Exploring the Purposes of Preaching: An Historical Overview

26 Jan

What exactly is the “purpose of preaching?” Many preachers and theologians alike over the centuries have weighed in on this discussion with their conceptions of the purpose of preaching.

I contend that for a preacher, one must have some clear ideas in his or her mind what exactly they are attempting to accomplish in terms of purpose when delivering a message in front of a listening audience.

Notice also how many statements are made throughout the centuries on the importance of ethos, or credibility, that the preacher must have. Always remember that a preacher by definition is in a position of leadership since he or she is seeking to influence the hearts, minds, attitudes, values and behaviours of the listeners in some way. As a leader, therefore, one’s conduct outside of the pulpit in many ways is as important–if not more important–than the quality of the sermon preached.

Aristotle, the Greek teacher of rhetoric in the 4th century BC, said that for a speaker to be effective, “his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses” (Rhetoric 1.2.1356a.4‑12). One’s character, and levels of credibility as a leader, are obviously of critical importance for a preacher who seeks to influence and persuade his or her audience to examine critically–and perhaps modify–their attitudes, values and behaviours.

Below are a multitude of quotes gathered on the subject from all across the centuries, which demonstrates moreover the value of historical theology. Christianity’s finest minds and greatest preachers alike should be listened to carefully and weighed up for their contribution to this subject. Enjoy exploring the purposes of preaching.

Church Fathers

“For there are many who pretend to the faith, but are not subject to the faith, and rather set up a faith for themselves than receive that which is given, being puffed up with the thoughts of human vanity, knowing the things they wish to know and unwilling to know the things that are true; since it is a mark of true wisdom sometimes to know what we do not like. However, this will-wisdom is followed by foolish preaching, for what is foolishly learnt must needs be foolishly preached. Yet how great an evil to those who hear is foolish preaching, when they are misled into foolish opinions by conceit of wisdom! And for this cause the Apostle described them thus: There are many unruly, vain talkers and deceivers. Hence we must utter our voice against arrogant wickedness and boastful arrogance and seductive boastfulness,—yes, we must speak against such things through the soundness of our doctrine, the truth of our faith, the sincerity of our preaching, so that we may have the purity of truth and the truth of sound doctrine.”

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book VIII, 1 (359-360 AD).

“And we may rightly, in my opinion, apply to them the saying of Solomon: ‘There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, a man wise in his own conceit’; and a still greater evil is to charge with the instruction of others a man who is not even aware of his own ignorance.”

Gregory of Nazanzien, Oration II, “In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office” (362 AD).

“Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.”

Basil the Great, (Homily on the saying of the Gospel According to Luke, “I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones,” and on greed); (4th Century AD).

 “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.”

 “For as a man whose business is war and another who pursues farming do not use the same implements…so also the preacher cannot use the same mode of speech when he exhorts to the acceptance of the faith and when he opposes adversaries.”

Basil the Great homily and year unknown (4th century Cappadocian Father)

 “That he who is a preacher of the Word should be proposed to the rest as a model of every virtue by first practicing what he teaches.”

“That he who is a preacher of the Word should not feel secure in his own righteousness, but should realize that the moral improvement of the faithful is the specific and preeminent function of the office committed to him.”

Basil the Great, “The Morals,” 70, in Saint Basil. Ascetical Works. Translated by Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950): 168-169 (361AD).

  1. “The Divine Scripture is a sea, containing in it deep meanings, and an abyss of prophetic mysteries; and into this sea enter many rivers. There are Sweet and transparent streams, cool fountains too there are, springing up into life eternal, and pleasant words as an honey-comb. Agreeable sentences too there are, refreshing the minds of the hearers, if I may say so, with spiritual drink, and soothing them with, the sweetness of their moral precepts. Various then are the streams of the sacred Scriptures. There is in them a first draught for you, a second, and a last.”

Ambrose of Milan, “Ambrose to Constantius,” Letter II.

“Let your discourses then be flowing, let them be clear and lucid; pour the sweetness of your moral arguments into the ears of the people, and sooth them with the charm of your words, that so they may willingly follow your guidance. But if there be any contumacy or transgression in the people or individuals, let your sermons be of such a character as shall move your audience, and prick the evil conscience, for the words of the wise are as goads.”

Ambrose of Milan, “Ambrose to Constantius,” Letter II, 5 (379 AD).

