What is Reformed Experimental Preaching?
By Joel R. Beeke
You probably know that, historically, Reformed and Puritan preaching was ‘experimental’ preaching. But do you understand what is meant by the term experimental or experiental?
The term comes from the Latin word experimentum, derived from a verb which means to ‘try, test, prove, or put to the test’. The same verb can also mean ‘to find or know by experience’, and so gives rise to the word experientia, meaning ‘trial, experiment’ and ‘the knowledge gained by experiment’.
Calvin used experiential (experientia) and experimental (experimentum) interchangeably, since, from the perspective of biblical preaching, both words indicate the need for examining or testing experienced knowledge by the touchstone of Scripture (Isaiah 8:20).
Experimental preaching stresses the need to know by experience the truths of the Word of God. It 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 the whole range of the believer’s experience: in his walk with God as well as his relationship with family, the church, and the world around him.
We can learn much from the Puritans about this type of preaching. As Paul Helm writes: ‘The situation calls for preaching that will cover the full range of Christian experience, and a developed experimental theology. The preaching must give guidance and instruction to Christians in terms of their actual experience. It must not deal in unrealities or treat congregations as if they lived in a different century or in wholly different circumstances. This involves taking the full measure of our modern situation and entering with full sympathy into the actual experiences, the hopes and fears, of Christian people’.
The experimental preaching of the Reformers and Puritans focused on preaching Christ. As Scripture clearly shows, evangelism must bear witness to the record God has given of his only begotten Son (Acts 2:3; 5:42; 8:35; Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:2; Galatians 3:1).
The Puritans thus taught that any preaching in which Christ does not have the pre-eminence is not valid experiential preaching. William Perkins said that the heart of all preaching was to ‘preach [only] one Christ by Christ to the praise of Christ’.
According to Thomas Adams, ‘Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus’.
‘Think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul, and scope of the whole Scriptures’, advised Isaac Ambrose. In this Christ-centred context, Reformed and Puritan evangelism was marked by a discriminating application of truth to experience.
Marks of grace
Discriminatory preaching defines the difference between the non-Christian and the Christian. Discriminatory preaching pronounces the wrath of God and eternal condemnation upon the unbelieving and impenitent. But it offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who, by true faith, embrace Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord.
Such preaching teaches that if our religion is not experiential, we will perish – not because experience itself saves, but because Christ who saves sinners must be experienced personally as the rock on whom our eternal hope is built (Matthew 7:22-27; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2:2).
The Reformers and Puritans were very aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart. Puritan evangelists in particular took great pains to identify the marks of grace that distinguish the church from the world, true believers from merely professing believers, and saving faith from temporary faith.
Thomas Shepard in The Ten Virgins, Matthew Mead in The Almost Christian Discovered, Jonathan Edwards in Religious Affections, and other Puritans wrote dozens of works to differentiate imposters from true believers. That kind of discriminatory preaching is scarce today.
Even in conservative Evangelical churches, head knowledge of scriptural truth is often a substitute for heart experience, or (what is equally unscriptural) heart experience is substituted for head knowledge. Experimental preaching calls for both head knowledge and heart experience; its goal, according to John Murray, is ‘intelligent piety’.
Experimental preaching is ‘Christianity brought home to men’s business and bosoms’, said Robert Burns. ‘The principle on which experimental religion rests is simply this, that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied’.
How different this is from most contemporary preaching! The Word of God is often preached today in a way that will never transform anyone because it never discriminates and never applies. Preaching is reduced to a lecture, a catering to the wishes and needs of people, or a form of experientialism removed from the foundation of Scripture.
Such preaching fails to expound from Scripture what the Puritans called ‘vital religion’: how a sinner is stripped of all his own righteousness; driven to Christ alone for salvation; finds joy in obedience and reliance upon Christ; encounters the plague of indwelling sin; battles against backsliding; and gains the victory through Christ.
Our great need
When God’s Word is preached experimentally, the Holy Spirit uses it to transform men, women, and nations. Such preaching transforms because it corresponds to the vital experience of the children of God (Romans 5:1-11); clearly explains the marks of saving grace in the believer (Matthew 5:3-12; Galatians 5:22-23); proclaims the high calling of believers as the servants of God in the world (Matthew 5:13-16); and shows the eternal destination of believers and unbelievers (Revelation 21:1-9).
We desperately need a return to faithful, Reformed experimental preaching today.