It may say “Reformed Preaching” in bold letters on the cover, but non-reformed readers shouldn’t let the title of this book scare them away. With a title long enough to make a Puritan proud, Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People is a great book on preaching. Any Christian who takes preaching seriously, preachers and non-preachers alike, stands to benefit from reading this book. No matter if you’re covenant, dispensational, or some other flavor. And my hope in writing this review is that those who don’t consider themselves Reformed will consider reading this book. It has three parts. The first covers the theory of experiential preaching—the type of preaching author Joel Beeke is advocating, the second illustrates experiential preaching from the pulpit ministries of the reformers, and the third offers application on how to preach like this today. My review likewise will be broken into three parts, where I’ll treat each division separately.
Even though it says “Reformed Preaching” in the title, the proper subject is Reformed experiential preaching. So the first question to answer is, What is Reformed experiential preaching? And that’s the title of the first chapter. According to this book, true Reformed experiential preaching must include specific ingredients. Most of these are common ingredients of what we would consider good preaching in general, but it’s not Reformed experiential preaching unless it includes all of these. The three big required ingredients are: It must be experiential. It must be discriminatory. And it must be applicatory. Experiential preaching (also referred to as “experimental”) is about Christian experience and testing. The truth of God’s Word must be known by experience, and our Christian experience must be tested by the truth of God’s Word. Preaching must deal with reality. Discriminatory preaching demarcates the saved from the lost. The preacher bears the responsibility of showing people where they stand before God, and what He has to offer them accordingly. Applicatory preaching is essential and cannot be overlooked. Doctrine cannot be preached without practical application. That’s the “experiential” part of the description. And when it comes to the Reformed part, Beeke has more than Calvinism and covenant theology in mind. It’s primarily about preaching the solas rediscovered by the sixteenth-century Reformers. It’s about preaching Scripture, grace, Christ, faith, and the glory of God. And it places a heavy emphasis on personal holiness. These key elements of Reformed preaching are the focus of chapter three.
We can’t skip the second chapter, though. It’s a helpful expansion of the first. It addresses the nuanced differences between experimental and experiential. There is also an insightful explanation of head knowledge and heart knowledge, and how Christians need both. As Beeke puts it, “True heart knowledge is rooted in head knowledge” (44). Preachers can err by focusing on one side of this coin at the expense of the other when the correct answer is balance. The remainder of the chapter offers an apologetic for this kind of preaching. And the argument that this is the proper New Testament model is convincing. This preaching is doctrinal. It reproves. It rebukes. And it exhorts (2 Tim 4:1–2). Not only that, but this is the kind of preaching we see men such as Paul modeling in Acts. And this is the kind of communication we find in epistles like Romans. As Beeke puts it, “Throughout the Holy Scriptures, we find examples of godly people embracing the truth of Christ in their hearts and bringing it to bear on the experiences of others” (54). That’s what experiential preaching is all about. Another benefit of experiential preaching is the attention it gives to the affections of the heart, affections like hope, love, joy, and gratitude. External behavior is not the sole focus. A final justification for experiential preaching follows the reasoning that since saving faith is experiential, our preaching must be experiential. As James puts it, “faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:26). The knowledge of Christ transforms the believer, and our preaching should encourage and instruct believers to this end.
The final chapter of this first section examines the qualifications required to be an experiential preacher. He must be passionate, prayerful, authentic, growing, decreasing, and prioritized. Readers might be surprised at a few comments here. Beeke says casual preaching is problematic, which is easy to agree with him on. But he also lumps in conversational preaching as equally problematic. He surmises the Puritans would have eschewed a conversational style. Plus, he reasons this type of preaching conveys that the message is not all that important. It follows then that all levity is taboo. Beeke argues there is never a case for humor in a sermon and resorts to etymology to argue that levity is making light of spiritual matters. If that’s levity, then that is something we can all be opposed to. Of course, spiritual matters should always be treated with seriousness. But I’m not convinced a preacher cannot have a conversational style at times. I’m not convinced preaching must be totally void of humor, either. Can the preacher not be earnest and reverent, but also have a conversational style and sense of humor? Something to think about. The portrait of a preacher provides a fitting transition to the second section, which I’ll cover next time. It examines the lives and examples of some of the great Reformed experiential preachers of history.
If you’re a preacher, you should read good books about preaching. Even non-preachers would do well to read the occasional book on preaching. We can all grow by having our understanding of this God-ordained ministry deepened. Preaching is serious business and Reformed Preaching takes takes preaching seriously. It’s an edifying read. The Puritan quotations alone make it worth your time. There are these gems of Puritan wisdom strewn across every page with footnotes listing titles worthy of further exploration. I’m an underliner, and I can flip through the pages of my copy of this book and see line after line marking these profound and reflective statements. This isn’t a preaching book that teaches you how to craft sermons or even deliver them. It’s focused more on the ingredients than the recipe. At its heart, it’s a theology of preaching. One that will challenge the reader to elevate their sermons to a biblical standard. It’s a wonderful book. And there are very few points those who don’t consider themselves Reformed will find reason to take issue with. Besides, these are easily identifiable (e.g., Sabbatarianism or the Lord’s Supper as “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace”) (72). Beeke isn’t trying to convince you to become Reformed, although I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if you did.
I’ll conclude with what I consider one of the most valuable takeaways from this section. At the end of chapter one, there’s a bulleted list summarizing the “ingredients” of Reformed experiential preaching (41). I’ve adapted these into a series of questions the preacher should ask himself. These are questions worth printing out and hanging up near your desk. Go through every sermon you write and before you preach it, ask yourself these diagnostic questions to make sure you’ve included all the necessary ingredients.
- Does this sermon test genuine Christian experience by the standard of biblical truth—idealistically, realistically, and optimistically?
- Does this sermon draw lines distinguishing between believers and unbelievers?
- Does this sermon make frequent and wise application of truth to life?
- Does this sermon balance biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical elements?
- Does this sermon cultivate a life of communion with our God and Savior?
- Does this sermon build experience upon the foundation of Holy Scripture, God’s Word?
- Does this sermon go beyond contemporary superficiality into the deep wisdom of the old paths?
- Does this sermon offer food to satisfy the new spiritual sense of the believer’s soul?
- Does this sermon touch the heart with the bitterness of sin and the sweetness of great?
- What kind of change would we see in our churches if our preachers could answer yes to each of these questions?
For the preacher, you can use these serious questions to shape and direct your sermons to give people the kind of preaching we all need. Reformed Preaching will guide you towards this needed preaching.
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