Preaching Experientially

Dear Timothy,

I've written to you about how the Puritans stressed the practice of a piety that flows out of sound doctrine. And yet they also promoted the experiential dimension of Reformed preaching. Puritan preaching explained how a Christian experiences biblical truth in his life. The term experimental comes from the Latin word experimentum, which is derived from the 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.”[1] Calvin used experiential and experimental interchangeably, since both words, from the perspective of biblical preaching, indicate the need for examining or testing experienced knowledge by the touchstone of Scripture (Is. 8:20).[2]

Experiential preaching stresses the need to know the truths of the Word of God by experience. Experiential preaching seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth, how matters ought to go and how they do go in the Christian life, and 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.[3]

Puritan preaching was marked by a discriminating application of truth to experience. 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. It likewise offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who embrace by true faith Jesus Christ as Savior 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 upon whom our eternal hope is built (Matt. 7:22-27; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2).

The Puritans were very aware of the deceitfulness of the human heart. Consequently, Puritan evangelists 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.[4] 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.[5]

Puritan preachers knew, in Thomas Boston’s words, “the art of manfishing.” They aimed for both initial and ongoing conversion among their hearers. They believed that the sermon was a means of grace and would be used by the Spirit to accomplish conversion and growth in grace. Hence they aimed to deal meaningfully with inner spiritual struggles. As Sydney Ahlstrom writes, “Without denying the objective, purely gracious character of God’s redemptive acts, they wished also to make a place for the willing, knowing, repenting, thanking, loving acts of the human person…they sought to make a place in the economy of salvation for subjectivity, for the acts of human consciousness.”[6] This accounts for the impression one receives that their sermons are both solidly founded on Calvinistic theology and simultaneously packed with the imperatives of the biblical gospel and its urgings to repent and believe.

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. [7] 

Timothy, when God’s Word is preached experientially, 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 (Rom. 5:1-11), clearly explains the marks of saving grace in the believer (Matt. 5:3-12; Gal. 5:22-23), proclaims the high calling of believers as the servants of God in the world (Matt. 5:13-16), and shows the eternal destination of believers and unbelievers (Rev. 21:1-9).[8]

Previous articles in the "Learn from the Puritans" series:

Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

Related Links

"Preaching the Good News" by Adam Parker

Preaching the Gospel (with Rick Phillips and Harry Reeder) [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon 


[1] Cassell's Latin Dictionary, revised J.R.V. Marchant and J.F. Charles (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, n.d.).

[2] Willem Balke, “The Word of God and Experientia according to Calvin,” in Calvinus Ecclesiae Doctor, ed. W.H. Neuser (Kampen: J.H. Kok, 1978), pp. 20-21; cf. Calvin's Commentary on Zechariah 2:9.

[3] “Christian Experience,” Banner of Truth, No. 139 (Apr. 1975):6.

[4] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (1666; reprint Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), pp. 20-188, sets forth twenty-four marks of grace for self-examination.

[5] Thomas Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins (1660; reprint Ligonier, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990); Matthew Mead, The Almost Christian Discovered; Or the False Professor Tried and Cast (1662; reprint Ligonier, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1988); Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).

[6] “Theology in America,” The Shaping of American Religion, ed. James Ward Smith and A. Leland Jamison (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), p. 240.

[7] Joel R. Beeke, Jehovah Shepherding His Sheep (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 164-203, and Backsliding: Disease and Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 17-32.

[8] See the Heidelberg Catechism for a Reformed confessional statement that facilitates experimental preaching. This is evidenced by (1) the Catechism’s exposition of an outline (misery, deliverance, and gratitude) that is true to the experience of believers, (2) its application of most doctrines directly to the believer’s conscience and spiritual profit, and (3) its warm, personal character in which the believer is regularly addressed in the second person.

Joel Beeke