“But when he speaks of priests he says, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word, and in teaching.”For this is the perfection of teaching when the teachers both by what they do, and by what they say as well, bring their disciples to that blessed state of life which Christ appointed for them. For example alone is not enough to instruct others. Nor do I say this of myself; it is our Saviour’s own word. “For whosoever shall do and teach them, he shall be called great. Now if doing were the same as teaching, the second word here would be superfluous; and it had been enough to have said “whosoever shall do” simply. But now by distinguishing the two, he shows that practice is one thing, and doctrine another, and that each needs the help of the others in order to complete edification. Thou hearest too what the chosen vessel of Christ says to the Ephesian elders: “Wherefore watch ye, remembering that for the space of three years, I ceased not to admonish every one, night and day, with tears.”But what need was there for his tears or for admonition by word of mouth, while his life as an apostle was so illustrious? His holy life might be a great inducement to men to keep the commandments, yet I dare not say that it alone could accomplish everything.”

St John Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood” Book IV, 8.

“For though the preacher may have great ability (and this one would only find in a few), not even in this case is he released from perpetual toil. For since preaching does not come by nature, but by study, suppose a man to reach a high standard of it, this will then forsake him if he does not cultivate his power by constant application and exercise. So that there is greater labor for the wiser than for the unlearned.”

St John Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood” Book V, 5.

“Let, therefore, the man who undertakes the strain of teaching never give heed to the good opinion of the outside world, nor be dejected in soul on account of such persons; but laboring at his sermons so that he may please God, (For let this alone be his rule and determination, in discharging this best kind of workmanship, not acclamation, nor good opinions,) if, indeed, he be praised by men, let him not repudiate their applause, and when his hearers do not offer this, let him not seek it, let him not be grieved. For a sufficient consolation in his labors, and one greater than all, is when he is able to be conscious of arranging and ordering his teaching with a view to pleasing God.”

St John Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood” Book V, 7 (390-391 AD).

“When teaching in church seek to call forth not plaudits but groans. Let the tears of your hearers be your glory. A presbyter’s words ought to be seasoned by his reading of scripture. Be not a declaimer or a ranter, one who gabbles without rhyme or reason; but shew yourself skilled in the deep things and versed in the mysteries of God. To mouth your words and by your quickness of utterance astonish the unlettered crowd is a mark of ignorance. Assurance often explains that of which it knows nothing; and when it has convinced others imposes on itself.”

St Jerome, Letter LII To Nepotian, (394 AD).

“And so our Christian orator, while he says what is just, and holy, and good (and he ought never to say anything else), does all he can to be heard with intelligence, with pleasure, and with obedience; and he need and so far as he succeeds, he will succeed more by piety in prayer than by gifts of oratory; and so he ought to pray for himself, and for those he is about to address, before he attempts to speak. And when the hour is come that he must speak, he ought, before he opens his mouth, to lift up his thirsty soul to God, to drink in what he is about to pour forth, and to be himself filled with what he is about to distribute.”

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book IV, Chapter 15, No. 32: “The Christian Teacher Should Pray before Preaching.”

“But whatever may be the majesty of the style [of preaching], the life of the speaker will count for more in securing the hearer’s compliance. The man who speaks wisely and eloquently, but lives wickedly, may, it is true, instruct many who are anxious to learn; though, as it is written, he ‘is unprofitable to himself.’”

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book IV, Chapter 28, No. 61: “Truth is More Important than Expression.”

“But the man who cannot speak both eloquently and wisely should speak wisely without eloquence, rather than eloquently without wisdom… If, however, he cannot do even this, let his life be such as shall not only secure a reward for himself, but afford an example to others; and let his manner of living be an eloquent sermon in itself.”

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book IV, Chapter 28, No. 62: “Truth is More Important than Expression.”

“It is the duty, then, of the interpreter and teacher of Holy Scripture, the defender of the true faith and the opponent of error, both to teach what is right and to refute what is wrong, and in the performance of this task to conciliate the hostile, to rouse the careless, and to tell the ignorant both what is occurring at present and what is probable in the future.”

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Book IV, “The duty of the Christian teacher,” (426 AD).

Middle Ages

“The ruler [pastor] should always be chief in action, that by his living he may point out the way of life to those that are put under him, and that the flock, which follows the voice and manners of the shepherd, may learn how to walk better through example than through words.  For he who is required by the necessity of his position to speak the highest things is compelled by the same necessity to exhibit the highest things.  For that voice more readily penetrates the hearer’s heart, which the speaker’s life commends, since what he commands by speaking he helps the doing of by shewing.”

Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule Part II, “Of the Life of the Pastor,” Chapter III.

