I’m going to talk about preaching. In my mind, and as I see it in the Bible, the act of preaching and the aim of preaching are humanly impossible. They are only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. So, this message is about how you preach in the power that is not your own, which is a very strange thing if you stop and think about it.
What I am doing right now, the Bible calls me to do in such a way that it is not I, but he who does it. So how do you do that? What did I do to get ready for this? What should I be doing in my head or heart right now so that that happens? That’s what I’m going to talk about.
Never Only Oratory
I’m going to start with what I’m not going to be doing. My question is not, What are the natural things that you can do or I could do as a preacher to increase natural knowledge and natural feelings? That’s not my goal. And the reason is this:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14)
So, I’m not interested in merely doing natural things to increase natural knowledge, with natural feelings. I’m just not interested in that. You can certainly do amazing things with rhetoric. Just think of the power of human oratory in figures like Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy. Think of what can be done simply with the mouth for a nation or for a people.
“You can grow a big church without the Holy Spirit.”
You can grow a big church without the Holy Spirit. So, I’m just not interested in helping you do that. I’m not interested in creating remarkable oratory. Even though it can achieve things that will make you a lot of money and get you a lot of praise and look so successful, this is not my interest.
What did Paul mean by “the things of the Spirit of God” when he said that the natural person can’t even grasp them — that they’re just foolishness?
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
So right at the center of what he meant was that the cross and Christ crucified and risen is just unintelligible and foolish. I have a son who has looked me in the face and said, “That makes no sense.” In my mind, the chief end of preaching is to bring people — now this is impossible — to see Jesus for who he really is, to savor him for the value that he really has, and to show him to the world that way.
That’s the goal of preaching in my mind: seeing, savoring, showing. Three s’s. Nobody can see him, nobody can savor him, nobody can show him in a merely human way. It cannot be done. What I’m after in this message — it’s almost a paradox to say it — is, helping you with my own mouth, do what you can’t do. That’s the goal, because that’s what I find all over the Bible.
A Miracle in the Making
So, what makes preaching unique is that it’s a miracle. It’s not just after miracles; it is a miracle in itself. One of my books is called Expository Exultation, and that gives you my two-word definition of preaching.
- Expository: you better see what you say in the book.
- Exultation: you savor and leap over what you’ve seen in the book.
That can’t happen by human means. But it has to happen. It has to happen in the preacher. It has to happen in the people, or we are wasting our time. I want to bring about the seeing, the savoring, the showing of Christ for who he really is — as valuable as he really is, as beautiful, glorious, and great as he really is. I want that to happen in me. I want it to happen in my hearers. That’s what preaching is. It doesn’t happen apart from the Holy Spirit.
And so, the question then becomes, How do you preach in the power of the Holy Spirit? Let me give you some texts to show you what happens. When the Holy Spirit is mightily at work, God Almighty, by the Spirit, through the Word, is doing these things:
He raises the spiritually dead. (Ephesians 2:5–6)
He takes a heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
He goes beyond what flesh and blood can do and reveals the truth of Christ like he did for Peter. (Matthew 16:17)
He shines “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
He enlightens the eyes of the heart. (Ephesians 1:18)
He unveils our face so that “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed . . . from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
In other words, without the sovereign, life-giving, blindness-removing, heart-illumining, glory-revealing work of God’s Spirit, preaching doesn’t happen and doesn’t exist. Preaching is not a subspecies of rhetoric in the university; it’s unique in the universe. I tried to unpack why and how biblically in the book, but that’s my assumption right now. It is a seeing in the word — truth. It is a savoring of that truth, in accordance with its worth. And it is a showing — or, in the case of preaching, a saying — of that beautiful, infinitely valuable truth in such a way that the Holy Spirit awakens the same thing in the people.
I’m asking, How can a preacher become the means by which the Holy Spirit works miracles in the people — the miracle of seeing, savoring, showing? Not just in the building but a life of showing the beauty of Christ. Another word for this is worship. How do I preach so that it is not I but Christ?
God’s Work — and Ours
Now, some of you Bible folks will recognize that phrase, “not I but Christ,” and you’ll think of a verse. And the interesting thing about the verse for us is it doesn’t have to do with preaching. But Galatians 2:20 does have to do with everything, right?
