Matthew R. Perry

“The Supremacy of God in Preaching” by John Piper (Book Review)

In Book Review, For Preachers/Pastors, Leadership on July 13, 2006 at 5:32 pm

suprempiper.jpgJohn Piper has served since 1980 as the Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church at Minneapolis, Minnesota. He received degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary (B.D.) and the University of Munich (D.theol.) and previously taught on the faculty of Bethel Theological Seminary at Minneapolis for six years before accepting the call to Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Piper is the author of 20 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Multnomah, 1986; 2nd edition, 1996, 3rd edition, 2003), Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Baker, 1993; 2nd edition, 2003), and Don’t Waste Your Life (Crossway, 2003). His online and radio ministries known as Desiring God demonstrate a commitment and a passion for expository preaching.

Summary

This book is comprised of two parts. Part I, entitled “The Supremacy of God in Preaching,” was originally delivered as part of The Harold John Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 1988 (2). He asserts that the goal of preaching is the glory of God in the glad submission of His creation (27). He also states that that the “grand design of the preacher is to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men” (23-24). The ground of preaching, according to Piper, is the cross of Christ that serves as “a past event of substation and a present experience of execution” (35). The preacher then preaches through the gift and the power via the vehicle of His inspired Word (39). As Piper deals with the gravity of preaching, he notes that “intensity of feeling, the weight of argument, a deep and pervading solemnity of mind, a savor of power of godliness, fervency of spirit, zeal for God” are the marks of the gravity of preaching (50). “Gladness and gravity should be woven together” in the preacher’s life and ministry (52).

Part II, entitled “Sweet Sovereignty: The Supremacy of God in the Preaching of Jonathan Edwards,” was delivered as part of The Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching, Wheaton College, 1984 (2). Piper shows how the crux of the life of Edwards was to keep God central through a submission to the sovereignty of God, a doctrine that Edwards calls “exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet” (76). The center of the preaching of Edwards was God supremacy, by which the stirring up the “holy affections” served as the “spring of behavior” that must be transformed so behavior will follow suite (83). These affections must arise in a “reasonable persuasion or conviction” (85) and not simply based on Scripture but “saturated” with it (86). With this saturation comes the employment of analogies and images that help bring to bear the abstract truths of Scripture onto the heart (88). Edwards did not shirk from his responsibility of using the biblical example of threats and warnings. Piper notes that Edward’s knowledge of hell was great, but his knowledge and zeal for heaven was greater (90). He states, “Those who have the largest hearts for heaven shudder most deeply at the horrors of hell. . . . Edwards could not remain silent where Jesus was so vocal” (91). With this warning, Edward pleaded for a response from his hearers to hear and heed the Word of God: “We are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some, and we do the rest. However, God does all, and we do all. God produces all, and we act all” (94). Passionate preaching is, as Piper notes, “like surgery. Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it locates, lances, and removes the infection of sin” (95). Piper shows that “the preacher must labor to put his preaching under the divine influence of prayer” (98) so that the preacher’s heart must be broken for the sin in his people (100).

Critical Evaluation

Seldom does a reader of any Christian work encounter a volume that is as God-centered and Scripture-saturated as Piper’s work on preaching. Piper approaches this work with a strong commitment to the authority of the Scriptures, to expositional preaching, and to bringing forth the greatness and the glory of God (10).

The vision of a great God is the linchpin in the life of the church, both in pastoral care and missionary outreach. Our people need to hear God-entranced preaching. They need someone, at least once a week, to lift up his voice and magnify the supremacy of God. They need to behold the whole panorama of his excellencies … what people need most is our personal holiness … the living out of a God-entranced worldview (11).

This quote encapsulates the passion of Piper’s life, calling, and ministry and its message is conveyed in this book from cover to cover.