“Now to go up against the enemy is to go with free voice against the powers of this world for defence of the flock; and to stand in the battle in the day of the Lord is out of love of justice to resist bad men when they contend against us.  For, for a shepherd to have feared to say what is right, what else is it but to have turned his back in keeping silence?  But surely, if he puts himself in front for the flock, he opposes a wall against the enemy for the house of Israel.”

Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule Part II, “Of the Life of the Pastor,” Chapter IV (597 AD).

It behoves those who preside over the churches, every day but especially on Lord’s days, to teach all the clergy and people words of piety and of right religion, gathering out of holy Scripture meditations and determinations of the truth, and not going beyond the limits now fixed, nor varying from the tradition of the God-bearing fathers.”

The Canons of the Council in Trullo (or the Quinisext Council), Canon XIX (692 AD).

“….the end of preaching is to lead to virtues and to call back from vices and sins…he must begin [his sermon] with a prayer, so that his tongue may be led by God as the principal agent…the preacher must close his sermon with a prayer in which he asks for grace in the present and glory in the future from God, whose alone is the power to confer grace and glory…”

Jacobus de Fusignano, The Book on the Art of Preaching (1310). In Wenzel, Siegfried, The Art of Preaching, 15,17.

“There was a good man of religion, too,

A Parson of a certain township who

Was poor, but rich in holy thought and work.

He also was a learned man, a clerk;

The Christian gospel he would truly preach,

Devoutly his parishioners to teach…

A better priest, I wager, there is not.

He didn’t look for pomp or reverence

Nor feign a too self-righteous moral sense;

What Christ and his apostles had to tell

He taught, and he would follow it as well.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, “General Prologue,” 489, 525 (1387-1400).

“These be the properties of every good preacher: to be a true man; to teach, not dreams nor inventions of men, but viam Dei in veritate, ‘the way of God truly’; and not to regard the personage of man; not to creep into his bosom, to claw his back; to say to the wicked he doth well, for filthy lucre’s sake.”

Hugh Latimer, “A Sermon Preached by M. Hugh Latimer, at Stamford, November 9th (1550).

 “But some will say now, ‘What need we preachers then? God can save his elect without preachers.’ A goodly reason! God can save my life without meat and drink; need I none therefore? God can save me from burning, if I were in the fire; shall I run into it therefore? No, no; I must keep the way God hath ordained, and use the ordinary means that God hath assigned, and seek not new ways. This office of preaching is the only ordinary way that God hath appointed to save us all. Let us maintain this, for I know none other; neither think I God will appoint or devise any other.”

Hugh Latimer, “A Sermon Preached by M. Hugh Latimer, at Stamford, November 9th (1550).

“Let all the clergy, however they may differ in rank, order, sect, or persuasion, unite to cry down war, and discountenance it through the nation, by zealously and faithfully arraigning it from the pulpit. In the public functions of their several churches, in their private conversation and intercourse with the laity, let them be constantly employed in the Christian, benevolent, humane work of preaching, recommending, and inculcating, peace. If, after all their efforts, the clergy cannot prevent the breaking out of war, let them never give it the slightest approbation, directly or indirectly, let them never give countenance to it by their presence at its silly parade or bloody proceedings, let them never pay the smallest respect to any great patron or prime minister, or courtier, who is the author or adviser of a state of affairs so contrary to their holy profession, and to every duty and principle of the Christian religion, as is a state of war…

Preachers of all denominations! To you I appeal. Preach the gospel of peace. Let the doctrines of peace and good-will forever resound in the ears of the people.”

Desiderius Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace (1521).

Reformation Era

“However, we do not say that it is permitted to everyone to be a teacher in the Church, and to expound the Holy Scriptures; for this office belongs, as we shall soon say more fully, to those who are called and lawfully ordained to do it (Rom. 10:15). But we say that everyone must read the Scriptures, and have the knowledge of them to confirm what has been expounded well in the Church, and to reject the false doctrine of false pastors. We say that the reading of the Holy Scriptures, — adding what is necessary, i.e. the pure preaching and exposition of them: it is for this that teachers and pastors are ordained in the Church (1 Cor. 4:2; 2 Cor. 5:19,20), and not to re-sacrifice Jesus Christ (Heb. 10:18) or to howl in a language unknown to the people (1 Cor. 14:28) –, is far from committing heresy; on the contrary, there is no other means of extirpating heresies (2 Tim. 3:15-17). And whoever prevents the reading of the Scriptures takes away, at the same time, from the poor people the only means of consolation (Rom. 15:4) and salvation (Luke 1:77; Acts 13:26; Eph. 1:13).”

Theodore Beza, The Christian Faith, Chapter 4 (1558).