I remember one time I was so sick for three weeks in the hospital in college with mononucleosis, and the chaplain walked in and said, “Johnny, what’s your life verse?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. I didn’t have a life verse. But I said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
And I had no idea what that verse would come to mean. I no longer live. Piper does not preach. That’s what it says. But Christ lives in me. And then he contradicts himself. That’s an awful, horrible thing to say about the Bible, right? It’s glorious. Let’s call it a paradox. “And the life I now live” — wait a minute, Paul. You just said you don’t live. “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
So, there’s an answer to the mystery there. I want to get that. What in the world are you talking about? A life that you’re not living, but Christ is living, but you are living by faith. I have to get that. Your people have to get that. Your new converts, who’ve never gotten a clue about anything in the Christian life, have got to get that. So, that’s what we’re after.
“By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7)
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12–13)
We have to figure out these paradoxical statements in the Bible. We have to live this. This has to be the way we preach and the way we live.
One of the most impactful papers I’ve read from my professor in seminary when I first got there as a raving Arminian confronted me with: who’s doing the work, Piper? Who’s doing the work? And it was just a message on Philippians 2:12: You work out your salvation because God is at work in your doing the doing, doing the willing.
So, how does the preacher, how do I, become the means, the instrument by which the Holy Spirit works miracles in people? How can we have an effect on people so that they know God did that this morning? We want them to say, “God opened my eyes this morning. God caused me to love Jesus this morning. God is filling me with the passion to show Jesus. That guy up there didn’t do it. That guy cannot do what just happened here.” That’s the way I want to preach.
How to Work Hard and Depend on God
For forty years, I have pursued preaching in the power of another by means of an acronym, which I call A.P.T.A.T. I’m going to walk through A.P.T.A.T. in relation to preaching and give you Bible verses to explain it. But I mainly want to camp out on T in the middle.
A is admit you can do nothing.
P is pray for the help you need.
T is trust the promise of God to give you what you need in the moment of crisis, preaching, or whatever else.
A is act in that faith.
T is, when you’re done, thank him.
So, I’m going to walk you through that and make it as absolutely practical for preaching as I can. And the rest of you who are not preachers will find it very easy to transpose what I’m saying to preachers into your daily challenges.
“I am utterly dependent on you now, Father, as I step into this pulpit.”
If you’re not a preacher, you don’t need to say, “Oh well, here he goes off on preachers. This is not for us.” Oh, it is for you. Because preaching is just one expression of all the acts that we are called to do in the power of another. All of life is to be, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live.” All of life — not just preaching.
I want to give you a typical Sunday morning for thirty-three years at Bethlehem Baptist Church. I’m sitting on the front pew. It’s two minutes before I stand in the pulpit to open God’s word for forty-five minutes for these folks that I love. What do you do?
On Friday and Saturday, mega hours have been spent on this message. I’m not talking about that right now. That’s another sermon and another conference. We can come back and do that another time. How do you prepare your sermons? That’s not what this is about. This is about the moment when the miracle has to happen. The moment when the miracle must happen. The text is probably being read by one of our interns or an elder. And I’m on the front pew doing this:
I say quietly, “I admit, Father, that I am utterly dependent on you now as I step into this pulpit. Without your providence, I would not have life or breath or anything (Acts 17:25). Without your Spirit’s supernatural help as I preach, no one in this room will be converted to Christ, no one will be raised from spiritual death, no one will have the heart of stone taken out and a heart of flesh put in, no one will discern the true meaning of this text, no one will see spiritual beauty, and no one will savor your infinite worth. No one will be transformed into your likeness. I admit this utterly and willingly, Father: I can’t do any of that. I embrace the word of the Lord Jesus from John 15:5, ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’” John 15:5 is my textual warrant for A — Admit.
Now, I never do all that I just said. I don’t have time. I only have a minute or two in total. This all collapses into a few seconds. I admit — I’ll just say some element of my weakness, some element of my dependence. I’ll just tell him out loud in my head: I can’t do what I’m about to do. It seems to me if it’s not us who do it but Christ, we better just say to the Lord right away, I can’t do it.
I pray, that is, I ask him for what I need at that moment. I’ll give you some summaries here, and then I’ll come back and say how it works practically. I might just say, “Help me. Just help me.” That’s two seconds. But usually I feel some particular burden or challenge or weakness or need. Something has happened in the morning, something about my health, something about the family, something about the church, something is making me feel that I have a very special, peculiar, this-morning need, and I ask for help with that.
The Miracle of Self-Forgetfulness
So, for example, “Father, grant me the miracle of self-forgetfulness.” And right now, even as I say the word, I’m losing it, right? The fact that I’m telling you right now that I should be self-forgetful at this moment wrecks the whole thing. That is one of the main needs that a preacher has. Because if you’re thinking about yourself as you preach and hoping that it’s coming across well, you’re not preaching. You’re disconnected, you’re watching yourself preach, and you’re hoping he’s doing a good job. And when you’re split like that, and you’re watching yourself preach, and you’re thinking, “That’s not coming across,” or “They’re not liking me,” as soon as you’re in that mode, it’s over.
