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.