The Apostle Paul told the church in Rome that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). We know from the context that he is making reference to the proclamation of the gospel leading to saving faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the preaching of the gospel is the single greatest means through which the Holy Spirit brings heart conversion and transformation. However, in the case of John Cotton, hearing gospel preaching did more than convert him to Christ; it also converted him to expositional preaching.
The First Conversion: to Jesus Christ
John Cotton was born in Derby, England, on December 4, 1585. After graduating from Trinity College with a B.A. in 1603, he attended “the most Puritan college in the kingdom”—Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Heavily steeped in his studies of Greek, Hebrew, theology, rhetoric, and philosophy, young Cotton received the standard education for students growing up in Protestant England. At Cambridge, Cotton was exposed to the greatest Puritan preachers of the day, including men such as Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626) and William Perkins (1558–1602). However, it was Perkins’ gospel preaching that produced in Cotton a sense of discontent and despair. In fact, when Cotton heard the bell toll at Perkins’ funeral, he was “secretly glad in his heart, that he would now be rid of him who had . . . laid siege to and beleaguer’d his heart.”
However, the Lord would not allow young Cotton to evade His sovereign grasp. He would soon sit under the tutelage of a preacher named Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). For three years, he was plagued with spiritual depression, “the arrows of these convictions did stick so fast upon him.” With constant care and admonition, Sibbes gently ministered to Cotton, though in a different way from that of the powerful Perkins. Known as a “physician of the soul,” the good doctor pleaded with his pupil to respond to the gospel call. And then, in 1612, Cotton heard Sibbes preach on the doctrine of regeneration. Suddenly, “all his false hopes and grounds now failed him” as he “look[ed] unto Christ for healing” and was saved.
The Second Conversion: to Expositional Preaching
Popular English preaching was known for its erudition and dramatic flair. Sermons were characteristically loaded with abstract philosophical quotes, clever rhetoric, and flashy delivery. The goal was to astound and entertain the audience rather than convict or edify them. While at Cambridge, Cotton had risen to fame after preaching the funeral sermon of Dr. Robert Some (1542–1609). John Norton records that Cotton’s sermon was “so accurately performed, in respect of invention, elegancy, purity of style, ornaments of rhetoric, elocution, and oratorious beauty of the whole, as that he was thenceforth looked at as another Xenophon, or Musa Attica, throughout the University.” By contrast, however, both Perkins and Sibbes were not flashy preachers at all, yet they wielded significant power through their exposition of the Scriptures. Having been converted through such preaching, Cotton quickly became convinced of the necessity of “the plain style.”
While biblical preaching is as old as the Old Testament prophets, “the plain style” was popularized in England by men like William Perkins. In his influential book The Art of Prophesying, Perkins notes, contrary to the popular views of Cotton’s day, that “Scripture is the exclusive subject of preaching, the only field in which the preacher is to labor.” In short, the task of the preacher is to clearly communicate the truths of Scripture. As a primary discipline, he adds, “interpretation is the opening up of the words and statements of Scripture in order to bring out its single, full and natural sense.” The preacher is not the star of the show; he is merely a mouthpiece used of God to communicate to His people.