O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1 ESV)
In his commentary on Galatians, William Perkins sought to pastorally apply the Scriptures within a Reformed framework to the moral laxity of his Elizabethan context.1Paul R. Schaefer Jr, The Spiritual Brotherhood: Cambridge Puritans and the Nature of Christian Piety., Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011). In other words, Perkins sought reform amongst the culturally, but not truly, Reformed. As Satanic doctrine crept into the church at Galatia, so it had among those who professed a common, cultural faith that was a “false faith.”2All citations are from the EPub version of William Perkins Commentary of Galatians, available for free online at https://www.monergism.com/commentary-galatians-ebook. Most are drawn from his comments on Galatians 3:1–2, with some drawn from his comments on Galatians 2:15–16 and 4:25–26. The answer, in part, was a lively ministry of the Word through which the Spirit of God worked to save the lost and “to guide and govern” believers at every stage of their sanctification.
Commenting on Galatians 3:1, Perkins cast a vision for what a healthy ministry of the Word ought to look like. Paul rebuked the Galatians for looking to dead works of the Law and leaving the gospel that had been preached to them with such power and clarity. It was “as if Christ had been painted before [their] eyes and had been crucified in or among [them].” The church did not need the icons and crucifixes of Rome for their worship. But they did need preachers of the gospel who could—by the words they spoke—paint a compelling image of Christ that the congregants could behold their King with their souls.
Such ministry was what the Galatians needed in the first century, what Elizabethan England needed in the sixteenth century, and what the church needs today. In this brief essay, I highlight the three properties that Perkins identified as what constituted a vibrant ministry of the Word—a vibrant ministry that every generation of the church needs.
First, the ministry of the Word ought to be plain.
“The first, that it must be plain, perspicuous, and evident, as if the doctrine were pictured and painted out before the eyes of men.”
Perkins specified a particular temptation that attends the preaching of God’s Word: the temptation to turn the sermon into a showcase of personal skill rather than a clear depiction of Christ. He criticized Rome for holding services in a tongue that the people could not comprehend, but he did not leave the critique there. Perkins turned to his English-speaking brothers, who, in their pride or insecurity—likely both—used the sermon to paint an image of themselves that obscured what was meant to be a clear image of Christ.
When it comes to sermons, Perkins put the matter bluntly: “The plainer, the better.”
As one seeks to retrieve confessional, classical theology and operate with philosophical precision in the pastorate, we ought not to forsake clarity in the good pursuit of the intellectual life. A plain sermon is not a simplistic sermon. A plain sermon indicates that one knows what they’re talking about—and takes a lot more work! Foggy minds produce foggy sermons. Such haphazard, lazy work in the pastorate hides behind technical terms and foreign languages, failing to display Christ in the process. Plain sermons partnered with the sacraments are the necessary “images and pictures” needed for Christian worship.
Brothers, may we paint clear pictures of Christ and the depths of theology with our words.
Second, the ministry of the Word is to be powerful and lively.
“The second property of the ministry of the word is that it must be powerful and lively in operation, and as it were crucifying Christ within us, and causing us to feel the virtue of His passion.”
While the rhetorical skill of delivering a pleasing discourse is certainly not opposed to an effective ministry of the Word, Perkins clarified that such skill is not foundational to powerful and lively preaching. Perkins explained:
True prophecy judges men, discovers the things of the heart, and causes men to say: “The Lord is within you” (1 Cor. 14:25). The scepter of Christ whereby He smites the nations is in His mouth (Isa. 11:4), that is, in the ministry of the word (Jer. 15:19). And it is the same ministry which shakes heaven and earth (Hag. 2:5–6). By this it appears that to take a text, and to make a discourse upon something in the said text, showing much invention of wit and much reading and human learning, is not to preach Christ in a lively manner.
What then is lively preaching? Powerful preaching stands in three things according to Perkins:
1. The “true and proper interpretation of the Scripture . . . For Scripture is both the gloss and the text.
Powerful preaching is not the mere repetition of biblical words. Every false teacher in Christian history made use of biblical words. The Biblical words must be interpreted according to their Biblical sense. Commenting on Chapter 4, Perkins gives three guidelines for getting the sense of the text right: (1) “common reason,” (2) “the analogy of faith,”3The analogy of faith could be defined as the church’s articulation of the harmonious message of the Bible’s self-interpreting testimony, forming the sum of Christian faith and practice. See Ryan M. McGraw, “‘The Foundation of the Old Testament’ John Owen on Genesis 3:15 as a Window into Reformed Orthodox Old Testament Exegesis,” Journal of Reformed Theology 10, no. 1 (2016): 15; Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, Second edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 25. and (3) “good manners.” For our preaching to be powerful, “we suffer ourselves to be limited for opinion by the analogy of faith and by the written Word.”
2. The gathering and explanation of “savory and wholesome doctrine.”
In addition to giving the sense of the text, preachers ought to take care to gather it into a coherent doctrinal system that gives life. Simply put, our sermons ought to be coherent with our other sermons and be sources of life, not bitterness. By approaching preaching in this manner, we prepare a savory feast that can be digested by our congregants who are hungry for the truth.
