Why Calvinists Can’t Preach

olford

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 a 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.

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33 Comments

  1. Good stuff. I think any pastor/evangelist that is a true student of scripture will struggle in these areas. We should be cautious as we study and preach the words of the gospel that we do not lose sight of the wonder of the gospel.

  2. May I suggest a sixth reason why Calvinists can’t preach?

    Because Calvinists are scared of Charismatics.

    Background: Jesus called me into his KIngdom through the Charismatic movement back in the late seventies. My theology slowly moved toward the Reformed perspective over the course of the next two-and-a-half decades, but my ecclesiology had become quite Presbyterian even before that.

    I am a Ruling Elder in a PCA church. I may never grace a PCA pulpit, though as a 25 year church planter and pioneer missionary I have occupied literally hundreds of pulpits – most under grass roofs or felt and canvas tents.

    I do teach Sunday school at our church and receive many positive comments about the passion that is evident in my teaching.

    I have observed in my five years as a practicing Presbyterian and and confessional Reformed believer that Presbyterians seem to have a deathly fear of anything that smacks in the least of a Charismatic bent. Here’s my problem with that.

    The Charismatic movement has a lot (and as a former inside observer, I can say this without equivocation), A LOT wrong theologically, and probably more wrong now than when I first became a believer back in 1979. But back then, at least, we did get the passion. The worship was passionate. The preaching was passionate. The devotion to the Cross was passionate.

    I perceive that there are many things that we say we don’t practice or believe as Presbyterians, that we actually do practice and believ. We just don’t dare call them what the Charismatics call them, or do them in the excessive, unhealthy ways that some Charismatic movements do them. But we seem to shy away from many things that I believe are biblical because we have allowed those things to become tainted by association. In doing that, we’ve allowed people with what we understand to be an incorrect or incomplete theology to co-opt ideas and practices that are biblical, turn them into something that is not biblical, then keep possession of them.

    Perhaps passion in preaching is one of those things. It’s as though images of Pentecostal preachers sweating, grunting, cracking wise and playing to the crowd have so traumatized us that we just eschew anything from the pulpit that smacks of passion so as to not be identified with that crowd. We’ve thrown out the homiletic baby with the bath water.

    I fear sometimes that my Sunday school teaching slops over into preaching, but I just don’t know how to throttle back the passion. How can I talk about the Creator of the Universe in all of his glory, His love for His people, the covenant history of His dealings with mankind and the imminent coming of His eternal kingdom without getting at least a little bit worked up?

    1. As someone who grew up in a Charismatic church, I am very curious what is the “LOT” of theological wrong the Charismatics are committing. Would you mind elaborating? I am a lay person, not a theologian.

    2. Great read. I resonated with all
      Of your points. Well said!

      I thought your final point would go
      In a different direction because of the title. I was hoping some insight would have been given as to why the Reformed Faith/Calvinism is not attractive to the black community – as a whole. I believe your points above have something to do with that. Though the “CHRISTIAN RAP” community is exposing many of them to the doctrines of Grace. The way it is done in my opinion is not helping but hurting the cause.

      Thanks for taking time to write. I will share this with many. Especially pastor friends that I believe this applies!

      Btw Scott’s point below is a great 6th point.

    3. Saying the charismatic movement has a lot of wrong theology is an over-generalization. A fairly large over generalization. Or it at least neglects that the Reformed or Calvinistic ‘movement’ may also have wrong theology, or at least what I perceive as a creating an artificial distance between the Jewishness of the bible and Christianity.

      Maybe blinds spots would be a better way to put it. I guess I just see a decent number of reformed folk who lean on their theological accuracy over and against charismatics, who in many ways balance out the body of christ very well, even if theological precision isn’t something charismatics are known for. They (charis and reformed) are two hands in the body of christ. For every psycho charismatic, theirs a cold calvinist.

      I agree mostly with what you’ve said scott, I just dont think that was a fair comment regarding charismatics, in light of the many blind spots reformed folk have.

  3. As a devout Calvinist myself, I would have to mention that the greater issue is that Calvinist don’t love..right doctrine with lacking the greatest…LOVE.

  4. I mean no respect, but sincerely believe that the author of this article doesn’t know what preaching or Calvinism is. Unfortunately, the author goes on to tell preachers to manipulate people with emotionalism and deny the work of the Holy Spirit and does it by misapplying Scripture.

    1. missed. the. point.

      I may not agree with this article on every jot and tittle, but in no way does it (or its author) advocate for emotionalism or manipulation. The section on tendency to hyper-Calvinism was spot on here.

