Part 8: To Quote or not to Quote?
“The great Puritan preacher Jeremiah Burroughs once said of this passage …”
If you think this is the only way (or the best way) to integrate the Puritans into your sermon, this post is for you.
That was me a few years ago. I was introduced to the Puritans and fell in love, going bonkers quoting this Puritan and that Puritan. My listeners, (unfortunate college students), were forced to endure 150-word quotes by John Owen. I’m certain as soon as I said “In the words of one Puritan…” they began thinking about their homework or dinner or (living off 3 hours of sleep each night) simply blacked out.
In this post we answer the questions regarding the best use of the Puritan quotations.
First, it must be stated that there is both a good way and a very poor way to use the Puritans.
The poor way is to force a Puritan thought or quote on a text that does not complement the clear meaning of the biblical text. The quote may be good and it may be biblical, but if it does not fit with the text it appears the preacher is forcing another authority upon the text for his own end. Your hearers know when you are not being straight with them, and they will dismiss you and your quote.
The best use of the Puritans (or any other source for that matter) is to reinforce the plain meaning of a text. We should let the text stand on its own and bring in quotations and thoughts that drive the thought home. Another way to say this: The text of scripture should authenticate the Puritan quote, not the other way around.
For example, let the biblical text teach on the importance of God’s perfect holiness. Let John Owen then come along and instruct the Christian to find their delight and affection in that perfect holiness of God.
I can say after several years of preaching experience, no source will better help you reinforce the plain meaning of scripture than the Puritans. They cherish what God cherishes, delight in what God delights, and hate what He hates. If ever there were people suited for complementing the text of scripture, the Puritans are it.
Narrow the quotes
After studying our printed Puritans, e-Puritans, and online Puritan sources, we have a mountain of material that may fit our sermon. What do we do?
It is essential (before writing your sermon notes) to carefully sift through the quotations for the most appropriate. I have found that 10 quotes per sermon is more than enough for me. And in selecting only the 10 best, there are dozens of other excellent quotations that hit the cutting-room floor. You may have a ton of great material, but the truth is that your sermon will become more powerful the more focused it becomes.
As an aside, I formerly pasted directly all interesting quotations into my Microsoft Word sermon note file and then tried to incorporate all the material into my sermon. I would discourage this practice. It’s important that preachers use a buffer between what you find in your research and your sermon notes themselves.
For me, I use a Moleskine notebook for my quotes. When I write my sermon out (usually in about one day) I consult this notebook. I am amazed how many quotes simply do not fit my sermon! Had I started typing out my sermon with 50 quotes and points from various day’s thoughts, I could never write a clear sermon. It would be confusing and broken. Use a buffer.
Let’s say we have our 10 best quotations that fit our sermon notes well. No what? We have three separate options.
(1) Directly quote. I am still committed to directly quoting the Puritans (even to college students). My series of photo cards entitled “Quotes from Dead Guys with Cool Hair” was an attempt to introduce my students to the Puritans. The cards were geared towards issues in the college life and were well received.
Here are some examples of direct quotes.
In a sermon on Galatians 6:12-15, Thomas Manton provided me an excellent quotation to explain the reciprocating crucifixion of the believer to the world and the world to the believer. It’s from my sermon delivered on 12/17/04,
Manton: “And truly to eye our pattern, Christ, hanging and dying on the cross will pierce the world to the very heart. He was contented to be the most despicable object upon earth in the eyes of men. If Christians be not ashamed of their head and glorious chief, this spectacle should kill all our worldly affections, and make us despise all the honor, and riches, and pomp, and pleasure of the world, the favor or frowns, the love or wrath, the praise or dispraise of men, so far as it is opposite to the kingdom of Christ. When it is crucified to us, we should be crucified to it.”
In a sermon to college students I wanted to convey the importance of redeeming the time. This quote is from my sermon delivered 10/21/05 on Ephesians 5:15-16,
Richard Baxter: “1. To redeem time is to see that we cast none of it away in vain; but use every minute of it as a most precious thing, and spend it wholly in the way of duty. 2. That we be not only doing good, but doing the best and greatest good which we are able and have a call to do. 3. That we do not only the best things, but do them in the best manner and in the greatest measure, and do as much good as possibly we can. 4. That we watch for special opportunities. 5. That we presently take them then they fall, and improve them when we take them. 6. That we part with all that is to be parted with, to save our time … This is the true redeeming of our time.”
These were both excellent quotations. In both cases, I took a little liberty in updating spelling for clarity.
