Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2004. 109 pp. $12.99.
John Piper is the pastor of preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church. His expository preaching style is known for it’s powerful focus on the glory of God. The Supremacy of God in Preaching could just as easily have been a prescriptive book about his preaching style as it is a descriptive book about preaching in general. The book draws heavily from Piper’s understanding of Scripture and the glory of God as well as from the preaching and ministry style of Jonathan Edwards.
This book is divided into two major categories. The first explores why God must be supreme in preaching. This section finds its foundation in the Word of God as Piper cites many Scripture references to prove his point. The second section focusing on “Why God should be supreme in preaching,” is practical advice from the life of Jonathan Edwards. The two sections work together to prove that true preaching finds its content and its end in the person and glory of God. Piper does a great job defending his Thesis with every section and chapter of this book.
The Goal of preaching is first and foremost the glory of God. On page 25, Piper quotes Cotton Mather who said, “The great design and intention of the office of a Christian preacher [is] to restore the throne and dominion of God in the souls of men.” Bringing the lost to Christ is not the objective of preaching, neither is edification of the believer. These are means to an end, each of these activities have purpose within the sermon only as they are seen as ways of glorifying God.
The ground of preaching is the Cross of Christ. The preacher stands firm only when his feet are planted at the foot of the cross. Only the cross gives the preacher a reason to stand before the people and open his mouth, because only the cross provides hope to a lost and dying world, “without the cross, the righteousness of God would demonstrate itself only in the condemnation of sinners. For Piper, the cross is more than the ground of preaching, it is evidence of God’s glory: “The biblical perspective is that the cross is a witness to the infinite worth of God’s glory” (35). His outline is tightly tied together by showing that the ground for preaching, the cross, gives way to the glory of God.
The gift of preaching is the power in preaching provided by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the preacher that gives life to the preaching of the cross and enables the preacher to glorify the name of God with the Word of God. Piper urges the preacher to “rely on the Holy Spirit by saturating your preaching with the Word that he inspired.” Preaching is not self-reliance, it is God-reliance rooted in God’s Word.
In the final chapter of the first section of the book, Piper tackles what he refers to as “The Gravity and Gladness of Preaching.” Preaching, according to Piper should be a very serious activity, but in its seriousness, the glad hope of the gospel must ooze out. Even here, the thesis of the book is staunchly defended as he says, “a pastor who is not manifestly glad in God does not glorify God” (57). In Edwards, Piper finds a man whose gravity in the pulpit could hardly be mimicked and yet shows that he was a man full of joy for the glory of God. Thus, the serious task of preaching is not without its blessings. Those blessings should often be remembered so as to give the gospel and not legalism.
In the second half of The Supremacy of God in Preaching, Piper explores how to make God Supreme. Here, Piper does not deduce or create any new concepts. Instead, he uses a small biographical sketch of the life and ministry of Jonathan Edwards to show how one man elevated God in his preaching and his life. In describing the life of Jonathan Edwards, Piper says the he kept God central in his life (69). God was elevated in his preaching because Edwards lived his life to bring glory to God.
Piper also says that God was Supreme in Edwards’ preaching because his theology was not mere science, but was biblical study that submitted to the authority and sovereignty of God. However, the most important aspect of his life that caused his preaching to elevate the glory of God was his preaching. Piper says, “Spiritual awakening is the sovereign work of God, to be sure. But he uses his means, especially preaching” (83). All of the aspects of his life submitted to the sovereign will of God, but if Edwards had not submitted to God’s authority in the pulpit by preaching the Word of God unashamedly, his preaching would certainly not have exhibited the supremacy of God.
As was stated in the beginning of this paper, Piper’s book will never become a text for preaching because it is heavy on description and very light on prescription for preaching. However, Piper’s contribution to the ministry of preaching in this book is his dedication to show how God is glorified in preaching that puts him first. In an age that seems to be overcome with preaching that focuses on tickling the ears of those who are hearing, Piper stands out with a devotional book on preaching that focuses on the glory of God rather than the problems of people. In the preface to the original edition, Piper shows that preaching for God’s glory reaches people through God’s sovereign will. No matter where a person is in their life, “The greatness and glory of God are relevant…That is the deepest need” (14).
