Interview With John Piper on The Supremacy of God in Preaching

Preaching Today Radio Broadcast

When John Piper arrived at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis eleven years ago, about 450 people attended worship regularly. Today, over 1100 do so. As in the case of any rapidly growing church, many factors have contributed, but undeniably one of them is the preaching of John Piper.

By that, I mean first and foremost, John’s subject matter in preaching. He’s a very capable communicator, all right, but he would be the first to say that what attracts people to his church is the theme of his preaching—the supremacy of God. In fact, John has written a book by that title, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, published by Baker Books. It’s an intriguing book that was named “Preaching Book of the Year” by Preaching Magazine. It’s a book I think we preachers do well to become acquainted with, and so I got a hold of John by phone to talk with him about it.

By way of background, John holds degrees from Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, and a doctorate of theology from the University of Munich. He taught six years at Bethel College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, before becoming pastor at Bethlehem Baptist. I began by asking John why he thinks the supremacy of God is the theme in preaching.

I think the supremacy of God is the theme in preaching because it’s the theme in redemptive history. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. Or another way to say it is the supremacy of God is the theme in preaching because it’s the theme of God. When I read Scripture, what I find is that God makes God supreme in his own affections. He makes God supreme in the history of redemption. He says things like, “For my name’s sake I defer my anger; for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you . . . . For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profane? My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:9–11).

That kind of talk coming out of the mouth of God is all over the place in the Bible, and when you go to the Christian life and ask how does the Bible describe the Christian life, you find the same thing. “Whatever you do, whether you eat or whether you drink” — in other words, the most nitty-gritty things in life — “do it all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Or when I think about the ministry, my own philosophy of ministry is taken mainly from 1 Peter 4:11 where it says, “Let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God might get the glory.” So he’s the giver of the power and he’s the getter of the glory. So Romans 11:36 becomes kind of the theme song of my life and ministry. “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.”

So when I talk about the supremacy of God in preaching for me, it’s not like I’ve chosen among several options. It seems to be preaching would be intensely out of touch with reality and unrealistic if God weren’t the supreme subject matter in what we have to say.

For John, this is not a theoretical matter, however. To preach on the supremacy of God makes a practical difference in the lives of both preacher and listeners.

The biggest difference it seems to have for the preacher is that we preachers, if we follow this pattern, are always asking the question in preparation and execution, reflection about our preaching: How does what I do and how does what I’m about to say relate to God? How does it flow from the reality of God? How is it shaped by the reality of God? How does it bring glory to God?

I wrote a little article for our newsletter some time ago called “How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God,” because I really wanted the people to take seriously the wording of the phrase “whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.” So I just posed the question: How do you drink orange juice to the glory of God, and try to answer from thanksgiving for God producing oranges, and gratitude for the processes that brought it to the table, and thanks for the health that God has given, and willingness to share the orange juice with your brother. If you’re one of my sons and you’re squabbling over who should get more, that God is the one who determines that we are loving or not, and a whole array of ideas tumble out that are God-centered and God-directed even when you’re talking about how you drink orange juice.

I think that when I talk about everything coming from God and through God and to God, what I’m talking about is everything coming from faith, and everything passing through obedience to God, and everything going for the glory of God. So the effect it has on me as a preacher is just making me ask all the time whether my subject is coming right out of the text or right out of the world: What does it have to do with God?

John is aware, of course, that merely saying God is supreme is not going to win the day with hearers. “Of course,” will be the usual response. “God is Lord,” followed by a stifled yawn. John knows he must demonstrate that this theme brings life.

One of the keys is to show how the supremacy of God is vital to me. One of the most common feedbacks I get that encourages me is that my very faith and the intensity of my own delight in God, and my trust in God, and my wrestling with my own problems from the standpoint of God is a vital thing for people.

And so right at the heart of my ministry is letting my own faith show, and letting my own quest for the water of life, and my own disenchantment from the broken cisterns of the world show. People catch on to the beauty of God when they see somebody else ravaged with God.

But the preacher must do more than show people that he is caught up in the theme.

People really come alive to what they’re just saying with their mouth when you show them new, fresh angles of how God’s supremacy and his own affections works itself out in life. And the way I do that is by showing the supremacy of God in specific texts relating to specific issues that matter to them.

