Rules for Preacher’s Conduct

by Isaac Watts

Public Discourse
In addressing your discourse to your hearers, remember to distinguish the different characters of saints and sinners; the converted, and the unconverted, the sincere Christian and the formal professor, the stupid and the awakened, the diligent and backsliding, the fearful or humble soul, the obstinate and presumptuous; and at various seasons introduce a word for each of them. Thus you will divide the Word of God aright, and give to every one his portion.

The general way of speaking to all persons in one view, and under one character, as though all your hearers were certainly true Christians, and converted already, and wanted a little further reformation of heart and life, is too common in the world – but I think it is a dangerous way of preaching; it hath a powerful and unhappy tendency to lull unregen­erate sinners asleep in security, to flatter and deceive them with dreams of happiness, and make their consciences easy without a real conversion of heart to God.

Let your hearers know that there is a vast and unspeakable differ­ence betwixt a saint and a sinner, one in Christ, and one out of Christ; between one whose heart is in the state of corrupt nature or unrenewed, and one that is in a state of grace, and renewed in faith and holiness; between one who is only born of the flesh, and is a child of wrath, and one who is born again, or born of the Spirit, and is become a child of God, a member of Christ, and an heir of Heaven. Let them know that this distinction is great and necessary; a most real change, and of infinite importance; and however it has been derided by men, it is glorious in the eyes of God, and it will be made to appear so at the last day, in the eyes of men and angels. That little treatise written by the learned Mr John Jennings, concerning Preaching Christ and Experimental Preach­ing, has many valuable hints relating to these two last particulars of my exhortation.

What to Emphasize, What to Avoid
Lead your hearers wisely into the knowledge of the truth, and teach them to build their faith upon solid grounds. Let them first know why they are Christians, that they may be firmly established in the belief and profession of the religion of Christ; that they may be guarded against all the assaults of temptation and infidelity in this evil day, and may be able to render a reason of the hope that is in them; furnish them with arguments in opposition to the rude cavils and blasphemies which are frequently thrown out into the world against the name and the doctrines of the holy Jesus.

Then let the great, the most important, and most necessary articles of our religion be set before your hearers in their fairest light. Convey them into the understandings of those of meanest capacity, by condescending sometimes to plain and familiar methods of speech; prove these import­ant doctrines and duties to them, by all proper reasons and arguments; but as to the introducing of controversies into the pulpit, be not fond of it, nor frequent in it. In your common course of preaching avoid disputes, especially about things of less importance, without an apparent call of Providence. Religious controversies, frequently introduced, without real necessity, have an unhappy tendency to hurt the spirit of true godliness, both in the hearts of preachers and hearers.

And beware of laying too much stress on the peculiar notions, terms, and phrases of the little sects and parties in Christianity; take heed that you do not make your hearers bigots and uncharitable, while you endeavour to make them knowing Christians. Establish them in all the chief and most important articles of the gospel of Christ, without endeavouring to render those who differ from you odious in the sight of your hearers. Whensoever you are constrained to declare your disapprobation of particular opinions, keep up and manifest your love to the persons of those who espouse them, and especially if they are persons of virtue and piety.

Practical Application
Do not content yourself to compose a sermon of mere doctrinal truths and articles of belief, but into every sermon (if possible) bring some­thing practical. It is true, knowledge is the foundation of practice; the head must be furnished with a degree of knowledge, or the heart can not be good; but take heed that dry speculations, and mere schemes of orthodoxy, do not take up too large a part of your compositions; nor is there any doctrine but what requires some correspondent practice of piety or virtue.

And among the practical parts of Christianity, sometimes make it your business to insist on those by the name of Experimental Religion. Now and then take such themes as these, viz. The first awakenings of the conscience of a sinner, by some special and awful providence, by some particular passages in the Word of God, in pious writings, or public sermons, the inward terrors of mind, and fears of the wrath of God, which sometimes accompany such awakenings; the temptations which arise to divert the mind from them, and to soothe the sinner in the course of his iniquities; the inward conflicts of the spirit in these seasons, the methods of relief under such temptations; the arguments that may fix the heart and will for God against all the enticements and opposition of the world; the labours of the conscience fluctuating between hope and fear; the rising and working of indwelling sin in the heart, the subtle excuses framed by the flesh for the indulgence of it; the peace of God derived from the gospel, allaying the inward terrors of the soul under a sense of guilt; the victories obtained over strong corruptions and powerful temptations, by the faith of unseen things, by repeated addresses to God in prayer, by trusting in Jesus, the great Mediator, who is made of God to us wisdom and righteousness, sancti­fication and redemption.

