The Voice of God and Our Response
How do we experience God?
Today many searching questions are directed to the church. They concern themselves with its preaching and teaching. Although the questions vary, they are associated with 'experience.' This, in itself, is a rather unspecific vogue word; everyone seems to interpret it in his own fashion. Yet it is useful to reflect on the issues that are concerned with it. For in a certain way they affect specific aspects of our Christian life.
It may happen that a Reformed catechism student brings up the question "How do you experience God in everyday life?" Catechism students have already heard a great deal about God. During Bible reading, preaching and in catechism classes they have familiarized themselves with many beautiful words about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. They know that this God is the God of their lives. This has been impressed upon them by their parents, teachers and officebearers. But these church members, as they grow up, will live in an ungodly society. God has been banished from public life. Only the blasphemous words of those around them bring to mind the God of their ancestors. And so every week again these young church members have to cross the bridge that spans the gap between Sunday and Monday.
When these church members are inquisitive about experiencing God in their daily lives, they deserve a sincere and thoughtful answer. Are we, indeed, in our cold and technological society still encountering the God to whom we sing our praises with psalms every Sunday during the worship services?
Once engaged with these questions, we find that the one question readily leads to the next.
Does the church really help us recognize God when our experiences in life become perplexing? In addition to our 'life's perplexities' should we not be aware as well about the enormous problems of our countless fellow men? Today's media daily confront us with these issues; we simply cannot escape being aware of them.
This is readily followed by a third question: How does a personal, genuine, authentic experience of faith manifest itself in the lives of Reformed people? Everything in the Reformed churches has been meticulously arranged: here is the preaching, this is the liturgy, and there are the catechism classes. Even our terminology and concepts are neatly lined up. But does all this not make for a chilly and dry approach? Does it not make for a collection of truths that remain remote? What, within the Reformed Church, can be said about our minds? Do they not stay cold? Given the abundance of doctrinal instruction, do our minds (in spite of it) not wither away because of permanent undernourishment? Does preaching touch the hearts of the listeners, or does it not reach beyond mere intellect and perception?
Besides, questions in this category are stimulated by the religious enthusiasm that radiates from all kinds of upbeat faith experiences which can be found in Pentecostal and charismatic movements, as well as in Methodistic cheerfulness, not to mention Oriental, non-Christian mysticism with its barrage of propaganda in our western world.
How faith is experienced
No doubt, the questions formulated above are a collection of well-considered and less mature inquiries. At any rate, they are able to convince us that Reformed people are questioning many things at present.
We will try to help answer these questions. But the large quantity of material that is available in this area will need a focal point. We wish to pursue the question whether it is a characteristic of Reformed doctrine (i.e. in preaching and catechism) to ignore man's inner life (i.e. his feelings and experiences).
We realize that this question is rather provocative. For centuries people have been thinking about this issue, and we realize that it has resulted in many misconceptions. Although a shipwreck on a beach does not make us renounce the shipping trade as such, the wreck is a strong reminder of the need for steering a safe course.
Thus it is with our topic. We have to deal with man's subjectivity: his inner experiences, his reflecting on himself and examining himself. False starts, misconceptions and mishaps are plentiful in this area.
We all know about the negative consequences of subjectivism: it is preoccupied with man's introspection in the hope of encountering God there, hearing His voice and getting to know His way. Given this situation, we see that man is searching in vain for assurance of faith. In desperation he searches within himself to find out whether he possesses the marks of grace and election or not. For if he is able to drag up these marks from the depth of his experiences and force them to become visible, only then will his heart be permitted to enjoy peace with God. Yet, all this toil proves to be fruitless and meanwhile his life runs down, filled with anxieties and debilitating doubts.
This is the picture of subjectivism which we recognize only too well from history. When we start to reflect on current forays into the regions of 'experiencing God,' the same kind of subjectivism (in modern garb) can threaten us as well. Even so, we accept this risk in that we will not side-step this theme.
The reason is, namely, that this theme clearly raises a legitimate question: "How does Reformed preaching touch the heart of man?" Does the sound and sense of the preaching find a response in man's heart, feelings and conscience? They are most likely not the worst kind of catechism students who bring up these kinds of questions.
Luther and God's promise
On the occasion of the anniversary of Luther's birth (November 1983) Professor Dr. W, van 't Spijker of Apeldoorn *(Transl. note) published an excellent book on the life and teaching of Luther. He gave his book the remarkable subtitle Promise and Experience. This subtitle confronts us right away with the fact that experience apparently played an important role in the life and teaching of the great reformer. Luther's eyes were opened to the glory of the promise of God. He was the one who called the church back out of the many uncertainties of Roman Catholic life to the absolute trustworthiness of God's promise for His people. To Luther this promise meant salvation itself, which in the manifestation of the preaching is offered to the church and is being received by her in faith.
But once Luther started to talk about the experience of a Christian, he did not know when to stop. After all, how often does human experience not contradict the Word of promise? Frequently, one has to defy everyone and everything to anchor one's faith firmly in the Word of God. In such situations the heart of man is beset by temptations, and faith must then be vigorously exercised to pacify his heart.