Yesterday, I preached on money from 2 Corinthians 9, and I just love doing it because I can show my whole theology, I think, in 2 Corinthians 9:7–11 because it starts, “God loves a cheerful giver,” which means God loves for me to be happy in my giving. God is happy when I’m happy in my giving. And then you get to 2 Corinthians 9:11, and it says all of this abounds and redounds to more and more thanksgivings to God, which means he’s really supreme in this matter of my giving joy in my giving, and it’s the best of all possible worlds.

It’s right at the heart of my theology that God is most glorified in me when I’m most satisfied in him. So when I’m satisfied in giving him glory through showing my generosity on the basis of his promises in 2 Corinthians 9:8, he really is the one who gets the glory in my freedom and my joy in the way I give.

And when I fleshed that out for people, last night when we bowed in prayer getting ready for the evening service, two of the young men I thought we were going to pray about the evening service just broke out in thanksgiving for the morning’s message and how it put God at the center of their pocketbooks, and how I put God at the center of their joy in giving. So I know that it got through to them and made a difference in their lives.

Although we didn’t have time to go into it, John mentioned how critical what goes on around the sermon is to his preaching.

I preach in the context of very passionate worship. It’s real hard for me to go and preach elsewhere besides at my church because we create a setting for preaching that is very God-centered and very God-exalting and God-savoring. In fact, we have a philosophy of ministry that I think is shared by hundreds of churches that says you’ve got three priorities, namely God, and the church, and the world.

But the way I articulate it is that Bethlehem is a vision of God, great, holy, sovereign, and good, loving, and gracious, and kind, and we exist, number one, to savor that vision in worship. I use the word “savor” specifically because I believe worship is a coming to a banquet table and feeding on the array of dishes that are held out before us in the manifold perfections of God. And so our people from the beginning of the prelude to the end are already tasting the supremacy of God so that my preaching is just one little part of the whole experience of God’s being supreme for their hearts.

I don’t chastise our people like some pastors do for coming to worship to get instead of to give. I’ve heard that again and again, “What we need in this services for you people to come in here to give God glory instead of coming to get all the time. This place would be a better place if you just would come to give something instead of the get.” I never say that. I say exactly the opposite.

I say, “The problem with this worship service is you people don’t come hungry. Come on. God is a river of delights. God is a treasure hidden in a field. God is a banquet table of glory. You had a loaf of white bread before you walked in here by watching television this morning. Why don’t you come in here starved for God? I’ve got a banquet I’ll spread before you. These hymns are a banquet.” That’s that’s the tone and attitude. I want people to come hungry. I want them to come to get God because I think God gets glory when we get joy from finding God.

One of the ways in which modern preaching has gone awry, according to John, is the emphasis on preaching to people’s felt needs. John thinks we do people a disservice when we do so because we’re not helping them at their core.

The greatest problem in the universe for a divorced person, for an addicted person is how can God still be a holy and awesomely righteous God and take up with me at all as dirty, filthy, lousy as I am? And the mistake I believe that’s being made in our man-centered generation is to say, “We are not as bad as we think we are. We have a lot of worth. God affirms our worth, and so don’t be discouraged because you are worthy of God’s mercy.” Sort of a contradiction in terms.

My approach is to say, “I’m not worthy of God’s mercy, and if I have to be the foundation of God’s mercy to me, I’m a goner. But if there’s a foundation outside of me that God could stand on in order to still be a holy God while he has mercy on the ungodly, I want to know what that foundation is,” and that foundation is Christ’s shed blood designed specifically to vindicate the holiness of God in the forgiveness of sinners.

And so here’s a worst person who has made a terrible mistake perhaps in their past. They come, they feel guilty, they wonder if there’s any hope, any future because of what they’ve done. And I tell this story about Samuel coming to those people who’ve made this awful mistake in rejecting God as their king. And Samuel says, “Fear not. You have done all this evil.” Now that right there is crazy. You’re supposed to say, “Fear because you have done all this evil,” but he says, “Fear not; you have done all this evil, but do not turn aside from following the Lord. Do not turn aside after vain things for the Lord will not cast away his people,” and then here comes the phrase, “for his great namesake” (1 Samuel 12:20–22).

