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.”1
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.”2 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,”3 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.4
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.”5 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.”6 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.”7 The preacher is not the star of the show; he is merely a mouthpiece used of God to communicate to His people.
For Cotton, the true test of his resolve came in his last year at Emmanuel College. His biographer, Larzer Ziff, records, “He was now convinced that the plain style was the saving style, and he realized that he must abandon his elegant oratory.”8 He was scheduled to preach to at St. Marie’s Church in Cambridge to a full house of students and professors, all eager to hear the gifted young preacher. However, to their dismay, Cotton stood up and delivered a sermon on the doctrine of repentance in the “plain style,” full of “Doctrines,” “Reasons,” and “Uses.” The room filled with loud groans as the listeners pulled their caps over their ears in disapproval. Cotton finished his sermon and quietly returned to his room. After a few minutes, he heard a knock on the door. To his surprise, the already eminent Puritan John Preston (1587–1628), fellow at Queen’s College, had arrived secretly and confessed his utter despair and need for salvation. So powerfully had God spoken “effectually unto his heart by that sermon,”9 that he was “pierced to the heart” and converted.
The True Power of Preaching
John Cotton made a name for himself as a powerful preacher. Some have even called him “the greatest preacher in New England.”10 One of his contemporaries, John Wilson testified:
Mr. Cotton preaches with such authority, demonstration, and life that, methinks, when he preaches out of any prophet or apostle I hear not him; I hear that very prophet and apostle. Yea, I hear the Lord Jesus Christ speaking in my heart.11
However, scholars and historians are often puzzled by the allure of Cotton’s ministry. “Modern critics . . . have their own difficulties understanding Cotton’s popularity both in Boston, Lincolnshire, and in Boston, Massachusetts.”12 As a preacher, Cotton was plain and perspicuous, not given to showiness or erudition. On his simplicity, he would say, “If I preach more scholastically, then only the learned, and not the unlearned, can so understand as to profit by me; but if I preach plainly, then both the learned and unlearned will understand me, and so I shall profit all.”13 Yet through Cotton’s preaching, people by the thousands came to hear Jesus Christ expounded clearly and powerfully.
However, his true power did not rest in his oratory, but in his exposition of God’s glory.
The magnetism that drew crowds to John Cotton is the same magnetism that drew people to the Apostle Paul. Writing to the church in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth, Paul noted:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1–5)
The Word of God is alive (Heb. 4:12). And when it is preached clearly, the dead are regenerated, sinners are sanctified, and God is glorified.
- John Norton, Memoir of John Cotton (Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1834), 29. ↩︎
- Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christ Americana, (1702; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 1:255. ↩︎
- Larzer Ziff, The Career of John Cotton: Puritanism and the American Experience (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962), 31. ↩︎
- Norton, Memoir, 30. ↩︎
- Norton, Memoir, 30. ↩︎
- William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (1606; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), 9. ↩︎
- Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 26. ↩︎
- Ziff, The Career of John Cotton, 32. ↩︎
- Norton, Memoir, 32. ↩︎
- Everett Emerson, John Cotton, rev. ed. (Boston: Twayne, 1990), 1. ↩︎
- Cited in Emerson, John Cotton, 1. ↩︎
- Teresa Toulouse, The Art of Prophesying: New England Sermons and the Shaping of Belief (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 13. ↩︎
- A.W. McClure, The Life of John Cotton (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1846), 273–274. ↩︎