John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 110 pp.
The current renaissance of interest in preaching — a trend which appears to continue into the 1990’s — has produced a considerable library of volumes ranging from comprehensive texts on preaching to tracts on fine points of detail and specialization. The books have celebrated preaching, proposed new modes of sermon discourse, and addressed the centrality of preaching to the church’s task. But what is central to preaching?
John Piper, senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, makes clear that God Himself must be central and supreme in all genuinely Christian preaching. Reader beware! This small volume has monumental content which defies the current Zeitgeist and does so without apology. Self-esteem consultants and possibility thinkers will find no comfort here.
Piper’s message is direct: “My burden is to plead for the supremacy of God in preaching — 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.”
The book is based on two series of lectures: the 1988 Harold John Ockenga Lectures on Preaching at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and the 1984 Billy Graham Center Lectures on Preaching. Nevertheless, the volume does not read as a set of lecture manuscripts. Its power and persuasiveness grows out of its forthright message: that much of contemporary preaching is not preaching at all, and that only that preaching which takes the glory of God as its central message is worthy of the gospel.
The current atheological age, with its rampant subjectivism and relativism, has conditioned congregational ears to expect “feel good” messages which center on superficial answers to their own perceived needs. Piper cites Samuel Johnson’s description of Isaac Watts, “Whatever he took in hand was, by his incessant solicitude for souls, converted to theology.” In contrast, Piper suggests that contemporary preaching would be described differently: “Whatever the preacher takes in his hand is, by his incessant solicitude for relevance, converted to psychology.”
What Phillip Reiff termed the “triumph of the therapeutic” marks the modern age and has shaped the modern mind. There is little “God consciousness” in a mind saturated with concern for self-esteem, codependency, and the elusive search for personal fulfillment.
Piper does not suggest that the pulpit should not address these issues, or “nitty-gritty, practical things like parenthood and divorce and AIDS and gluttony and television and sex.” But rather that “every one of those things should be swept into the holy presence of God and laid bare to the roots of its Godwardness or godlessness.”
The preacher’s most dangerous enemy in God-centered preaching is pride. Piper notes: “As our pride pours contempt upon God’s glory, His righteousness compels Him to pour wrath upon our pride.” Pride deters the preacher from centering on “the glory of God in the glad submission of His creation.”
The antidote to preacherly pride is the cross, which removes the obstacles to preaching the supremacy of God. The cross, therefore, provides both the “objective validity” and subjective humility” of the preaching event.
Piper is not reluctant to offend modern sensibilities. The influence of classical and puritan preachers is evident, even in the measured and direct language Piper employs. He is not afraid, for example, to suggest that the preacher should find “the aroma of death” in preaching — “death to self-reliance, death to pride, death to boasting in man.”
The cross of Christ draws attention to the glory of God and, at the same time, draws attention away from the pride of the preacher. It is an event of substitution in the past, and of execution in the present. By this latter phrase Piper does not intend to commit the ancient heresy of perpetual crucifixion, for the execution in the present refers to the death of the preacher’s pride.
If the cross is the ground of preaching, the Holy Spirit is its power. Piper admits his utter dependence upon the power of the Spirit. “All genuine preaching,” he states, “is rooted in a feeling of desperation.” Simply put, no preacher is adequate to the task.
Piper cites Paul’s own recognition of inadequacy. Why should we think ourselves different than Paul? Piper notes: “The dangers of self-reliance and self-exaltation in preaching are so insidious that God will strike us if He must in order to break us of our self-assurance and the casual use of our professional techniques.”
The Holy Spirit also “makes us docile to the Bible.” Piper’s high view of scriptural authority stands central to his vision of the preaching task. Preaching dies, he warns, where the Bible is seen as a mere record of religious insight.
Nevertheless, Piper also warns his fellow biblical inerrantists that other means of undercutting the Bible’s authority have crept into evangelical ranks, where “subjectivist epistemologies,” “linguistic theories,” and “popular, cultural relativism” can displace scriptural authority.