But this is not the only form in which experience presents itself. Faith also knows about its own positive experiences. During such moments a child of God will be able to thoroughly enjoy his riches, and in doing so experience the depth and warmth which the communication with the Lord affords him. Does the Book of Psalms not mention both kinds of experiences: the temptations as well as tasting the goodness of God? How often did Luther not teach us about both in a profound and striking way? At this point, however, Luther is not our main topic. We referred to him merely to emphasize that the connection between promise and experience received attention already from the very beginning of the Reformation.
To support this we could also call upon our Reformed confession as a witness. Here follows just one example:
A speaking conscience
It is remarkable that at a crucial juncture a Reformed confession broaches the matter of conscience. We have in mind Lord's Day 23 of the Heidelberg Catechism, answer 60. After the question:
How are you righteous before God?" the answer is: "Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ....
While reading this crucial statement, we cannot get around the question: "Why not just say: 'Though God accuses me', or else: 'though the Law of God accuses me'?" But in Lord's Day 23 it is the conscience that is the accuser, and it is God Who acquits. Evidently, however, not everybody's conscience accuses him this way. Many consciences will do nothing else but justify and soothe themselves. So it is apparently a Christian believer who speaks here. But before such an extensive and devastating accusation is brought forward, it will be obvious that a person must have gone through considerable inner turmoil. No one is able to produce this kind of accusation from his own emotional inventory. Even if this were possible, no one would ever have the urge to do so.
Now, the conscience is an indicator of man's self-awareness. Man has received the ability to confront, judge, and condemn himself as the case may be. We could also speak of the 'heart' of man. At any rate, the voice of conscience is always a matter of human subjectivity. It raises the question of how the human conscience arrives at the broad and relentless accusation of Lord's Day 23. Everybody will understand that this conscience did not have some secret revelation at its disposal. The voice of this conscience comes from elsewhere. It is the voice of man's misery (Lord's Day 2), and our knowledge of this misery is exclusively found in the law of Christ's love.
We may say then that in Lord's Day 23 the human heart has become a sounding board for the Law of God. The accusation of the Law resonates in the voice of our conscience. The testimony of the Law did not remain a strange and remote voice: it got through to man and subdued him. For if human conscience itself is able to formulate the accusation, it shows the irrefutable power of the Law's indictment. This indictment has touched man so deeply that the accused himself can now put it into words. This does not happen very often at a trial in a court of justice.
In this case the accusation comes from within and the acquittal from without. This is what happens when man is justified before God. At the same time we take into account that this speaking conscience is also the setting where man struggles with himself.
We think of Romans 7 and Lord's Day 33 which has: "...heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin and more and more to hate it and flee from it; heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works."
God's Law in our hearts
We think that in this single detail of the Reformed confession a precious legacy of both Luther and Calvin is passed on to us. As often as we read the Form of the Celebration of the Lord's Supper we are reminded to reflect on our sins and condemnation. When we stand before the crucified Christ, our hearts ought to be filled with the realization of our misery. Therefore this form is also able to mention our 'broken and contrite hearts' as well as 'hungry and thirsty souls.'
Also Article 35 of The Belgic Confession echoes this language when it confesses here the following about the work of Christ during the celebration of the Lord's Supper:
He nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of His flesh, and refreshes and renews them by the drinking of His blood.
We may conclude then that this Reformed doctrine leaves ample room for man's subjectivity and self-examination. The voice of God and His Law will at long last coincide with our own voice. The response of our hearts amplifies the voice of the preaching of God's Law.
Having a clear conscience
This response is not limited to mere knowledge of faith about our misery. A knowledge of faith about being redeemed from God's wrath through the sacrifice of Christ will resonate in the human heart as well.
While fighting the battle of faith, we do not need to be discouraged by our little strength nor our faltering steps. For Christ has earned our justification, and by being justified our consciences are comforted and set free. The law which condemns us was stripped by Christ of its power and autonomous rule. That is why we are able, every day anew, to joyfully take up arms against the sin that is part of us, and do this with a 'free and good conscience.' This is the language of Lord's Day 12, Answer 32 where the Catechism describes the royal office of a Christian. We recognize here the apostle's message in 1 Timothy 1:18.
Even though there is much which we should indeed be ashamed of, there is no reason to feel like defeatist soldiers in our battle of faith against sin and the devil. We have the right to join the battle because we have been justified by Christ. In fact, nobody is in a position to tell us that we have actually no right to present ourselves as enemies of sin, inasmuch as we at times still act as an accomplice of sin. A 'free and good conscience' does not speak about our good intentions, but about Christ's work of salvation within us.
Besides, a Christian may engage himself in the pursuit of a 'free and good conscience' by leading a life of thankfulness. In this case a 'good conscience' means as much as a 'Christian walk of life,' which we long for wholeheartedly. Both Hebrews 13:18 and 1 Peter 3:16 use the expression 'a good conscience' in an identical sense.
