Category Archives: Experiential preaching
The weight, beauty and comfort of the Gospel
Recently I came across a stunning preface John Calvin wrote for Pierre Robert Olivétan’s French translation of the New Testament (1534). To my knowledge the English translation of this preface is found only in Joseph Haroutunian’s work, Calvin: Commentaries [a strange place to find it since this preface is not part of the commentaries]. Anyways, in it Calvin traces out the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises throughout Scripture, shows the supernatural unity of the bible’s message and the significance of the gospel message revealed in Scripture. He writes,
“Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …” (66)
Because of the weight of this gospel revealed in Scripture, it’s no surprise that Calvin closes this preface with words for preachers: “O you who call yourselves bishops and pastors of the poor people, see to it that the sheep of Jesus Christ are not deprived of their proper pasture; and that it is not prohibited and forbidden that any Christian feely and in his own language to read, handle, and hear this holy gospel…” (72).
These two quotes – one on the centrality of the gospel and the second on the importance of preaching – really reveal the heart of John Calvin as a man riveted to the Cross.
But I was especially struck by the following section where Calvin shows us that all the Christian’s comfort and hope rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes,
“It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone. For, he was sold, to buy us back; captive, to deliver us; condemned, to absolve us; he was made a curse for our blessing, sin offering for our righteousness; marred that we may be made fair; he died for our life; so that by him fury is made gentle, wrath appeased, darkness turned into light, fear reassured, despisal despised, debt canceled, labor lightened, sadness made merry, misfortune made fortunate, difficulty easy, disorder ordered, division united, ignominy ennobled, rebellion subjected, intimidation intimidated, ambush uncovered, assaults assailed, force forced back, combat combated, war warred against, vengeance avenged, torment tormented, damnation damned, the abyss sunk into the abyss, hell transfixed, death dead, mortality made immortal. In short, mercy has swallowed up all misery, and goodness all misfortune. For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit. If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation [life] is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things. And we are comforted in tribulation, joyful in sorrow, glorying under vituperation [verbal abuse], abounding in poverty, warmed in our nakedness, patient amongst evils, living in death. This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.” (69-70)
These are beautiful words! The introduction as a whole is a masterpiece, taking the reader from the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises to the gospel itself, showing that our eternal life and present comforts rest in Christ alone. Then he finishes with an exhortation that preachers be diligent to proclaim this Word.
It is good for us to remember the grace of God in revealing His Word to ungrateful truth-suppressors and and illuminating His Word to blind sinners. Let us remember that, “Without the gospel everything is useless and vain” and let us study Scripture seeking to “truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.”
So how do you persuade the French people towards Reformation theology? You point them to Scripture and specifically to the complete and perfect work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Calvin persuaded masses because his message was Scripture-saturated, grace-filled, and Cross-centered. The gospel was everything! With this in mind, French readers could read right into Matthew and the rest of the New Testament on a quest to see Christ’s glory for themselves.
Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.
This weekend I have the great honor to preach on the topic of Psalm 73. And in my study I was given a great example of the pulpit earnestness that we have been talking so much about over the past several weeks. It’s from the pulpit of C.H. Spurgeon:
“Please remember we are not speaking now of people in the street, of drunkards, and harlots, and profane swearers, and such like — we know that their damnation is sure and just — but, alas, I need not look far. If I glance along these seats and look into faces upon which my eye rests every Sabbath day, there are some of you, some of you who are unconverted still. You are not immoral but you are unregenerated; you are not unamiable but you are ungracious, you are not far from the kingdom, but you are not in the kingdom. It is your end I speak of now, yours ye sons of godly mothers, yours ye daughters of holy parents — your end, unless God give you repentance. I want you to see where you are standing today. “Surely thou didst set them in slippery places.”
Spurgeon sermon #486, 12/28/1862
There is a subtle distinction between two types of preaching that are profoundly different in nature. Bear with me in this first attempt to collect these thoughts into words.
I think the words of Christ especially make the distinction I am talking about when He said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Here, to me, is the distinction – some preachers grow content to preach mere words or a system of theology while others preach people upwards through the Bible towards a Man (Christ) and are never satisfied until their hearers come face-to-face with the Man.
Of course the Bible is central to both, as are hermeneutics, expositional capacities, commentaries, study, etc – and I’ve seen God bless both forms of preaching to His own glory. The difference is that one preaches from what is studied and the other preaches what is seen.
