So this week I’m going to post on Durham’s views on application in preaching. These are found in an essay in his Commentary on Revelation (Old Paths, PA, 1658, rept 2000, p328-336) entitled, Some general Observations Concerning Preaching, and especially Application. There is some classic material in here.
Durham goes through this subject in 20 separate points. I won’t comment on all of them (though they are all worth commenting on!) but just pick out some relevant points.
‘Ministers in their application, ought to conform themselves to the case of the Church and persons to whom they Preach.’
So preaching should take account of who is in the congregation. The same application is not necessarily appropriate for two different audiences, or indeed for different classes of people in the same audience. So:
‘… this is a main qualification of a Minister of the Gospel rightly to divide the word of Truth, and not to follow all applications promiscuously and in heap together in any Auditory.’p329
Application must not ‘rest in the general’ but go on to the ‘particular’. p329
Ministers should make sure that the:
‘… practical matter [in the sermon] is near the power of Godliness, to wit, marking the Spiritual declining of the sincere, pressing the exercise of Repentance, and the performing of holy duties upon all; and, with all, most searchingly and convincingly striking at hypocrisy, presumption and self confidence…’ p330
Accordingly ministers should:
‘… not insist upon the most high sublime and obscure things, either in… Doctrines, Reproofs, or Directions, such as are the more obstruse Questions of the Schools… but … [press] the most plain, obvious and uncontrovertible duties of Religion, to wit, Repentance, Self-examination, Faith, Zeal, etc… the most powerful preaching, is, in the pressing of them.’ p330
Moving on from these general points Durham comes to consider how Christ ‘proposeth the offer of the Gospel, and inviteth to believe (as to the Church of Laodicea)’. (See note 1) . Durham notes that in the epistle to Laodicea this proposing of the free offer of the gospel takes four steps:
1. Christ ‘Open[eth] their sinful dangerous and hypocritical case, and battereth down the[ir] ignorant self confidence’
2. Christ ‘proposeth the right remedy, to wit, Himself and His benefits, His imputed Righteousness’.
3. Christ ‘cleareth the terms upon which that gold and white raiment is obtained, under the expressions of buying, opening, hearkening, etc.
4. Christ ‘doth most sweetly, and yet most vehemently press it [the gospel offer]: partly, by condescending friendly to counsel and entreat; partly by making his offer large, free, and particular to any man that will open…’
Note the gospel offer is not mere command, not mere declaration of facts. Rather it is an act of condescension by Christ, it is a ‘sweet’ entreaty that is large and free. This point will come up again and again. To declare facts and to command is not the free offer of the gospel as understood by Durham (or as I will argue the WCoF). To be sure it is part of it, but it is by no means the whole.
Having defined the free offer in this manner Durham goes on to make this comment regarding Christ’s preaching:
‘We find, whatever the case of the people be that he [Christ] speaketh unto, the up-shot and scope of His message, is, ever to persuade a closing of the [gospel] treaty between him and them… whereby we may see, 1. What a Minister’s scope should be, and where at he should aim in conviction, reproof etc. and where he should leave his hearers, to wit, at Christ’s fee[t]..’ p331
So the aim of Christ’s preaching and the aim therefore of ministers’ preaching is to bring sinners to Christ. This should be the key focus of application as Durham makes clear, noting that the Gospel should be preached so that hearers:
‘be put in mind of as much of the Gospel as may be a ground of his peace, if it should be improven, though he should never afterward hear any more… we conceive, that generally and usually its expedient to follow this manner; especially on Lord’s Days…’ p332
So, essentially, according to Durham each sermon should contain the sum and substance of the gospel offer, and most particularly on the Lord’s day. To make this point more explicit hear what Durham says about the ‘fountain qualification of a Preacher’:
‘In all this [preaching], the Lord’s [Christ’s] way holdeth forth His great design of gaining them to whom He speaketh: so as it satisfieth Him not to exoner Himself (to speak so of Him) in doing of His Duty: but He is zealous to get it received; and in sum, to get them saved: therefore weightily doth He follow it, inviting, exhorting, pressing and protesting as unwilling to be refused. This indeed is a fountain qualification of a Preacher, to be travailing in birth till Christ be formed in hearers; and so to preach to them, as hungering and thirsting for their Salvation… nay, not only his own exoneration, and the justifying of God by making his hearers inexcusable; but a single serious desire to have them gathered and espoused to Christ…’ p334
This according to Durham is the spirit which should animate gospel preaching. Little wonder with such passion for the salvation of sinners Durham believed the Gospel should be plainly preached in each sermon. But further note that for Durham the ‘design’ of preaching is ‘to get sinners saved’. The gospel may well become the savour of death but this is not its nature, rather it is the perversion of it by sin (all decreed by God, of course). Hear Calvin on John 3:17:
‘[Christ] did not come to destroy; therefore it follows that the proper function of the Son of God in that whosoever believes may obtain salvation through Him… we should not regard anything else in Christ than that God out of his infinite goodness wished to help and save us who were lost…When elsewhere Christ says that He is come for judgement, when He is said to be set for the falling of many, it may be regarded as accidental, or so to say foreign. For those who reject the grace offered in Him deserve to find Him the judge and avenger of such shocking contempt.
John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol 4, John 1-10, Eerdmans, Michigan, 1995
‘Application is the life of Preaching… it is the main part of a Pastoral gift, dexterously to feed by Application…’
Well said, Mr Durham.
It would be remiss of me to close without highlighting the just comment of the Westminster Directory for Public Worship that applying the truths of Scripture in the manner outlined above is ‘a work of great difficulty… requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation’. Let us pray for our ministers that they would be helped by the Spirit as they seek to carry out this task. See http://www.epcew.org.uk/dpw/DPW.html#preachingoftheword.
Comments, suggestions and constructive criticism welcome!
I’m away next weekend as I’m joining my Uncle on his final Munro (33 years after his first) on Saturday. So the blog will hopefully be updated on Thursday next week.
It is interesting to note that Durham applies Rev 3:20 to unbelievers. This is, as far as I see, the standard use of the text in Reformed theology in the 17th C. I will post on Durham’s exposition of this verse at some point. In fact next week may be a good time to do that.