The Puritan lists of the parts and constituent activities of worship normally include the following: praise (especially the singing of psalms), prayer (confession, adoration, intercession), preaching, the sacraments (‘ordinances’), and also catechising and the exercise of church discipline. In all these activities, the Puritans maintained, God comes to meet his people met together in his Son’s name, but most of all in preaching. Preaching is the most solemn and exalted action, and therefore the supreme test, of a man’s ministry: they [Puritans] hold that the highest and supreme office and authority of the Pastor is to preach the gospel solemnly and publicly to the Congregation by interpreting the written Word of God, and applying the same by exhortation and reproof unto them.’ For preaching in the church is supremely the ministration of the Spirit, in a way that (pace Richard Hooker) the mere reading of the word to the Puritans’ minds never could be; therefore it is the supreme means of grace. So Thomas Goodwin writes:
‘ It is not the letter of the Word that ordinarily doth convert, but the spiritual meaning of it, as revealed and expounded.… There is the letter, the husk; and there is the spirit, the kernel, and when we by expounding the Word do open the husk, out drops the kernel. It is the meaning of the word which is the word indeed, it is the sense of it which is the soul.… Now, preaching in a more special manner reveals God’s word. When an ointment box is once opened, then it casts its saviour about; and when the juice of a medicinal herb is once strained out and applied, then it heals. And so it is the spiritual meaning of the Word let into the heart which converts it and turns it to God.
For congregations, therefore, the hearing of sermons is the most momentous event of their lives, and the Puritans pleaded with worshippers to appreciate this fact, and listen to the word preached with awe, attention, and expectancy. Baxter put the point thus, in the course of his ‘Directions for Profitably Hearing the Word Preached’ in the Christian Directory:
Come not to hear with a careless heart, as if you were to hear a matter that little concerned you, but come with a sense of the unspeakable weight, necessity, and consequence of the holy word which you are to hear; and when you understand how much you are concerned in it, it will greatly help your understanding of every particular truth.…
Make it your work with diligence to apply the word as you are hearing it.… Cast not all upon the minister, as those that will go no further than they are carried as by force.… You have work to do as well as the preacher, and should all the time be as busy as he … you must open your mouths, and digest it, for another cannot digest it for you … therefore be all the while at work, and abhor an idle heart in hearing, as well as an idle minister.
Chew the cud, and call up all when you come home in secret, and by meditation preach it over to yourselves. If it were coldly delivered by the preacher, do you … preach it more earnestly over to your own hearts.…
We complain today that ministers do not know how to preach; but is it not equally true that our congregations do not know how to hear? An instruction to remedy the first deficiency will surely be labour lost unless the second is remedied too.
Not, however, that the hearing of sermons is an end in itself, or that ardent sermon-tasting and preacher-hunting is the height of Christian devotion. Thomas Adams speaks sternly against the assumption that listening to sermons is all that matters, reminding us that preaching must lead on to prayer and praise:
Many come to these holy places, and are so transported with a desire of hearing, that they forget the fervency of praying and praising God … all our preaching is but to beget your praying; to instruct you to praise and worship God.… I complain not that our churches are auditories, but that they are not oratories; not that you come to sermons (for God’s sake, come faster), but that you neglect public prayer: as if it were only God’s part to bless you, not yours to bless God.… Beloved, mistake not. It is not the only exercise of a Christian to hear a sermon; nor is that Sabbath well spent that despatcheth no other business for heaven.… God’s service is not to be narrowed up in hearing, it hath greater latitude; there must be prayer, praise, adoration.…
Here, too, surely is a word for Christian people today.*
*Packer, J. I. (1990). A quest for godliness: The Puritan vision of the Christian life (253–255). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.