Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.
Reviewed by Kyle D. Rapinchuk
Preaching is a high calling. When James warns in his epistle that teachers will be held to a higher standard, this point can hardly be ignored. One reason for this is that preaching is not merely a public speech with God as the content. Rather, John Piper asserts that “preaching is worshiping over the Word of God—the text of Scripture—with explanation and exultation” (9). In his book The Supremacy of God in Preaching, Piper provides his reader an overview of the preaching ministry by considering both the biblical vision for preaching and some practical advice drawn from the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.
Piper’s greatest desire in this book is to stir up the affections of preachers for the proclamation of the glory and majesty of God, that this book “may turn the hearts of God’s heralds” toward the fulfillment of Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 4:11 (17). Piper structures his book into two parts. The first part, consisting of chapters one through four, takes an intentionally Trinitarian structure (23) and deals with a biblical vision for preaching. The second part, consisting of chapters five through seven, give practical advice for preaching from the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.
Piper’s Trinitarian structure is designed to allow him to discuss one aspect of the preaching ministry in each of three chapters. The first devoted to God, the second to Christ, and the third to the Holy Spirit. The first chapter, “The Goal of Preaching,” focuses on the glory of God. He asserts that God is glorified when men and women respond to preaching with glad submission to his kingdom (28). Chapter two, “The Ground of Preaching,” deals with the cross of Christ. This chapter’s primary purpose is to show how the ground for valid and hopeful preaching is in the cross of Christ (33). Chapter three, “The Gift of Preaching,” deals with the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the key issues in this chapter is making the Spirit’s gift, the Scriptures, the foundation for preaching. The Word of God must saturate all of the ministry of the preacher (45).
Chapter four, “The Gravity and Gladness of Preaching,” serves as a transition between the principles of the first three chapters and the practical guidance of the final three chapters. Piper’s main concern in this chapter is stated in his thesis: “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” (55; repeated on 63).
Chapter five, “Keep God Central,” is a brief summary of Edwards’ life and ministry for those who may be unfamiliar with the ministry of one from the early 1700s. Chapter six, “Submit to Sweet Sovereignty,” deals with Edwards’ theology, particularly highlighting two areas that Piper himself has grasped upon in his ministry. First, “the goal of all that God does is to preserve and display his glory” (79, emphasis Piper’s). Second, “the duty of man is to delight in God’s glory” (79, emphasis Piper’s). Finally, chapter seven, “Make God Supreme,” gives ten characteristics of effective preaching that Piper observes in Edwards’ preaching (83). Among these are emphases on the heart and mind, use of images and Scripture, and the plea for response. Piper’s final plea in the conclusion is that people need to hear about the glory of God, and if they do not hear it in preaching, where are they to hear it (108).
Piper’s book has become popular in both ministry and academic settings due to the many strengths that it possesses. One such strength is Piper’s Trinitarian structure. Not only does this structure effectively organize the material, but it also sets the attention for the preacher on the glory and sovereign majesty of the Triune God. Piper’s structure reminds pastors that it is the through the work of the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the message of the cross, that God the Father is glorified. Moreover, in stating this as the goal, ground, and gift of preaching, Piper gives the what, why, and how of the preaching task.
Another strength of Piper’s book is his proper seriousness. In discussing an issue as weighty as the proclamation of God’s majesty, one ought to be appropriately serious. Piper notes the tendency of many preachers toward levity. He suggests that laughter rather than repentance is the goal of many preachers, and this is due to their desire to be liked (59). Piper then defends his claim on two fronts. First, he defends that seriousness is the means by which revival spreads, quoting William Sprague from his work Lectures on Revival (60). Second, he uses a quote from Charles Spurgeon to illustrate the difference between holy cheerfulness, which Spurgeon deems a virtue, and general levity, which remains a vice (61). This well-presented defense of seriousness over levity is not only informative but applicable for the reader.
One weakness of Piper’s work lies in his treatment of the other areas of ministry of the pastor. Since this is not his primary goal, such a criticism may at first glance seem trivial or unwarranted. However, Piper seems to leave himself open to this criticism because of his statement regarding Edwards’ ministry. He refers to Sereno Dwight’s comment that “he had never known a man more constantly retired from the world to give himself to reading and contemplations” (96-97). Piper subsequently adds no comment, and given the emphasis in the chapter on the strengths of Edwards’ ministry, Piper seems to agree with the propriety of this practice. However, while Edwards’ ministry was certainly among the greatest in American history, some discussion would be needed to defend this practice before implicitly endorsing it as he does.
Piper’s book does an excellent job of presenting pastors with an appropriate foundation and overview of preaching, as well as providing practical advice from the ministry of one of America’s most faithful and successful preachers. Any weaknesses in Piper’s book can certainly be overlooked compared to the magnificent vision and wise counsel that Piper sets before the reader. Both for content and encouragement, Piper’s book ought to be read by all who enter the ministry as preachers.