Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ron Hanko on "The Revelation of Jesus Christ": An Example of Reformed Preaching

A friend of mine is a member of the Protestant Reformed Churches and posted a link on Facebook to a sermon by Ron Hanko on how to interpret the book of Revelation. I am a former member of the Protestant Reformed Churches and I thought that this sermon provided an excellent example of the basic problem in much Reformed preaching.

Ron Hanko spends the bulk of his time speaking of the interpretive key to the book of Revelation. The book of Revelation is from Christ and about Christ as the very first verse of Revelation makes plain. On this point he is absolutely right. The key to Revelation is not the newspaper or mathematical formulas. So far so good.

Ron Hanko then says that Revelation is written to comfort. He's absolutely right. But there are some problems with what he preaches as comforting. Some of these differences can be traced all the way back to differences between Calvin and Luther. Calvin and Luther both confessed a sovereign God who controls all things. Luther referred to this aspect of God as the "hidden God." Calvin would often direct people to the "hidden God" while Luther was always pointing people away from the "hidden God" and to the "revealed God." Muslims believe that God controls all things but they can't really gain any comfort from that. The Christian cannot either. The idea that God controls all things is not comforting in and of itself. God could control all things in such a way to make my temporal and eternal life miserable.

Revelation is certainly intended to comfort  us by telling us that Christ is controlling all events but it is centered upon the Lamb slain on the altar and begins by telling us that Jesus Christ loves us and  has objectively washed our sins away in baptism through His blood. John directs us first and foremost to the revealed God--the revealed God who hung dead and naked on a cross for us. Despite all the horrible things that happen to us we can be confident that God loves us because He bore our sins and suffered for us. Only then is the fact that God controls all things comforting. His ways are not our ways and His thought are not our thoughts. But we can trust that He does love us because He is revealed as the crucified-God. We can be confident that we will be resurrected because He was raised from the dead and we have been united to Him in baptism. The book of Revelation goes on to give us images that show that the church follows in the footsteps of Christ. Christ conquered death by dying. The church conquers the world by dying and becoming partakers of the sufferings of Christ. This does not seem reasonable but we can be confident that this Word is true because the resurrected Word tells us they are. Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead we can be confident that despite the fact that the church appears defeated and insignificant, absolutely nothing can separate us from God's love.

But despite the inherent problems with focusing our attention upon the hidden God rather than the revealed God, even worse is Ron Hanko's explanation of who receives this comfort. Based on Ron Hanko's explanation absolutely NOBODY receives this comfort. Ron Hanko actually spends quite a bit of time talking about how the comforting words do not apply to everyone (which is true) but only to those who hear, read, and keep the things that are written in the prophecy. Ron Hanko is clearly missing the liturgical references here. The early church and liturgical churches today have lectors or readers and so John is making reference to those who would read this during the liturgical service as being distinct from the hearers. But aside from Ron Hanko's misunderstanding of the liturgical context there is a much greater problem. Ron Hanko defines those who "keep the things" as those who are "faithful to Him (Jesus) in everything." This statement causes the person hearing the sermon to look inward. Have I been faithful to Jesus in everything? Unless you have attained absolute sinlessness--no blessing for you. All you have is a sovereign, all-powerful God with a sword who will destroy you.

The sermon's big problem is a confusion of law and gospel. Herman Hanko has stated explicitly that the Law is the Gospel and I'm guessing that Ron Hanko agrees. This type of preaching produces two basic results--people are either driven to absolute despair or they become self-righteous and thank God that they are not like those sinners over there. There is no stern preaching of the law that would apply to everyone present in Ron Hanko's sermon. There is nothing in the sermon that would lead everyone there to believe that they are worthy of God's temporal and eternal punishment. Instead we find a blessing that is conditional--it is dependent upon being "faithful to Him (Jesus) in everything." This is nothing but law. If we could be faithful to God in everything we would not even need Jesus. No doubt, if I questioned Ron Hanko, he would say that this obedience is worked in us by God but it still sends us looking in the wrong direction and at the end of the day ends up looking a lot like Roman Catholicism or Wesleyanism or Islam.

How should we understand this passage? Throughout the writings of John we find what appear to be contradictory statements. On the one hand, John says that anyone who claims not to have any sin is a liar (1 John 1:8). On the other hand, John says that anyone who has been born of God does not sin at all (1 John 3:6 ff.). This appears to be a no win scenario but fits well within the context of the old man/new man paradigm found in the writings of Paul. Our old man and new man reside with us until our death. The old man does nothing but sin. The new man doesn't sin at all. The new man always keeps "those things which are written." Most of the time our righteousness is even hidden from ourselves. Our own righteousness is a matter of faith. If we look within and see what is really going on in there we will find nothing but sin. The pastor certainly must show us our sin but then go on to show us Jesus as the redemption from our sins. If we keep looking within we will only despair. And there must never be a "but" at the end. Jesus is truly too good to be true and the pastor must resist all urges to put a damper on how good and merciful Jesus is out of fear of antinomianism.