This, I believe, is why Spurgeon stands as the great example of preaching. Last week we looked at how he dwelled on the manifestations of Christ (John 14:22). From a vision of the unseen realities he preached. Far differently than what he merely studied or read, it was an extension of those – he preached what he saw.
Angell recently caught my attention when he said the same thing.
Lukewarmness can excite no ardor, originate no activity, produce no effect: it benumbs whatever it touches. If we enquire what were the sources of the energy, and the springs of the activity, of the most successful ministers of Christ, we shall find that they lay in the ardor of their devotion. They were men of prayer and of faith. They dwelt upon the mount of communion with God, and came down from it like Moses to the people, radiant with the glory on which they had themselves been intently gazing. They stationed themselves where they could look at things unseen and eternal, and came with the stupendous visions fresh in their view, and preached under the impression of what they had just seen and heard.
-John Angell James, An Earnest Ministry: The Want of the Times (Banner of Truth, 1847/1993) p. 64
It is also interesting to note Spurgeon’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known”). To him it was not so much a reference to specific passages of God’s Word giving us dim glimpses of the face of Christ but rather as we study at various times we see distant glimpses of Christ. Like a man standing at a storefront glass and seeing a silhouette in the background – sometimes we see His face in the Bible and others times we don’t. Sometimes even in the same passage one will see a faint glimpse of Christ’s face and another will not (see sermon 61).
This all leads me to another precious quote by Tozer on the subject:
Sound Bible exposition is an imperative must in the Church of the Living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of that term. But exposition may be carried on in such a way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatsoever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth. The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.
-A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Christian Publications: 1993) p. 9-10
Almost without exception, the preacher who reads this, nods his head and assumes he is doing this is the very man who can improve much. It is a great reminder for preachers to double-check our messages lest we become preachers of literature, that we not grow content preaching what we read and study but take every opportunity to see through the Bible into the face of Christ.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image … (2 Cor. 3:18. ESV).
I’m amazed at Spurgeon when it comes to beholding the glory of the Cross of Jesus Christ. Spurgeon (and many of the saints before him) recognized that there were times in the Christian life, times so focused upon obedience and service, that the saint experienced special manifestations of Christ's glory. Now these were not separate from Scripture but built upon Scripture and not some extra-biblical conversation with a ghostly figure. Nor were they mere emotional rides but were the powerful demonstrations of the truth of God's Word in personal experience. Here is how Spurgeon explains this in a sermon on John 14:22:
"I have had for a long while a manifestation of his sufferings in Gethsemane; I have been for months musing on his agonies; I think I have even eaten the bitter herbs that grow there, and drank of that black brook Kedron. I have sometimes gone up stairs alone, to put myself in the very posture Jesus Christ was in and I thought I could sympathize with him in his sufferings. Methought; saw the sweat of blood falling down to the ground; I had so sweet a view of my Savior in his agonies, I hope that one day I may be able to accompany him still further, and see him on Calvary, and hear his death-shriek ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ Some of you, I know, have seen Jesus with the eye of faith quite as plainly as if you had seen him with your natural eyes. You could see your Savior hanging on the cross. You thought you saw the very crown of thorns on his head, and the drops of blood streaming down his face; you heard his cry; you saw his bleeding side; you beheld the nails, and before long you could have gone and pulled them out, and wrapped him up in linen and spices, and carried his body, and washed it with tears and anointed it with precious ointment … If I were to go much farther, I should be accused of fanaticism, and so it may be; but yet I will believe and must believe that there are seasons when the Christian lives next door to heaven. … There have been seasons of ecstatic joy, when I have climbed the highest mountains, and I have caught some sweet whisper from the throne. Have you had such manifestations? I will not condemn you if you have not: but I believe most Christians have them, and if they are much in duty and much in suffering they will have them. It is not given to all to have that portion, but to some it is, and such men know what religion means … Seek, my brethren such spiritual manifestations, if you have never experienced them; and if ye have been privileged to enjoy them, seek more of them … God bless you, and lead you to seek these manifestations constantly! Amen."
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, sermon #29, June 10, 1855, The New Park Street Pulpit, 1:224-225
Spurgeon was clear: These were not the experience of salvation and not all who taste salvation will taste these experiences. But if you read the saints of old you will find one common denominator between them – those who lived fully for God experienced that which verifies the biblical promise that, "no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9). Spurgeon teaches us to long for deeper graces and to never grow content with the Cross. The church is starving because, he writes, "God has sent very few preachers who would preach up these spiritual things and the church has been getting lower and lower" (p. 228).