So if you would ask me if I were divorced, struggling with sin, or if I were addicted, if I were in any way trapped in sin, how can I appeal to God to have mercy upon me when I have been so sinful? The answer is you appeal to God on the basis of his love for his name and his glory, and then you cast yourself on the mercy of God in Jesus, and then it becomes an issue of his integrity and an issue of his righteousness. Will he stand for you having cast yourself upon the one who died to magnify him and to vindicate his righteousness in the salvation of sinners?

For this reason, in his book, John decries the psychologically-driven sermon and instead encourages preachers to preach theologically-driven sermons.

A theologically-driven sermon is a sermon driven by Romans 11:36, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever and ever.” So I want to show in my sermon that it’s coming from God as the origin of all things good. It’s being shaped by God. It’s all tending toward God’s glory. So, the sermon is just going to be God-besoughted. It’s going to be saturated with God, I hope.

The psychologically-driven sermon, I would rather put in terms of negatives. God is not the fabric of the sermon. He’s not the air that’s being breathed. The language is not from God and to God. It more comes from current lingo. You’ll hear shaming and blaming and codependency and performance, and “Don’t say ‘ought’, and don’t say ‘should’, and don’t say ‘must’, and don’t use threats, and don’t use conditions.”

In fact, I think there are parts of Scripture that that kind of sermon has a hard time coming to terms with, which means it’s going to be very selective in the parts of Scripture, the tougher parts of Jesus’ teachings, and the conditional parts of salvation that are simply a no-no in the way you heal people today on the psychological model. And I don’t mean to come across as saying I have no place for Christian psychology and counseling.

I refer dozens of my people. We have tremendous respect around here for the hard cases where people have suffered deep wounds in their lives and carry the scars of all kinds of horrendous things for which they need extensive help. I don’t want to communicate that. What I mean is God is what our job is as a preacher to communicate. Nobody else in the culture is going to give people the centrality of God in all of his grandeur if we don’t do it. So I just want to press for all I’m worth the supremacy of God rather than the supremacy of self-esteem in preaching.

One of the ways a sermon is theologically driven is by constant reference to theology’s base, the Bible. In fact, John makes a point of exhorting preachers to use the Bible more in their sermons. It struck me that such a preacher might appear doctrinaire and impersonal, a mere spouter of biblical truth.

I heard a sermon one time that was almost entirely a quotation of Scripture, and it did not seem real, and therefore I think I can resonate with the possibility of the misuse of excessive Scripture.

But frankly, the problem we’re dealing with today in the young preachers that I hear in council is not that. And I think what the problem was there was not the abundance of Scripture, but the absence of the man, and the absence of passion, the absence of life. So I think maybe the best answer is that the presence of Scripture in abundance and specificity is not a problem. The absence of things becomes the problem. Where’s this man’s heart? Where’s this man’s life? Where’s his passion? And frankly, I don’t feel the tension between the two. I feel like I get most passionate when I can put my finger on a conjunction and say, “Do you people see what this means?”

Like yesterday, I was preaching on money, and it says — oh, how does it go? It’s 2 Corinthians. “God will provide you with every blessing in abundance in order that you might have enough of everything and might provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). Now, what I said there was, “Notice this ‘in order that.’ You all see that. Look down. ‘In order that.’ God will provide you with every blessing in abundance in ‘order that.’ Two things: you will have enough and your overflow will be for what purpose? Tell me. It will be for providing for every good work. So what is the meaning of wealth, people? What’s the meaning in America of having so much more than we need? Answer: not to have more for ourselves, but to provide more for others. Do you see that purpose clause?”

I just don’t know why for people getting specific about Scriptures, it makes them unhuman. To me, it makes the fire burn and makes the juices flow when I see the implications of God’s specific word for our day.

Another thing that is so crucial in my philosophy of preaching is the issue of authority. Who is the authority when I preach? And the answer is not John Piper. The authority is God, and I believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of God’s word. And to me, that implies getting those people to look at that text and be able to get their ideas from that text.

In another intriguing portion of his book, John says he’s suspicious of humor in the pulpit. Then again, he says he’s very much for gladness in the pulpit. That, I said, he’d have to explain.