I think that this sermon also reveals another problem in much Reformed preaching and evangelical preaching. The pastor views himself primarily as a teacher and believes that his job is to deliver a lecture--perhaps guide his congregation in learning to interpret the Scriptures or teach them some new thing. This results in the more well-read members getting bored during the sermon as well as the less well-read for different reasons. Although teaching is certainly something the pastor should do, it is not his primary role. He is a minister and his job is to administer. In John 20, Jesus visits the disciples after the resurrection and says, "Peace be with you." He forgives their sins. Then he tells them that they have been given the power to forgive sins. The pastor's job is to administer the forgiveness of sins in the preaching of the Word and in the administration of baptism and in the administration of the Lord's body and blood. Every week, his job is to tell everyone what rotten sinners they are, tell them that they are forgiven, and then give them Christ's body and blood.


Anonymous said...

First, there is no condition for salvation. All is fulfilled in Christ.

Second, "Ye shall know them by their fruits." (Matthew 7:16) This means when someone is saved, there will be, of necessity, the fruits of that salvation worked by Christ, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. This is the meaning of the text in Revelation.

Third, the saved who bring forth these fruits bring them all. They keep the whole law, all ten. Do they always keep it? NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO! But they endeavor to keep them all and do.

Lord's Day 44 Q/A 114
But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments? No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

THIS is Protestant Reformed! Not your straw man.

There is only comfort in this gospel. The gospel of a true saving faith that changes the believer. (Read the book of James) A gospel that speaks of these as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and therefore seeing the work of the Spirit and His fruit, He is the seal of our salvation (Ephesians 1:13), thus we know the promises are yea and amen.

Chuck Wiese said...


I certainly agree that there is no condition of salvation but the sermon did not make that clear. The sermon said that the blessing only applied to those who are faithful to Jesus in everything.

Matthew 7:16 when taken in context is telling a person how to tell a true prophet from a false prophet, not how to tell a "real" believer from a false one. In the context, the fruit is the teaching of the prophet. The true prophet will testify of the work of Christ.

The new man always keeps the law and the old man does not. It is constant war in the life of the believer. But it's not a matter of trying harder. The law shows us our sin. We only start to see the beginnings of the new obedience through the Gospel. That's what Paul says in Romans. Trying hard doesn't cut it.

In Galatians 5 Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the spirit. The works of the flesh are what we do, the fruit of the spirit is what the Spirit does in us. Paul doesn't say, "Try harder." He tells us what the Spirit does. He doesn't point us within ourselves to determine if the fruit is present. He tells us what the fruit of the spirit is.

All the Epistles are sermons in and of themselves including James. James was dealing with a pastoral situation in which those who were rich were not providing for the needs of their poor brothers and sisters in Christ. They simply said, "We'll pray for you." These people needed to be hammered with the law and that's what James did. But James does not say that the law is the Gospel. If someone feels like they are leading a moral life they probably need to get hammered with the law. If they see how horrible their sins really are, they need to hear the Gospel. A sermon should provide both in a way that is consistent with the text being preached on.

Preaching on Epistles like Revelation can be difficult since it's like preaching a sermon on a sermon which is why historically there has been a tendency to read from the Epistles as one of the readings but to preach on the Gospel reading. But even in this case I could imagine an appropriate sermon where the pastor showed everyone present that they are not faithful to Jesus in everything. The pastor should know his congregation so he knows what sins they are prone to and point them out and tell them that the blessing does not apply to the unfaithful. He could then tell them that their unfaithfulness has been paid for by the faithful One-by Jesus. They are blessed because He is faithful. They are blessed because He has obeyed. He has washed us in His blood.

Anonymous said...

There is no trying harder. The previous post never said that.

We are saved or we are not. It is all God. That is why it is the fruit OF the Spirit. It is OUT OF the Spirit.

But it is operated in us of that Spirit. Not only so that our hands feed the poor, but so that our hearts love the LORD and our neighbor.

"Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance." Luke 3:8 True repentance is ALWAYS accompanied by fruit of equal weight. Otherwise it is the sorrow of the world that worketh death (2 Corinthians 7:10).

If you cannot see that, read John 15. You can know if one is in Christ by their works. It is the distinguishing mark, not the cause. It is the evidence, not the ground.

"And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be." Revelation 22:12 It is not called here the work of the Spirit (although in a different sense it is). It is called his work because it is the work of the "man" that Christ rewards.

Chuck Wiese said...


