When it comes to our knowledge of God and His Word, how do we bridge the gap between the head and the heart? This has been a perennial question among God’s people, as many have struggled to make biblical truth more than a mere abstraction in their lives.
The question caught the attention of the Puritans in the seventeenth century. As preachers, they were particularly concerned about how to preach in such a way as to instruct the mind and incline the affections. William Perkins made a significant contribution to the discussion with his publication of The Art of Prophesying in 1592.
Perkins viewed the affections as the soul’s inclination to (or from) a particular object. The soul loves what it perceives as good and, therefore, is inclined towards it. This inclination is expressed in desire (when the object is absent) and delight (when the object is present). Conversely, the soul hates what it perceives as evil and, therefore, is inclined away from it. This inclination is manifested in fear (when the object is absent) and sorrow (when the object is present).
Recognizing that these affections ultimately determine our choices, Perkins believed that a preacher must aim to incline the affections (chiefly toward love for God and hatred of sin) through the instruction of the mind. This led him to champion three key convictions regarding preaching.
A Deep Sense
First, Perkins was convinced that a preacher must possess a deep sense of God’s glory and sin’s deformity. Believing that there is a “power of the soul” between our senses and understanding which makes our thoughts real and vivid, he encouraged preachers to impress God’s Word upon their own hearts. He was adamant that a preacher must possess not only “the knowledge of divine things flowing in his brain but printed in his soul by the spiritual finger of God.”
Hermeneutics won’t do it, nor will Bible commentaries or dictionaries. While helpful to accurate interpretation, these things can do little more than fill the mind. Warmed affections are not the result of study, but of deliberate reflection, meditation, and application. Deep thoughts of God’s power kindle fear, deep thoughts of His wisdom kindle faith, and deep thoughts of His goodness kindle love. When these three “radical” graces take hold, a preacher is able to communicate affectively what he knows experientially.
A Plain Style
Secondly, Perkins was convinced that a preacher’s aim in the pulpit must not be the demonstration of his skill, but the manifestation of God’s power. Far too many preachers in his day were overly concerned with the “trimmings” of their sermons and, therefore, unable to convey Christ in a living way to their people. They were given to the “ornate” style of preaching that was widespread within the Church of England, but it was weighed down with human learning and thereby rendered ineffective.
For Perkins, the solution resided in a “plain” style of preaching. A preacher must strive to preach simply (not simplistically) to ensure that nothing detracts the mind from comprehending the truth of God’s Word. He isn’t giving a talk, a speech, or a seminar, but heralding the Word of God.
He isn’t concerned about the latest headlines, the latest philosophies, the latest cultural trends, or the latest world events, but with unfolding the very words of Scripture. His isn’t seeking to impress his listeners through the depth of his learning or the breadth of his reading, but to bring their minds into vital contact with the meaning of Scripture.
A Simple Method
Thirdly, Perkins was convinced that a preacher must not seek to fill the mind with mere notions, but instruct it in such a way as to incline the affections. For Perkins, this necessitated three steps. First, a preacher must “give the sense and understanding” of his text. In so doing, he “opens” Scripture so that its meaning becomes evident to all. Secondly, a preacher must “collect a few and profitable points of doctrine” from his exposition. Perkins referred to this process as “the right cutting of the Word.”
In simple terms, it involves deducing the main point of a passage: theological and practical. Thirdly, a preacher must “apply the doctrines to life in simple and plain speech.” The goal, for Perkins, was a careful examination of the heart through the close application of God’s Word.
Interestingly, in Perkins’s estimation, most of the sermon was to be dedicated to this third step. Having opened the text and derived the key truths and lessons, a preacher must painstakingly apply them to his congregation through correction, admonition, and exhortation.
He must demonstrate how God’s Word speaks to the downcast, the careless, the stubborn, and the wayward. He must show how God’s Word speaks to every conceivable “case of conscience.” He must seek to disturb the comfortable through the close application of the law, and comfort the disturbed by offering the healing balm of the gospel. In short, a preacher must be fervent in his application, seeking to stir “the godly affections of his heart.”
Perkins never minimized the need for the Holy Spirit to bless the preaching of God’s Word. He was acutely aware that “preachers may cry until their lungs fly out, and men are moved no more than stones.”
Yet, while stressing the efficacy of God’s Word preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, Perkins was at the same time committed to an approach to preaching that was marked by clarity and simplicity, and fueled by a familiar acquaintance with eternal realities, because he viewed it as the means to bridge the gap between the head and the heart.