A Puritan’s Plea for the Simplicity of Preaching

Protestant churches in 17th Century England wrestled with similar tensions as our own with regard to methods of preaching. For them, there was a pull toward deference given to the senses in the worship experience as worship in England was only a few decades removed from Latin-narrated Roman Catholic services.

However, where 21st Century evangelical pastors feel drawn toward entertainment and sense-driven approaches to attract more people, clergy in the 1600s were concerned with fealty to fellow clergy opinion and practice rather than the response of people at all. Regardless of motive, both eras share a common tilt toward more complicated preaching methods and, as such, an overlapping vortex is opened through which 17th century voices can speak to the 21st century with relevance.

Henry Jacob, a Puritan pastor in London serving in the early 1600s, was one who sought to remind his brothers that preaching is merely expounding and applying the Scriptures to the congregation in a manner that all who hear can understand. Jacob published his thoughts in a booklet written in 1604 entitled A Position Against Vainglorious, and that Which is Falsely Called Learned Preaching. He began with the following argument:

In ordinary preaching unto Christian congregations to allege authorities of men whether philosophers, poets, or divines; or to use Latin, or other languages besides the vulgar, is unprofitable, unreasonable, and unlawful.

Jacob then defended this statement with several reasons of support explaining that preaching should be familiar, simple, sufficient, and consistent.

1. Familiar

Jacob drew his first reason of support from the earthly ministry of Christ. Jacob stated that the example of Christ is the best pattern to follow and those preachers who rely on human authorities and preach in Latin are not like Christ. The Lord Jesus did not use Latin (or a language other than what his listeners could readily understand), reasons Jacob, so why should preachers in 1604?

More than that, though, is Christ’s example of clear and plain teaching. When Jesus taught the Jews he taught in such a way that all who heard were able to comprehend the words he was saying. Perhaps for heart reasons they may not understand every meaning of every word, but they nonetheless could, in their heads, understand the words. Jacob called Jesus’ preaching “familiar and plain,” and contrasted that with his contemporaries’ manner of teaching that relied upon human authorities more than Scripture.

2. Simple

Henry Jacob’s second reason sought support from Apostolic authority. He said that since the Apostles followed Christ, “we ought to follow them.” The Apostles communicated to the churches, as evidenced in Acts and the Epistles, with “great simplicity.” For example, Paul told the Corinthians he came to them not with wisdom of the world (1 Cor 2:1).

The established clergy in Jacob’s day were apt to use more elevated and confusing language than the common vernacular of the people. Also, their erudite preference was to reference the best of human authors and poets rather than Scripture. Jacob referred to these habits as practices of “vain ostentation” and all “sound preachers” should avoid these methods in their “ordinary teaching of Christians.” Rather the example of the Apostles’ “plainness and simplicity” should be “followed and embraced.”

3. Sufficient

Third, Jacob upheld the sufficiency of Scripture for proclamation. He stated that it is scandalous if a preacher causes his hearers to think “that the simple word of God, without the adding of men’s authorities, is not sufficient.” This practice was scandalous because the use of poets or philosophers in the same way or with greater frequency than the word of God made men think that there might be a better way for salvation—or at least confused them as to the right path.

4. Consistent

Jacob’s final reason showed that simple ordinary preaching has been the tradition of the church since its inception. He maintained that Augustine, Chrysostom, and other Church Fathers practiced ordinary sermons for their people and thus his contemporaries should do the same to remain consistent with the earliest practitioners of the Christian faith.

Here Jacob, as a grandchild of the Reformation, recognized that a course correction was needed in recovering the Gospel in churches and such a correction was needed in the preaching of the Gospel as well. The appeal to the early tradition was a transcultural appeal. The point is that there is no culture, however new, that is impervious to the clear explication of the only word that that can judge the thoughts and intentions of any human heart (Heb 4:12).

In the 17th century, one pastor sought to remind preachers that the most profitable thing for the gathered people was the clear and simple preaching of the word of God. A sermon that dabbles in the obscure rather than the familiar, seeks eloquence over simplicity, relies on worldly wisdom more than the Word, and prizes innovation over tradition might attract people, but it will more than likely communicate a message that is complex no matter how creative, that is confusing no matter how clever, and is cheap no matter how crowd pleasing.

A complicated sermon enhanced with much beyond the teaching of the Bible is bound to communicate far more than the simple meaning of the text of Scripture. It might even induce fog on the already narrow and exclusive path that leads to God. In the overlapping vortex of common concern that relates his world to ours, Jacob’s reminder still stands and his plea for plain preaching is a helpful reminder for all. Jacob’s point was that it is only simple ordinary preaching that will faithfully direct people to God.

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For more on Henry Jacob see:

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Henry Jacob and the First Congregational Church,” in The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Banner of Truth, 2014), 149-169.

Jason G. Duesing, “The Wedge That Binds the Work: The Pastoral Theology of Henry Jacob (1563-1624) as a Keystone for His Congregational Ecclesiology,” in Baptist Quarterly, 43:5 (Jan 2010): 284-301.

Upon this Rock: Introduction Now Available

In 2010, B&H Academic published Upon this Rock: A Baptist Understanding of the Church. A volume of many contributors (including coeditors Malcolm Yarnell and Thomas White), Upon this Rock examines Article VI on “The Church” of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message statement and related issues of ecclesiology at the local and national level.

Here is Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message:

VI. The Church

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.

Recently, B&H Academic has made available for free my introduction to the volume, “The Duty of Baptists to Teach Their Distinctive Views?”. You can learn more about the volume here and also read my chapter here.