Living in sin is a threat to this conscience (cf. The Canons of Dort, V, 5). Yet in accordance with Acts 24:16 this confession speaks also about "the serious and holy pursuit of a good conscience and of good works." Thus, in a positive sense, our self-evaluation may converge with God's (benign) judgment over our lives. This explains why Paul can appeal to his good conscience (2 Corinthians 1:12). And now it also becomes clear why the apostle John is able to set a person's mind at ease by making an appeal to God's omniscience,1even though the heart condemns itself (1 John 3:19-22). For right in the midst of the discord in our lives, and though we are obviously failing, God probes the very bottom of our hearts, our deepest urges and our ultimate longings. Nothing is hidden from His sight: He knows that we love Him and His service (cf. John 21:15-17).
It goes without saying that God's law and the gospel will resound in the human conscience only when both are bound together within our hearts. Though the soundboard of a violin may be ever so expertly crafted, it will produce no sound as long as the strings are not made to vibrate. Thus our argument about a conscience with a voice is ultimately an invitation for proper preaching; this means preaching about our misery, our redemption, and our thankfulness.
Subjectivism and its powerful influence
Our communion with God touches our conscience; we could even say: the very core of our hearts. The question is now: what do we mean, in this context, by the word 'heart'?
A well-known exegete (A. Noordzij) describes the heart as man's 'secret forge' the workshop where plans are 'being forged.' This explanation can no doubt be applied, in a Biblical sense, to many situations. How emphatically did the Lord Christ not speak about the many impurities that proceed out of the heart and defile man (Mark 7:21-23).
We could add to Noordzij's explanation that the heart is not only the workshop, but also the secret 'processing plant' of man. It is the place where man processes his experiences and emotions, and where he tries to make room in his mind for new impressions.
In doing so, each heart has its own approach and secrets. For "each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy" (Proverbs 14:10). Each heart also knows its own struggle. All of this means, too, that our faith in God touches our hearts as the seat of our feelings. The human heart knows about its own 'experience' of God's grace, but also of the voice of protest which God's grace calls forth in the life of man.
The 'workshop' in man's heart is at the same time a meeting place of polarities. The voice of the law and the Gospel and the counter voice of temptations meet each other in the heart where both voices would like to make themselves heard. This is why ideas so often collide in the human heart: the wisdom of God and our own insights contend with each other for power.
Moreover, God wraps up His wisdom in the foolishness of the preaching of the cross, whereas we are inclined to tell ourselves that our insights are the ultimate wisdom. One moment God's revealed promises and demands resound in our hearts, while the next moment they are overpowered by opposing voices.
As we have called these movements within our hearts 'experience,' it should be clear to everyone that even though faith is accompanied by good experiences, many experiences will turn out to be hostile to faith.
Therefore, the one who likes to base his assurance of faith on experience will turn into a restless person, a hounded wanderer, a problem carrier who, sighing and sobbing, will never be at peace with God, nor will ever find rest within his own heart.
The reader will have inferred by now that we are trying to protect ourselves against the unwholesome power of subjectivism. This is because subjectivism is looking for assurance within ourselves and in our own experiences of faith, as if this tumultuous human heart would be the choicest place for a meeting with God.
Although we advocate taking human subjectivity into account in man's relationship with God, we also want to protect ourselves against subjectivism. A mere glance at the history of the Reformed churches obliges us to take this position.
The history of subjectivism
When we survey church history onward from the establishment of our church federation in 1571, it strikes us that the so-called Second Reformation has taken up an important position during these last four centuries.
The preachers of the Second Reformation – generally known as the 'ancient writers' – started to attract attention soon after 1571.
They emphasized the necessity of leading a Christian walk of life. This happened while the situation in the church of the seventeenth century began to show the unhealthy symptoms associated with a state church.
Emphasizing the necessity of a Christian walk of life is, of course, entirely appropriate. As such it has hardly anything to do with legalism, stand-offishness, narrow-mindedness, and Puritan scrupulousness. The Word of God is abundantly clear about the necessity of loving God and our neighbour in deed and in truth. It should nonetheless be obvious that because of shifting the accent to the practice of godliness, the focus of the attention became man's behaviour and activities before the face of God. This also meant that, together, people had to reflect on the work of the Holy Spirit in man; or, to put it differently, they had to think about the sanctification of life before God.
Whoever is going to speak about this matter cannot keep silent about the sincerity of the heart and the purity of the will before the eyes of God. In fact, this point will receive the full weight of emphasis when one seeks to escape from the one-sidedness of people who are interested in nothing else but the accuracy of doctrine.
Briefly then, at that time the whole matter of human subjectivity was put on the agenda. And this, in turn, resulted in much scrutinizing of the human soul as well as the reactions and behaviour-patterns of man.
The marks of the Spirit
Many misconceptions emerged during the course of the Second Reformation. In a certain way the sanctification of life came to be associated with the assurance of faith. And so, for instance, the question was raised about the marks of the Spirit. These marks would, supposedly, supply the answers to the question whether the Holy Spirit truly dwells in one's heart.
