Calvinists Still Can’t Preach

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Dear gentle reader (and the others too), thank you for taking the time to read my last post on preaching. I was shocked to learn that it was read upwards of 15,000 times. For many bloggers that won’t seem like a lot but it is very encouraging to me. Not that I don’t appreciate both of my regular readers, mind you. I suppose I should thank you for reading this one too. So, Gracias!

As I sifted through some of the feedback I noticed that there were some sharp objections to the article. Also, I learned that not only do many Calvinists believe in reprobation, some of them practice it. Some even seemed to be experts in Dante’s Divine Comedy as well—seeing that they told me exactly which “circle of perdition” was awaiting the likes of me. So please allow me to offer something of an apologia for my provocations. (Note: I can only defend the things that I really did say. I can’t defend the words that some of the more clairvoyant readers have cleverly divined and generously attributed to me)

Calvinistic Bona Fides

Contrary to recent speculations to the contrary, I actually am a Calvinist. If Calvinism were bourbon I would take mine neat in a dirty glass–and always 100 proof. If there were 537 “points” I would embrace 539. I am as far from Arminianism as a goose egg is from the North Pole. The piece was not written as an exercise in self-loathing by someone who is ashamed of his doctrinal commitments, or by one who wishes he could be like the cool kids down at the First Church of the Unfettered Will, Inc. I am not a soft Calvinist. I am not a lapsing Calvinist. I am a supralapsarian for Pete’s sake.

Calvinism is true.  But I think that we would better serve our side of the theological street if we would get into the habit of sweeping off our own sidewalks. We really don’t have to worry about the fellow from four streets over tracking mud into our houses. But we do have to check our own boots. Sweep your street. Broom where you are planted. Sometimes we have a tendency to curse the neighbors for the foul smell when we are actually standing knee-deep in our own predestinarian poo.

This is not to suggest that Calvinism is the problem. It is only to point out that it certainly has the potential to create some problems if it comes down with rabies and starts chasing its own tail. To extend the metaphor, this could be one reason that the mailman keeps running past our houses.

I’m Not Talking About Them

Some criticized the article because they felt as though I was picking on John MacArthur, John Piper, or one of their other favorite mega-ministers.  This is not the case at all.  I respect and admire these men. Furthermore, no one picks on Johnny Mac.  I didn’t want the article to lose its polemical edge by sentencing it to an excruciating death by qualification. Having said that, the best preachers in the world have historically been Calvinists. The best preachers in the world today are Calvinists. But this does not in any way contradict the assertion that, on the whole, Calvinists are still bad preachers.

Now, before you whip out your iPhones and start pointing with hyperextended fingers to your podcast playlist, please hear me out. Those guys may be excellent preachers. Don’t look at your playlist. Look at your local White Pages. I am talking about the Reformed churches in our communities—where we actually would be attending if only they weren’t so terrible.

Some of you might be taking this personally. Very good. I am also talking about us. I’m not Spurgeon and you aren’t Lloyd-Jones.  We are bad preachers. But we should not be content to stay that way.  A mantle has fallen on our shoulders.  This would be a fine time to start smiting rivers hither and thither and crying out, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?”

Pointers from a Primitive Pulpiteer

In Ecclesiastes 12:9-12, the “Preacher” provides for us a fascinating portrait of the minister in his study. You can see him there with furrowed brow as he wrestles with the text. He longs to make truth the central component of his message. But he also understands that the truth must be communicated well if it is to achieve maximal effectiveness. So there he is, weighing his arguments; pondering his points. See him giving great attention to the structure of the message. He is carefully crafting his sermon; arranging every part so as to teach his people knowledge. But knowledge and truth aren’t sufficient in themselves. They must be adorned in such a way that they prompt joy in the hearers. The congregant must not just be brought to believe the truth; he must be brought to rejoice in the truth. So, the Preacher, because he is wise, seeks to find words of delight. Then, as a wise builder, he drives the beautiful truths of Sacred Scripture down deep into the souls of his people, fastening them like nails in a sure place. The truth sets them free because it has been set free in all of its glory.  That’s a sermon fit for a King.

May God burden us with a sense of holy dissatisfaction. Mediocrity is a menace. Complacency is compromise. Apathy is but shoulders shrugging their way into apostasy. To whom much is given, much shall be required.

We may not be the best but we can be better. We must do better. We cannot continue to offer up wood, hay, and stubble from our pulpits. We aren’t excellent preachers but nothing less than excellence will do. We don’t aspire to excellence so that people will go away saying, “What a sermon,” we aspire to excellence so they will go away saying, “What a Savior!”

