PRC (8): The Need for Experiential Preaching

A disadvantage to writing a series of posts and publishing each individual post as you write it is that after you have argued something, you later find a better way to express it. Indeed, thinking about it, I could summarize my concerns with PR preaching as being a lack of experiential preaching.

This post will quite heavily quote from Joel Beeke who really seems to be the strongest advocate for a return to Reformed Experiential preaching in the church world today.

What is Experiential Preaching?

Experiential preaching is preaching that explains, “how a Christian experiences biblical truth in daily living.”[1] It is preaching that “stresses to know by experience the truths of the Word of God. Experimental preaching seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go and how they do go in the Christian life. It aims to apply divine truth to all of the believer’s experience in his walk with God as well as his relationship with family, the church, and the world around him.”[2] Experiential preaching is then heavily applicatory and preaching that causes one to search the heart.

Experiential preaching is also preaching that has Jesus Christ as the pre-eminence.[3] It is preaching that is filled with the doctrine of Jesus Christ, that has Jesus Christ weaved in and throughout the entire sermon. Beeke writes,

  • Experiential preaching, then, teaches that the Christian faith must be experienced, tasted, and lived through the saving power of the Holy Spirit. It stresses the knowledge of scriptural truth that is able “to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Specifically, such preaching teaches that Christ, who is the living Word (John 1:1) and the very embodiment of the truth, must be experientially known and embraced. It proclaims the need for sinners to experience who God is in His Son. As John 17:3says, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” The word know in this text, as well as in other biblical usages, does not indicate casual acquaintance, but a deep, abiding relationship. For example, Genesis 4:1a uses the word know to suggest marital intimacy: “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.” Experiential preaching stresses the intimate, personal knowledge of God in Christ
  • . . . . experiential preaching not only addresses the believer’s conscience, but also his relationship with others in the church and the world. If experiential preaching led me only to examine my experiences and my relationship with God, it would fall short of affecting my interaction with family, church members, and society. It would remain self-centered. True experiential preaching brings a believer into the realm of vital Christian experience, prompting a love for God and His glory as well as a burning passion to declare and display that love to others around him. A believer so instructed cannot help but be evangelistic, since vital experience and a heart for missions are inseparable.[4]

Experiential preaching, in many ways, goes hand in hand with expository preaching, though expository preaching can be such that it is not experiential. Experiential preaching is preaching that desires to explain the word of God to the congregation in such a way that it speaks to the Christian experiences of sin, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, judgement, conversion, regeneration, blessedness, joy, etc. I will not deny that I’ve heard a lot of good expositional sermons in the PRC, but it was rare to find a good experiential sermon in the PRC. The believer needs both to be fully fed.

Why is Experiential preaching important?

Joel Beeke:

  • For one thing, when experiential preaching is lacking, the cutting edge of the gospel becomes less sharp and is dulled. Where the experiential element of preaching is missing, sermons tend to become homilies or lectures, abstract Biblical explanations and lessons rather than “the lively [and life-giving] preaching of the word.” More serious, however, where there is no experiential preaching, automatic faith becomes a real danger. Lack of experiential preaching, i.e., preaching that insists on the gospel being experienced in coming to faith and growing in faith, promotes a form of godliness that denies the power thereof (2 Tim.3: 5). The neglect and failure of experiential preaching can lead to “a generation made up of people like Nicodemus!” (Wielenga, cited in Acta Synode, CGK 1937, p. 158)
  • Experiential preaching is urgently required for the spiritual health of the church of every age and the continuation of the Christian church through the ages. Without experiential preaching the preciousness of the covenant of grace and being a member thereof is soon lost. Of course, experiential preaching does not preserve the covenant of grace but it constantly points to the Mediator of that covenant in Whom and through Whom the covenant of grace is extended from generation to generation.[5]

How does the PRC lack Experiential Preaching?

The PRC lacks experiential preaching in the ways that I have already argued in other posts: lack of discriminatory preaching, an unbalanced emphasis in preaching to covenant children, and a lack of preaching the law and gospel in such a way that it cuts directly to the heart.

Experiential preaching has also never been an emphasis in the PRC. Indeed, I never grew up hearing the term. Rev. Kortering would seem to agree with me in his Standard Bearer article “Experiential Preaching” (May 1990):

  • The term, experiential preaching (sometimes also called experimental), is not commonly used among us. It is more commonplace in the English and Puritan tradition—which has some connotations (a mystical tendency) which we would not endorse. As I listen to some criticism, read articles, enjoy discussions on how to evaluate the preaching in a given church or our churches in common, it seems to me that we are grappling for words. The old doctrinal-practical dichotomy for describing sermons just does not fit. Every now and then we hear a criticism that the sermon is just too doctrinal, that we need practical preaching. Most of us do not know what is meant by “practical” preaching. More helpful is the term “applied” preaching. This is helpful because the entire Word of God, whether the passage is of a more doctrinal nature or whether it deals with the daily life of the saints, must be applied to the church which has gathered in worship. The preacher fails in his task to expound the Word of God if he does not carefully and with much diligence tell the congregation how this affects their lives and how they are to respond to such truth.[6] (I also encourage you to read this article on Experiential Preaching in its entirety. Rev. Kortering raises some very good and practical points regarding preaching: https://standardbearer.rfpa.org/index.php?q=node/48889)

To be clear, I do not think the lack of experiential preaching in the PRC is an issue of semantics. I believe it is an issue of emphasis in the preaching. PR preaching has a very strong emphasis on explaining and defending doctrine from passages of Scripture. The preacher can often get so busy doing this that he fails to apply what he has just preached. And yes, application may be there, but the question always is: is it good application? The preacher must preach in such a way that the applications strike the heart of those in the congregation. He must preach the applications in such a way that the heart is dug into. Just because there is application in a sermon, does not necessarily mean that the application itself was applied in a discerning, thought provoking, soul searching manner.

I believe that part of the culprit here is the way that the Heidelberg Catechism is preached. Often the preaching of the catechism becomes an exposition of the catechism and not an exposition of Scripture itself. If one is going to preach from the catechism, there is not necessarily a problem with taking a theme from the catechism and preaching on that topic. But that theme must first be taken from the Scripture and then that theme must be preached expositionally and experientially from the text. There is the tendency when preaching from the Catechism to give a lecture on a doctrinal truth with a bit of application. The result is a lecture on PR doctrine with proof-texting and thus a lack of good expositional and experiential preaching.

Conclusion:

There is a need in the PRC to return to the good Reformed practice of experiential preaching. There is a need for the PRC to modify the way they preach the Heidelberg Catechism, so that it becomes more Biblically expositional and experiential. There is a need for them to have preaching that speaks to the heart and not just to the head.

 

[1] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 700

[2] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 700

[3] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 700

[4] http://www.ligonier.org/blog/what-experiential-preaching/

[5] http://frcna.org/messenger/item/8881-

[6] https://standardbearer.rfpa.org/index.php?q=node/48889

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