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My favorite Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), wrote in Preaching and Preachers, “The congregation will not be ungrateful as long as we, as their preachers, preach in search of God’s honor and the salvation of their souls.” In another book, Saved by Grace, Bavinck contrasts two different methods of preaching, which he calls “evangelistic” and “edifying or ethical.” Evangelistic preaching aims at the conversion of sinners, while edifying or ethical preaching concentrates on doctrinal instruction of believers.

Bavinck discusses the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches, then insists that they belong together in a balanced, biblical approach: “So in the life of the church, we must maintain both truths, namely that the church is a gathering of true Christ-believers and that, nonetheless, the appeal for faith and conversion must continually sound forth in her midst. … The preacher’s sermons should connect to the gifts and blessings (God) has bestowed in his covenant … but then should also continue warning of the need for self-examination, so that people do not deceive themselves for eternity” (pp. 124-127). Imbalance on one side could lead to unhealthy subjectivism, Bavinck says, but overemphasis on the other could lead to “dead orthodoxy” and religious nominalism.

In the introduction to a Dutch translation of the works of two Scottish Presbyterian brothers of the 18th century, Bavinck noted of their (and others’) preaching, “On the one hand it descends into the depths of the human heart, unreservedly taking away all apologies and excuses behind which people hide away from the holiness of God, and it places them before the face of God in their poverty and emptiness. On the other hand, it also addresses those of a broken spirit with the promises of the gospel, draws forth the riches of these promises, looks at them from all sides, and applies them to all of life’s circumstances” (“Preface to the Life and Works of Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine,” tr. Henk van den Belt, 2012).

Bavinck clearly favored such preaching, the rationale for which is expressed in the 17th-century Westminster Shorter Catechism, which became part of the constitution of worldwide Presbyterianism. It states, “The Spirit of God makes ... the preaching of the word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation” (Q&A 89).

As a true ecumenist, Bavinck sought to preserve this biblical balance in his own context in the Netherlands. There has been considerable interest in recent years in his translated works, most notably his four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, but also his studies of philosophy, psychology, politics, and worship. As a Scottish import to the Dutch Reformed tradition, I respectfully commend, along with these, Bavinck’s biblically balanced approach to historically Reformed preaching.

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