Kingsway Publications, 1990
It’s Christmas Eve, several years ago. I’m at church, and the youth pastor is talking about the time he was in a band. It feels like a comic routine, and I’m waiting for him to get to the message, the message of Jesus coming to earth as part of God’s plan to save humanity from an eternity without Him, you know the one, but he never gets there. The only thing I remember him saying about Jesus is that He was a carpenter who died on a tree.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking about preaching, about both the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard throughout my life and about what a sermon ought to be. When I compare the two, I’m disappointed.
Growing up, I heard a lot of 3-point sermons where the missing words on the outline all started with the same letter. I’m pretty sure lots of the sermon titles began with “How to,” so the sermons essentially consisted of advice. The sermons I remember from college were much the same.
But shouldn’t all preaching be centered around the Bible?
I picked up John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching for Worchihan, but decided to read it myself (its thinness assured me it wouldn’t be too technical for a non-preacher). John Piper served as the pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for more than 30 years and is currently the lead teacher at Desiring God, a Christian resource website with thousands of sermons, books (many are free!) and podcasts. Thankfully, Piper is one of the most influential Christian voices of our time.
The Supremacy of God in Preaching consists of two sermons Piper preached: Part 1, Why God Should Be Supreme in Preaching, was delivered as the Harold John Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in February 1988 while Part 2, How to Make God Supreme in Preaching: Guidance from the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards, was delivered as the Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching at Wheaton College in October 1984. I read the 1990 edition of the book, but it has been revised and expanded since then.
The truth of the first paragraph of the preface might be the most important of the whole book. Some of us, me included, feel we are missing something, which Piper doesn’t hesitate to declare is the greatness of God and I have to agree.
“People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: ‘Show me thy glory!'”
He goes on to say that God is the essential subject matter of preaching and confirms my thoughts about the sermons I’ve heard most of my life: “It is not the job of the Christian preacher to give people moral or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world; someone else can do that. But most of our people have no one in the world to tell them, week in and week out, about the supreme beauty and majesty of God.” If the sermons I heard growing up had been about God’s glory and beauty and majesty, would my adult self approach God with greater reverence? Would I better understand the great distance sin created between me and God? Would I live a holier life out of obedience and gratefulness for God’s mercy?
Part 1: Why God Should Be Supreme in Preaching
In Part 1, Piper discusses 4 aspects of preaching: the goal of preaching, the ground of preaching, the gift of preaching and the gravity and gladness of preaching,
According to Piper, the goal of preaching is the glory of God, the ground of preaching is the cross of Christ and the gift of preaching is the power of the Holy Spirit. Piper points out that all three members of the Trinity play a role in preaching: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the beginning, middle, and end in the ministry of preaching. Written over all ministerial labor, especially preaching, stand the words of the apostle in Romans 11: ‘From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.'”
When discussing the the gift of preaching, Piper writes, “All Christian preaching should be the exposition and application of Biblical texts. Our authority as preachers sent by God rises and falls with our manifest allegiance to the text of Scripture.” This should be obvious, so why have I heard so few sermons that explain and apply the Bible?
The chapter on the gravity and gladness of preaching stood out to me. Piper writes that gravity and gladness must be “woven together” to “sober the careless soul and sweeten the burden of the saints.” About gravity in preaching, he says that “preaching is God’s appointed means for the conversion of sinners, the awakening of the church, and the preservation of the saints…” If preaching is the means by which people are brought to Christ and kept in Him, isn’t preaching then the most important work done on earth? Do we, both preachers and Christians, view it in this way?
He goes on to say this: “This is simply stupendous to think about—that when I preach the everlasting destiny of sinners hangs in the balance! If a person is not made earnest and grave by this fact, people will unconsciously learn that the realities of heaven and hell are not serious.”
Piper now calls out certain preachers, possibly including the one who spoke that Christmas Eve: “Laughter seems to have replaced repentance as the goal of many preachers. Laughter means people feel good. It means they like you. It means you have moved them. It means you have some measure of power. It seems to have all the marks of successful communication—if the depth of sin and the holiness of God and the danger of hell and need for broken hearts is left out of account.”
Here, Piper helpfully includes seven suggestions for fostering gravity and gladness in preaching:
- Strive for practical, earnest, glad-hearted holiness in every area of your life.
- Make your life–especially the life of your study–a life of constant communion with God in prayer.
- Read books written by those who bleed Bible when you prick them and are blood-earnest about the truths they discuss.
- Direct your mind often to the contemplation of death.
- Consider the biblical teaching that as a preacher you will be judged with greater strictness.
- Consider the example of Jesus.
- Strive with all your strength to know God and to humble yourself under his mighty hand (1 Peter 5:6).
So much of the preaching of well-known Christian pastors today looks a lot like entertainment. These pastors seem to be more concerned with presentation than with content, with their appearance than with the hearts of their listeners. They preach feel-good messages without an ounce of the gospel. I appreciate Piper’s willingness to rebuke these preachers as well as his reminder to Christians about what preaching should be.
Part 2: How to Make God Supreme in Preaching: Guidance from the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards
In Part 2, Piper looks at Jonathan Edwards, an American theologian and pastor in the early 1700s whom Piper has spent his life studying. Piper discusses Edwards’s life, theology and preaching.
What I most appreciated in Part 2 was Piper’s prescription of ten characteristics of Edwards’s preaching:
- Stir up what Edwards refers to as “holy affections.” These include “hatred for sin, delight in God, hope in His promises, gratitude for His mercy, desire for holiness, and tender compassion.”
- Enlighten the mind.
- Saturate with Scripture. “Preaching that proclaims God’s supremacy does not begin with Scripture as a basis and then wander off to other things. It oozes Scripture.”
- Employ analogies and images.
- Use threat and warning. Why? “When fear and guilt correspond with the true state of things it is reasonable and loving to stir them up. And the saints are only as secure as they are willing to give heed to biblical warnings and persevere in godliness.”
- Plead for a response.
- Probe the workings of the heart. Piper compares powerful preaching to surgery: “Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it locates, lances, and removes the infection of sin.”
- Yield to the Holy Spirit in prayer. “The goal of preaching is utterly dependent on the mercy of God for its fulfillment. There, the preacher must labor to put his preaching under divine influence by prayer.”
- Be broken and tenderhearted. “The spirit we long to see in people must be in ourselves first. That will never happen until, as Edwards says, we know our own emptiness and helplessness and terrible sinfulness.”
- Be intense. “Compelling preaching gives the impression that something very great is at stake.”
Just as Piper begins the book by highlighting our need for God’s glory, so he ends the book with a reminder of God’s glory from Jonathan Edwards: “The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.”
Why Non-Preachers Should Read This Book
In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul writes, “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.” There is no greater responsibility than that described in these verses and those who are given these gifts must occasionally be paralyzed by fear because of what is at stake. Reading this book has given me a greater respect (and more compassion) for those who are called by God to equip the rest of us for His work and to build up the church.
After reading this book, I have a much better understanding of the purpose of preaching. I also have a much better understanding of why I need to hear biblical preaching: I need both the gravity and the gladness of preaching so that I’m convicted when I sin and encouraged when I struggle. If preaching is God’s way of preserving the church–preserving me–I need to make sure I’m sitting under preaching that is God-centered and that will enable me to grow in Christ.
Book Excerpt and Sermon Links
You can read an excerpt of the revised and expanded edition from the publisher here.
Have you read this book or any other books on preaching? Have you read any other books by John Piper? Let me know in the comments.