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Some Reflections on Experiential Preaching

Written by  Rev. H. Overduin and Rev.J.W. Wullschleger
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One of our busiest Synodical Committees is the External Relations Committee. This Committee seeks contact with other Reformed denominations in North America and other parts of the world, which subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Confessions. Sometimes this contact takes the form of exchanging Acts of Synod, Yearbooks and other publications in order to become acquainted with each other. There are also opportunities to meet face to face with brothers from other denominations to discuss what we have in common and where we may differ. One subject that frequently comes up in such discussions is the preaching. What constitutes true preaching? Our Free Reformed Churches have always insisted that such preaching must be true to Scripture, in harmony with the Confessions, and aimed at the heart as well as the mind of the congregation. To give our readers a flavour of such discussions we present the slightly condensed speech presented at a meeting of the sub-committees of the Free Reformed and Canadian Reformed Committees for External Relations and Ecclesiastical Unity held on February 3, 2000 in the Abbotsford, B.C. Free Reformed Church. The speech was prepared and delivered by Rev. H. Overduin with supplementary comments by Rev. J. W. Wullschleger.
Experiential preaching is often mentioned by Free Reformed ministers and members as preaching which especially distinguishes us as a separate federation among the Reformed churches. Indeed, experiential preaching is highly esteemed by us as a treasured distinctive. In past and present discussions and contacts between the Free Reformed and the Canadian Reformed Churches, while there is much we have in common, it seems that the component of experiential preaching always stands in the way [fairly or unfairly] of a growing and closer bond between us. Another reason for discussing this topic simply is that any serious discussion about the preaching of God's Word is always wholesome. To focus on this topic as colleagues together, desiring to be faithful ambassadors of our Lord Jesus Christ, can be beneficial by itself, regardless of the larger setting and hoped-for outcomes. "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend" (Prov.27: 17).

In this essay we will look at three questions. First, what is experiential preaching? Second, why do we view it as so important as to repeatedly insist on it? And third, are there dangers in always emphasizing experiential preaching?

What is Experiential Preaching?
Simply stated, it is preaching the Word of God in a way that emphasizes the need and blessedness of first-time and continuing faith, repentance, and obedience to the triune God, in and through our Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is proclaiming the gospel in such a way that its message and call is pressed home as being essential and wonderful for each one personally. Experiential preaching is opening the Scriptures, "warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col.1: 28). Experiential preaching is not only the presentation of the gospel truth, but also application of the gospel truth on the basis of the text. It is preaching that not only seeks to explain the gospel or to imitate Christ, but also calls for participation in Christ (cf. 2 Pet.1: 4; Heidelberg Catechism, L..D.28). Preaching experientially is not an incidental aspect but an essential aspect of preaching.

To clarify the meaning of experiential preaching it will be helpful to state first what experiential preaching is not. It is not preaching experience instead of God's Word. It is not preaching that stresses the subjective experience of the Word more than the objective truth of the Word. Neither does experiential preaching try to do the work of the Holy Spirit to make the Word "hitÓ or ÒstrikeÓ the hearers. Experiential preaching that is effectual is utterly dependent on the Holy Spirit.

Experiential preaching seeks to completely honour God's Word and calls for careful exegesis and sound hermeneutics; it leans wholly on the Holy Spirit Who is pleased to use the Word as "the seed of regeneration and food of the soul" (Canons of Dort, III-IV, Article 17). Experiential preaching is found in the Bible (cf. Matthew 5-7, Acts 7, Hebrews, Jude) and is reflected in the wording of the Reformed Confessions (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D.1, Q&A 84, Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 159).

Experiential preaching is gospel preaching from a realistic rather than an idealistic covenant viewpoint. How does one preach from a realistic covenant view? According to the booklet, Introducing the Free Reformed Churches of North America, such preaching regards the congregation as it is in reality, namely, as covenant congregation of the Lord. The Lord addresses the congregation as "My son, My daughter," "My people," "My sheep," "children of the kingdom," "branches on the vine." The Lord has brought about this relationship through His Word, and He claims the congregation with His promises and demands. The preaching addresses the congregation in this relationship but makes clear that being a member of the covenant of grace is not yet being a believer. The preaching precisely declares that this relationship should not be taken for granted but rather that "except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). The preaching seeks to bring the members of the covenant of grace to realize that we must and may and can be radically renewed in accordance with the covenant. As this preaching is applied to the heart it makes room for Christ as Surety of the covenant. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith makes reference to "hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it." It also makes reference to "the marks of Christians; namely, ...faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Saviour, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof." To be sure, there "remain in them great infirmities, but they fight against them through the Spirit, all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ.Ó

In summary, experiential preaching is preaching God's Word
biblically as from the heart of God to the heart of man.
Biblically grounded experiential preaching calls for preachers
who not only know and preach the gospel of the triune God but
also explain the work of the triune God in the salvation of
sinners.