I reread your first comment and it seems there may be some confusion. My post was in regards to the sermon itself--not in regards to any denominational body. What I regard as problems in the sermon seems characteristic of preaching in many Reformed churches of various denominations that I have heard and of much evangelical preaching.

I think the sermon can be summarized as follows:

1. The interpretive key to the book of Revelation is that it is from and about Jesus.
2. The purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort by showing that Jesus is all-powerful.
3. The comfort is not intended for all but only those who "keep those things which are written therein."
3.Those who "keep those things" are those who are faithful to Jesus in everything.

Is this a misrepresentation of what was preached?

As for your second reply, I think it is very important that we interpret the passages in context. Luke 3:8 was spoken by John the Baptizer who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord. The purpose of telling the Pharisees to bear fruit keeping with repentance and then to go on to describe what this fruit was, was to show them how utterly sinful they really were. They couldn't even repent properly. Jesus spent much of His earthly ministry preaching the law for the same reason. The Sermon on the Mount is not primarily given to provide a set of ethics but to drive us to despair so that we see that only Jesus fulfills the requirements for blessing found in the Sermon on the Mount. We are blessed because we are united to Him. If we read it as a checklist and think we have fulfilled it we end up reading the Scriptures the same way the Pharisees did. I don't even know how you would go about determining if your fruit is equal in weight to your repentance. That seems to miss the point of the passage and would leave any honest person in perpetual doubt.

2 Corinthians 7 distinguishes between godly and worldly grief. Godly grief hates the sin and clings to the free forgiveness of Christ. Worldly grief is merely upset about getting caught. Increasing in godliness only ocurrs through the Gospel, not the Law. The Law condemns.

John 15 does not speak of fruit as the distinguishing mark but as an objective fact. Those who abide in Jesus will bear fruit. To abide in Jesus means to be united to His death and resurrection. If we do this we will bear fruit. If we keep His entoles (most translations have "commandments" but I think they are better understood as mandates) we will abide in His love. As we live in our baptism, hear His Word, and eat His body and drink His blood we abide in Him. The passage does not call us to determine if we are "real" Christians based on our "fruit." It calls upon us to abide in Christ. When we abide in Christ we will automatically produce fruit without even thinking about it. When we are set free by the Gospel we are free to serve our neighbor. God doesn't need our good works, our neighbor does. When Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the sheep didn't even realize that they were doing good works. They were not looking to their good works for their assurance. They were naturally doing sheepy things without even thinking about it because they were following the Shepherd.

"Christ is Master by virtue of His own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life. For He creates man from nothing, and through His own blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace. When Scripture says, "He will reward every man according to his works", do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but our Creator and Redeemer. (St. Mark the Ascetic, ca. 425, "On those who think that they are made righteous by works." in the Philokalia).

Anonymous said...

"When we abide in Christ we will automatically produce fruit without even thinking about it."

If we don't think about it, it is automatic without our willing. This makes it robotic? Can this even be from faith?

"For whatsoever is not of faith is sin." - Romans 14:23

"do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom" ... I agree with this. Salvation is 100% from God. Our choosing him doesn't even factor in. He chose us.

Chuck Wiese said...


No. It's not robotic. It's fruitotic:) A tree naturally produces fruit. It flows from our union with Christ. When we follow the shepherd we naturally do sheepy things. The sheepy things are not there to prove to ourselves that we are his children because at the end of the day if we really examined ourselves and counted up all the goat-like behavior and compared it with our sheep-like behavior, the goat-like behavior may often appear to dominate. In the Gospels, the real villains are those who think that they have attained some greater degree of saintly behavior than the guy sitting next to them. They appear to be the ones that are outside of the kingdom. The real sinners get in. Post-conversion Paul still regarded himself as chief of sinners.

Just for the record, I do think there are legitimate ways of interpreting the passages which allow for degrees of reward based upon the work that the Holy Spirit works in us. Personally, I'm not that concerned either way. If there are degrees of reward I suspect that the mother who faithfully diapers and feeds her children may receive a greater reward than the evangelist who travels around the world and abandons his family.

But my real beef with the sermon is that it does not offer real comfort because it does not convict me of my sin and presents the Gospel as if it were Law by making the blessings contingent upon something that I know that I do not do. It could have been explained in such a way that I do do it according to my new nature but as it stands in the sermon I do not do it and don't have much hope in doing it tomorrow. O wretched man that I am...

And I'm absolutely convinced after reviewing sermons from various denominations that unless a conscious effort is made to distinguish between Law and Gospel, Glawspel will always result. Even C.F.W. Walther who wrote perhaps the greatest defense of the Law/Gospel distinction in his very own work seems to confuse the two at times. Our old man always wants to grab unto something that we have done to explain the unexplainable--why God would die for me.