    2. You are correct, this was not worth the read. I have heard more than my share of great oratory out of so-called preachers, and most of it was valueless, a showing off of human ability, rather than the still quiet voice of the truth of God needling you.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. Allow me to explain a little of my rationale. I don’t sweep my neighbor’s porch. They don’t track mud into my house. The Arminians may have a million problems that their theology creates for them. Ours creates problems too. Not because it is defective but because we are. I want to know that I am doing my best to combat the weaknesses that are generated by our strengths. I don’t want to stand at the judgment bar and say, “But the other kids were worse.” We have to acknowledge where the dangers are for us. We have to admit that we too “have not attained” and are striving for the prize. Keep making much of Jesus. I do appreciate the feedback. It is quite encouraging.

      1. As one from the Arminian and Pentecostal traditions, I appreciate the spirit of your thoughts and responses to other’s comments. The Body of Christ is deep and wide, and there is much to learn from one another. The Church catholic transcends our individual histories/traditions/tribes. May we continue to dialogue in a spirit of love and with an eye toward edifying others as we seek to discern to Spirit’s voice and the Truth of the Word in our time.

  5. From just reading the title of the dude’s name it makes me hesitant to read the article. “His Grace, the Rt. Hon. Rev. Dr.” What in the world?

  6. I’m going to print this article, grind it up, and sprinkle it on my lawn. I think it’ll help.

    Seriously, I’m thinking this is either (A) humorous (B) written by someone who has never actually been to a Calvinistic church, or (C) written by someone confined in some sort of institution and I don’t mean a seminary.

    I spent a dozen years in 3 different varieties of Presbyterian Churches and those years and those sermons were what got me really really serious about God’s word and God’s world. I thank God for those Calvinistic sermons.

    Which, by the way, they weren’t.

    ps: I hope the author isn’t a Baptist. You know … that denomination in which I have yet to find anyone … deacon, teacher, or even, on one occasion, a seminary professor, who could tell me why you have to be baptized to join an SBC church.

  7. For some incomprehensible reason, my previous comment was not acceptable by the moderators – perhaps it had to do with a reference to strong pride many people are ironically too proud to admit practicing – I’ll attempt again assuming understanding that there is no intention to offend anyone:

    Quoting part of Brandon’s 2nd argument: “[There should be questions like, “What must I do to be saved?”]”… the first thing a Calvinist would respond with is that nothing WE do can save us, hence the second part of this point: [ or “How shall we then live?”]… in thankfulness being the answer. Living in thankfulness is not an ‘act towards’, but a ‘response to’ our salvation.

    I think the humility of Calvinist shies them away from becoming gurus. Part of being sinful creatures is to idolize and this craving can be stronger in a church that focuses on rejecting any idolatry. Too many popular preachers in media are suffering the weight of scrutiny and idolatry while others revel in the twisted benefits such fan-ship brings and go as far as to distort their message to ensure this following.

    In the end, I agree that sermons can be over-academic, less engaging with measured call for accountability and consequence that is palatable for all generations, yet never satisfying for any. How do we engage? How do we inspire? Inspiration should trump persuasion – two very different tactics. Soft impersonal preaching brings soft impersonal commitment and only those with self-driven spirit will rise. The Spirit is given from above -but can be SHARED by all.

  8. Calvinists can’t witness either. How would they approach someone? “Hey, buddy, I’ve got some good news and bad news for you. God may love you or He may hate you. Jesus may have died for your sins or He may not have. You may be going to heaven or you may be going to hell––and there is nothing you can do about it. Have a great day!”

    1. Yes, your point is well taken if you think “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” is the gospel. It’s not. We proclaim the gospel first by stating that because of our rebellion, mankind is at enmity with God. We plead with people to repent that they might be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, by faith. This is the faithful way to proclaim the gospel, not this “Jesus will fix your life” nonsense. The truth is, only Calvinists can witness and proclaim the gospel properly. Not all do, of course. However, since God is in control of all things, He takes what He will to bring His people unto Himself. That can be from the inadequate presentation of either a Calvinist or an Arminian.

      1. Yet more people’s lives have actually be changed through the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” than through the witnessing and pleading of Calvinists and that’s a fact that can be easily demonstrated.

  9. I get your point, but only Calvinist preach the gospel – those who believe in electing grace, the preeminence of Christ, and the power of the Spirit in the word. I love passion and fire, but I don’t care how gifted the speaker, if it is not the gospel, then it is a lie. Remember, the prophets of Ahab prophesied smooth things with power point presentations – they made horns and said he’d push the enemy who God said would surely destroy him. The prophets of Jezebel danced upon the altar, etc, and cut themselves until the blood poured out – very passionate preaching. But, what does it matter when you preach a gospel denied by the Scriptures? Now, everyone that claims to love Jesus – Catholics, charismatics/pentecostals, and everything under the sun except maybe Mormons and Jehovah Witness – is included in the banner of Christian, as if Luther, Calvin, Paul, and the Lord Jesus were too strict in their interpretation. You NEVER find anyone in the New Testament received as a child of God who doesn’t repent. A man can no more live in fornication than he can live in arminianism and be saved. Paul said, “That the purpose of God according to election might stand, NOT OF WORKS”, so every gospel that’s not election is a works gospel, and it cannot save.

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