Review of John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015). ISBN: 978-0801017087. (Page numbers refer to the 1990 edition.)
The Supremacy of God in Preaching is an exhortation to those who exhort. Brief yet piercing, the book serves as a clarion call for preachers to strike the right balance of gravity and gladness in today’s pulpit, while setting forth a clear challenge for more God-glorifying, Christ-honoring, and Spirit-empowered proclamation. “Our people are starving for God,” says John Piper, former senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “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!’” (9, 11).
Writing from a Reformed Baptist perspective, Piper passionately contends that a weighty, theocentric sermon is not primarily the product of homiletical technique, but rather the result of the preacher’s personal holiness and a God-immersed life. Citing Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Piper contends, “It is not great talents God blesses so much as great likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God” (11).
The book is divided into two parts. The first is titled “Why God Should Be Supreme in Preaching.” Here Piper offers four chapters on what he considers to be, “The Goal of Preaching,” “The Ground of Preaching,” “The Gift of Preaching,” and the “Gravity and Gladness of Preaching.” The second part of the book focuses on the practical outworking of these chapters and is titled, “How to Make God Supreme in Preaching: Guidance from the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards.” Here Piper develops three chapters on a set of imperatives taken from the life and pulpit ministry of his hero Jonathan Edwards, the famous American philosopher/theologian/pastor: “Keep God Central,” “Submit to Sweet Sovereignty,” and “Make God Supreme.”
The Supremacy of God in Preaching, which grew out of the 1988 Harold J. Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the 1984 Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching at Wheaton College, was voted “Book of the Year” by Preaching magazine.
Why God Should Be Supreme in Preaching
God aims to exalt himself, says Piper, not the preacher. Consequently, Piper’s case for giving God supremacy in preaching is deliberately theocentric and specifically Trinitarian: 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 (19). There is good news for the herald to proclaim, he says, but also a warning: “The Lord sends preachers into the world to cry out that God reigns, that he will not suffer his glory to be scorned indefinitely, that he will vindicate his name in great and terrible wrath. But they are also sent to cry that for now a full and free amnesty is offered to all the rebel subjects who will turn from their rebellion, call on him for mercy, bow before his throne, and swear allegiance and fealty to him forever. The amnesty is signed in the blood of his Son” (23). The submission that brings about the glory of God, however, is not coerced by a divine act of raw power. “The only submission that fully reflects the worth and glory of the King,” says Piper, “is glad submission. Begrudging submission berates the King. No gladness in the subject, no glory to the King” (25).
“The Lord sends preachers into the world to cry out that God reigns, that he will not suffer his glory to be scorned indefinitely, that he will vindicate his name in great and terrible wrath. But they are also sent to cry that for now a full and free amnesty is offered to all the rebel subjects who will turn from their rebellion, call on him for mercy, bow before his throne, and swear allegiance and fealty to him forever. The amnesty is signed in the blood of his Son”
Unfortunately, there are two great obstacles to the realization of preaching’s lofty goal. The pride of man will not delight in God’s glory, while the righteousness of God will not suffer his glory to be scorned. Only the cross of Christ can overcome this dual dilemma. Therefore, the cross is the only ground of Christian preaching. Furthermore, the cross is also the ground for the humility of the preacher: “In the New Testament the cross is not only a past place of objective substitution; it is also a present place of subjective execution—the execution of my self-reliance and my love affair with the praise of man. . . . It holds up the glory of God in preaching and holds down the pride of man in the preacher. It is the foundation of our doctrine and the foundation of our demeanor” (33, 35).
Piper contends that 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,” he says, emphasizing the word “manifest” because there are so many preachers who do not ground their assertions specifically in the text. “The effect of that kind of preaching is to leave people groping for the Word of God and wondering whether what you said is really in the Bible” (41). The superior approach, he claims, is to rely on the Holy Spirit by saturating a sermon with the Word he inspired. Such an approach is made all the more important by the sobering reality that, “when I preach, the everlasting balance of sinners hangs in the balance” (55).
How to Make God Supreme in Preaching
After presenting a brief synopsis of the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards, Piper offers ten characteristics from the legendary preaching ministry of this Puritan, all of which are phrased as imperatives for today’s preacher. While practical in essence, these imperatives are set forth in hortatory fashion and are not meant to provide in-depth instruction on how to execute them. They are simply reminders of what should occur in good preaching. (Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”)
Stir up holy affections. Good preaching seeks to generate such emotions as hatred for sin, delight in God, hope in his promises, gratitude for his mercy, desire for holiness, and tender compassion. Aim for the affections because they are the springs of all godly action. Make the tree good and its fruit will be good (82-84).
Enlighten the mind. It is crucial to bring light to the mind because affections that do not rise from the mind’s apprehension of truth are not holy. The believer’s persuasions and convictions must be reasonable, i.e., founded on real evidence. So the good preacher will give his hearers good reason and just ground for the affections he is trying to stir (84-86).
Saturate with Scripture. Good preaching is not merely based on Scripture, it quotes the 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. Scripture texts are the beams of light by which ministers and their hearers are enlightened (86-89).
“Our authority as preachers sent by God rises and falls with our manifest allegiance to the text of scripture.”
