A Review of John Piper’s The Supremacy of God in Preaching
I wrote this several years ago in seminary, but it remains just as relevant today:
The Supremacy of God in Preaching is built upon the premise that “the vision of a great God is the linchpin in the life of the church, both in pastoral care and missionary outreach” and that, consequently, “our people need to hear God-entranced preaching” (p. 11). Since God is infinitely glorious, the linchpin of all life is that He be seen as infinitely glorious. Our lives will be out of sync with reality—and thus glory—unless what we see conforms to what is real. And when we do, God’s great aim in creation and redemption is fulfilled—He is glorified (shown to be glorious) and we are satisfied.
God must, therefore, be central in preaching because it is in preaching that this vision of a great and glorious God is primarily cast before us. Preaching displays God to us so that we will have something of Him to see and trumpets Him before us so that we will be stirred to see Him as glorious. By this means the linchpin is put in place, and the result is not only the exaltation of God but the exultation of man. For God is exalted in us when we are exulting in Him. But we cannot exult in Him unless He is displayed before us as glorious. And so “our people need to hear God-centered preaching” (11, emphasis added).
But most people don’t know that they have this need. It is interesting that Piper’s book both begins and ends on this note. The preface begins: “People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives” (p. 9). And in the conclusion we read: “People are starving for the grandeur of God, and the vast majority do not know it” (p. 107). The vast majority do not know they can be filled by the grandeur of God because they are infatuated with God-substitutes—such as self-esteem, sex, family, money, work, etc. They believe that these things which they have erected as idols are more satisfying than the majestic God—and on top of that the primary God appointed means of waking them from this slumber often ends up reinforcing it by preaching pop psychology rather than the superior worth of God. [Note: This is not against practical teaching; the problem is not doing so in a God-centered, gospel-based way.]
And so sandwiched between (and in) the preface and conclusion is an exhortation for preachers to give the people what they really need: God. Piper’s aim is to “plead for the supremacy of God in preaching” (p. 20), which means pleading that “the dominant note of preaching be the freedom of God’s sovereign grace, the unifying theme be the zeal that God has for his own glory, the grand object of preaching be the infinite and inexhaustible being of God, and the pervasive atmosphere of preaching be the holiness of God” (p. 20).
This kind of preaching is not impractical, as many might think. It does not leave the people hurting and ignored because the preacher has his head in the clouds. Rather, it sweeps up all of our problems into the “holy presence of God” (12) to be dealt with there rather than at the level of man-centered pop psychology. And this is the only place to really deal with them if it is indeed true that all the things in the universe orbit around the glory of God. But what is it about a vision of the glory of God that is so practical for us in our problems? The answer lies in grasping the mysterious connection between God’s glory and our joy.
Piper defines preaching as the heralding of the good news, by a messenger sent by God, that God reigns to reveal His glory (22-24). The design of preaching is to establish the dominion of God in the hearts of His people (that is, to bring in and build up God’s reign in our hearts), and God’s purpose in reigning is to bring glory to His name (Isaiah 48:9-11) and, indeed, fill the whole earth with the glory of His reign (Numbers 14:21). This should be no surprise, considering what we have already seen.
“But,” Piper goes on, “the glory of God does not reflect brightly in the hearts of men and women when they cower unwillingly in submission to his authority or when they obey in servile fear or when there is no gladness in response to the glory of their king” (24-25). Only glad and joyful submission glorifies the King because only this kind of submission shows that His reign is good news and that His glory is a treasure. Glory that is not worth treasuring and loving is a contradiction in terms.
Consequently, “when God sends his emissaries to declare, ‘your God reigns!’ his aim is not to constrain man’s submission by an act of raw authority; his aim is to ravish our affections with irresistible displays of glory” (25). Since “the goal of preaching is to glorify God, it must aim at glad submission to his kingdom, not raw submission.” For “when submission is a pleasure, the kingdom is glorified as a treasure” (25). To be more specific, then, “The goal of preaching is the glory of God reflected in the glad submission of his creation” (27).
This is why the centrality of God in preaching is so practical. It is practical because in proclaiming the excellencies of God the preacher is giving his people the one thing that will satisfy their hearts and bring them fullness of joy. This joy, in turn, is what sustains us through our trials, empowers our obedience, frees us to sacrificially love our enemies, and puts everything in perspective. Delight in God is the most practical thing in the world. As Piper writes in another of his works, who will settle for the sandwich meat of sin when he can smell a steak sizzling on the grill?