Then you have to pray yourself out of that mode quick. So, pray for me right now that I wouldn’t get stuck here. I’m asking, “Help me to have self-forgetfulness.” Another name for that is humility. “Grant me clarity of mind and expression, grant me freedom from my manuscript here. Don’t let me get lost or confused.”
Last Sunday, I preached at Hamilton Road Presbyterian Church in Bangor, Northern Ireland. There was some sort of disturbance in the congregation. It’s a big congregation, and everyone’s eyes went over that way to see what was happening. And I wasn’t sure what to do. So, I was off-balance. I thought to myself that if somebody’s dying, I have to stop and pray. An old lady might have collapsed, or maybe she’s dying of a heart attack. I prayed, and the Lord rescued me.
I almost stopped. I don’t know why I didn’t stop. It was so discombobulating for me. Afterward, I discovered it’s so good that I didn’t stop because it was not a crisis. It was someone with challenges who is there regularly. It’s not a big deal. And if I had stopped, a lot of people would have been embarrassed. God rescued me. But I was struggling to get back to my preaching. And so I prayed, “God, please protect me. Help me not to lose my train of thought. Bring to my mind, as I preach, fresh words, thoughts, insights that are not in this text, that somebody in the third pew, four rows over, four seats over needs at that moment that I wouldn’t have thought to say except that you brought it to my mind, and it pierces like an arrow to that person’s heart.”
Joy in the Truth
I also pray, “Grant me joy in the truth. Help me to have affections that correspond with this.” Oh, what a horrible contradiction it is when you’re saying things about hell and you’re smiling, or you’re saying things about heaven and you’re frowning. That’s just totally wrong. You know there’s no correspondence between yourself and the truth, affectionately. So, I pray about that.
I pray for compassion. I don’t feel like I’m a naturally compassionate person. I plead, “Help me to love these people. Help me to care about whether they live or die. Help me care about their marriages and their parenting and their jobs. And make me real.” That’s just a sample of the kind of things I might pray. I give maybe ten to twenty seconds to this.
Now here’s the one that I want to linger over the rest of our time. This is all-important. Why do I say it’s all-important? Why isn’t A all-important or P all-important? Because trust is the act through which God has promised to pour his Holy Spirit explicitly.
Hearing with Faith
I’m going to read you Galatians 3:2–5 and show you why it’s been one of the most important texts in the Bible for me to understand the Christian life and preaching. Remember that our question is, How do I become a channel or an instrument through which the Spirit of God does miracles? That’s my goal as a preacher. Here’s what Galatians 3:2 says:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
And he expects them to be able to answer, “Well, it wasn’t by works; it was by hearing with faith.”
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:3–5)
That is important. Because I want to know how the Holy Spirit is supplied to me, such that miracles are wrought in this church, like raising the dead. And he tells us it’s not by works of the law. It’s by hearing with faith. Faith-filled hearing. Hearing accompanied by faith. You hear something, and you believe it.
What do you hear and believe? In the context, it would be the gospel of justification by faith. That’s what he’s arguing about here. You hear the message of the gospel, and in the hearing of it, faith is awakened such that you know the Holy Spirit is here. He’s being supplied. Now, how does that relate to preaching? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you as you preach, and works miracles through you as you preach, do so by works of the law, that is, self-reliant, obedience to the commandments? No, he does so by hearing a precious, blood-bought promise of God.
“God will give you what you need as you look to him for help from specific promises in his word.”
There has been a great gospel-centered awakening in the last twenty to thirty years. You hear people over and over again say, “Preach the gospel to yourself all day long. Believe the gospel.” That’s glorious. However, the term gospel can become a mantra without content. I built a huge portion of the book Expository Exultation saying that the goal of preaching is not to go to a text and make a beeline to the gospel. The goal of preaching is to go to the text and make a beeline from the gospel to a thousand promises that will help you live your life every moment of every day that have been bought by the blood of Jesus.
And I fear that the centripetal emphasis on, “Go to the gospel,” means, “Go to the simple sentence, ‘Christ died for your sins.’” Let me give you two texts.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)
That’s the glory of the gospel. When Christ died, he bought preaching, he bought conversions, he bought healed marriages, he bought relief from addictions. And if you just constantly use the mantra, the specificity and the power and the nitty-gritty effectiveness of all the things that he bought won’t hit home.
