. The Style of Preaching: All arguments and reasoning should be convincing with helpful illustrations, removing all doubt of the truth revealed with the goal of filling the hearers with spiritual delight.
f. The Use of Preaching: Bring home the message with application. The application should be persuasive that the hearer’s sense that God has searched their hearts through his Word. Confirm the application with Scripture.
g. Polemics in Preaching: If there is a current error known to the church, it should be confuted soundly; but the minister should avoid raising old heresies and false doctrines from the grave–this is not for edification.
h. The Duties in Preaching: When admonishing from a text, the minister should expose the greatness of our sin and misery, showing the dangers that come when people are overtaken in sin, but always leading the people to the remedies God has provided. Comfort should be applied in the face of the terrors of judgment to the troubled and afflicted heart. The sermon should draw out of the hearer a conviction of sin, repentance, and humility, as the contrite are lead to gospel comfort. With great wisdom the minster should preach only those things that are needful for the flock to draw people to Christ who is the “fountain of light, holiness, and comfort.”

3. Principles for Preachers:

a. Painfully: Do not be negligent in the hard work of this calling.
b. Plainly: Be clear and plain, avoiding anything that might bring attention to yourself, thereby making the cross of Christ of no effect.
c. Faithfully: Labor for the honor of Christ and the salvation of all people.
d. Wisely: All doctrine, application, and correction should be done with the goal of being heard, without the minister’s passions becoming a hindrance.
e. Gravely: Be serious! Avoid letting your own gestures and voice get in the way of the truth intended.
f. With Loving Affection: The people should see that the minister is for them in his zeal.
g. As Taught by God: Be confident in the truth proclaimed and be an example in doctrine and in life. The minister should not become a hindrance to the message, he should watch over the flock as an overseer to preserve God’s people in the truth.