Immediately we see his passion in Chapter One, entitled “The Goal of Preaching: The Glory of God.” He relates how instrumental his contraction of mononucleosis was in God sovereignly bringing him from a pre-med student to a preacher of the Word. While in the infirmary, he heard Dr. Harold John Ockenga preach, and God used that to confirm the call to preach on his life. He goes on to say, “… and you can mark it down that if you are a preacher God will hide from you much of the fruit he causes in your ministry.” (19). Even so, Piper encourages the preacher as he continues in pursuit of his calling. This testimonial of what God’s call did in crafting his heart toward the preaching of His Word will inspire all who read this work for it rigorously takes the pressure of the preacher being all-in-all. His quote of the colonial minister Cotton Mather captures the heart of Piper with three simple words: “Our God reigns!” (23). Later in this work, Piper notes, “the goal of preaching is utterly dependent on the mercy of God for its fulfillment. Therefore, the preacher must labor to put his preaching under divine influence by prayer” (98). What a message for preachers, both the arrogant and brokenhearted alike!

Another wonderful aspect of this book is how Piper encourages preachers to find a godly model for ministry. Once accomplished, he is then to study that model diligently — which was advice given to him by his seminary professor (65). For Piper, that model is Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). As Piper takes us through Edwards’ life and ministry, one sees why Piper is so blessed by this man’s example. “What Jonathan Edwards preached and how he preached were extensions of his vision of God” (75) — a theme that permeates this entire second part. This insight is needed for many preachers believe far and away that content drives the preaching while putting the how of delivery far in the background.[1] Yet, not just for this particular work by Piper but for all of his works, we see the influence of Edwards in this statement: “The duty of man is to delight in God’s glory. . . . Our duty toward God is that all our affections respond properly to his reality and so reflect his glory” (77-78).

Another amazing benchmark of this work is how Piper yearns for preachers to have a Spirit-empowered, Spirit-indwelt life that is given over to the glory of God based on the Word of God. The preacher’s life is to be steeped in humility, Piper states, and “glad submission” to the worth and glory of the sovereign God. This recalls the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (ESV). In humility, he exhorts preachers clearly to “get people to open their Bibles and put their fingers on the text” so they know where preachers get their ideas (41)! He insightfully reminds preachers that, “We are simply pulling rank on people when we tell them, and don’t show them from the text” (42). In relying on the Spirit’s power, we must saturate our preaching with the Word He inspired (42).

Piper relays how he uses the acronym APTAT to remind himself at the hour he is to preach that he does not preach in his own power. He says he must admit his utter helplessness, he must pray for help, he must trust in God for specific hope in that hour, he must act confidently that God will fulfill his Word, and then finally thank God for his sustaining power (45-46). Such a reminder of humility in our church’s pulpits and our pastor’s study desks would serve the evangelical churches well. His prayerfulness echoes the Apostle Paul’s desire for the Spirit to fill his preaching when he tells the Ephesian church to pray for him “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Ephesians 6:19, ESV). The heart of the Apostle Paul beats in the life and ministry of John Piper and in the message of this volume by his continual prayer for God to move him from his utter helplessness for the task of preaching to the complete dependence on Christ in every area that Piper does for the Kingdom work.

One slight weakness in this work is the lack of explanation in how to apply these principles he puts forth. Although a case could be made that no set formula exists for capturing the glory of God and gladly submitting to Him in all things. Also, to Piper’s credit, he does take us step-by-step through some of paths on which God led him, but he could have certainly helped the reader by extracting some principles from Scripture and even from his own experiences as to how one goes about this.

Conclusion

After reading through the entirety of this magnificent volume, I believe that every pastor should read and absorb its contents not just for the good of the pastor’s ministry but also for the good of the pastor’s soul. Piper sounds a clarion call for all pastors to shed the desire to preach simply for mass appeal or to preach simply as if it were another job at another place of employment. Piper bolsters the preacher’s aim in having the Bible as the standard from which to preach coupled with the passion of God’s glory and sovereignty. May this book encourage you as pastors and preachers of the Word as it has me!

[Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.119 pp. $6.95.]


[1] McDill, Wayne. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994. 14

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