It did not take long before the questioning about these marks turned into something else: man's self-experience has to deliver proof that he is a child of God and is entitled to that name. Here we have arrived at the infamous doctrine of the marks of grace, the purpose of which is to serve as conclusive proof that one is, indeed, allowed to call God his Father.
Exactly on this very issue many generations were taken captive by subjectivism. The idea was that one had to find in oneself and in one's own experiences the basis for the assurance of faith. This way of thinking caused a great deal of suffering. The reason for this was that all kinds of trouble and sorrow were unleashed during the process of self-observation, such as: uncertainty, hesitation, temptations, torments, anxieties and self-contempt.
What happened was that people in the congregation were classified according to their pre-sent condition; that is: the status and phases of their souls. This was accompanied by the disintegrating force of a special approach to the doctrine of election. This method paralyzed the covenantal promise of God. We, too, are acquainted with this kind of reasoning: How do I know that the promise of God (as, for instance, stated in the form of baptism) applies to me as well? How can I find out if this general promise is also for me personally? For the promise is actually only for the elect, is it not? And so the assurance of faith can be obtained only through the assurance of having been elected.
Also in this regard the marks of grace insisted on having the last word. Only when the evidence of these marks had become sufficiently strong, would the knowledge of faith be able to develop into trust. And so a faith that was seeking refuge would finally turn into a faith that could enjoy assurance.
The struggle about covenant and self-examination
This subjectivism never really vanished from the descendants of the Reformed people of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Secessionists of 1834 took it along, and today this notion is still prominent in the 'Gereformeerde Gemeenten' and the 'Oud Gereformeerde Gemeenten' in the Netherlands. *(Transl. note)
Also within the Reformed churches this subjectivism lived on for a very long time. This became evident during the 'Thirties' when the assurance of faith was consistently founded on the promises of the covenant which God has made with all those who were baptized in His Name.
This accentuation met with much opposition. This is what we call the dispute about covenant and self-examination. The questions raised in this dispute were: "What is the purpose of man's introspection? Is it for bridging the gap between the doubting human heart on the one side and the assurance of faith on the other? Is this really the object of self-examination? Or are we to take our point of departure in the assurance of faith, and examine our walk of life before the Lord with a view to God's promises and demands?"
Actually, this struggle of some fifty years ago should be seen as a confrontation with the legacy of the Second Reformation. Several important reasons prompt us to pay attention to these issues so as to get a clear picture of them. We wish to point out four aspects related to this issue.
- When we keep in mind the confrontation of the 'Thirties,' we will be able to see the background of the struggle of the 'Forties' which dealt with the nature of God's covenant.
- Whoever opens his eyes to the fact that it was the Second Reformation that was being confronted, will not one-sidedly associate the struggle of 1930/1944 with the name of Abraham Kuyper. There is no doubt that his legacy was critically examined, but so was the legacy of the Secession.
- It is, therefore, less astounding than it seemed at first sight, that after the Liberation not much headway was made in the talks between 'Christelijke Gereformeerden' and the churches of the Liberation. Without question, their mutual struggle against Kuyperian ideas had initially drawn them closer together, but this cannot be said about breaking away from the subjectivism of the Second Reformation.
- It comes as no surprise, then, that from the very onset the preaching in the churches of the Liberation strongly reacted against subjectivism. For we are unable to find any assurance of faith within ourselves. This would be tantamount to a ship dropping anchor into its own hold.
'Subjective' and 'objective' preaching
There was a time that Reformed churchgoers were comfortable in using the terms onderwerpelijk or voorwerpelijk preaching during their Sunday conversations. This happened during grandmother's days, but in our age there will be hardly anyone left who can explain to us the meaning of these mysterious words. Although we do not lament this ignorance, it does not follow that the Sunday conversations of our own days are conducted at a more advanced level.
It seems, therefore, relevant to pay attention to the kind of reasoning that is implicit in the usage of these outdated terms. By using the terms 'onderwerpelijk' and 'voorwerpelijk' our ancestors tried to distinguish between two styles of preaching. 'Onderwerpelijk' functioned as an (inadequate) translation of subjective and 'voorwerpelijk' as an equally imperfect translation of objective. This distinction did not apply only to the preaching but also to characterizing the nature of 'faith' and 'truth.'
What was meant by a subjective sermon should be clear by now. This kind of sermon proclaims the Word of God in such a way that the truth makes an urgent appeal to the listener's heart. He feels personally addressed and is touched in his innermost being. As well, an appeal is made to his personal feelings and experiences. His experiences are then herded in the direction of self-examination, so that he may find out whether or not he possesses the marks of grace and the fruits of conversion.
We are now speaking about the kind of preaching that characterized the churches of the Secession. These churches considered themselves the undisputed heirs of the Second Reformation (spiritual heirs of 'Father Brakel').
The most positive aspects of this type of preaching can be found in its warmth, its cordiality and the emphasis on experience. And living a humble and responsive life before God is both illustrated and encouraged.
