Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People, by Joel R. Beeke, Wheaton: Crossway, 2018, 504 pages, $23.29, hardback
If Reformed pastors enter the pulpit with a defective view of preaching, their efforts will fail. It’s not enough for us to study and prepare – our points may be logical, our attention to detail may be meticulous, and our precision unfolding the text may be exact – but all our labor is in vain if we don’t properly understand what a sermon is supposed to accomplish in the life of a congregation. When we are merely conveyers of information, our churches may grow in understanding of the scriptures, but they will not grow in holiness and in love for God and man.
Until the Lord’s return, experiential preachers will remain the church’s greatest need –preachers who inform not just the intellect, but who reach into the hearts of God’s people. It’s this kind of preaching to which Joel R. Beeke summons the Lord’s ministers in Reformed Preaching.
He approaches this experiential preaching with three main headings: definition and description of experiential preaching (part 1), historical examples of Reformed experiental preaching (part 2), and preaching experientially today (part 3).
Definition and Description
“Reformed experiential preaching is preaching that applies the truth of God to the hearts of people to show how things ought out to go, do go, and ultimately will go in the Christian’s experience with respect to God and his neighbors – including his family members, his fellow church members and people in the world around him” (41). 19th century Anglican Charles Bridges puts the relationship between truth and experience well: “Christian experience is the influence of doctrinal truth upon the affections” (352).
The impartation of truth is critical to preaching, but unless truth produces love in Christ, preaching fails to attain its goal (23). According to Beeke, the goal of experiential preaching “is to know the Lord personally in a way that is true to the Word” (48). As he labors in the pulpit, the preacher seeks “a holy people for the glory of God” (69), men and women who “live solely and wholly for God” (24).
The preacher must ask himself, “Does my preaching find an echo in the experience of true believers? . . . Does my preaching cultivate a self-reflection by which people test their experience by the Scriptures?” (50)
Five themes in this section captured my attention.
First, experiential preaching is Christ-centered. Experiential sermons are full of the Christ who awakens, justifies, sanctifies, and comforts sinners (61).
Second, experiential preaching is biblical. It is commanded in scripture, for example in 2 Tim. 4:1-8, 2 Cor 5:11, and Isaiah 40:1-2 (51-52). Scripture also provides models of experiential preaching in the ministries of Jeremiah, Micah, Jesus, and Paul (53-54).
Third, experiential preaching is uncomplicated. Beeke advises against overly intricate sermons. “People today need to hear a single theme derived from the scriptural text and pressed home in a memorable, organized way with passion, energy, and application” (79).
Fourth, experiential preaching is authentic. The preacher needs a gritty realism about the difficulties his congregation will face as they live by faith, dependent on God’s grace. If he ignores or minimizes suffering, he will overwhelm his congregation with unrealistic – that is, unbiblical – expectations (86).
Fifth, experiential preaching is demanding. The experiential preacher must take stock of his own life. He must have for himself an experiential acquaintance with the doctrines he preaches. His personal progress in the Christian life is essential. How wonderful it would be for a listener to say of his minister, “He is preaching the same Christ as he did ten years ago, but his preaching is richer, deeper, and fuller now.” (85) McCheyne got to the heart of this truth when he said: “A minister’s life is the life of his ministry” (82).
Historical Examples of Reformed Experiential Preaching
In section two, Beeke surveys the lives and ministries of twenty-four Reformed preachers spanning five centuries, from Ulrich Zwingli to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as well as providing introductions to Puritan preaching and the Dutch Further Reformation.
In his whirlwind survey of experiential Reformed preachers, Beeke demonstrates that although circumstances, personal giftings, academic learning, and homiletical styles differ from preacher to preacher, they all preached experientially, making skillful applications from the text.
Several common traits emerge in these preacher’s lives.
They shared a high view of preaching. It is God-owned preaching that saves, sanctifies, and sustains his pilgrim people. Calvin preached some 4,000 sermons. At the end of his life, he counted them more important than his written works (113). Richard Sibbes extolled preaching as “the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world” (146).
They preached dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit. Thomas Watson understood that “ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door” (156). Recognizing his dependency upon the Spirit, the experiential preacher is a man of prayer. Robert Traill’s pronouncement is sobering: “Some ministers of meaner gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study” (157).
