Monday, October 16, 2017

The preacher as sacrament

1. When I was younger I made of point of listening to some famous preachers to find out what made them famous preachers. What was their reputation as great preachers based on? I've since forgotten who most of them were, although the list included W. A. Criswell and George W. Truett. 

2. Recently, out of curiosity, I've been catching up on the current crop of famous Reformed preachers. Outside of church attendance I don't normally listen to preachers. I focus on reading. 

It's my impression that Paul Washer has quite a following in Reformed circles. I've seen some excerpts. It may not be a representative sample. But this is my cursory impression. I may step on some toes, but in that event, don't walk barefoot through my post.

3. I agree with just about everything he says about the altar call, sinner's prayer, easybelievism, decisional evangelism. 

In one clip he makes a hyperbolic statement about how that's sent more people to hell than anything else. Really? That's sent more people to hell than Islam, Catholicism, Communism, Buddhism, Hinduism? There's a danger of getting caught up in his own rhetoric.

Although I don't agree with him that infant baptism in principle is a source of false assurance, it's undoubtedly the case that many people vest false assurance in the sacraments. 

4. That said, to judge by what I've seen, I wouldn't recommend Washer. For starters, take this example:

That's either fake emotion or manufactured sentiment. If this was, say, Steven Furtick, Rod Parsley, or Jimmy Swaggart (before his downfall), I don't think most Calvinists would hesitate to dismiss that as a put-on. But if it's one of our own, the temptation is to drop our guard. 

Perhaps he's sincere, but even so, it should be obvious that he is working himself into a frenzied state of mind, the way athletes psych themselves up for a performance to get the adrenaline pumping. There's nothing supernatural about this. It's not the unction of the Holy Spirit. Rather, it's trying to work yourself into a highly agitated state of mind. 

Notice, too, the three-hanky musical accompaniment. If his delivery alone doesn't get the viewer in the right mood, then his delivery in combination with the musical background should do the trick. That's calculated emotional manipulation. And a lot of his video clips have musical accompaniment.  

I don't object to passionate preaching. Up to a point, I don't object to weepy preachers. But that should be spontaneous. 

And this isn't an isolated case. From a lot of other clips I've seen, he has a very studied delivery. Straining for effect. The tremulous voice. The lump in the throat. Like hearing an Italian tenor sing Vesti la giubba with the interjected sobs. 

His preaching style is self-conscious. And that's not a good thing. The focus ought to be on the message, not the messenger. Yet in a lot of clips I've seen, he's constantly drawing attention to himself. 

The most charitable interpretation is that he's cast himself in a Puritan script. He thinks that's how he's supposed to feel, so he aspires to play that role. 

It's dangerous if we confuse that with sanctification. Even if the motivation is well-meant, hamminess isn't holiness. 

It's striking to compare this with an interview of Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

Towards the beginning, he says he wasn't thinking about himself or his qualifications. Rather, he was convinced that something needed to be said. 

4. I don't deny that preaching can sometimes have a supernatural element. But as a rule, preaching makes use of sanctified natural abilities. There's nothing wrong with a preacher who simply exegetes the text, then applies it to the situation of his parishioners. 

5. In one clip, Washer talked about how, as a young man, he spent hours a day in his prayer closet, for about four months, hankering after a particular experience from God:

In charismatic lingo, he sought the "anointing"–although he avoids that association. His orientation is very self-centered, as if the preacher is supposed to be a theophany. 

6. Given how much time he spends on the sawdust trail, I wonder how much time he has for his wife and kids. Did he take them along on these preaching junkets, or leave them behind? 

Just to be a faithful Christian spouse and parent is a laboratory for sanctification. Just to cope with the disappointments, aggravations, deprivations, anxieties and demands of life in a fallen work is a laboratory for sanctification. Sainthood isn't something apart from mundane, day-to-day, down-to-earth experience. Rather, that's how to live out the Christian faith. You don't have to cry out all night in the snowy woods. Rather, it's the marathon of faith. To be faithful day in and day out. To repent when you fail, and keep stepping. 

Consider this clip, complete with the tearful violin accompaniment:

Frankly, his notion of having to "tarry" until God comes down can easily be mock pious escapism. Running off to chase a feeling as a substitute for facing the relentless,   grinding demands of ordinary Christian existence. 

7. Finally, for a Calvinist, there's a synergistic quality to his notion of piety. According to Calvinism, we're saved by grace alone. It's ultimately up to God.

Yet Washer often makes the walk of faith sound extremely precarious. We're walking a tightrope from start to finish. We could fall off at anytime. 

But is the Christian faith really that hard? Life can be very hard. But does Christianity make life harder? If you suffer persecution, perhaps. Unanswered prayer is frustrating. Resisting temptation is a struggle. But in general, Christianity has resources that make life so easier to take. So much easier to get through. 


  1. Although I don't agree with him that infant baptism in principle is a source of false assurance, it's undoubtedly the case that many people vest false assurance in the sacraments.

    Steve, are you a credobaptist or paedobaptist? About a year ago someone in a combox said you were paedo, but I have a (false?) memory of a Triablogger saying you were credo about 8 years ago.

    1. I've explained my position before. For sociological reasons, I incline to paedobaptism.

    2. Keep in mind that I'm Zwinglian, so I'm not your typical paedo.

    3. I see. That's interesting. As a provisional credo, I agree that paedo makes a lot of sense sociologically. It would naturally make sense for the first Jewish Christians to want their children baptized (for the all reasons modern paedos given based on theological, social/cultural, covenantal considerations).