3. The “application of the said doctrine, either to the information of the judgment or to the reformation of the life.”
Lastly, we are to apply the text to the lives of the audience. Some, we inform of their precarious state before a Holy God, proclaiming Christ’s active obedience and crucifixion as the only solution for their misery of our sin. Others, we call to reform their lives in Christ according to the sense of the text and the example of Christ’s obedience. As Perkins explained in his comments on Chapter 2 of Galatians:
Seeing therefore we cannot perform the things contained therein by ourselves, we must perform them in the person of our mediator, who has satisfied for the threatening of the law by His passion, and has fulfilled the precepts of the law by His obedience in all duties of love to God and man. . . . The obedience of Christ must be unto us the foundation of our obedience. For He performed all righteousness for us that we might be servants not of sin, but servants of righteousness in all duties of obedience. And in His obedience we must not only respect the merit thereof, but also His holy example in love, mercy, meekness, patience, etc., and after it are we to fashion our lives.
Applying the text in this manner requires a sort of localism on the part of the pastor. We need to know our congregants, not letting the battles of our favorite heroes in centuries past or the latest controversy on X (formerly known as Twitter) determine the nature of our application. We are not preaching to them. We are preaching to our people who have their unique struggles which the Lord has called us to specifically address through the ministry of the Word.
We are not cultural polemicists. We are pastors leading our people to live their lives in the power of the Gospel. “Picture specific congregants sitting in your office with you as you write sermons” is a well-worn bit of preaching advice for a reason. Good shepherds do not spend their time shepherding a flock that has not been entrusted to them. Shepherds know their sheep by name. They know exactly where the wolves are hiding, they know what medicine is needed, and they know where the pasture is. In other words, they preach to their flock.
Brothers, let us preach with a lively power rooted in the right interpretation and application of the Word of God.
Third, the ministry of the Word must be received.
“[It] is the duty of all believers, namely, to behold Christ crucified: ‘O daughters of Zion, behold your king’ (Song 3:11). But where must we behold Him? Not in roods and crucifixes after the popish manner; but we must look on Him as He propounds Himself unto us in the word and sacraments. . . . The office of the ministers is to describe and paint our Christ unto us. Let them paint Christ crucified in the heart, and set up His image there, and then shall you have a favorable complexion in the eye both of God and man.”
While the pastor is a crucial component to the ministry of the Word, he is not the sole component. The congregant’s contemplative eye of faith that beholds Christ through the proclaimed Word is required as well. So, members ought to make sitting under the proclamation of the Word of God a priority. Far too often the Lord’s Day is something people try to fit into their busy schedules, and when they do attend, their minds drift to what is going on that week. Such things ought to not be so. Contemplative beholding requires both physical and mental presence. Let us strive to behold Christ in the proclaimed Word.
I hope this is a comforting reminder for pastors for three reasons. First, it reminds us that we are first beholders with our congregants before we are proclaimers to them. Like them, we need the ministry of the Word to conform us to his image and make us love Christ. Second, it keeps us focused on leading our people to fix their eyes on Christ, not ourselves. For he is the one with the power to cleanse and transform. Lastly, it comforts us with the truth that our faithfulness as ministers of the Word is not rooted in results.
As pastors, we long for our people to respond in faith to our preaching and grieve when they do not, but we cannot let the results be the grid through which we judge ourselves. The congregants have a share in the responsibility of the ministry of the Word as well.
Brothers, let us attend to our task with faithfulness by calling our people to behold Christ and trusting God with the results.
Keep pressing on.
“Let all the sons of the prophets think upon these things and study to be doers of them.”
The ministry of the Word is not for the faint of heart. William Perkins was faithful in his day, and I believe is a helpful guide for us in our day. Like Perkins, let us press on in the upward call of God. Let us contemplate the task of preaching with reverence. Let us strive with the strength that God supplies to grow as ministers of the Word. And let us paint clear pictures of Christ with our words in a lively and powerful manner.
Let us “preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.”4Cited by Joel Beeke and Derek Thomas in William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, edited by Paul M. Smalley, 2:viii.
 Paul R. Schaefer Jr, The Spiritual Brotherhood: Cambridge Puritans and the Nature of Christian Piety., Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011).
 All citations are from the EPub version of William Perkins Commentary of Galatians, available for free online at https://www.monergism.com/commentary-galatians-ebook. Most are drawn from his comments on Galatians 3:1–2, with some drawn from his comments on Galatians 2:15–16 and 4:25–26.
 The analogy of faith could be defined as the church’s articulation of the harmonious message of the Bible’s self-interpreting testimony, forming the sum of Christian faith and practice. See Ryan M. McGraw, “‘The Foundation of the Old Testament’ John Owen on Genesis 3:15 as a Window into Reformed Orthodox Old Testament Exegesis,” Journal of Reformed Theology 10, no. 1 (2016): 15; Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, Second edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 25.
 Cited by Joel Beeke and Derek Thomas in William Perkins, The Works of William Perkins, edited by Paul M. Smalley, 2:viii.