The Westminster Directory of Public Worship – Discussed by Mark Dever and Sinclair Ferguson

June 11, 2019 Joshua Gee

This little book is not just about looking into the guidelines of Biblical worship as laid out in the Directory, (although there is much merit in doing this!). These writings are more about Puritanism, their reverent worship of God, and especially when it comes to the preaching of the Word which both Mark and Sinclair have as their main focus in this discussion.

Surprisingly the guidelines do not limit preachers to all fit into the same category. In Chapter 1 Sinclair Ferguson quotes a helpful definition of preaching as “the bringing of truth through personality” (Phillip Brooks). Sinclair looks at the foundation of the Puritan understanding of preaching, going back to the friendship of John Knox and John Calvin, these highly respected gentlemen understood from the Bible that all forms of Worship must be grounded in the scriptures, God had laid out how He is to be worshiped, this is by His decree and not what we have imagined. As a part of this the Westminster Directory of Public Worship states that what is taught in a sermon must not only be biblical, but also, that it must be drawn out of the text being expounded from, this ensures that the hearer can see for himself that it is indeed biblical and that they themselves can draw the through from scripture. One reason that the Puritans preached in such a way is an understanding of the fact that how one reads the scriptures in private is shaped by how they hear it expounded form the pulpit. Sinclair looks at how a preacher must be so gripped by God that his physical demeanour and even the use of his voice will change to capture the gravitas of the Gospel. Along with this, the emotions and affections in preaching “must be consistent with and expressive of the very substance of the text being expounded”

“A preacher must be so gripped by God that his physical demeanour and even the use of his voice will change to capture the gravitas of the Gospel.”

After Sinclair Ferguson’s introduction Mark Dever gives his take on the directory, and surprisingly he also keeps his focus on the preaching of the word, as exemplified in the directory and in the ministry of the puritans. Basic outlines for preaching are presented here, simple facts such as “The structure of sermon, simple put, should be “text, then truths.” that is, the text should first be summarised, and then doctrines can be drawn from it” and that “First, sermons should be faithful to the text, and should deal with sentences rather than individual words”. Dever also talks about the reformed position of Justification by Faith Alone, pointing to the preaching of Sibbes who encouraged his congregation not to find comfort in sanctification for salvation while neglecting Justification By Faith Alone. We are not to rely on our own works, but on the person and work of Jesus Christ for salvation. This Justification comes from hearing and believing the Gospel. A ministers role in this includes confronting sin and placing emphasis on judgement, but not without a corresponding message of salvation and mercy and the puritans were actually quite good at this, their messages came with comfort for the broken. In the delivery of such intense and life-changing truths one preacher, John Knowles, had such an earnestness and zeal that he would often faint and fall during the sermon!
In demonstrating the power of Puritan preaching, our book quotes Thomas Goodwin’s writings about Mr. Rogers.

John Rogers of Dedham

“Having heard much of Mr. Rogers of Dedham, took a journey . . . to hear him preach on his lecture day. . . . Mr. Rogers was . . . on the subject of . . . the Scriptures.  And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible; . . . he personates God to the people, telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it, it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it.  Do you use my Bible so?  Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.’  And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’  And then he personates God again to the people: ‘Say you so?  Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you.  I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more . . . observe it more . . . practice it more, and live more according to it.’  By these actions . . . he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that . . . the place was a mere Bochim [Weeping], the people generally . . . deluged with their own tears; and he told me that he himself, when he got out . . . was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping before he had power to mount.”

The remainder of this book is the Directory itself, which many modern Christians would benefit greatly from reading, both ministers and laypeople. It takes a look at what are the roles and responsibilities of the Church, and how we ought to worship God. The introduction points to the (then) current standards of Biblical worship, as laid out in the Book of Common Prayer, and states that the good folk who put forward the Church of England’s liturgy were doing God’s work and sought to worship Biblically. However, they saw that further reformation was needed. The Liturgy caused many problems in the early years of Reformed faith, praise the Lord that new standards were put forward. The preface to the directory states that “Papists (catholics) boasted that the book was a compliance with them in a great part of their service; and so were not a little confirmed in their superstition and idolatry, expecting rather our return to them, than endeavouring the reformation of themselves”. The Westminster Standards was a step towards further reformation, reformation that was needed in the churches of England, Ireland and Scotland. 

If you’re hoping for a breakdown of the Westminster Directory of Public Worship, then this book isn’t for you. Dever and Ferguson have written more of an introduction or preface to the directory, briefly unpacking puritan worship and the Directory’s guidelines for preaching. This book is a helpful way to provoke thoughts and conversation of what worship should look like. 

To close I will state that worship of God ought to be regulated by God’s Word alone. And the church has had some meaningful conversations about what that looks like over the last 2000 years. While it can be helpful to look over these conversations and learn from church history, our primary and fundamental input must come from our only standard, the Word of God. When it comes to summarising the Biblical standards for worship, I have read no better directory.