But the great drawback of this type of preaching lies in the tendency of telling God's children (on reaching the sermon's conclusion) to take a close look at themselves for the assurance of faith. Though God's rich promises are put on display, the sermon does not end with the question: "Do you believe in these promises?" but rather with the question: "Do you belong to God's people?"
When even the most positive form of this 'subjective' preaching ends up this way, one can readily understand the harmful turn this kind of sermon can drift into. It preaches uncertainty and being afraid of God. Bewailing sins and endlessly talking about the many twisted and deformed aspects of the soul, the preacher goes his way among the congregation, all the while sighing about that assembly of unregenerated people among whom can be found an odd sanctified soul.
At any rate, the struggle of the 'Thirties' referred to above, was as well a struggle against this particular kind of subjectivism in the preaching.
The next topic concerns 'objective' preaching. One can almost sense by now what our forebears meant by this. In objective preaching the accents are placed in a different way. The preacher stays close to his text and explains it thoroughly. He applies himself to instructing the congregation in the doctrine of the truth. And when his sermon deals with the Heidelberg Catechism, he seeks to edify the congregation and establish her in the true knowledge of faith.
Every now and then this preacher will speak about 'divine truths' which have been revealed to us. The 'knowledge' of God (wherein lies life eternal) is for him not primarily a subjective or affective knowledge, but rather a knowledge of the Bible and confession. Have we not learned that 'My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge?' (Hos.4:6).
The strength of this style of preaching lies in its exegetic zeal, its respect for the Bible text, and its preoccupation with the doctrine of the church. This style of preaching does not approach the congregation with engaging stories but with solid doctrinal matters.
Yet, this style of preaching is not without its own apparent limitations and inherent risks. There is a real danger that this kind of sermon will not move onward and outward beyond the limits of the pulpit from which it is delivered. That is to say: the people in the pews do not at all feel themselves addressed by it. There is no doubt that they are being brought up in orthodox doctrine, but this orthodoxy can be as unyielding as a rock and as cold as a stone.
This 'truth' in itself does not conquer the soul nor the human heart with its emotions. It does not provide the warm comfort which man craves in trying to deal with his problems and temptations.
What the minister says is that actually there are no problems at all. The problems that do exist are of our own making. The pastor further tells us that doubting is out of order because the truth is firm and reliable.
In the meantime it is found that man remains cold and indifferent in spite of the infallible truths that are presented ever so methodically and matter-of-factly, each Sunday anew. Everything in this kind of sermon testifies to firmness and certainty. Still, none of these solid truths is able to impress man, nor have him stand in awe before the face of God. When this impassiveness happens, we talk about 'dead orthodoxy.'
Why do we trouble ourselves talking about 'subjective' and 'objective' preaching in the first place? How does this matter relate to the theme of our response in faith? The issue has four aspects that concern us.
- When we take a look at history we see the pendulum constantly swing back and forth between subjective and objective preaching. When during the seventeenth century, cold, objective preaching gained ascendancy, the Pietistic movement reacted strongly against this style. Without this background information we are unable to grasp what happened during the Second Reformation.
It is clear, however, that the opposite can happen just as well. In this event people start to discern the dangers of subjective preaching. The result will be a swerving over in the direction of objectivism. Whereas subjectivism has a tendency to give the human soul its own independent voice, objective preaching runs the risk of squelching any response. In the former case it is the echo, the response that is at risk; in the latter case it is the sound itself that is in jeopardy. And if there is no echo, no response, the sound is evidently not present.
- In the days of our forefathers an attempt was made to reduce the tension between both kinds of preaching by giving the main points a balanced weighing.
A capable minister was known for his skills in doing justice to both the subjective and objective aspects. This was accomplished by coming to terms with the exegesis before the 'intermediate' song (halfway through the sermon), next to be followed by the application. This duality: exegesis-application runs parallel with other paired factors, such as:
reason – heart
knowledge – confidence
external truth - internal truth
teaching – walk of life
confession – experience
In particular the items mentioned in the right column are associated with the work of the Holy Spirit in the personal appropriation of faith, which is linked with experience of faith.
- One of the many gains made in the discussions of the 'Thirties' put an end to the duality of subjective-objective preaching. Several names could be mentioned in this connection. Suffice it to refer to B. Holwerda who lucidly explained why both types of preaching are faulty, and that therefore a balanced combination of both cannot result in untarnished preaching.2
This explains why our worship services no longer need an intermediate song and why our young people no longer understand the meaning of 'subjective' and 'objective' preaching.
- Though the use of certain words becomes obsolete, the problems associated with them may well live on undiminished. That is why it makes sense to ask ourselves in this age what we have done, practically, with the results gained in the battle against subjectivism. Has this reaction not drawn us nearer to objectivism after all?
We should not be afraid of critically examining ourselves on this point. In fact, we ought to come to terms with it. The answer could be important not only for the internal building up of the congregation, but also in regard to our contacts with the outside. Especially in the last instance we have in mind our relationship with the Free Reformed Churches. This is namely one of the reasons for having undertaken this study.
