I’ve been reading William Perkins’ classic Puritan work on preaching, The Art of Prophesying (first published in Latin in 1592; Banner revised ed. 1996). In his discussion of application, Perkins points to seven categories of hearers (pp. 56-63):
1. Those who are unbelievers and are both ignorant and unteachable.
The minister simply seeks to prepare them “to receive the doctrine of the Word.” “But if they remain unteachable and there is no real hope of winning them, they should simply be left.”
2. Those who are teachable, but ignorant.
Perkins suggests instruction by catechism.
3. Those who have knowledge, but have never been humbled.
The preacher seeks to arouse godly sorrow by use of “some section of the law.”
4. Those who have already been humbled.
Perkins cautions that the minister should be clear as to whether the humbling is “complete and sound,” noting, “It is important that people do not receive comfort sooner than is appropriate.” To those truly humbled, the minister teaches and offers faith and repentance and “the comforts of the gospel.”
5. Those who already believe.
To these the minister teaches: (i) the gospel; (ii) the law (as it applies to those no longer under the curse); and (iii) the ongoing battle against sin.
6. Those who have fallen back.
This requires spiritual diagnosis of the person's “spiritual status” and the application of a remedy “prescribed and applied from the gospel.”
7. Churches with both believers and unbelievers.
This is “the typical situation” in churches. “Any doctrine may be expounded to them, either from the law or from the gospel, so long as its biblical limitations and circumscriptions are observed.”
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