They shared a burden for the holiness of the minister. I found an example from the life of 17th century Dutch minister Joducus van Lodenstein especially helpful. Wearied and discouraged by the lack of holiness in his own congregation and the lamentable spiritual condition of his nation, he was led “to look inward and see that the only thing he could control was his personal devotion to Christ” (276).” Ministers often fret over matters beyond their control while neglecting what is within their grasp.
They shared a commitment to application in preaching. In a chapter on the Westminster Directory for Public Worship and preaching, Beeke observes: “Application occupies 40 percent of the directory’s treatment of preaching, so clearly it is a predominant concern in the Westminster method” (198). I am reminded of J.C. Ryle’s words in his commentary on Matthew: “Personal application has been called the ‘soul’ of preaching. A sermon without application is like a letter posted without a direction: it may be well written, rightly dated, and duly signed; but it is useless, because it never reaches its destination.”*
I agree with Beeke’s advice that the preacher should not go more than ten minutes without making an application lest he lose the congregation’s attention (356). I see this challenge all the time in my students’ sermons. They are so excited about what they’re learning about the text, that they fail to take the time to apply it to their own – and their listeners’ – hearts.
Beeke’s survey spans five centuries. It inspires and provides abundant footnotes – which directs the minister to additional reading. As I hope this review indicates, this book is packed with memorable quotations that will prove timely and immensely helpful for ministers of every generation. We can rejoice that God has given his ministers a great cloud of preaching witnesses.
Preaching Experientially Today
The final section of the book is an appeal to today’s ministers to preach experientially. Such preaching requires the proper balance between the objective and subjective elements of the Christian faith (chapter 20). Failure to find that balance can lead to sterile intellectualism on the one hand, or vacuous sentimentalism on the other.
As a homiletics professor, I urge my students to do the hard work of finding that balance. I want earnestness to distinguish their ministry. When they preach on the attributes of God, they must earnestly desire for their congregation to know this God personally – even as they do – and to delight in him, adore him, love him, and joyfully submit to him. Preaching Christ is more than securing the congregation’s assent to the order of salvation. Students must be persuaded that as they preach the gospel, Christ himself – not merely facts about Christ and his work – is offered to needy sinners, to be received in faith and repentance.
Before a man can preach balanced and experiential sermons, he must apply the truths he handles to his own heart, and this requires a close walk with God. The author is blunt: “You cannot be an effective experiential preacher if you live at a distance from God” (371). In the words of John Owen, the minister must experience “the power of the things we preach to others” (371). I find this a striking reminder of the obvious. Pastors who preach about prayer must pray. How can they summon men to patience under trial if they themselves lack patience? How can they call their congregation to forgive others if they hold grudges, harbor anger, and keep offenders at a distance? Again, Owen: “No man preaches that sermon so well to others who does not preach it first to his own heart” (371).
Applications that appeal to the conscience require that pastors know the scriptures, their own hearts, the hearts of their people, the culture in which their people live, and a profound understanding of their congregation’s abundant temptations and trials.
In my preaching labs, I require students to make one application for each point of their sermon. In addition to retaining a congregation’s interest, this discipline forces them to think carefully (and I hope prayerfully) about their listeners. What does God’s word say to his those in various stages of Christian growth – from the unconverted to the young believer to the mature disciple. Whether struggling, tempted, and failing, or grieving, fearful, and anxious, the congregation must know that God is for them in Jesus Christ. Every step forward in the pursuit of holiness calls for heart-felt thanksgiving and persevering trust in the Savior.
Throughout this section, Beeke offers practical advice on diverse matters: studying the scriptures and people; preaching the attributes of God, man’s original nobility, sin’s ruin, and Christ and his salvation; seeking the congregation’s repentance and holiness; preaching to the conscience; and preaching evangelistically.
I enthusiastically recommend Reformed Preaching. One of Beeke’s strengths is that he writes in the same way he encourages ministers to preach – he writes from the heart, to the heart. For five centuries, the Lord has given his church a succession of Reformed experiential preachers. Pastors and seminarians who want take their place among them will find this book invaluable. It encourages ministers – encourages me – to preach from the heart to the heart.
*J .C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew. 1856 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2012), 126.