The first section of the book is set as a defense of his title and thesis. Piper’s belief in the supremacy of God in preaching arises from his understanding that God seeks first and foremost to “exalt himself and not the preacher” (23). The preacher exists as only the mouthpiece of God standing on a Trinitarian foundation that finds its goal, ground, and gift in the person of the Triune God. God is not only the goal of preaching, but he is the truth and the source of preaching. God must be supreme in the sermon because it is a true sermon only when God is actively involved in all three parts of the Trinity. Piper’s thesis is strongly supported by every point of this book, from the preface to the conclusion and every chapter in between.
I have found this book to be a breath of fresh air in the area of preaching. Piper does not show how to be a great preacher; he does not talk about organizing or writing a sermon. What he does do is show what a great preacher is. The Supremacy of God in Preaching gives preachers examples, not exegesis. For a person looking to learn how to begin, end, study for, write, or even deliver a sermon, this book is not a great option. However, for anyone interested in discovering a standard of preaching against which to measure himself, Piper has written a masterpiece.
On the back cover of the book, Erwin W. Lutzer says of this book, “Here’s a book that every preacher should read at least once a year. This book is a powerful antidote to the unbalanced, self-centered preaching of today.” This book should be read as a reminder to preachers of the goal, ground, and gift of preaching, not as an instruction manual. Piper says that the preacher should be like a surgeon, willing even to cause pain, if that pain in the hearer leads to God being glorified in the life of the hearer through heart change (98). Preachers need to be reminded often that people need to hear the Word of God, even if they do not realize that as their greatest need.
If there is such a thing as talking too much about the glory of God, however, I believe that Piper may have done just that. Though I agree that everything of God, has as its end result, the glory of God, I do not believe that the cross exists only as a witness to God’s glory. The cross is not a witness of man’s infinite worth (35) as Piper says, but the cross is a witness to the worth of man in the sight of God. In his love, God still saw fit to provide a way for his fallen creation to be reunited to him. God is glorified in the salvation of sinners, but humans are also blessed for all of eternity when they come to Christ in repentance and faith. People need to know that God’s glory is the ultimate result, but people need to know that God loves them enough to die on the cross. After all, if God’s glory were the only thing at stake, using Piper’s logic, he would have been just as glorified with the destruction of sinners as he is with their salvation and in doing so would not have had to suffer on the Cross (35). The cross represents a paradox where the greatness of God and the sinfulness of man are displayed simultaneously, and in doing so, God’s greatness is shown in his wrath toward sin, and in his love for his creation.
Other criticism for the book may be related directly to some of the praise for the book. One dilemma with setting Edwards before men as a standard of Godly preaching is that it runs the risk of removing the mystery of the Holy Spirit from the power of preaching. If men are to read The Supremacy of God in Preaching and assume that Edwards powerful preaching was merely the result of his disciplined and dedicate life, they may be tempted to forget that the Holy Spirit alone equips men for the ministry of preaching. Piper says, “Edwards preached the way he did because of the man he was and the God he saw” (68). Readers must realize that Edward’s vision of God was a direct result of God’s revelation to him and not only about his discipline and dedication. God alone equipped Jonathan Edwards to be the catalyst of a great revival. It was be fallacious to assume, based on this book, that imitating Edwards will necessarily lead to the same or even similar results. If preaching is truth poured through personality, then true preaching will lose credibility if men seek to mimic the personality and style of Edwards or of any other preacher. His practices and disciplines are worth pursuing, but his gravity and constant seriousness (Ch. 4) are not necessarily the only personality for godly preaching that gives glory to God.
In conclusion, it is important to remember that no author or book is perfect and John Piper and The Supremacy of God in Preaching are no exception. However, a book must be weighed in light of its overall value and not the two or three areas where the author and the reader do not completely agree. Thus being said, the obvious opinion for a book that encourages preaches to glorify God in their preaching has to be positive. Piper calls preachers back to a biblical standard of excellence in preaching, not through polished speech or flashy personalities, but by remaining true to the truth of the Word. It is a book that every preacher should have in his library as a continual resource to refresh and remind him of the awesome responsibility and end goal of preaching.