Piper implores his readers to commit themselves to a “manifest allegiance” to the biblical text. The message should not be based in scripture; it must be manifestly linked throughout. The congregation must be able to see precisely how the sermon is linked to the biblical text.
This means that the preacher should draw the attention of a congregation to the actual text. Piper warns that today’s churchgoers are unfamiliar with the Bible, are not accustomed to handling the sacred text, and will not make the sermon-text connection unless the preacher makes it clear. The congregation needs to see “specific, readable words of Scripture” in the course of the sermon.
Interestingly, Piper also calls preachers to embody gravity in their lives — and in the pulpit. Preachers, he insists, have absorbed cultural expectations of glib friendliness and optimism and lack the genuine solemnity of mind appropriate to one who deals with issues of eternity. Lacking models of appropriate solemnity and gravity, modern preachers and their congregations are likely to see the preacher as “morose or boring or dismal or sullen or gloomy or surly or unfriendly.”
To prevent this, preachers “strive for gladness the only way they know how — by being light-heart-ed, chipper, and talkative.” Pulpits are infected with what Piper terms a “verbal casualness” which does not befit the gospel. His thesis is this: “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.” Preaching which is marked by spiritual gravity will also produce genuine gladness.
The last four chapters, first delivered as lectures at the Billy Graham Center, reveal Piper’s fascination with Jonathan Edwards. Edwards — the most significant American theologian to date — provides, Piper suggests, a model for how to make God supreme in preaching.
Piper, admonished to find a theological mentor with which to wrestle for a lifetime, discovered in Edwards “a window on the world of the spirit … when all I could see were the curtains of secularism.”
Edwards, whose gifted mind and consecrated spirit set him apart even from his own contemporaries, will seem to some readers a quaint choice for a mentor. But Piper makes Edwards come alive in his concentration on the glory and grace of God.
Furthermore, Piper considers Edwards’ contributions to the preaching art, his affirmation of the “religious affections,” and his “saturation” with Scripture. “Preaching that proclaims God’s supremacy,” Piper advises, “does not begin with Scripture as its basis and then wander off to other things. It oozes Scripture.”
We should note that an “Edwards renaissance” of sorts is now underway, with several worthy monographs and studies recently published. Edwards is worthy of this attention. He is America’s foremost theological trophy — a designation he would himself abhor. Contemporary American evangelicalism would be transformed by immersion in Edwards’ sermons and writings.
The Supremacy of God in Preaching should be on every preacher’s mandatory reading list for the coming months. Though its length is brief (110 pages), its impact promises to be lasting. Piper has produced a brave and direct volume which is part jeremiad and part doxology. Readers will be chastened, encouraged, emboldened, and grateful.
John H. Leith, From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to its Own Theology and Practice (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 223 pp., $14.95, paper.
John Leith, who carries the lofty title of “Pemberton Professor of Theology” at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, has established an international reputation in Calvin studies and Reformed theology. His earlier writings, including John Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life and Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, are important contributions but the present volume continues the argument of another volume, The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say.
Yet From Generation to Generation is not addressed to the Reformed community alone. It is addressed to Protestant churches as a call to their fundamental identity and message.
Leith acknowledges that the church is in crisis. That is the fundamental assumption upon which the volume is based. His own denomination, the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., is in decline, as are the other churches of the mainline “seven sisters.” Though sociologists and church “experts” may track this decline and offer organizational correctives, Leith warns that this information is interesting but not redemptive.
Leith’s argument is “that the crisis in the church is theological, including church practices that grow out of theology.” The crisis is not a matter of numerical decline; it is a crisis of faith.
Yet Leith’s strength is not only his diagnostic ability but his proposal for theological renewal. “The church lives by the gospel of what God has done for our salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” he says. “Without the gospel, the church is just another political party or therapeutic group, albeit claiming divine sanction for its secular wisdom.”