For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. (2 Corinthians 1:20)
Surely that means, when you have Christ through the gospel, you have every promise for you in the Bible. Enjoy the Psalms, enjoy Kings, enjoy Genesis because they’re full of promises. And Gentile though you be, they’re yours — bought by the blood of Jesus. That’s what gospel means for me. But I don’t want to just use gospel language like believe the gospel or preach the gospel to yourself — I want to get specific.
Three Habits to Help You Trust
So here we are, and I’m going to give you three habits of what I do with T — trust. Because I’m arguing here, now, that the way you preach so that the Spirit is supplied is by hearing a promise with faith. I’m sticking the word promise in, right? The text just says “hearing with faith.” And I’m saying, contextually, it’s mainly gospel, and the gospel bought every promise. And therefore, you hear a promise, you believe it, you speak, and the Spirit is moving.
1. Serve in the strength God supplies.
We’re gathered downstairs in the prayer room a half an hour before the service. We did this every Lord’s Day for thirty years. I so desperately needed to be prayed over by elders and others. Fifteen to twenty people were there laying hands on me. Do you know what text they quoted most often? First Peter 4:10–11:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
The one who supplies the power gets the glory for the sermon, and that’s crucial. So if we want God to get glory, we have to figure out what it means to serve in the strength that God supplies.
So, habit number one is in the hour leading up to that two minutes before the preaching, I am being prayed over with the truth, “You can’t do this in your own strength. You must rely upon the power of another. If you don’t, he won’t get the glory; you will. And that will be a failure. I don’t care how big this church is.”
2. Draw from a pool of promises.
In that moment, I need a storehouse of promises memorized. It isn’t just because I’m 73, though I would like to make excuses about memory that way. All my life, I have had in my mind hundreds of Bible verses memorized, and at any given moment can’t think of one. Why? There are a lot of reasons. Some of them are demonic, and some of them are just practical.
One practical reason is that when you’re searching for something on your hard drive, you have to tag it. You have to name it — you have to put in a letter, just a letter, and boom: several options come up. If you have a hundred Bible verses in your mind, and they’re not tagged, but they’re all just swirling around, you won’t find what you need in the moment. Let’s just take four.
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
That is tagged in my brain. That is my default. That verse makes up the gears that work in my head when I’m in neutral. Fear not. Fear not. Fear not.
My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)
That includes this sermon that you’re about to preach.
No eye has seen a God besides you, who acts [or works] for those who wait for him. (Isaiah 64:4)
Those are four texts that are more or less tagged, ready and available at any moment, for any challenge — especially the challenge of preaching. And the question is, Will I believe them? If God speaks to you, through Isaiah 41:10 — because you are his child, and you can appropriate Isaiah 41:10 through the blood of Jesus — thirty seconds before you preach, the issue is: Will you believe it?
Will you stand up believing it’s going to happen? He’s going to help me because he just said he would help me. Form a small group of memorized, precious, universally applicable promises that you can lay hold of and believe: “He’s going to help me. He’s going to give me the strength. He’s going to protect me. He’s not going to let his word come back empty.” You can believe because it’s through that believing — hearing with faith — that the Holy Spirit flows.
3. Sift Scripture for specific blessings.
I get up early on Sunday morning. I used to get up around 4:45, and I would go to my study where I have a little prayer nook. I would put the word on my prayer bench, and I would start reading my appointed text for the day. I would try to read through the Bible every year, so I’ve got four chapters appointed, and I just start reading.
Fresh Promises for Today
What I’m doing is ransacking this text for a specific promise to help me that morning. I might not find it. I might be in Leviticus, and it’s just all about the colors of the curtains, and this is not quite going to cut it. At least, I don’t know how to make it work typologically. So, if it’s not there in the appointed text, I go elsewhere, because this is different from my second habit.
“Take hold of what God has promised he will do.”
The second habit says to always have a stock of standard, faithful, universally applicable verses or promises ready to go in case he doesn’t give you a specific one that morning. But I want one. I want one that morning. And so, I’m looking for one because I want to take that promise, especially given through my reading, and walk into the pulpit with God talking to me — with a personal word: “I will help you.”
This morning, my appointed text was the next to last paragraph of Psalm 119. Psalm 119:165 says,
Great peace have those who love your law;
nothing can make them stumble.
And I had it. I had what I needed for the last three hours. I love God’s word. So I’m not going to stumble. Now, I’m not sure all that means. At least it means this: I won’t stumble utterly, right? Jesus prayed for Peter, before he denied him, that he would not stumble. And he didn’t stumble utterly, irretrievably. Because Jesus said, “When you turn, strengthen your brothers. You’re coming down, but I’ve prayed for you” (see Luke 22:31–34).