Once I started quoting Puritans directly in sermons I began using sermon handouts. This practice has worked well for me over the years. Handouts provide great freedom by allowing you to quote lengthier Puritan quotes.
Handouts also give the preacher the freedom to skip over quotes. Let your people read them at home. I quoted eight different authors in my sermon on Ephesians 5:15-16 (download notes here), though I doubt I read more than four of them.
Be certain when you print notes that you define difficult words for your hearers in aggregations [that is ‘brackets’].
(2) Paraphrase quote. Often the Puritan quotes are excellent but could be better stated for clarity and conciseness. This is where paraphrasing comes in. Paraphrasing is simply the act of restating an idea with new words.
The best examples I can give come from my book entitled, Come Unto Me: God’s Invitation to the World, where I used hundreds of quotes and paraphrases from the Puritan sermons.
I thought this quote by Spurgeon too difficult for a non-Christian. So I paraphrased it.
Charles Spurgeon: “The gospel was brought near to us, earnest hearts were set a praying for us, the text was written which would convert us; and as I have already said, the blood was spilt which cleanses us, and the Spirit of God was given, who should renew us. All this was done while as yet we had no breathings of soul after God” (Sermons 23:216).
Paraphrase: “During the same period as the ungodly were in a state of spiritual rebellion towards God, Christ gave Himself on the Cross to die for those who were undeserving. The blood of Christ was shed, the text of the bible was written, the actions of God were moving all while the sinner was loving the sin which alienates himself from God!”
I really liked Thomas Boston’s likening a worldly man’s pursuit of wealth to a blind mole, but I didn’t like the wording.
Thomas Boston: “Hence the carnal man, I may say, never gets up his back, but on his belly doth he go, and labours, as if he were a slave condemned to the mines, to dig in the bowels of the earth; like the blind moles, his constant labor is in the earth, and he never opens his eyes till he is dying.”
Paraphrase: “The soul that pursues wealth spends its short life digging deeply into the dark mines of worldliness, like the blind mole tunneling deep into the temporal world.”
If you love the thought, but are having difficulty with the wording of a quote, paraphrase it.
(3) Create your own thought. Ironically, as I mature in preaching I find myself doing more of this. I find a great quotation by John Owen and by the time I’m getting ready to insert the thought into my sermon I find his quote has catapulted my thoughts further into the text and I cut the quote itself.
I did this in the last post with the quote from John Owen. His thought led me to my own. Frequently, the more useful the Puritans become in your life and ministry, the less you will mention them.
Psalm 73 sermon
An interesting thing happened to me recently to illustrate the point. When I was asked to preach on Psalm 73 (title: Depression, Worldliness and the Presence of God), I used more Puritan resources than on any other sermon I can recall (over 200 printed pages). However, I only quoted one Puritan, an excerpt from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God. As you will see in the sermon notes, Edwards’ thoughts are authenticated by the text.
I was amazed how many people asked me after the sermon for that title so they could read the entire sermon by Jonathan Edwards (although the church bookstore 20-feet away carries a paperback version of the sermon). This reminds us that pulpit promotion increases interest. Even if you have a bookstore full of Puritans, you still need to tell your people who they are any why they are important. Sermons are great place for this.
Now, back to the Psalm 73 sermon. I only quoted one Puritan although there were many paraphrases of the Puritans throughout the entire sermon and many thoughts catapulted from my Puritan research. All of the comments I received were encouragements for how deeply the text had taken hold of me. “You grasped the text, or rather, the text grasped you,” one said. Another said, “The sermon was text-driven.” Certainly, I let the text drive everything else but the reality is that its depth also drew from the meditations of 14 faithful Puritan preachers.
What I learned was this: The more you use Puritan literature and the less you directly quote Puritan literature the more impressed your hearers will be with God’s Word. It wasn’t that I didn’t use other sources, but that I carefully discerned the important Puritan sources from the not-so-important, let scripture authenticate the Puritan quotes, and then internalized those quotes. The final product was deeply biblical and very mature because it was deeply Puritan.
I hope my intention in this post has become clear by now. We want to use the Puritans, but not so our hearers are impressed with our scholarship. Nor should our intention be to impress people with the wisdom of the Puritans themselves. Our goal must be to use the power of the Puritan sermons to display the power of God’s Word.
When our hearers walk away from our sermons impressed with the power of God’s Word (rather than impressed with us or our Puritan library) we have used the Puritans correctly.
Would Jonathan Edwards have it any other way?
Next time … Part 9: The Strategy of Building a Puritan Study