How covenantal preaching touches the heart
Thus it was that forty years ago the Reformed Churches (Liberated) did away with the schematic distinction which lay at heart of subjective and objective preaching. Holwerda and others no longer wished to make a choice between these two options. At the same time they rejected the fondly retained balance: this in part and that in part, here a little and there a little.
How did all this come about after a centuries-old rule of the dilemma? What formed the basis for its rejection? It is crystal clear that this basis was found in a keener vision concerning the nature of God's covenant. Both in the Scriptures and in the preaching (i.e. the recording and administration of the Word of God) the living God speaks to His people. Therefore the entire sermon should have the voice of an address. The issue is neither a subjective perception of one's heart nor an objective proclamation of doctrine, but the address of the speaking God of the covenant.
This also means, for instance, that the exegetical element (regularly present in each sermon) should resonate in this particular key. While explaining the passage of Scripture, the expert is not holding forth so as to impress his audience with his in-depth knowledge of an ancient text. Rather, when he expounds Scripture from the pulpit (i.e. exegesis as part of the administration of the Word) – the words of the covenant are addressed to the congregation.
A clear picture of the nature of God's covenant will help us to be lifted above the level of subjective preaching. If this is so, it cannot follow that resistance against subjective preaching will necessarily lead to objective preaching. Fortunately not! For this would be like getting out of a torrent and into a drizzle. This is why true covenantal preaching does not bear the least resemblance to cold, objective preaching.
Even so, a pseudo-covenantal sort of preaching can sometimes be heard. This happens when the minister conspicuously drops the word 'covenant' every once in a while. But using this word repeatedly cannot salvage the sermon. Though the word 'covenant' be repeated over and over again, one can still be trapped in a cerebral, intellectualistic and cold style of preaching, so much a characteristic of objectivism.
On a routine basis we deal perfunctorily with both the 'promise' and 'demand' of the covenant, and the congregation gets neither hot nor cold about it. Whoever truly understands what 'covenant' signifies, cannot help but address the congregation of God in a warm and loving way, and let them hear the beautiful words of their God. For in the word of the covenant God opens His heart to us. This kind of preaching has nothing at all to do with objectivism, or with covenant-collectivism or automatism, or with whatever curious things one can dream up in this context.
This is not to say that no errors were made in the preaching since the Liberation. But we deny categorically that objective preaching was inherent in the issue at stake, or that this style of preaching was demanded because of the rule of God's covenant.
True, we still need to warn one another against subjectivism or objectivism. But by overreacting against the subjective legacy of the Second Reformation, someone may quite possibly succumb to the temptation of objective preaching with its chilly correctness and aloof orthodoxy. Anything can happen, for we are daily prone to go astray in many ways. Even so, covenantal preaching as such is neither subjective nor objective.
When God's Word resounds
If, up to this point, our discourse has any validity we may conclude that Reformed preaching, too, seeks a response in the heart. In the same way as a violinist wants the sounding board of his instrument to respond, so the Reformed preacher seeks for the response in the hearts of the believers.
For God, in His word of the covenant, does not only open His heart to us, but He also seeks our hearts. A Reformed preacher will therefore desire to give guidance to the believers so that they may recognize God in their own lives. By means of the proclamation of the Word it is God Himself who speaks to us. He does not introduce a number of objective doctrinal facts so that our supply of religious knowledge may increase.
Not so, through the preaching He takes hold of our life in its totality. He lays His hands upon us; He declares His love for us and grants us His favour in Christ. He lays claim to our love and enlists our hearts, our minds and all our strength. This is how one truly comes to know the Lord. It is a knowledge of the heart and coincides with trusting the Lord and a desire to keep His commandments.
This is the knowledge of which our Lord Jesus Christ speaks just before His death (John 17:3). This is the knowledge Calvin had in mind when he described faith as: "...a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit" (Institutions III, 2, 7).
Speaking this way about faith, Calvin was fully aware of the many powers that lie in wait to assault the human heart. He knew of the duality and the conflicts of the human heart, of the doubts and temptations, of the expectations and sorrows that are all part of human life.
Calvin knew of man's struggles to cling in faith to God's promises, no matter how dark things may turn out to be. God wants to work in such a human life by working and strengthening a person's faith through the living preaching of the Word. What else does this faith consist of but knowledge and trust, as well as expectation, hope and peace? Living in such a relationship with God and His Word, one cannot help but find evidence of God in one's own life. Should we desire to put a name to it, we could call it 'experiencing God.' Perhaps there will be people who would sooner call it: 'feeling in one's heart.' Whatever the case may be, it is not about what man is able to retrieve from his pious soul. The important thing, though, is that God's Word finds a response in man's life. This response will not fail when the preaching truly addresses the children of God and makes an appeal to their hearts.
Christ works by means of His Spirit
Having reflected on the response to preaching, we now wish to be more specific by placing the issue within the context of the working of the Holy Spirit. The meaning of true Christocentric preaching is to proclaim Christ's work for us and in us. This is as trustworthy as the prospect of being able to find Romans 5 and 8 in the Bible. The former chapter is about Christ-for-us: the justification of our lives before God through the blood of the cross; the latter deals with Christ-in-us: the sanctification of our lives before God. In this very activity of consecrating our lives to God, Christ will be at work in us through His Holy Spirit, being the Spirit of Christ.
