The Pastor as Prophet

Session 2

Re:Train | Seattle, Washington

I hope it’s not wrong of me to say that Sunday morning corporate worship experiences are the happiest, highest hour of my week. I hope that’s not a slap at my family. That’s why I tremble. I’m not hurting you Noël. I love you. I think I love you more and I love you better because that’s true. But the 30 or 45 minutes leading up to the event of my preaching is the high point. I love preaching into and out of worship.

I’m going to argue that the name that should be put on this definition is expository exultation. That’s my definition of preaching — expository exultation. The word exultation gets at the heralding part, and the word expository gets at the teaching part. And what I mean is this: I get ticked if anybody in my church or on the staff says, “We worship for about 30 minutes and then John preaches.”

I will not let them talk that way. I’m still picky about that. We worship for 30 minutes in song and then we worship for 30 minutes over the word. And I view what I do over the word as singing. I sing over the word. What I mean is that I’ve got this book open in front of me, and I am seeing truth that cannot just be talked about as though it were a phone book or a prescription for medicine. These are things so amazing and so wonderful and so terrible that you must exult over them.

I regard preaching as an act of worshiping over the Word, drawing people into my affections for what I am seeing. That’s what’s happening. The event of preaching is my worshipful exultation over the exposition of what is in the Word, in the hopes that as I do it, as they watch me worship, they will be drawn to worship. That’s what expository exultation is.

When I’m singing in the front row, sometimes with hands lifted in some great statement about how great is our God, I am getting so pumped for what I am about to do. Because it’s all one piece. I’m singing how great he is, I’m seeing how great he is, and I’m going to say how great he is. And that’s what it is. It’s just 60 or 90 minutes of encounter with the greatness of God or the unsearchable riches of Christ.

The Precedent for Preaching in Corporate Worship

So someone might ask, “Why do you think, Piper, that preaching should be a part of this weekly gathering of the church? Do you have a biblical warrant for that?” Here is my attempt to answer that question.

First, here is the Old Testament pattern:

And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading (Nehemiah 8:6–8).

So there you have what I think, historically, is probably the beginning of the synagogue form that you bump into in the New Testament, and that you can find outside the New Testament. Scripture is read, an authoritative word from God’s inspired word, and then somebody gives the sense. So there’s a pointer from the Old Testament.

Now we come to Jesus in Luke 4:16–20:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
     because he has anointed me
     to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
     and recovering of sight to the blind,
     to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

What happens next? What’s expected? What’s the pattern? It continues:

And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), and he opened and applied the text and spoke from it. So there you have that Old Testament pattern of something being read and then somebody undertaking to say something about it.

The Law Preached in Every City

Acts 15:21 says:

For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.

Now that’s very interesting because that is the word preach (*kēryssō), and it’s interesting that it’s describing the synagogue for generations. What happened was that Moses got preached in the synagogues. He was read and he was heralded.

So what I’m arguing here is that as the early church got its start — and they were all Jews at the beginning — in a synagogue. I mean, how else would you do church? You’d do it the way you’ve always done it. That was culturally the way you did it there. They thought, “We’re going to do it like the synagogue does it.” And so there was reading of the Word and some kind of explanation or application.

Reading and Exhortation

Here is an illustration of how it happened with Paul:

but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand, said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen” (Acts 13:14–16).

And then he preaches an amazing sermon for 30 or 40 verses from wherever they were reading I presume, or somehow it related to it. It was a word of exhortation. It’s very interesting that that’s the very phrase used to describe the book of Hebrews at the end. The book of Hebrews says, “I’ve written to you a word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22). A lot of people think the book of Hebrews is a sermon that was synagogue-like with Christian adaptation. So it was a reading and an exhortation based on the Word.

Him We Proclaim

Now here’s the way Paul talks about his preaching in the church:

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).

Now the reason I include this verse is that this is not evangelism only. If you look for illustrations of preaching in the New Testament, most of them are in the book of Acts in settings that are evangelistic to non-believers. But here you have Paul saying to the Colossians, “We proclaim him.” And then he unpacks it with these participles, “admonishing every man and teaching every man with wisdom so that we may present every man complete.” So these are believers. He’s growing them up toward completion with this proclamation, which has this admonishing, teaching, and wisdom component to it.

So it looks to me like Paul’s conception of preaching is not just in the marketplace; it’s also in the gathering of believers where people are being made complete in Christ.

Or here’s one from Romans 1:15:

So I am eager to preach the gospel (evangelize) to you also who are in Rome.

These are Christians. So when Paul thought of euangelizō (evangelizing, gospeling, heralding the good news) he did it also to believers.

Preach the Word

Now, this is the most important text of all on preaching in the New Testament, I think. It starts with, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). That’s one of the most important sentences in the Bible. I remember I wrote Mark Driscoll a year ago or so because I got one of his sermons and went on my bicycle and went down to the Greenway where there aren’t any interruptions and you just go flat out for 20 miles almost as fast as you want to go. I was just working my body into a frazzle and I had my earbuds in. I was listening to him, and it was back when they were doing the doctrine piece, and he did one on Scripture. And I told him, “You almost killed me on my bicycle because this was so unbelievably powerful and good. I almost wrecked because tears ran down my face that Mark and you take the bible so seriously. It makes this 64-year-old pastor really encouraged. Really encouraged.”

There are just so many people who were doing all kinds of church worship evangelistic things today who are not Bible people. They’re not driven. You don’t prick them and bleed Bible. They don’t put everything through the sieve of the Bible. And here’s the reason we do: God breathed the Book. And therefore, it is profitable. It’s profitable for these three things: teaching, reproof, and correction. I said three, but there are four. But here’s the reason I said three. If I ask how these four relate to each other, I wonder — and I’m not sure of this so check it out — if teaching here is general and then it has these four pieces.