“An upright shepherd and minister must improve his flock by edification, and also resist and defend it; otherwise, if resisting be absent, the wolf devours the sheep, and the rather, where they be fat and well fed.

Therefore St Paul presses it home upon Titus, that a bishop by sound doctrine should be able both to exhort and to convince gainsayers; that is, to resist false doctrine. A preacher must be both soldier and shepherd. He must nourish, defend, and teach; he must have teeth in his mouth, and be able to bite and to fight.”

Luther, Table Talk, CCCC (1566).

“The proper duty of teachers is to instruct the faithful in sound doctrine so that the purity of the gospel is not corrupted by ignorance or evil opinions. We include here the aids and instructions necessary to preserve the doctrines and to keep the church from becoming desolate for lack of pastors and ministers.”

John Calvin, Ecclesiastical Ordinances of Geneva (1541).

“It is not without good cause that God strongly exhorts those whose duty it is to preach the Word not to seek grace and favour in the eyes of men. He expects them to close their eyes to human opinions, so that they are not turned to one side or the other, or prevented from properly fulfilling their office. Indeed, we know it to be impossible for us to fulfil our office properly unless we fix our eyes upon God and turn our eyes away from men; for we can easily become corrupted if we do otherwise, and it takes very little to turn us one way or another. Yet the most important loyalty required of those who have the responsibility of preaching the Word of God is that they be not tempted, either through ambition or avarice, to speak to please and satisfy men. They must not be afraid of perils or dangers. For experience shows that, as soon as a man fears for his own skin, or else has an eye to his own profit, he will change in a moment of time.”

John Calvin, “Ravening Wolves that Wreak Havoc” (Sermon, 1557 or 1558?).

“For God will have His people to be edified; and He hath appointed His Word for that purpose. Therefore, if we go not about the salvation of the people, that they may receive nourishment by the doctrine that is taught them, it is sacrilege; for we pervert the pure use of the Word of God.”

“…when we come together in the name of God, it is not to hear merry songs, and to be fed with wind, that is, with vain and unprofitable curiosity, but to receive spiritual nourishment. For God will have nothing preached in His name, but that which will profit and edify the hearers, nothing but that which containeth good matter.”

John Calvin, “Pure Preaching of the Word” (16th Century Sermon).

“These things I speak now to them which have taken upon them the ministry of God’s word, to them that have taken upon them to be guides unto the flock of Christ; to them I speak this, to put them in remembrance, that they never forget their message, that they forget not their duty, that they improve, rebuke, exhort, and control the people; that they be earnest and fervent, calling still upon them, both in time and out of time, in season and out of season; that they fulfil the office whereunto they are called; that their conscience may be found without spot; and, in conclusion, that they may plant, that they may water, and God may give the increase ; that they may both reform the ungodly, and encourage the godly.”

John Jewell, “The Zeal to be Shown by Ministers for the Salvation of Souls” (Sermon preached 1570).


“In keeping with this dignity, preaching has a twofold value: (1) It is instrumental in gathering the church and bringing together all of the elect; (2) It drives away the wolves from the folds of the Lord.

Preaching is the flexanima, the allurer of the soul, by which our self-willed minds are subdued and changed from an ungodly and pagan life-style to a life of Christian faith and repentance. It is also the weapon which has shaken the foundations of ancient heresies, and also, more recently cut to pieces the sinews of the Antichrist. So, if anyone asks which spiritual gift is the ‘most excellent’, undoubtedly the prize must be given to prophesying.”

William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (1592).

  1. “Here the preaching of the word is of utmost importance, and so it has always been of continuous use in the church.
  2. The duty of an ordinary preacher is to set forth the will of God out of the word for the edification of the hearers (1 Tim. 1:5). The end of preaching is love out of a pure heart, a good conscience, and faith unfeigned.”
  3. “Each doctrine when sufficiently explained should immediately be applied to its use. Upon this part, unless there is some special reason against it, great insistence must be made, since this contains the conclusion and the good of the first part, and is closer to the chief purpose of the sermon, which is the edification of the hearers.”

William Ames, “Ordinary Ministers and Their Office in Preaching” in The Marrow of Theology (1629).

“And the impressing divine things on the hearts and affections of men, is evidently one great and main end for which God has ordained, that his Word delivered in the holy Scriptures, should be opened, applied, and set home upon men, in preaching.”

Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (1796).