In my eleven and a half years of preaching here at Bethlehem, I’ve never told a joke in a sermon, and I think my people think I’m one of the happiest of all people. I recount life, and life can sometimes be absolutely side-wrenchingly hilarious, and my people laugh a lot, but I’ve never tried to make them laugh with a joke.

Here’s an illustration of one of the things that happened. A few Sundays ago, I said, “You want to be a dolphin and not a jellyfish in life, don’t you? Anybody want to be a jellyfish?” And one little girl raised her hand. And I just broke up. The whole congregation broke up. I could hardly get control of myself. I was laughing so hard. That sort of thing, real-life humor. I didn’t tell a joke. God told the joke with this little girl’s hand going up, and we all laughed. And nobody felt like, “Whoa, we’re not supposed to be doing this here because this is Sunday morning,” just because it’s real and it came right out of life.

But here’s my problem with levity. That’s the word I use to put humor in bad light. Levity, I think pastors use to warm up the congregation. They think, “Boy, it’s quiet out there. Nobody’s talking to anybody. The mood doesn’t seem real friendly. I got to get things fixed here, and the best way to fix it is to tell a joke or say something calculated to break the ice.” I never do that because I think the most significant need we have on Sunday morning is earnestness and seriousness about God, and that’s a rare, rare thing for people to experience deep, heartfelt, passionate earnestness.

And I think the atmosphere that is created by typical icebreaking joke-telling is an atmosphere in which revival will very likely not happen. The humor, the good, healthy, happy, robust humor is kind of like bubbles that come to the surface of that and pop every now and then in the service, and I’m real happy for that to happen.

John says that he was captivated by this theme, the supremacy of God, when he was introduced to the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the great American pastor and theologian. Some, in fact, consider him the greatest theologian America has produced. John recommends enthusiastically that all preachers steep themselves in Edwards’ thought. In conclusion, I asked him why a modern preacher would want to wade through the theological meanderings of someone who addressed issues of 250 years ago.

I start with almost the opposite assumption. Namely, why should a preacher in 1992 want to read anybody who writes in 1992, because we share all the same blind spots, we have all the same prejudices pretty much unless you go outside your own culture extensively. I believe that C.S. Lewis is right, that every third book we read ought to be outside our own century or outside our own era, at least every third.

When I read old writers, the Puritans, Edwards right at the top of the list for me, I find I’m breathing an air that is so powerful. It is so invigorating because it’s so Bible-saturated and God-exalting, God-centered. Edwards is just a stunning thinker to me. Nobody could see hell as clearly as Edwards saw it. Who would you read in the 20th century if you felt like you had become callous to the reality of hell and you wanted to feel it afresh in your life? Where would you turn? Or heaven?

Edwards had just as glorious visions of heaven as he had horrible visions of the reality of hell. Where would you turn today to find a description of God and the age to come that would be so ravishing, you could hardly wait to get there, and you’d be willing to lay your life down in the quest for that reward? Where would you go?

Most people today are so wrapped up with man’s problems that I don’t know where you’d turn to find the kind of vision that Edwards holds out or where would you find anything today that comes close to the profundity of the analysis of the human condition and the human heart that you find in a dissertation concerning the religious affections and the book on original sin? Nobody comes close today to touching what Edwards has seen about the nature of the human heart and especially the heart of grace that has the Holy Spirit within it, and what that heart looks like, and how that heart relates to all the things of life. And I don’t know where I would turn today for anything like the breadth of vision that he has for the whole scope of redemptive history.

Edward seems to take up an issue from a text or from life, and suddenly, you see it relating to everything from creation to consummation. He was simply a man, as Mark Noël says, with a God-besoughted vision of the universe. And there are so few people that are like that around today that I don’t know where to turn to get inspiration.

And so I go back again and again to Jonathan Edwards. I think anything that’s worth our while probably will be tough-going. Anything that’s going to stretch you beyond where you are will feel like pain for a while. I just encourage people to take the two-volume work produced by the Banner of Truth Trust, set themselves to read fifteen minutes a day, and they will be amazed at how many of those books and sermons they could read in one year. And probably after that year, they’d never be the same again.