Why Calvinists Can’t Preach

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I have been known to toss a few rocks here and there so it is good for me to remember the old adage concerning glass houses. In that spirit, I offer this as the first in a series of posts that will deal with #calvinistprobs. Hopefully we can be about the task of bricking up our own walls instead of just criticizing how fast the chariots zoom around the tops of the high walls of our brethren.

Those of us who fly the Reformed banner are usually very good at picking at nits, engineering mountains out of molehills, and brewing considerable tempests in teapots. We are not so good, however, at seeing the problems that are behind our own eyes and between our own ears. So this is something of a confession. But this is also an exercise in obedience to the scriptural injunction given through Paul that we “mind our own business.” While splinters abound throughout Christendom, there seem to be beams a plenty protruding from our own pious faces. That seems a reasonable place to begin.

Calvinists cannot preach. If we have the ability we have become quite adept at concealing it and demonstrating the converse. We have the reputation of being gun barrel straight and gun powder dry. We are often referred to as the “frozen chosen”. This is largely due to the fact that we have polar bears in our pulpits. To be clear, these are not compliments. These labels are not to be worn as badges of honor. They should shame us. Although we are given the task of boring into the hearts of our people with Divine truth, we have settled for just boring people. I heard RC Sproul say in a meeting in which I was in attendance, “It is a sin to bore people. The gospel is too glorious for that.” He is right.

So why is it that Calvinists cannot preach? Let me attempt to give a few reasons why I think that this is the case.

1. Calvinists can’t preach because we don’t know what sermons are.

For most 5-Point pulpiteers a sermon is little more than a running commentary, festooned with footnotes by dead Germans. Most are heavy on the “orthy” and weak on the “doxy”. This usually degenerates into something more like orthodusty. After hearing the 437th quote from Wilhelm Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler, some parishioners are ready to cry out, “So let the dead bury their dead and be done with it already! ”

Sermons aren’t commentaries; sermons are events. Sermons are glimpses into glory. To hear a sermon should be to catch a sight of Christ. To hear a sermon should be to feel the wind of heaven in your face. One should expect to receive an edict from the throne room because God is speaking. One should feel the tremors from the thunder of Sinai and the rumble of rending rocks at Calvary’s mournful mountain. One should not, however, think that he has wandered into Mrs. Smith’s third grade class on book report day. Calvinists will remain poor preachers until they learn that sermons are events through which people encounter the Holy.

2. Calvinists can’t preach because we are brains on feet.

Reformed people, and even more so Reformed ministers, are thinking people. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. But all virtues carry with them their own attendant vices. One potential problem for those who are characterized as “thinkers” is that they may become mobile cerebral cortexes in Nikes. They are all head and no heart.

We tend to forget that God formed man with three faculties: mind, emotion (or affections as Edwards preferred), and will. Our tendency is to speak to only one of these faculties. We become talking heads that speak only to nodding heads. We want to make sure that we have all of our theological i’s dotted and all of our doctrinal t’s crossed. One potential hazard with this alphabet soup approach to preaching is that dotted i’s and crossed t’s may very well result in a good case of snoring zzz’s.

We have to remember that pulpits aren’t lecterns. We are to preach. We are to herald the good news as though it actually is. We cannot be content with the mere impartation of information. There must also be an element of inspiration. And that usually requires a fair amount of perspiration. We have to present the content of our sermons as truth but we mustn’t stop there. We must also adorn the doctrine of God so that the truth is seen to be lovely; to be viewed as beautiful. We are not just seeking the people’s attention, we are also trying to win their affection. But we are not trying to make ourselves the object of affection. We want Christ to be perceived as “altogether lovely” so that we may witness what Chalmers called, “the expulsive power of a new affection.” That is, as men and women are transfixed by the loveliness of Christ, they will be transformed by it.

But we are not even finished when we have created in our people a hunger for holiness and a taste for the sweet things of God. We must also incite the will. We want to move them to action. Above all, we want to move them to true worship that works its way into all of life. So we address heads, we address hearts, and we address hands. Our imperatives must be founded upon gospel indicatives but there must be imperatives. There must always be a sense of “because this, then that”. Preaching should make people ask certain questions throughout. There should be questions like, “What must I do to be saved?” or “How shall we then live?” Preaching should seek to answer those questions as it explains how to faithfully apply the gospel. Until we remember that men are more than brains on feet we will remain poor preachers.

