Preparing for the Pulpit: Piper and Edwards on the Ministry of Preaching

Supremacy of God in Preaching.pngI’m a high school pastor. During the course of any given week, I usually teach/preach, on average, 2-3 times, one time being during our Sunday morning fellowship group.  But this week I get the special opportunity to address the whole church body.  I will continue in our Summer’s series on the Psalms with a message from Psalm 63 entitled, Satisfied by Faith: A Psalmists Cure for Spiritual Drought.

As I have been preparing for this Sunday’s message, however, my mind has been drawn to a book I read a few years ago: John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching.  The book is actually a ‘biography’ of Jonathan Edwards that focuses on Edwards’ insights into the ministry of preaching the Word of God.  I thought it would be appropriate to peruse and meditate on a specific portion of the book in order to prepare my heart for this Sunday.  I also thought it would be helpful to provide Piper’s exhortations for those of you who are preparing to preach this Sunday as well.   

First, Piper reminds us to stir up the holy affections. He writes, “Good preaching aims to stir up “holy affections”–such emotions as hatred for sin, delight in God, hope in His promises, gratitude for his mercy, desire for holiness, and tender compassion.”  Quoting Edwards, “The things of religion are so great, that there an be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts, to the nature and importance, unless they be lively and powerful.”

Piper continues to answer some objections.  “Probably in our day someone would ask Edwards why he does not make external deeds of love and justice his goal rather than just the affections of the heart.  The answer is that he does make behavior his aim, namely, by aiming to transform the spring of behavior–the affections.  He chose this strategy for two reasons.  One is that a good tree can’t bear bad fruit [Matt. 7:18]…The other reason…is that ‘no external fruit is good, which does not proceed from such exercises [of holy affections].'”  So we must seek to stir up the holy affections this Sunday.

We should also seek to enlighten the mind.  Edwards again, “Suppose the religious affections of persons indeed arise from a strong persuasion of the truth of the Christian religion; their affections are not the better unless it be a reasonable persuasion or conviction.  By reasonable conviction, I mean a conviction founded on real evidence, or upon which is a good reason, or just ground of conviction.”  In other words, if our goal is to raise the holy affections, that goal must be sought by going through, not bypassing, the mind.  True, God-glorifying affections must flow from truth, or else we run the risk of untempered emotionalism, rather than cultivating humble, thoughtful, affections grounded in good reason.

Next, we must saturate our messages in Scripture.  I love that phrase.  We must fill our messages with God’s Word.  Piper instructs, “I say that good preaching is ‘saturated with Scripture,’ and not ‘based on Scripture’ because Scripture is more (not less) than the basis for good preaching.  Preaching that proclaims God’s supremacy does not begin with Scripture as a basis and then wander off to other things.  It oozes Scripture.  My continual advice to beginning preachers is, ‘Quote the text!’ ‘Quote the text!’  Say the actual words of the text again and again.  Show the people where your ideas are coming from.”

But we can’t exclude employing analogies and images to illustrate the truth we are teaching.  Piper explains, “Experience and Scripture teach that the heart is most powerfully touched, not when the mind is entertaining abstract ideas, but when it is filled with vivid images of amazing reality…[Edwards] pictured the pure heart with remaining impurities as a vat of fermenting liquor trying to get clean of all sediment.  He saw holiness in the soul as a garden of God with all manner of pleasant flowers.  His sermons abound with images and analogies to give light to the understanding and heat to the affections.”  So we must labor, not only in our exegesis of the text, but in our ability to see, in the amazing world around us, concrete illustrations of the truth revealed in that text so our people will say, “Yes, I got it.  I see it.  I understand!”

Another element of good preaching that is difficult, yet absolutely necessary, is the use of threats and warnings.  Piper explains, “…those who have the largest hearts for heaven shudder most deeply at the horrors of hell.  Edwards was persuaded that hell is real.  ‘This doctrine is indeed aweful and dreadful, yet ’tis of God.’  Therefore he esteemed the threats of Jesus as the strident tones of love…Hell awaits every unconverted person.  Love must warn them with the threats of the Lord.”  It is neither loving or kind to neglect to warn unconverted people of their impending doom if they do not repent and believe in the Savior.  May we display all the glories of heaven in our preaching, but never forget the indispensable importance of warnings of hell. Warnings like those found in Matthew 5:22, 5:30, 10:28, I Corinthians 10:12; Gal. 5:21, Romans 11:20 and I Peter 1:17, and so on.

With this in mind, we should also plead for a response.  Edwards writes, “Sinners…should be earnestly invited to come and accept the Savior, and yield their hearts unto him, with all the warning, encouraging arguments for them…that the gospel affords.” Piper comments further, “When we preach, to be sure, it is God who affects the results for which we long.  But that does not rule out our earnest appeals for our people to respond…So it seems that God has been pleased to give awakening power to preaching which does not shrink back from the loving threatenings of the Lord, and which lavishes the saints with incomparable promises of grace, and which pleads passionately and lovingly that no one hear the Word of God in vain…Good preaching pleads with people to respond to the Word of God.”

Edwards bring some real balance here.  He writes, “We are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest.  But God does all, and we do all.  God produces all, and we act all.  For that is what he produces, viz. our own acts.  God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors…In the Scriptures…God is said to convert [II Tim. 2:25], and men are said to convert and turn [Acts 2:38].  God makes a new heart [Ezek. 36:26], and we are commanded to make us a new heart [Ezek. 18:31]…These things are agreeable to the text, “God works in you both to will and to do [Phil. 2:13].”

We should also probe the workings of the heart.  Piper again, “Powerful preaching is like surgery.  Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it locates, lances and removes the infection of sin.”  We, as preachers, should labor to know our own hearts and the sin that so often besets us, and pray for the illumination of the Holy Spirit so that we might know how to best have victory over our sin.  Then we will be able to help our people remove their sin (with a scalpel, not a broadsword) with our preaching.

As we do all of this, we must yield to the Holy Spirit in prayer.  Edwards instructed the young ministers of his day that they “in order to be burning and shining lights, should walk closely with God and keep near to Christ, that they may ever be enlightened and enkindled by him.  And they should be much in seeking God, and conversing with him by prayer, who is the fountain of light and love.”

And lest we be overbearing and bombastic, Piper instructs us to be broken and tenderhearted in our preaching.  “Good preaching comes from a spirit of brokenness and tenderness.  For all his authority and power Jesus was attractive because he was ‘gentle and lowly in heart’ (Matthew 11:28-29)…One of the secrets of Edwards’s power in the pulpit was the ‘brokenhearted’ tenderness with which he could address the weightiest matters.”  It is perhaps here that some preachers, who could be excellent, go astray.  Despite their theological rigor and their preaching gifts, they discourage and harden rather than build up and soften their listeners because they hammer away without a broken and tender heart.

Finally, we must be intense.  “Compelling preaching gives the impression that something very great is at stake.  With Edwards’s view of the reality of heaven and hell and the necessity of persevering in a life of holy affections and godliness, eternity was at stake every Sunday.  This sets him apart from the average preacher today…Lack of intensity in preaching can only communicate that the preacher does not believe or has never been seriously gripped by the reality of which he speaks–or that the subject matter is insignificant.”  May that not be true of us.  May we, by grace, approach the pulpit with a sincere understanding of the enormity of the task we are taking up this Sunday.

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