The promise of renewal is not found in capturing demographic data but in recovering preaching, teaching, and pastoral care as those functions have built the church. The true church is not built by its programs. As Leith comments: “Churches that serve basic human needs sometimes thrive without much theology, and modern communications techniques can turn ministers without education into excellent entertainers. I know of no evidence that these skills gather and build congregations of faith.”
Leith’s concentration on preaching is interesting, not only for what it advocates but for what it lacks — a concern for the pulpit “effectiveness” which is the point of fascination for so many. Congregations want pastors who “are able to explicate and apply the Word of God with power.”
Pulpit committees, Leith suggests, almost uniformly look for a pastor who can preach. “Yet,” he laments, “most pulpit committees would have a difficult time explaining what is a good sermon.” So many congregation have never heard a classical sermon, and have had their expectations shaped by entertainment and the media. The expectations of the congregation are not likely to be exceeded in the pulpit. Leith cited research conducted by James Hasting Nichols which indicated that sturdy preaching required a “theologically and biblically informed congregation.”
Leith calls for preaching which embodies theological depth. All genuine preaching, he points out, is inherently theological. The issue is the quality of the theology being communicated and modelled in the pulpit.
What models or patterns demonstrate the power of theological preaching? Leith points to Calvin, the Puritans, and Karl Barth. All three patterns demonstrate the power of the Word of God within the preaching event. The three models presuppose “the highest levels of biblical and theological knowledge as well as the capacity to express it in clear, coherent English sentences, and to deliver it in a lively and effective way.”
Nevertheless, preaching is at risk in the modern world. Threats to the integrity and effectiveness of preaching abound, including the contemporary fascination with entertainment, the breakdown of a coherent shared world view, the loss of Christian knowledge, and the loss of a Christian society. Each imperils the preaching event.
Entertainment has so shaped the modern mind that it may not recognize the classic sermon — in content as well as form — as authentic communication. The loss of a shared world view, Christian knowledge, and Christian society have changed the rules of the game and force the church to take very little for granted.
Yet, the greatest threat to preaching, Leith insists, is theological. “The problem is twofold: the hiatus between academic theology in a secular setting and the church as a community of faith and worship and the issues that arise out of the pluralism of secular culture.”
The chapter ends with several proposals for a recovery of the Protestant preaching tradition. Leith is honest but hopeful: “All people who seek to shape human history, politicians, ideologues, advocates, would give anything to have what is available to the church in the gathering of people. The great crowds on Saturdays at college football games are impressive, but within a few miles’ radius of football stadiums, more people gather to worship God and hear a sermon on Sunday. This gathering of people is a phenomenon that cannot be duplicated in our society, and it is a challenge and opportunity for those called to preach.”
The volume is based on the 1989 Annie Kinkead Warfield Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Book Notes
Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 244 pp., paper.
Leslie Newbigin is one of the most credible and valuable voices in the contemporary world of ecumenical Christianity. For four decades a missionary in India, Newbigin combines a warm heart with a sound mind. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society addresses some of the most pressing issues facing the church, and does so with an informed and appealing style.
Newbigin is able to describe the challenge of a pluralistic worldview with an effectiveness and candor rarely matched. Contemporary pluralism does not mean merely the presence of diversity, but an affirmation that “this plurality is celebrated as things to be approved and cherished.”
The book is must reading for the modern preacher, who will benefit from Newbigin’s clear thinking even where his arguments may not persuade.
Tex Sample, U. S. Lifestyles and Mainline Churches (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 166 pp., $12.95, paper.
Sociology has invaded the temple, and experts on sociology, demographics, and church dynamics have become a genuine growth industry. Sample is professor of church and society at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. He has produced one of the more interesting and creative offerings in the current literature.
Sample identifies three major cultural constituencies in contemporary America: the cultural left, the cultural middle, and the cultural right. Each sees the world — and the church — in starkly different terms.
The author is not concerned with the theological shifts from one group to another but in the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural expectations, social views, and perceived needs of each grouping. The book will interest evangelicals as well as mainliners.

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