We are allowed and we ought to find Christ's presence within us, in our activities and deliberations, in our sorrow and joy. Shall we not find Him there while He is dwelling within us? At a certain juncture Calvin writes that we in our Christian lives are permitted to take a look at our works. Not because we find our comfort and assurance of faith in them; this comfort and assurance can be found only in God's mercy and goodness. But we are nonetheless permitted to assess our works, in as far as they bear witness to God's presence in us and rule over us.
A Christian should fix his heart upon the promise of unmerited justification.
But we do not forbid him from undergirding and strengthening his faith by signs of divine benevolence toward him. For when all the gifts God has bestowed upon us are called to mind in us, they will be in a sense like rays of the divine countenance by which we are illumined to contemplate that supreme light of His goodness; much more will this be true for us regarding the grace of good works, which proves that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us.
cf. Romans 8:15), Institutions (III, 14, 18
Next, Calvin shows us how beneficial it is to see God's work in our lives. For when the saints' faith is strengthened because they have a clear conscience in which they find a source of joy, they do nothing else but contemplate (on the basis of the fruits of their calling) that the Lord has adopted them as children... Calvin continues:
But since they see the fruits of regeneration as proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they are in no small measure strengthened in their expectation that they will receive God's help in all trying situations, since they experience – in this so weighty issue – that He is their Father.
Institutions (III, 14, 19)
It is this kind of 'experiencing God' that Calvin referred to. And in the human heart this echo resounds with the promise the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about in question and answer 86. The last part of this question is: "why must we yet do good works?" The answer ends with: "Further, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits..."3
Plainly, the believer is here not a neutral onlooker. The point is that he, through faith, finds the evidence of Christ's presence in his life. In this instance, the expression of Christ's work in us affirms and reinforces Christ's promise to us. All dualism of 'objective' and 'subjective' has now become untenable in this context. For Christ is not the 'objective principle' nor the Spirit the 'subjective principle' of our Christian lives. As a result, we can now with a clear conscience bid farewell to all this nonsense that was ever so cleverly contrived in past history. Christ and the Spirit are not 'principles' but divine Persons. During the proclamation of God's Word, Christ works in us through His Spirit. This Spirit dwells within us and causes our hearts and lives to be bound up with Him. And so it is that in a Christian's life both the sound and the resonance occur in union.
For when on their wedding day both man and wife pledge their love and faithfulness to each other, this pledge will be the foundation of their marriage. They can rely on each other because they find each other trustworthy. Even at that special moment these words are intermingled with feelings and experiences. And these affect the tone of the marriage vows. Indeed, when the marriage flourishes, it will confirm (by virtue of the practice of their lives) the mutual assurance and expectation they already had from the very beginning.
So the couple on their silver wedding anniversary will not only recall the vows they made twenty-five years ago, they will also reflect on what they have experienced together during that span of time. Those very years will produce a multiple echo of the marriage vows. Promise and experience speak ultimately one and the same language; sound and echo are now intermingled.
Thus in our relationship with God, our walking in "the ways of the elect" (Canons of Dort I, 13) will reinforce the awareness and assurance of God's electing love. God's love is evident in life. We know this because of the promise and we see it with our own eyes. Talk about experiencing God!
Faith and experience
Having arrived at the end of this chapter, we wish to formulate four conclusions.
True covenantal preaching will set free man's emotions 4
We may be convinced of this because the God of the covenant reactivates our whole human subjectivity through His Holy Spirit. He enlightens our mind and liberates our will. Will He then not also deliver us from our blunted feelings and rejuvenate them? All these human abilities were not eliminated because of the Fall of man. Still, they were taken captive by the enmity of sin, made murky, obscure, and thrown into disorder and derailment.
The apostle Paul has explained all this impressively in Ephesians 4:17-19. Here we read about futile thinking, darkened understanding, separation from the life of God, hardness of heart, and the (actual) dismally dark misery of licentious living. Here the apostle pictures a severely damaged and twisted human creature. No longer does the heart of this creature function as a soundboard of God's voice; on the contrary, it has become a sound-silencer, as unresponsive and unemotional as a piece of grey slate.
Trapped in this state man is set free through God's work of redemption. For the Holy Spirit is able to 'penetrate into the innermost recesses of man' and opens the heart in a powerful and loving way. "He opens the closed and softens the hard heart" as we confess it in The Canons of Dort (III/IV 11, 12). We may relate all this to man's emotional life and to his experiences as well. The Holy Spirit restores the function of the soundboard: the good Word of God starts to resonate again in the heart of man.
The capacity of man's inner life will remain imperfect in this life
Like any other human function, man's feelings testify only in a most fragmentary way to the redemptive work of the Spirit. Through faith we begin more and more to gain insight into this deficiency of our feelings. This will stir up our longing for perfection, which should characterize our whole life (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 44, Answer 115), and this includes our emotional life as well.
