Experiential (or "experimental") preaching addresses the vital matter of how a Christian experiences the truth of Christian doctrine in his life. The term experimental comes from the Latin experimentum, meaning trial. It is derived from the verb experior, meaning "to try, prove, or put to the test." That same verb can also mean "to find or know by experience," thus leading to the word experientia, meaning knowledge gained by experiment. John Calvin used the terms experiential and experimental interchangeably, since both words in biblical preaching indicate the need for measuring experienced knowledge against the touchstone of Scripture.
Experiential preaching stresses the need to know by experience the great truths of the Word of God. A working definition of experiential preaching might be: "Preaching that seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go, how they do go, and the goal of the Christian life." Such preaching aims to apply divine truth to the whole range of the believer's personal experience, including his relationships with family, the church, and the world around him.
Paul Helm writes about such preaching:
The situation [today] calls for preaching that will cover the full range of Christian experience, and a developed experimental theology. The preaching must give guidance and instruction to Christians in terms of their actual experience. It must not deal in unrealities or treat congregations as if they lived in a different century or in wholly different circumstances. This involves taking the full measure of our modern situation and entering with full sympathy into the actual experiences, the hopes and fears, of Christian people.
Experiential preaching is discriminatory. It clearly defines the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, opening the kingdom of heaven to one and shutting it against the other. Discriminatory preaching offers the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who by a true faith embrace Christ as Savior and Lord, but it also proclaims the wrath of God and His eternal condemnation upon those who are unbelieving, unrepentant, and unconverted. Such preaching teaches that unless our religion is experiential, we will perish—not because experience itself saves, but because the Christ who saves sinners must be experienced personally as the foundation upon which our lives are built (Matt. 7:22–27; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2).
Experiential preaching is applicatory. It applies the text to every aspect of a listener's life, promoting a religion that is truly a power and not a mere form (2 Tim. 3:5). Robert Burns defined such religion as "Christianity brought home to men's business and bosoms," and said the principle on which it rests is "that Christianity should not only be known, and understood, and believed, but also felt, and enjoyed, and practically applied."
Experiential preaching, then, teaches that the Christian faith must be experienced, tasted, and lived through the saving power of the Holy Spirit. It stresses the knowledge of scriptural truth that is able "to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:15).3 Specifically, such preaching teaches that Christ, who is the living Word (John 1:1) and the very embodiment of the truth, must be experientially known and embraced. It proclaims the need for sinners to experience who God is in His Son. As John 17:3 says, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." The word know in this text, as well as in other biblical usages, does not indicate casual acquaintance, but a deep, abiding relationship. For example, Genesis 4:1a uses the word know to suggest marital intimacy: "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain." Experiential preaching stresses the intimate, personal knowledge of God in Christ."
Such knowledge is never divorced from Scripture. According to Isaiah 8:20, all of our beliefs, including our experiences, must be tested against the Bible. That is really what the word experimental, derived from experiment, intends to convey. Just as a scientific experiment involves testing a hypothesis against a body of evidence, so experimental preaching involves examining experience in the light of the teaching of the Word of God.
Reformed experiential preaching, grounded in the Word of God, is theocentric rather than anthropocentric. Some people accuse the Puritans of being man-centered in their passion for godly experience. But as J. I. Packer argues, the Puritans were not interested in tracing the experience of the Spirit's work in their souls to promote their own experience, but to be driven out of themselves into Christ, in whom they could then enter into fellowship with the triune God.
This passion for fellowship with the triune God means that experiential preaching not only addresses the believer's conscience, but also his relationship with others in the church and the world. If experiential preaching led me only to examine my experiences and my relationship with God, it would fall short of affecting my interaction with family, church members, and society. It would remain self-centered. True experiential preaching brings a believer into the realm of vital Christian experience, prompting a love for God and His glory as well as a burning passion to declare and display that love to others around him. A believer so instructed cannot help but be evangelistic, since vital experience and a heart for missions are inseparable.
In sum, Reformed experiential preaching addresses the entire range of Christian living. With the Spirit's blessing, its mission is to transform the believer in all that he is and does so that he becomes more and more like the Savior.