A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Ryan McGraw
Preaching is the primary means of grace. This means that preaching is the primary way that Christ speaks to us through his Word and Spirit so that we can meet God. Yet many modern books on preaching focus on structure and technique. Very few focus on the theology of preaching, or what the Bible says about preaching. Even fewer focus on preaching from and for the experiential knowledge of the true God through and under the preaching of the Word. This kind of experiential (or experimental) preaching is the primary focus of Joel Beeke’s Reformed Preaching. He argues forcibly from Scripture that experimental preaching marks both what preaching should be and what it has been in the Reformed tradition. His treatment of preaching is accessible, and will be useful, both to preachers and to those who sit under preaching as they learn what to expect from God through preaching.
Beeke argues that preaching Christ and preaching God’s sovereignty stand at the heart of Reformed experimental preaching (60). This is important because it brings out the evangelical, or gospel-centered, agenda that the Bible sets for preaching as well as the Reformed stress on the sovereign rule of the Triune God over all things. His book aims at promoting these emphases in preaching by a threefold division, treating the definition and description of Reformed experimental preaching, illustrations of it from church history, and applying these principles and examples today. The first and the last sections comprise a full presentation of Beeke’s own theology of preaching, while the middle section furnishes readers with a host of outstanding people to study and books to read. The material is a bit repetitive at times and much of it draws from parts of other publications. However, Beeke’s teaching is pure gold and he strikes at the heart of the needs of the church today in relation to its pulpit ministry. By way of summary, he says that Reformed experimental preaching must express passionate love to God and to people, depend prayerfully on the Holy Spirit, authentically aim at the true knowledge of the true God, flow from the minister’s own growing experience of the grace of God, diminish self-will and self-reliance, and develop from a minister who devotes his time primarily to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (93-94). This concise summary is simple enough to remember, but the book is detailed enough to make its picture o preaching both recognizable and tangible.
In addition to its general aims, many features of this book stood out to this reader. First, Beeke stresses preaching Christ in a way that is uncommon due to its breadth. In contrast to many modern approaches to preaching Christ, he presses this important duty from many angles. He lists six particular ways in which ministers should preach Christ, including prayer for illumination, a broad knowledge of Scripture, biblical theology, systematic theology, Christian ethics, and reading books that exalt Christ (404-409). By way of summary, he noted, “Christ is the overarching theme of every topic and branch of theology. Take away Christology and you mar and mangle the branches of theology left behind, such as the doctrine or God or eschatology. In fact, take away Christ and you have no theology. Christ is the center, the circumference, and the substance of Christianity” (402). If Christ is the center of Christianity, then he must also be the summary of preaching, since genuine preaching reflects both the teaching of Scripture as well as the preacher’s own experimental knowledge of God.
Second, his consistent stress on the Trinity promotes the God-centered focus of the book. For example, in relation to preaching on sanctification, Beeke wrote, “Preach holiness shaped by the work of each person of the Trinity. Call people to walk as obedient sons of the Father, who trust in the finished work of his Son as our Mediator, who benefits flow to us in life-giving streams of the Holy Spirit. Neglecting any person of the Trinity impoverishes our holiness” (426). Trinitatrian statements like these, which are scattered throughout the book, help readers retain the God-centered focus of preaching in a specific and personal rather than a generic and abstract way.
Third, the author rightly counsels preachers to explain Scripture without explaining it away (360-362). By doing so, ministers can unintentionally be ashamed of the teaching of the Bible. For example, they should not mute passages exhorting people to faith in Christ by overstressing the truths that faith is a divine gift and that people cannot believe without the work of the Spirit changing their hearts. Neither should they explain away human responsibility more broadly by eclipsing it with divine sovereignty. While biblical truths harmonize with each other, ministers must preach biblical ideas as they appear in biblical contexts. This emphasis helps wed faithfulness to the text of Scripture with the experimental emphases that characterize the book.
Joel Beeke is likely my favorite living preacher. Yet a Puritan minister once noted that not every preacher is suited to every hearer. Different men with different gifts appeal to different people. Yet few can question that Beeke practices what he writes in this book, and this reviewer has no doubt that the ethos of this kind of preaching is exactly what we need today. Preachers not only need to recover the content of Reformed theology, but the experimental quality of the best of Reformed preaching. Beeke is an excellent guide toward achieving this goal. Every reader of this book with grow in their love for the Triune God even as they learn how this good speaks through them, if they are preachers, and to them, if they are listeners.
Ryan M. McGraw
Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Buy the books
Reformed Preaching: Proclaiming God’s Word from the Heart of the Preacher to the Heart of His People