Experimental Preaching

We are familiar with the term expository preaching.  Not as many of us are familiar with the phrase experimental preaching, however. I remember mentioning this idea to a pastor not too long ago and he looked back at me as if I were from a different planet.  He wasn’t comfortable with the idea at all.  

A short while ago our team worked through an excellent book by Joel Beeke entitled Living for God’s Glory. And one of the many chapters focuses on what he calls experimental or experiential preaching.  I thought it might be helpful to share a short outline of what he has to say about it.  

This is obviously then, all a quote basically, though parts perhaps are paraphrased. 

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, John Calvin and other Calvinistic preachers were often described as ‘experimental’ or ‘experiential’ preachers.  Unfortunately, now many do not even know what these terms mean.

I.  What is experimental preaching?

A.  Experimental comes from a Latin word that means trial.  It is derived from a verb that means to put to the test or to know by experience, thus leading to the word experiential, meaning knowledge gained by experiment.

B. John Calvin used the words experiential and experimental interchangeably, because both words indicate the need for measuring experienced knowledge against the standard of Scripture.

C. Experiential preaching speaks to how a Christian experiences the truth in his life.  It is in other words, preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the end goal of the Christian life.  It aims to apply truth to the whole range of the believer’s personal experience, including his relationships with his family, the church and the world around him. 

D.  We can understand experiential preaching by thinking about its contrasts.  It is not a lecture, a demonstration, a catering to what people want to hear, or talks about life that are divorced from the foundation of Scripture. 

II.  What are the characteristics of experimental preaching?

A.  It is Word and Christ Centered

1.)  Biblical preaching flows out of the Scriptural passage as it is explained in accordance with sound hermeneutical principles.

2.)  Experiential preaching does not add an experience to the text. Rather it draws the experience of the believer from the text.

3.)  Besides drawing experiences from the text, experiential preaching tests our own experiences in light of the Word of God.

4.)  The great theme of experiential preaching is Jesus Christ.  William Perkins says that the heart of preaching is to “preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.”  Cotton Mather put it this way, “Exhibit as much as you can of a glorious Christ. Yea, let the motto upon your whole ministry be: Christ is all.  Let others develop the pulpit fads that come and go.  Let us specialize in preaching our Lord Jesus Christ.”

5.)  Exegesis offers sound analysis of the words, grammar, syntax and historical setting of Scripture. Experiential preaching does not minimize these aspects of interpretation, but neither is it content with them. A minister who presents only the grammatical and historical meaning of God’s Word may be lecturing or discoursing, but he is not preaching.

6.) Experiential preaching teaches the following:

-The Christian faith must be experienced, tested and lived through the saving power of the Holy Spirit.

-Christ must be known and embraced.

-The intimate, personal knowledge of God in Christ.

-Christianity “should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt and enjoyed and practically applied.”

B.  It is Applicatory

1.)  Application is joining something to something else. It is the process of riveting truth so powerfully in people that they cannot help but see how they must change and how they can be empowered to do so.

2.)  Applicatory preaching matches the text to every aspect of a listener’s life, promoting by the grace of the Spirit, a religion that is power and not mere form.

3.)  “It would grieve one to the heart to hear what excellent doctrine some ministers have in hand, while yet they let it die in their hands for want of close (searching) and (lively) living application.”

4.)   The preacher needs to think about the spiritual maturity and condition of his audience.  “The Word of God should be so handled, that it may be adapted to Christians in different states and stages of the divine life; for while some Christians are like strong men, others are but babes in Christ who must be fed with milk and not strong meat.”  The preacher should make specific application to people in different conditions, the backslider, the worldly minded, the afflicted and doubting and suffering.

5.)  As a preacher you must think where to include application.  One of the best places to include application is everywhere.

Charles Bridges writes, “The method of perpetual application, where the subject will admit of it, is probably best calculated for effect…The epistle of Hebrews is a complete model of this scheme. “

6.)  There are several different kinds of application:

-Instruction: Doctrinal application

-Confutation:  Refuting contemporary error

-Exhortation: Pressing and admonishing people to obey the commands set forth in the text

-Dehortation: Rebuking sin and stirring up conviction of its awfulness

-Comfort:  Encouraging believers to press on in the good fight

-Trial:  Preaching in ways that help members evaluate themselves in light of Word of God

-Doxological application:  Preaching and applying truths in ways that bring people to sense the beauty and glory of God and His truth and move them to praise Him as He has revealed Himself in Scripture.

7.)  Application is costly. When John the Baptist preached generally, Herod heard him gladly.  When John applied particularly, he lost his head.

8.)  Preachers must remember they do not speak before people but rather to people.

C.  It is discriminatory

1.)  It clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian.

2.)  Bridges presents three aspects of discriminatory preaching:

-It traces the line of difference between the church and the world.

-It identifies the line that separates the false professor or hypocrite from the true believer.

-It distinguishes between the different stages of spiritual growth.  (1 John 2:12-14)

D.  It is realistic and idealistic

1.)  It is realistic because it explains how matters actually go in the lives of God’s people.

2.)  It is idealistic because it explains how matters ought to go in their lives.

3.)  Experiential preaching brings the believer to the battlefield, shows him how to fight, tells him how to win skirmishes, and reminds him of the victory that awaits him, for which God will receive the glory.

E.  It stresses inward knowledge

1.)  It is not simply content with people pursuing religion as an objective study. There are people who are interested in Christianity but have never felt guilty and condemned themselves before the holy justice of God, they have not experienced deliverance in Christ, they are not deeply and profoundly grateful for the work of God on their behalf. 

2.)  Preaching should aim to cause the believer to savor the Lord and delight in Him, to taste and see that God is good, to produce an appetite for God’s truth.

F.  It is centered not on self but on the Triune God and on other people

G.  It is balanced

1.) Between the objective and subjective dimensions of Christianity

2.)  Between the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man

3.)  Between doctrinal, experiential and practical Christianity.

H. It is sincerely earnest

1.)  2 Corinthians 4:1-2

2.)  “Oh sirs, how plainly, how closely, how earnestly should we deliver a message of such moment as ours….In the name of God, brethren, labor to awaken the hearts of sinners.  Remember, they must be awakened or damned. And a sleepy preacher will hardly awaken drowsy sinners…Speak to your people as men that must be awakened either here or in hell.”

I.  It coincides with holy living

1.)  1 Thessalonians 2:4a

2.)  What kind of men are approved by God and entrusted with the gospel as holy men of God?

-They are men whose lives pulsate with the awakening power of the gospel. 

-They are men who manifestly love the people among whom they minister.

-They are men whose lives are manifesting growing experience. 

3.)  “The preacher is more than the sermon…All the preacher says is tinctured, impregnated by what the preacher is….The sermon is forceful because the man is forceful. The sermon is holy because the man is holy.  The sermon is full of divine unction because the man is full of divine unction….The sermon cannot rise in its life-giving forces above the man.”

J.  It is marked by prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit

1.)  “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”

2.)  “Evangelism must rather be conceived as a long-term enterprise of patient teaching and instruction, in which God’s servants seek simply to be faithful in delivering the gospel message and applying it to human lives, and leave it to God’s Spirit to draw men to faith through this message in his own way and at his own speed.”

3.)  “Awakening, heart-engaging, life-transforming preaching does not lie in ministerial eloquence, passion, or powers of persuasion, but in the sovereign good pleasure of God through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”

May God grant us more experimental expository preachers in the days ahead!

2 thoughts on “Experimental Preaching

  1. Thank you. This has been a help. I have asked many people what experimental preaching is, and usually they can only tell me what it isn’t!

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