Why We Insist on Experiential Preaching
There are at least two answers to the second question, why we insist on experiential preaching. 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.

Are There Dangers in Emphasizing Experiential Preaching?
The answer to our third question is yes, if the impression is given that it is the only part of preaching that counts. There is much more to be said about preaching than that it should be experiential. The measure of a good sermon is not just its experiential element! By constantly emphasizing this point, we need to be careful that we do not omit other vital aspects about preaching and the Christian faith in general. Preachers in the Free Reformed Churches must avoid the danger of turning the treasured distinctive of experiential preaching into an extra-creedal conviction and standard of the Christian faith. Our strongest points can become our weakest points when we only highlight these and do not have an eye to see strong points in others.

Another danger of experiential preaching is that it can result in or arise from a limited view of the covenant of grace and an unbiblical view of the congregation. Experiential preaching must not undermine the fact that covenant children are children of God in a "sanctified" [consecrated] sense (cf. 1 Cor.7: 14; Ezek.16: 21; Hosea 11) and the congregation is indeed the congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 2-3). Preaching experientially to a congregation is not the same as preaching evangelistically to the world. To be sure, the gospel message remains the same, but it is even more direct, more affectionate and more personal in the church context than to those outside.

Experiential Preaching is Trinitarian
The work of the Holy Spirit should be the starting point within the context of the triune God. For it is the triune God Who saves sinners. As ministers we lay the benediction upon the congregation at the close of the worship service. "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." This blessing from the triune God is more than a pious wish pronounced at the close of the service! The work of the Trinity should function in the sermon because our salvation does not depend on our decision. It takes the work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit to save sinners. The corruption of our heart is so great that by nature we continually resist God's grace offered to us in Jesus Christ. This applies not only to the world, but also to GodÕs covenant people. Just think of Nicodemus to whom Jesus said, "Ye must be born again." This means that a total renewal must take place. Here the work of the Holy Spirit comes into focus.

The Work of the Holy Spirit in Preaching
Experiential preaching has everything to do with the work of the Holy Spirit. It is preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is preaching with the unction of the Holy Spirit, in an awareness of our complete dependence on Him.

We do not have the Holy Spirit at our command; He works sovereignly. But we do have the promise that where the Word of God is faithfully preached, the Holy Spirit uses the Word as the "seed of regeneration" (1 Pet.1: 23). He convicts sinners, humbles them before a holy God, casts down their strongholds, and shows them their lostness and utter need of the Saviour. Where the Holy Spirit works we are "pricked in the heart," as on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 37) and we are brought to faith in Jesus Christ. In addition, we are admonished to "save ourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2: 40). Experiential preaching "humbles the sinner, exalts the Saviour, and promotes holiness." To be under such preaching is to be in the "energy field" or the Òworkshop" of the Holy Spirit.

The work of the Spirit can be hindered in two ways. On the one hand this is done by preaching that only describes how God's people experience the way of salvation and ends with a wish that the Holy Spirit may apply it to the hearts of the hearers. Such preaching sounds experiential, but it is not. It actually focuses more on the experience of man than the saving operations of the Spirit of God! On the other hand, merely telling people, "You must believe," does not do justice to the work of the Holy Spirit either. Even if it is added that we cannot do this of ourselves and that God has to work faith in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, this will not do much good if it is not elaborated on in the sermon.

Years ago a member of the Liberated Reformed Church in The Netherlands made this comment to a Free Reformed member living in his home town: "Those Free Reformed people must first have experienced something before they believe." In a pointed way, this may summarize how many people, not only in the Canadian Reformed Churches, view Free Reformed preaching. Why not simply preach: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved"? This is the Gospel message, isn't it? Does something extra have to happen? Is it not enough to believe? Do I have to feel something? Do we have to experience something before we believe?

To answer this question we have to make some distinctions. We may not jeopardize the freeness of the gospel invitation. We may not cast up stumbling blocks, telling people that they first must have experienced this or that before they have a right to believe. Such preaching is legalistic.

The Gospel invitation goes out to every creature: Repent and believe! Jesus invites sinners to Himself, no matter how wretched they are. The more serious the disease, the higher the doctor is valued who can cure the disease. Similarly, if we do not see the disease of our heart, we will not see our need to turn to Jesus for salvation. Part of our duty as preachers is to show people their need and the beauty of Christ, make them hungry and thirsty for salvation, and lead them to the Fountain of salvation, Jesus Christ.

In summary, experiential preaching is preaching that leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work. The adjective ÒexperientialÓ may be useful in defining what we mean, but actually, is the term not superfluous? Is there any true, sound, biblical preaching that is not experiential?

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