“The Word of God is preached too often in a way that will not transform listeners because it fails to discriminate and fails to apply.”
—Joel Beeke, “The Lasting Power of Reformed Experiential Preaching”
This past summer, I participated in a conference on expository preaching, where principles of exposition were followed by models of expository preaching. The aim was to expose the meaning of the text for the sake of our listeners. In other words, to borrow lingo from Leadership Resources International, the main idea and intended response of the biblical passage must become the main idea and intended response of the sermon. The strength of this method lies in its authority. The listener can see for himself that the Bible actually makes the statement, not just the preacher. Instead of a “truth balloon” suspended above the text—something true, but not in that text—the truth extends from the text. The meaning is exposed.
Now, depending on the preacher, the particular text, and, of course, the heart of the listener, transformation may or may not result from an expository sermon. Transformation occurs when the Holy Spirit Himself applies the meaning of a particular text to a particular person in a particular way. The listener somehow senses that this text is for me and for this purpose. In contrast, a general message, even when its meaning is faithfully derived and delivered, often fails to impress the listener with its particular importance. At times, it might succeed—even as John Piper learned once in preaching Isaiah 6 without an application—but that is the exception, not the norm. Most listeners need discrimination (specifying to whom the text speaks) and application (for what purpose).
The Sermon on the Mount definitely exhibits all three traits—exposition, discrimination, and application. As exposition, the sermon explains the real meaning of the law and drives the commandment back to the heart. As discrimination, the sermon tests for hypocrisy and ends with lots of twos—two gates, two roads, two destinations, and two builders. As application, the sermon exhorts disciples to trust rather than to worry, and to pray rather than to judge. What a sermon! Even the book of Matthew presents it as a model of how Jesus preached when He went from village to village (Matthew 4:23). And because the Spirit of Jesus Himself lives in us, it is not unreasonable to expect Spirit-filled preaching to resemble the preaching of Jesus Himself.
At least two apostolic texts remind us of the importance of this kind of preaching. First, in his second letter, Peter tells his readers twice that he aims “to stir [them] up by way of reminder” (2 Peter 1:13; cf. 3:1). Much of pulpit ministry is reminder—rarely, do we preachers tell forty-year veterans something new—but it is reminder with a purpose. Somehow, we must stir them up, and this will require diligence (1:15, “I will make every effort”). Second, in his open letter to a younger preacher, Paul tells us the goal of the pulpit: “The aim of our charge is love” (1 Timothy 1:5). Love, however, does not arise automatically from hearing the text; on the contrary, love “issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1:5; cf. 2 Peter 1:5-7). All of this involves discrimination and application. In other words, the text must be closely applied to matters of purity, guilt, and sincerity.
Knowing how the text applies involves more than exegetical skill and doctrinal formulation. Somehow, the preacher himself must live out the text, wrestling with its implications and submitting to its promises in a real-life context. By necessity, the preacher is part of the equation of success: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the preacher himself continually needs wisdom from the sacred text for ultimate salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15). The pulpit ministry needs wisdom and wisdom involves experience in applying the text personally.
Therefore, if these premises are true, we need more than expository preaching. We also need insight into living that comes from applying to our experiences the broad scope of Scripture—not just one paragraph at a time, in piecemeal fashion. Yes, we can preach from a particular passage—perhaps, we even should preach from a particular passage—but the application will draw from the broad wisdom of Scripture learned through the rich experience of endured trials of faith and discerning love. The Puritans called such preaching experimental, because it involves “examining experience in the light of the teaching of the Word of God” (Beeke). In modern times, we would more likely call it experiential. Perhaps we could combine all the words into one statement:
We need preaching that is expository, experimental, and experiential—all three.
As expository preaching, the sermon will expose the main idea and intended response of the original text. As experimental preaching, the sermon will test listeners and their behavior, leading to proper identification and classification. As experiential preaching, the sermon will apply the text to the heart and life of the listeners in such a way that making a choice is unmistakable and believers are stirred up unto love and good deeds. In an Old Testament framework, these three traits of good preaching correspond well to knowledge, discernment, and wisdom. In a New Testament framework, these three traits correspond well to faith, hope, and love. The first set has the preacher in mind; the second, his listeners. Expository, experimental, and experiential preaching. That is what we need in our pulpits today.
Source: Beeke, Joel. Puritan Reformed Spirituality. Webster, NY: Evangelical Press USA, 2006 , 428, 427.