After showing the centrality of God to the goal of preaching, Piper finishes off part one of his book by showing the centrality of God to the ground of preaching (chapter 2) and the manner of preaching (chapter 3). All things in preaching are from, through, and to God, and therefore He is central to it all and should be proclaimed in a way that reflects this centrality. Having thereby established why God should be supreme in preaching and giving a general framework for what this means in part I, he proceeds via the life of Jonathan Edwards in part II to show more specifically how to make God supreme in preaching and to illustrate more concretely what this looks like.
What I would like to do in the remaining space I have is briefly, and even somewhat randomly, look at some of these more concrete and specific ramifications that the centrality of God has to preaching. Although the few pages of The Supremacy of God in Preaching are filled with a wealth of insight, I will confine myself to a few of the points that stand out to me most distinctly. I will not, however, simply confine myself to part II for these practical ramifications since they are found throughout the whole of the book.
First, the preacher must not only proclaim the holiness of God, but must be holy himself. One’s life must be consistent with what he proclaims from his pulpit. And so that means that the preacher must be holy. But what is significant to me is the perspective that the centrality of God’s glory brings to this. For it means that “human holiness is nothing other than a God-immersed life–the living out of a God-entranced worldview” (11).
Second, since God is so great and we are so feeble, “all genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation” (37). The things at stake are so great and the subject matter is so holy that we must cry out “who is sufficient for these things?” Phillips Brooks’ advice was sound: “Never allow yourself to feel equal to your work. If you ever find that spirit growing on you, be afraid” (cited on 38).
Third, it follows from this that we must be dependent upon the Spirit in all our preaching. He both provides the power we need to meet the challenge of our task and also gives the power the message needs to be effectual in the lives of the people. And the medium through which the Spirit works is His word. We must, therefore, not only preach from the Word but continually quote the word, showing where these things that we are preaching are coming from. There is power in the words of God that we can trust to work effectually. And we rely on the Holy spirit by saturating our preaching with His word (42). On top of this, we also rely on the Spirit for our enablement to preach by trusting in specific promises that we mine from His word (45).
Fourth, we should expect this enablement to come not as a whisper in the ear of what to say but as a filling of our hearts with holy affections which in turn fill our mouths both with the truth that is the source of those affections but also with the passion and joy that preaching must contain.
Fifth, “the work of preaching is to be done in ‘blood-earnestness’” (51). The glory of God is holy and weighty and fearful and precious, and so we must not trifle with it. We must “take our calling seriously” (50) and, indeed, this means being earnest in all of life, not just preaching, since you cannot be in the pulpit what you are not consistently in life.
Sixth, this gravity must be woven together with gladness. Piper is right when he says that “gladness and gravity should be woven together in the life and preaching of a pastor in such a way as to sober the careless soul and sweeten the burdens of the saints” (52). We must weave gladness with gravity because God’s glory is not only majestic but also sweet and beautiful. It is a majestic sweetness and beautiful majesty. It is to be both feared and loved.
Seventh, the preacher should pursue his own joy in the ministry of the word. There are three reasons for this. First, 1 Peter 5:2-3 commands it. Second, “you can’t consistently give what you don’t have” (53). Third, “a pastor who is not manifestly glad in God does not glorify God. He cannot make God look glorious if knowing and serving this God gives no gladness to his soul. A bored and unenthusiastic tour guide in the Alps contradicts and dishonors the majesty of the mountains” (53).
Eighth, since it is persevering faith that justifies, it follows that, as Edwards said, “there is as much need of persons exercising care and diligence to persevere in order to their salvation, as there is of their attention and care to repent and be converted” (80).
Ninth, we ought to employ analogies and images which illustrate what we are talking about. If we are seeking to show that God is beautiful, we should not simply say “God is beautiful, God is awesome” and expect the point to be driven home. We rather ought to show them that God is beautiful and awesome through images and analogies. Let them see it rather than just hear it.
Much more could be said and many more helpful truths could be mentioned, but this is enough for now. Surely Warren Wiersbe was right when he said that if the message of this book was taken to heart and followed by preachers, “we could well be on our way to the revival we so desperately need” (back cover).