While you are treating on these subjects, give me leave to put you again in mind, that it will sometimes have a very happy influence on the minds of hearers to speak what you have learned from your own experi­ence, though there is no need that you should tell them publicly it is your own; you may inform them what you have borrowed from your own observation, and from the experience of Christians, ancient or modern, who have passed through the same trials, who have wrestled with the same corruptions of nature, who have grappled with the same difficul­ties, and at last have been made conquerors over the same temptations. As face answers face in the glass, so the heart of one man answers to another; and the workings to another; and the workings of the different principles of flesh and spirit, corrupt nature and renewing grace, have a great deal of resemblance in the heart of different persons who have passed through them. This sort of instruction, drawn from just and solid experience, will animate and encourage the young Christian that begins to shake off the slavery of sin, and to set his face toward Heaven; this will make it appear that religion is no impracticable thing. It will estab­lish and comfort the professors of the gospel, and excite them with new vigour, to proceed in the way of faith and holiness; it will raise a stead­fast courage and hope, and will generally obtain a most happy effect upon the souls of the hearers beyond all that you can say to them from principles of mere reasoning and dry speculation; and especially where you have the concurrent experience of scriptural examples ...

Reasoning and Persuasion from Scripture
As the art of reasoning, and the happy skill of persuasion are both necessary to be used in framing your discourses, so both of them may be borrowed, in good measure, from the holy Scriptures. The Word of God will furnish you with a rich variety of forms, both to prove and persuade. Clear instruction, convincing argument, and pathetic address to the heart, may be all drawn from the sacred writers. Many fine strokes of true logic and rhetoric are scattered through that divine book, the Bible: words of force and elegance, to charm and allure the soul, glitter and sparkle like golden ore in some peculiar parts of it. You may find there noble examples of the awful and compassionate style, and inimitable patterns of the terrible and tender. Shall I therefore take the freedom once again to call upon you to remember that you are a minister of the Word of God, a professor and preacher of the Bible, and not a mere philosopher upon the foot of reason, nor an orator in a heathen school?

As for bright, warm, and pathetic language, to strike the imagination, or to affect the heart, to kindle the divine passions, or to melt the soul, none of the heathen orators can better furnish you than the moving expostulations of the ancient prophets, the tender and sprightly odes of holy David, or the affectionate part of the letters of St Paul, which even his enemies, in the church of Corinth, confessed to be powerful. The eastern writers, among whom we number the Jews, were particularly famous for lively oratory, bright images, and bold and animated figures of speech. Could I have heard Isaiah or Jeremiah pronouncing some of their sermons, or attended St Paul in some of his pathetic strains of preaching, I should never mourn a want of acquaintance with Tully or Demosthenes.

A preacher, whose mind is well stored and enriched with the divine sense and sentiments, the reasoning and language of Scripture (and especially if these are wrought in his heart by Christian experience) sup­posing his other talents are equal to those of his brethren, will always have a considerable advantage over them, in composing such discourses as shall be most popular and most useful in Christian assemblies; and he may better expect the presence and blessing of God, to make his word triumph over the souls of men, and will generally speak to their hearts with more power for their eternal salvation. Show me one sinner turned to God and holiness by the labours of a preacher who is gener­ally entertaining the audience with a long and weighty chain of reason­ing from the principles of nature, and teaching virtue in the language of heathen philosophy, and I think I may undertake to show you ten who have been convinced and converted, and have become holy persons and lively Christians, by an attendance upon a spiritual, affectionate, and experimental ministry: the whole assembly hang attentive upon the lips of a man who speaks to the heart as well as to the understanding, and who can enforce his exhortations from a manifold experience of the success of them.

They delight to hear the preacher whose plain and powerful address to the conscience, and whose frequent methods of reasoning in the pul­pit, have been drawn from what they themselves have read in Scripture concerning God and man, sin and duty, our misery and divine mercy, death, resurrection, judgment, heaven and hell. They attend with holy reverence and affection on such a minister, whose frequent argument, both in points of doctrine and practice, is, Thus saith the Lord.

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