Employ analogies and images. The heart is most powerfully touched not when the mind is entertaining concepts, but when it is filled with vivid images of amazing reality. The preacher must make the glories of heaven look irresistibly beautiful and the torments of hell look intolerably horrible. Abstract truth comes to light in good illustrations (88-90).
Use threat and warning. Preachers should not remain silent where Jesus was so vocal, and Jesus often used threat and warning in his preaching. God set things up for the church such that when our love decays, fear should arise. This fear retrains from sin and provokes a guarding of the soul. When love rises, however, fear vanishes (90-93).
Plead for a response. It is a tragedy to see pastors state the facts and sit down. Good preaching pleads with people to respond to the Word of God. This pleading is not at odds with a high view of the sovereignty of God, for it is God who affects the results for which we long. Whether it’s an altar call or simply a call, pleading must occur (93-95).
Probe the workings of the heart. Powerful preaching is like surgery. Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it locates, lances, and removes the infection of sin. We don’t want to lie naked on the table and be cut, but oh, the joy of having the cancer out! Therefore, good preaching, like good surgery, probes the workings of the human heart (95-98).
Yield to the Holy Spirit in prayer. Good preaching is born of good praying, and it will come forth with the power that caused the Great Awakening when it is delivered under the mighty prayer-wrought influence of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the preacher must labor to put his preaching under divine influence by prayer (98-100).
Be broken and tenderhearted. Genuine spiritual power in the pulpit is not synonymous with loudness. Hard hearts are not likely to be broken with shrill voices. There is, in the Spirit-filled preacher, a tender affection that sweetens every promise and softens with tears every rebuke. The spirit we long to see in others must first be in us (100-102).
Be intense. Compelling preaching gives the impression that something very great is at stake, a notion that is undermined today by our emotional rejection of hell, our facile view of conversion, and the abundant false security promised from the pulpit. Lack of intensity in preaching communicates that our subject matter is insignificant (103-05).
The Supremacy of God in Preaching is worthy of the accolades it has received. Piper is refreshingly devoted to the supremacy of God in all things, including—and especially—preaching. “If God is not supreme in our preaching,” he asks, “where in this world will the people hear about the supremacy of God?” (109). It is a valid question, and the answer is, “Nowhere.” Therefore, the pulpit must be reclaimed as a showcase for the majesty and glory of God alone. As Daniel Bauman has written, this book is “a much-needed corrective to a frothy kind of homiletical fare that is light, breezy, and entertaining.” And that is the value of this book for preachers. It contains a “jolt factor” for those who might be tempted to worship at the altar of pragmatism in a seeker-driven context where strange incense is often burned to the false gods of relevance and felt needs.
Piper wants to say, in essence, “Stop the nonsense! Get re-oriented to the majestic God who called you to preach! The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Given the theological landscape today, the point is well taken. Particularly noteworthy is Piper’s call for preachers to plead for a response in their preaching. This is not standard fare in the Calvinist tradition, but Piper demonstrates from the ministry of Jonathan Edwards that such pleadings have their place. While not offering a defense or critique of Revivalism’s altar call, he nevertheless contends that a high view of the sovereignty of God does not diminish the need for preachers to make an appeal. Anything less, he implies, reduces preaching to religious lectures. Here again the point is well taken.
“If God is not supreme in our preaching, where in this world will the people hear about the supremacy of God?”
Piper’s section on humor in the pulpit has a certain degree of merit, but a few of his assertions could be debated. Indeed, opposing viewpoints can be found in John Stott’s Between Two Worlds and Hershael York’s Preaching with Bold Assurance. Nevertheless, all can agree that the pulpit is a sacred place and should never be surrendered to rank frivolity.
Another point of contention could be Piper’s claim that it “horribly skews the meaning of the atonement when contemporary prophets of self-esteem say the cross is a witness to my infinite worth, since God was willing to pay such a high price to get me.” Rather, he claims, “the cross stands in witness to the infinite worth of God and the infinite outrage of sin” (32). While it may be true that a finite creature does not have infinite worth, the full counsel of God would seem to suggest that Piper’s concern here is based on a false dichotomy. It is not an either/or proposition but a both/and reality found in Scripture. The cross speaks of the collision between God’s attributes—his intense displeasure with sin on the one hand, and his radical love for sinners on the other. In fact, God’s soliloquy in Hosea 11 (“How can I give you up?”) speaks poignantly to this collision.
Furthermore, Jesus spoke often of the value of sinners to God (Matt 6:26, 12:12; Luke 15) and connected the love of God for sinners to his own cross (John 3:16-17). To suggest that the cross is only a divine outrage against sin is every bit as dangerous as saying that it is only a testament to the sinner’s worth. Balance is required on this important subject in order to be faithful to the sum total of Scripture. Perhaps Piper’s overstatement here is an attempt to correct what he perceives to be a contemporary imbalance on the matter.
In the end, it was Plato who wisely asked, “Who guards the guardians?” In Christian circles, one could re-phrase the question: “Who preaches to the preachers?” One answer is John Piper. The Supremacy of God in Preaching is an exhortation to those who exhort, and a good one at that. It should be required reading for all who step into the pulpit, whether one is a Reformed Baptist or not.