It is only after this life that we as children of God shall blossom forth perfectly, when we shall know Him as He is and fully understand His will and praise it. Then God's revelation will totally occupy our innermost feelings, and the resonance thereof will have reached its perfect level.
As for our theme, it means that God's covenant has more reality than we can ever comprehend or sense at this moment. Everything that is 'doctrinal' today will one day become 'experience.' One day our whole life will reflect in a variety of ways the work of God. But precisely since this is not yet the case, we should permit doctrine to be the guide in our lives. Our hearts suffer daily because of ongoing struggles, shortcomings, contradictions, problems and fluctuations in life. Nothing in life is still unadulterated (as it used to be): joy is mixed with sorrow, and love is stained with self-interest and shortsightedness.
Only one thing in this life is wholly flawless and pure: the Word of God. "The words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times" (Psalm 12:6). That is why the proclamation and confession of that Word must be our guide in life, also in regard to our feelings and experiences. We are not able to construct a church doctrine (or define its parameters) that is based on our own limited human experience. He who does this gets trapped into experiential theology. Here man's experience becomes the source of truth, while the Bible becomes a second-rate concern and the confession of the Scriptures a third-rate matter. Experiential theology, though, is as pedantic as it is narrow-minded. God's children cannot survive on this kind of theology.
Our imperfect feelings and mind ought to be guided by the perfect doctrine of salvation. A long time ago H. Bavinck already spoke decisive words about this issue. He said that experiences have a right to exist, and are inseparable from godliness. We find many examples of this all through Scripture, especially in the Psalms where feelings are expressed the way they should be. But, added Bavinck, it is always the Word of God that brings about these experiences of faith. Further, they do not precede faith but accompany and follow it. Thus experience can never be the foundation of faith.
Besides, our experiences are subject to all kinds of ailments. This requires the remedy of God's Word. Still Bavinck: the Scripture sets the standard also for our inner life. Next he adds these loaded words: "Not even in a single one of the Twelve Articles of Faith am I able to replace 'I believe' with 'I experience.'"5
Neither Pietism nor 'evangelistic' testimonies are able to counterbalance any alarming objectivism
The pietistic movement makes a plea for a deeper and more individualized experience of faith. It is an understandable reaction against intellectualism and other forms of objectivism. In its modern manifestations we encounter this reaction in all sorts of 'evangelistic' pious experiences. Yet these lead us down the garden path, for they lead to religious individualism which ultimately leaves no room for the church and her doctrine.
When our interest in man as an intellectual is exchanged for the introduction of man as an evangelistic sensitive being (with his 'authentic' experiences), we will not have advanced one single step on the road to the Scriptural way of worshipping God. We are to fight against cold and impassive objectivism by submitting ourselves to God, Who lays claim to our lives. This can be seen when He speaks to us about His covenantal promise and demand.
This is also the reason why God's children properly belong there where the Gospel is preached. Only together with God's people in this world will we be able to understand God's will, taste His love, and take notice of His work in the world around us. The church is interwoven with our lives, because there we know ourselves to be members of Christ's body, and there we can also love one another. It is in the church that we find the principle of Life about which the apostle John speaks so eloquently in his first epistle.
Today we do not need a 'dash of pietism' or 'evangelical spirituality' to compensate for the so-called chilliness of Reformed doctrine. We need true doctrine, the doctrine of God's covenantal grace over us and our children. God's children shall receive assurance "according to the measure of their faith, by which they surely believe that they are and always shall remain true and living members of the Church, and that they have forgiveness of sins and life eternal" (cf. Canons of Dort, V, 9).
This assurance gives them great comfort, intense joy, and increasing experience in faith.
In the midst of this world it will be the beginning of unspoiled joy that fills life eternal.
'Experiencing God' is an outcome of faith and is given to listeners of the Word
When faith knows of its own experiences, God will grant 'experience of faith' to those who train themselves in being obedient in faith. 'Experiencing' God is recognizing God in us and around us, in the things of everyday life. But no one is able to recognize God if he does not practise the knowledge about God. This practise consists foremost of learning to listen to God. For our God is truly the God Who speaks. He speaks to us in the Bible, which we read daily. He speaks to us in Christ and through His Spirit. Whoever learns to listen to the words of God will get to know Him.
And whoever knows God will also recognize and find Him again in everyday life. He who learns to live with a listening attitude, will recognize the wisdom of His Father in the creation of this world and discern the hand of his Father, Who governs it. In fact, he will learn to distinguish his Father's voice from among the numerous other voices in our tumultuous society. After a while he will gradually hear the echo of God's voice even in his own heart, despite its inner confusion and obscurity.
This is the way it is with a child of God, a child who is on his journey to the day when all cloudiness is done away with and all interfering voices have been silenced once and for all.
For God did not create His most beautiful piece of work without a soundboard. Hence the time will come that the purest resonance shall be heard in it. And then the song of creation and of redemption will re-echo manyfold with the highest degree of fidelity. All this is going to happen to the glory of the wonderful Creator and Redeemer of this beautiful creature, called "man of God."