Preaching and Emotions - Rev. G. Van Rongen

Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 25, No. 11 (1976)


The famous Italian Dominican preacher Gabriel Barlette once illustrated one of his sermons with a funny story.

This man was, next to the well known Savonarola, the most renowned among the Italian preachers of the late Middle Ages. He was at the peak of his strength around the year 1470; that is, approximately half a century before the Great Reformation.

According to expert opinion he was not the worst of the preachers of those days. Yet he was clearly influenced by the days in which he was living. He, too, made every now and then use of inferior means to keep his hearers' attention.

One of those means was - and still is - the inserting of anecdotes in the sermon.

The illustration we referred to runs as follows:

"A certain priest, in celebrating the mass, observed a woman who seemed much touched, and freely wept as he intoned the service. After it was over he spoke to the woman and asked the cause of her emotion, and she told him it was his voice, which reminded her tenderly of her recently deceased ass!"

Now Edwin Charles Dargan, from whose History of Preaching we derived this (Volume 1, page 304), adds that some of his readers might "recognize the story as having been related of a much respected minister of recent times in Virginia."

In other words, the same most likely happened in relation with the way in which the sermon of a certain preacher stirred a woman's emotions. Rather, not the sermon itself but the voice of the minister did the job.


This story has much in common with the one that may be well known to some of our older readers.

It regards "Dokter Van der Valk" as the citizens of Rotterdam used to call the Rev. M.A.H. van der Valk, who for years had his own independent congregation - a sort of "People's Church" in "Het Verkooplokaal" (a kind of auction house, SW) in the largest harbour-city of the world.

According to the story, Van der Valk promised a friend that at the end of the sermon he would have half of his congregation in tears while the others were laughing. Which - we cannot guarantee the truth of this story - became true. Van der Valk preached that day in such a heart moving way that many people had to make frequent use of their handkerchiefs, while indeed others were quietly but intensively laughing, since the preacher had so exerted himself that a piece of his underwear could be seen by part of the congregation.


Now both stories will never have their parallels in a Reformed Church. The preaching of God's Word is too serious an affair for that.

Yet we would like to write a few lines about the relation between preaching and emotion.
Should the preacher do his best - let alone his utmost - to affect his hearers' emotions?

Should the preacher do his best - let alone his utmost - to affect his hearers' emotions?

We leave out of the picture the question whether or not a preacher is allowed to have his hearers produce a smile. The Bible itself gives us an example: When Miriam objected against Moses taking a "black" woman for his second wife, the LORD struck her with leprosy and made her skin as-white-as-snow. He used a black-and-white scheme!

On the other hand, the sermon should never become a means of entertaining people. The preacher should not act as an entertainer.

However, this rule should not only be applied to the matter of laughing, it should also be obeyed as far as the other side of the scale of emotions is concerned. The preacher should not stir one's emotions of sadness, sorrow and suchlike, in a cheap way either.


Let us have a look and see what Scripture says about this and what we confess e.g. in our Catechism.

Then the first thing is that the Gospel indeed stirs our emotions.

This really jumps to the fore in Lord's Day 33, where true conversion is described as "the mortification of the old man and the quickening of the new." The former is confessed as being "heartfelt sorrow," the latter as "heartfelt joy."

Sorrow and joy, even heartfelt, both of them - are they not human emotions?


Our Catechism gives us also some details of the same thing.

God's commandments are preached, even strictly, with this purpose that "all our life long we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and so become the more earnest in seeking remission of sins and righteousness in Christ" (Lord's Day 44).

Our liturgical Forms call this: We have to humble ourselves, we have to feel humble and penitent.

The Gospel preaching appeals to our consciences (Lord's Day 23, No. 60).

Our Catechism makes it perfectly clear to us that we have to consider the "three parts" of Lord's Day 1 time and again and have to go on doing so, all through our life. "Sin and Misery" is not a station we have left behind us some time ago! On the contrary, every now and then we have to be reminded of the fact that we need the protection of the blood of Christ and the divine activity of the Holy Spirit's regeneration work.

The Gospel stirs other emotions as well.

0 no, not only the just mentioned ones. True Christians are not living under the yoke of: "In klagen en klagen vergaan mijn dagen" (words from a Dutch poem, SW) i.e. all my days are packed with wailing and lamenting because of my sins.

For does not our Catechism, apart from "hearty sighing" also contain the little but great word "joy" on several of its pages? Does not the believer feel "the beginning of eternal joy" in his heart (Lord's Day 22 No. 58)?

Does it not speak of "cheerfully" employing one's gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members of Christ and His Church (21-55)?

How often do we find such words as "thankful" and "thankfulness" in it?

And what about one of the most important terms of the whole Catechism? Is that not the word "comfort?"

Do we not find its synonyms in "confidence" and "trust"?

An essential part of the Gospel is the fact that Christ told His believers to address God as "Our Father." Well, when our Catechism answers the question why Christ commanded us to address God this way, it says: "To awaken in us, at the very beginning of our prayer" a certain feeling - yes indeed, a certain emotion! -: "childlike reverence and trust."

This may be enough to prove that the Gospel and the Gospel-preaching certainly stirs one's emotions!


However, how is this done?

Definitely not in a cheap way. Not by inferior means.

But by its contents, the contents of the Gospel.

In other words, the preacher should never try to polish up the Gospel.

When the Word of God is preached, the Gospel of Christ Jesus, no one can ever react to the preaching by saying: The sermons of the minister are not warm enough! The Gospel has its own warmth. And even to this nothing extra should be added. This would be man-made, and cannot last.

This biblical rule has to be applied to this matter also: No additions to the Scriptures! A minister is not supposed to preach in a "dierbare" (affectedly endearing, SW) way: by speculating on the fact that certain people's emotions can easily be stirred.

The Gospel should awaken our feelings, feelings of humbleness and sorrow, but also feelings of joy and thankfulness.


This was the first thing we have to keep in mind.

The second is this, that these feelings are awakened by the Gospel because it provides knowledge.

In the opinion of many people emotions, or feelings, and knowledge are absolute contrasts; one would exclude the other.

In the opinion of many people emotions, or feelings, and knowledge are absolute contrasts; one would exclude the other.

However, this idea is completely wrong.

Remember again our Catechism. How often it uses the words "knowledge" and "know."

Faith is - and now we reverse the order for a minute - not only confidence but also knowledge!


This is perfectly biblical. For II Peter 1:5 says that faith includes virtue, and virtue includes knowledge.

Some more places from the Bible are these:

Isaiah 1:3 - "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider."

Isaiah 11:9 - "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea."

Luke 1:77 - John the Baptist would "give knowledge of salvation unto His people by the remission of their sins."

Romans 3:20 - "by the Law is the knowledge of sin."

Ephesians 1:17, 18 - "'That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of His calling, and what the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints."

We are even supposed to grow and increase in this respect. Colossians 1:10 - "that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God."

The same is said in II Peter 3:18 - "Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ."


Knowledge is the way in which our emotions are stirred.

The preaching should not be "heart-moving" in the popular sense of the word, but move the hearts by providing more knowledge.

Let us be thankful when we can hear this Scriptural type of preaching!