3. Calvinists can’t preach because we are scared to death of anything that moves.

God killed Nadab and Abihu for their presumptuous venture into liturgical innovation. Thus we understand that there is very little that God takes more seriously than how His services are conducted. “New and improved” is not something that we seek when it comes to the worship of God. We rightfully understand that preaching is the central element of worship in the Christian Church. But once again, this virtue carries with it a potential vice. We are so afraid of “strange fire” that we are quite content to not have any fire at all. We love facts but we tend to think that feelings have as much place in a worship service as a ham sandwich does at a synagogue. But again, this is to misunderstand how God made us. We are made to feel and to feel deeply. But often we are fearful that if we aren’t careful we will end up with feeling-driven churches. So be careful! Facts aren’t feelings but facts should lead to feelings; the right type of feelings. The truth of the gospel, sweetly proclaimed, should lead to a warm, evangelical delight.

The pulpit is no place for dispassionate theologizing. We are not in the business of seeing who can quote the longest list of the venerable dead. Passion is a necessity in preaching. Passion in the pulpit produces passion in the pew. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Where there is no passion there is no preaching.” If Lloyd-Jones is not a suitable model then consider the ministry of the incarnate God. No one could ever accuse the Lord Jesus of lacking passion. Righteous zeal consumed His entire ministry. Never a man spake like this man. Is He not something of a pattern for us?

Part of our problem is that we learn how to preach from what we preach. Reformed ministers love epistles. But epistles are not sermons—they are epistles. They are not examples of what biblical preaching looks like. If you want to see preaching look to the book of Acts. Roughly one-fourth of every sentence in Acts is part of a sermon. Analyze these models and see if there is any lack of sanctified passion. The Apostle Paul went so far as to remind the church at Ephesus of the many tears which he shed for them as he labored among them in the Word (Acts 20:17-21). Paul wept as he preached. As long as we are afraid to go forth weeping, bearing precious seed, we will remain poor preachers and we will bring in few sheaves from the field.

4. Calvinists can’t preach because we tend toward hyper-calvinism.

Hyper-calvinism is the belief that God works independently and without the use of divinely constituted means. Most of us would seriously object to any form of hyper-calvinism at the theoretical level but we often capitulate to it at the practical level. We argue that God ordinarily works through the means which He has ordained; Word and sacrament in particular. We argue that God saves people through the Word made audible, visible, and tangible. But then we turn right around and act as if this isn’t true at all.

On a practical level we assume that since “Salvation is of the Lord” it doesn’t matter how we preach as long as we say true words. That’s nonsense. I think Daniel Akin is correct when he says, “What you say is the most important thing but how you say it could not be more important.”

We suffer, not only from a lack of passion in our preaching, but also from a lack of persuasion. Paul didn’t suffer from such hyper-calvinistic tendencies. He knew the terror of the Lord and on that basis he sought to persuade men. He thought that much of his job was tied up in convincing people.

We preach axioms but never arguments. We are big on references and wary of rhetoric. We love exegesis but despise engagement. We are so afraid of manipulation that we don’t seek to influence our hearers at all. We break out in a cold sweat if we hear a minister exhort his hearers to “choose” or to “decide” or to “commit”. This is not true Calvinism, it is hyper-calvinism. We will ever be poor preachers if our sermons do not summon men and press them hard for a decision. We will ever be poor preachers if we do not learn something of the art of persuasion.

5. Calvinists can’t preach because we are colorblind.

I know this is the case because Calvinists can’t see the deep red hue of the Rose of Sharon. We can’t feel the dampness of the dew of Hermon beneath our feet. We can’t taste the sweetness of the honey and the honeycomb. We can’t hear the thundering beat of the angel’s wings as they hover overhead with antiphonal song. The living water for us is tepid. The world of the Bible is a dismal grey with no tone or texture. We have no imagination. We are the bland leading the bland. The Bible is alive and powerful and we do our best to make sure that it comes across as dead and dull as is possible. And our sermons come from our pulpits marked “DOA”.

Prophets and poets alike made it their business to describe things. Paul was never afraid that his superlatives would be bruised into an unsightly “purple prose”. This is because lofty things require lofty words. People will never be able to “taste and see that the Lord is good” as long as we hold Him out as day old bread, full of mold and mites.

It seems that we want to be the heirs of the Puritans but we don’t want any of their traits. We want the benefit of their ministries without the burden of having to pattern after them. We want Edwards’ Awakening but we don’t want to describe spiders and the slippery soles of sinful feet. We want Spurgeon’s mantle but we don’t want to follow him across the swelling Jordan. Just give us the portion of goods that fall to us. Calvinists will remain poor preachers until we learn to see in color.

We must recover passion, persuasion, and a good sense of poetry. We must preach the whole gospel to the whole person. We must enlighten minds, enflame affections, and excite wills. We must preach a lovely Lord to a lost world. We must seek to take every rebellious thought captive through expository apologetics; preaching the truth, goodness, and beauty of our High-ascended Lord.