“The Scriptures plainly show how a preacher rightly called by the word of God is to rightly teach that word without perverting glosses, without any mingling of leaven; as Peter says, ‘If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God’ (1 Pet. 4.11). They are the children of the Holy Ghost who speak the word of the Spirit, as Christ said, ‘It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you’ (Matt. 10.20). ‘For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God’ (John 3.34). To preach the word salutarily and unblamably, is one of the highest and greatest commands enjoined by Christ. He said, ‘Go ye in all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15).”

 Menno Simons, The Complete Works of Menno Simons Volume 1, “The Doctrine of the Preachers” (1681).

“Behold dear reader, it is requisite that every preacher and teacher, who would rightly govern. and rule in the church of God, be thus qualified; for if any one were to reprove and teach others, and is himself not blameless and is ignorant; he will justly have to hear; Why do you teach others and teach not yourself first! Thou teachest a man should not steal, and thou dost steal. Thou sayest a man should not commit adultery, and thou dost. Thou abhorrest idols, yet thou committest sacrilege. Thou boastest of the law of God; and dishonorest God by breaking the law, Rom. 2.21-23.

All those thus called, who are in doctrine sound, and unblamable in life, may teach, exhort, reprove, root up, and build in the name of the Lord; their labors will not be fruitless, as may be seen, in the case of Moses, Samuel, Elias, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, John, and with all the true prophets, apostles and servants of God, who preached the word unblamably in the power of the Spirit.”

 Menno Simons, The Complete Works of Menno Simons Volume 1, “The Conduct of Preachers” (1681).

Modern Era

“There are two abilities requisite in everyone that will teach and instruct another, a right understanding of sound doctrine, and an ability to propound, confirm, and apply it unto the edification of others.”

Bishop John Wilkins, Ecclesiastes, or A Discourse Concerning the Gift of Preaching (1678).

For John Gill, the purposes of preaching were fivefold:

6a. “In general; its use is for the enlargement of the interest of Christ in the world; and it is by means of the gospel being preached to all nations in all the world, that the kingdom of Christ has been spread everywhere…

6b. The ministry of the word is for the conversion of sinners; without which churches would not be increased nor supported, and must in course fail, and come to nothing; but the hand of the Lord being with his ministers, many in every age believe and turn to the Lord, and are added to the churches; by which means they are kept up and preserved…

6c. Another use of it is, “For the perfecting of the saints;” for the completing of the number of the elect, in the effectual calling, even of those who are sanctified, or set apart by God the Father, by that eternal act of his, choosing them in Christ; or “for the jointing in of the saints,” as it may be rendered; who were disjointed and scattered abroad by the fall of Adam; these are gathered in by the ministry of the word; so that none shall perish, but all come to repentance; and be inserted into the body of the church, and presented perfect in Christ Jesus…

6d. “For the edifying of the body of Christ,” (Eph. 4.12) that is, his church; for it is by means of the word it maketh increase unto the edifying of itself in love (Eph. 4.16)…

6e. The principal end and use of it, to which all the others tend, is the glory of God, and which ought to be chiefly in view in the performance of it.”

John Gill, A Body of Practical Divinity, Chapter 3, “Of the Public Ministry of the Word” (1770).

“The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”

 Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, Protestant Episcopal Church of England and America, Article XIX, “Of the Church” (1801).

“Our main duty is to tell the people what to believe, and why they should believe it.”

Exegesis: “The process by which the preacher himself comes to understand” a text.

Preaching: “The presentation of results and not processes.”

John Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1891

“It is my contention that all true Christian preaching is expository preaching…To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted, and unfolds what is tightly packed.”

John R.W. Stott, Between Two Worlds, 125-126 (1982).

“Preaching, therefore, as an act which brings ultimate glory to God himself, should and must reflect both the objective truths of God’s very nature and his character as expressed in the vertical relationships of Creator to creation and Redeemer to the redeemed.”

David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers, Volume 1: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era, 11 (1989).

Nehemiah 8.8. is “a worthy definition of expositional preaching – to read the Word, give the sense, and cause the people to understand the meaning.”

“…it’s so important to take the people through the Word, line upon line, precept by precept. When we do, we are delivering to them the whole counsel of God.”

Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel Distinctives (2000).

“First, open Scripture and experience God’s words for yourself. If it does not come alive to preachers’ heads and hearts, to their eyes, ears, and senses, it is unlikely to come alive to listeners. There are no quick fixes and no shortcuts…Spiritual authenticity occurs when a preacher’s personal walk with God enables public worship to flow from private worship…shallow spirituality leads to shallow preaching…Hearers recognize spiritual authenticity in a preacher.”

Michael Quicke, 360-Degree Preaching: Hearing, Speaking, and Living the Word, 115, 116 (2006).

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