So I might really blow it in this message. I might say something really unhelpful. But I’m banking on Psalm 119:165 to give me peace. I got a phone call last night that had me awake at 3:45 this morning. And by the way, did you know that it’s bright daylight in Scotland at 3:45? I did not know that, and that was not helpful. But that phone call got me up anxious at 3:45, and I had to get that off my chest. I can’t preach when I’m all consumed with what that phone call was about. That’s what these verses are for. That’s how it works. So habit number three is: ransack the text for specific promises.
Taken to Texts
Let me lean on the issue of something happening right before you preach, and you’ll see how unbelievably practical this is. Let’s suppose that Noël and I have had a very difficult, straining, challenging week. We’ve not communicated well, we’ve said things that are hurtful, and I’m, as the man of this family, feeling like I have not handled this well. I feel rotten right now. I feel like a failure as a husband. The kids are not doing well, and I have to preach the word of God in about an hour — or maybe just thirty seconds. What do you do?
You don’t have the option of handing the sermon off to someone else thirty minutes before the sermon. That’s not an option. You’ve got to do it. And you feel very unworthy. You feel emotionally distracted. You feel depressed and discouraged.
I say this from experience: the Lord will take you to a text. He has taken me to Psalm 25:8–9 often,
Good and upright is the Lord;
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
Could there be anything sweeter for a preacher to hear thirty seconds before the sermon, when all he’s thinking about is what a sinful husband he is? How can you go forward? You’ve said you’re sorry, you’ve done what the Bible calls you to do, but emotionally, it’s just like a rock. And this text says, “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.” He leads them through the sermon. And you take heart, and you believe it. You believe. And in that believing — what you just heard — the Spirit moves. God will give you what you need as you look to him for help from specific promises in his word.
I admit I can do nothing. “You’ve told me I can’t do anything without you.” I pray for help, I pray for love, I pray for compassion, and I pray for soul-converting power. I pray for everything I feel I need and don’t have. And now I have laid hold on a promise. It might be Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you.” And the sermon text is now done being read. I stand up, and as I walk the few steps into the pulpit, I say them to myself, “I’ll help you. I love you.”
“Preaching is a supernatural miracle, which becomes a means of more miracles.”
Charles Spurgeon said he loves the I shalls and I wills of God. There are a lot of generalities. A lot of pastors who don’t know A.P.T.A.T. know the essence of the Christian life, right? But I think they make the mistake of not getting specific with God. Everything hangs as a kind of generality: “God is good, God is gracious, God is kind, God is helpful.” And you sort of have an amorphous feeling of faith. How much better to hear God say, “I will help you in thirty seconds. I will strengthen you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand”? Or to say, “My word will not come back to me empty. I will accomplish what I have appointed for it to do” (see Isaiah 55:10–11)? Take hold of what God has promised he will do. And you believe it, and in that believing, the Spirit flows.
And then you act in that faith. And while you’re acting, you’re not very self-conscious — you’re not quoting that promise to yourself. You’re focused on the text God has given you. You’re opening it, you’re loving it, you’re delivering it.
And when you’re done — when you pray and you go down out of the pulpit — you better not try to compute whether anything happened by looking at faces. They’re very misleading. Sometimes people will look like they have been converted, and it’s not true. Others will look like they’re disappointed, and they’re loving every word you said. Be careful that you do not pass judgment on the work of God quickly.
But you go down there, and as the last song is sung, you say, “Thank you, thank you. Thank you for this incredible privilege. Thank you for sustaining me and giving me breath, giving me a mind, giving me a heart. And thank you for giving me insight into the text. Thank you. Now God, O God, please, breathe on what was said there.”
My house is about a seven-minute walk from the church. The bridge I cross is a revelatory bridge on the way to church, and it’s a thanksgiving bridge on the way home. And I thank him.
The Double Miracle
So, let me close by summing it up like this. My conviction has been that preaching is a supernatural miracle, which becomes a means of more miracles. The miracle is the preacher seeing what’s in the Bible and savoring what’s there. That’s called expository exultation. And then the preacher says or shows what’s here.
And the other miracle is the people seeing, with the eyes of their hearts, the truth of Christ, and savoring his worth with their heart, and then living a life that shows the beauty and greatness and value of Christ. And all of it is a work of the Holy Spirit. And we pursue it by admitting that we can do nothing without him, praying for his help and all that we need, and trusting specific blood-bought promises because he comes through what is heard in faith. And then we act in that faith and thank him when we are done. It’s been a very, very precious walk.