[Joel R. Beeke. Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2018.]
Joel Beeke currently serves as president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Beeke earned his PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary. He has written or coauthored one hundred books, some of which include, A Puritan Theology, Meet the Puritans, and Reformed Systematic Theology. In this book, Beeke utilizes his vast knowledge of the Puritans and personal experience in the pulpit to help preachers understand what it means to do Reformed Experiential Preaching and to encourage its widespread practice today.
The book is divided into three parts. In part 1, Beeke asserts his thesis, that reformed experiential preaching seeks to apply the truth of God’s word from the heart of the preacher to the heart of the hearer (24). The Reformers and Puritans often used the word “experimental,” by this they meant personal experience. Therefore, this form of preaching seeks to show Christians how they should live their life, through their struggles, until they reach the final goal of the kingdom of God (25). There are four basic components to experiential preaching: First, experiential preaching is discriminatory preaching (24). In the preaching of the word, the preacher distinguishes between the Christian and non-Christian. Second, experiential preaching is applicatory. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this preaching drives the meaning of the text home to the practical life of the hearer (30). Third, it is Bible-based preaching, so that all the experience commended by this preaching is grounded in the Scriptures (35). Finally, this preaching is reformed preaching, meaning its focus is the preaching of Christ as the grand theme of the Scripture (60). Furthermore, in preaching Christ, one is preaching the kingdom of God and thus, declaring the sovereignty of God (64).
In part 2, Beeke asserts four examples from church history of reformed experiential preaching. First, the Reformers. In this section, Beeke highlights, among others, the preaching of John Calvin. Most would identify Calvin as a theologian rather than a preacher, and yet, we see evidence of experience-based preaching as it pertains to piety, faith, and assurance (117-130). Second, the Puritans. Beeke inserts a helpful introduction section to his discussion of the Puritans, highlighting the five major themes of Puritan preaching: the primacy of preaching, the program for preaching, passion for preaching, power in preaching, and plainness in preaching (144). Most noteworthy is their plainness in preaching, which follows the pattern of exposition, doctrine, and application (153). Third, the Dutch Reformed preachers. Again Beeke gives a helpful introduction for the Dutch Reformed movement before discussing the preachers of the movement (247). Beeke highlights the Synod of Dort not merely for their compilation of the Canons of Dort, but their affirmation of the role of preaching (153). Finally, Beeke highlights the Reformed, experiential preaching of preachers from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
In part 3, what we have is essentially the purpose of the book. Beeke is writing this book for the purpose of the modern-day preacher. Beeke desires the modern preacher to embrace Reformed Experiential Preaching like the days of old. This section of the book calls the preacher not simply to be one who has knowledge of the bible but seeks to apply the Bible to his own heart and then the heart of others (369). An essential part of becoming an experiential preacher is applying the word of God (369). As this section concludes Beeke gives the preacher some practical advice, exhorting him to preach: the attributes of God (388), the sin of man (398), Christ by the power of the Spirit (402), and holiness (421).
As stated above, the purpose of Beeke’s book is not simply to define Reformed Experiential Preaching, although he does define it well (36). His goal is that the modern-day preacher would become an experiential preacher. This is one of the major strengths of the book, namely, its practical nature. We see this practical emphasis of the book when Beeke seeks to define for us what an experiential preacher looks like (77). He is not simply presenting us with a definition for definition’s sake. He is providing this definition because he desires us to become this type of preacher. I will highlight three points that are often appreciated, yet frequently neglected. First, preaching should be passionate preaching. Preaching should not merely be a dry lecture, neither is it simply shouting or waving your hands (79). Passionate preaching is accomplished by the Spirit and moves from the heart of the preacher to the heart of the listener (79). Second, preaching should be prayerful preaching. Reformed experiential preachers were aware of their weakness and their inability to save anyone (80), therefore, they sought to pray for the Spirit’s work in the hearts and lives of their hearers. Finally, preaching should be authentic preaching. The preacher should always seek to apply the text to his own heart (82). The only way people are going to experience the Word through our preaching is if the preacher has experienced the Word through his preaching.
The practical nature of this book is highlighted in the fact that Beeke devotes the entire third section of the book to the application of his thesis. Too many books today simply give us information rather than application. What a tragedy it would have been if Beeke simply told us about experiential preaching and neglected to invite us into the experience. Thankfully Beeke does invite us into the experience. I found his chapter, “Application Starts with the Preacher” (369), the most helpful. How can we possibly apply the Word to others if we do not apply it to our own hearts? Often as preachers, we can be diligent to preach the word and not so diligent to read the word. Beeke calls on us to read the word and not merely read the word for preaching, but read the word for personal growth and edification (372). We should not neglect to read “the book,” but we should also not neglect to read other books (373). We must seek to continually sharpen ourselves as preachers, growing in our knowledge and understanding of the word of God, and good books will help us achieve this goal. Furthermore, not only should we read the Bible and other books, but we should learn to read people (375). We must exegete the people as well as the text. We must love our congregation enough to know them — know their personalities, their struggles, and hurts. If we do this we can apply the Word more directly to their hearts in love.
All the above relates to application for the preacher, however, we must not neglect how this book usefully gives preacher’s guidelines for application to their congregants. Such guidelines are highlighted throughout in the biographies of past preachers. However, I found the section on application in “The Westminster Directory and Preaching” chapter most valuable. I was not aware that 40 percent of the discussion on preaching in the directory is devoted to application. In the directory, Beeke shows us six forms of application in the text: (1) instruction and information, (2) confutation of false doctrines, (3) exhortation to duties, (4) public admonition, (5) application of comfort, and (6) trial, to help people examine their heart (379). All this tells us that we should spend more time thinking deeply about application. Application can often stagnate in our preaching and become one-dimensional. The above is merely one example of many in this book that can help us diversify our application of the text.
Beeke’s discussion of discrimination in preaching is helpful (26). I have not given much thought to the topic. I always distinguished between the believer and the non-believer in my preaching. However, there is so much more to think about when it comes to discrimination. This is evidenced by Beeke when he shows us Perkins seven categories of listeners: (1) Ignorant and unteachable unbelievers, (2) ignorant but teachable unbelievers, (3) those who have some knowledge but are not humbled, (4) the humbled, (5) those who believe, (6) those who are fallen, either in faith or in practice, and (7) a mixed group. This categorization is very helpful when it comes to discrimination and the application of the text. One might say that most preachers naturally discriminate in their sermons. However, this discrimination is never well-thought-out. Discrimination naturally happens, yet, if we are to be true experiential preachers we should intentionally discriminate.
If I were to suggest a minor critique, it would be to simply ask, “where is Spurgeon?” I know it may seem unfair to critique a 500-page book and say there is something missing. However, I did miss the “prince of preachers” in this book. In my mind, Spurgeon is the quintessential example of a Reformed Experiential Preacher. Spurgeon does make a cameo appearance here and there, most notably when he is held out as an example of preaching Christ (401). Yet, surely when one is talking about the preaching of the nineteenth century or any century, Spurgeon would be at the top of the list.
I highly recommend this book to any aspiring preacher, downhearted preacher, stagnant preacher, or veteran preacher. This book should be on every preacher’s bookshelf. I will be re-reading its chapters for many years to come. Beeke’s work has re-ignited my heart with a passion to proclaim and apply God’s Word in a fresh way to my own heart and to the heart of my hearers.