Let’s say somebody is going in the wrong direction. You reprove them. You correct them. You stop them. You turn them around by correction, and then you train them in the right direction. And the teaching does all three of those. Perhaps, that’s the order — “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). And you’re equipped for every kind of good work because you’re so saturated with this profitable Scripture. You don’t get equipped for every good work mainly by other things, but mainly by the Scriptures.

A Solemn Charge

Now here what we’re moving toward is this statement: “preach the word.” I’m jumping ahead to show it to you so that you feel the force of verse one. Verse one is like no other verse in the Bible. I don’t know anything like it anywhere. I don’t know any other command preceded by what’s usually called an asseveration, a kind of oath. Look how he precedes to prepare Timothy to receive the three words: “preach the word.” He says, “I charge you (diamartyromai),” that is, “I very seriously testify to you.” He’s getting very serious now.

He continues, “I do it in the presence of God.” Would you ever say that to anybody? “I’m going to tell you to do something here. We are talking, and at this moment as I’m telling you, we’re in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. We’re not just in the presence of God, the Creator; we’re in the presence of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer.” And what would you pick to say, as you’re getting him ready to hear the command to preach the word? Paul says, “He will judge. He’s going to be a judge. He’s going to judge the living and he’s going to judge the dead.” How will he do it? Paul says, “He will do it by his stunning and awesome physical appearance, and he will do it by his kingdom.” And then he finally states, “Preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1–2).

I don’t know anything like it. Why Paul? Why do you introduce the command to Timothy to preach the word with sentences like, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ who is to judge the living and the dead by his appearing and his kingdom” (2 TImothy 4:1)? Why would you introduce it like that? And surely the simplest answer is that this is heavy, this is weighty. We are not playing games.

Toying with the Word of God

This is what troubles me. I know I’ve read about this stuff, but when you see it firsthand it just blows you away. I’ve read about the tomfoolery on Sunday morning but my wife and I were in Brainerd, Minnesota, and we went to visit a church. We went to the Yellow Pages because I don’t know Brainerd. Somebody loaned us a cabin in Brainerd, Minnesota. I wanted to go to church on Sunday morning. I’m a pastor, and I’d like some food. I would like to be a sheep for one weekend. So I went and I found a church and we went to it, drove to it. It was in a school. I thought, “Oh good, this will have a vision here because they’re in a school.”

So we walked in there and the first thing I noticed was that the pastor came out with a Superman shirt on, with a big red S on his chest, and he said, “I can’t tell you how long I spent on my video this week. Watch this.” He played a 10-minute video about Spiderman and Superman and everything. And then the next 10 minutes of the sermon he was telling a story about how his kid sees him as Superman, and the last 10 minutes were somehow to apply this to us that Jesus is our Superman. And they collected the offering in Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets.

The idea is that this is relevant. This is making newcomers feel like, “We have our feet on the ground. We live in the same world you do. We watch the same movies you do, and we’re hip like you are, so come to our church.” And I’m thinking, “I want some of this. I want some, ‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ who will come to judge the living and the dead by his appearing and his kingdom, preach the word.’ Give me some of this. I’m dying with that other stuff. I don’t need more of that here. I come here to get God. Please, give me God.”

I’m really serious about this. I get ticked off when I read about it. I get ticked off when I see it. I don’t want you guys playing games. Second Timothy 4:1 is serious. And I promise you from 30 years of experience, you don’t have to drive people away. You don’t. People want God. People want the Word. There’s a hunger out there. There’s hunger in young people, hunger in old people, dying people, living people, sick people, hurting people, well people, marrying people, and divorcing people — everybody. Some don’t know it. Some do know it. They need God. They need a big, solid opening of the heart of God, the mind of God, and the purposes of God from the word of God. Surely that’s the implication of 2 Timothy 4:1. And it’s no surprise that as you read on here, our day is described.

In Season and Out of Season

Second Timothy 4:2 continues to say:

Be ready in season and out of season . . .

This is not just preparing sermons and getting them right when you have time, but when you get the phone call, you need to be full of the Word. Be full of the Word because this is going to be a situation you have never dreamed of. She’s just cut her belly wide open intentionally. Do you have a word for that at Hennepin County Medical Center? There’s a 250-pound, five-foot-nine woman cutting herself to pieces on purpose repeatedly. Come, bring the word. What are you going to bring? Are you going to bring a movie? Are you going to bring a little story? The passage continues:

Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience.

I’ll tell you, putting words like reprove and patience together is a miracle. Do you have that one figured out? Are you going to be known as a tender-hearted patient person and a reprover? Who can do that? God can do that. I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. Being a pastor is a miracle job. You’re called to walk in and out of emotions and in and out of moments that are so at odds with each other, and you’re teaching and teaching. Scripture is profitable for teaching, and Paul charges to “preach the word.” It has a teaching element to it, but it’s heralding. Then here is the reason:

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions . . .

There will be walkers. They’re going to walk. They do not want it. But I promise you there’s a way to do this, there’s a power to do this that won’t drive everybody away. Some will want it and some won’t. They won’t endure sound teaching. Having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. So we can name them, right? I’ve seen Mark Driscoll stand right here and show a picture of a Texas preacher and name him by name.

And [people] will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

So you’re going to lose people. There’s just no doubt about that. You’re going to lose some people. But I believe God has many people in your city or your little town. And if you just lift up the banner of Jesus high, you love him with all your heart, and you love people well, his elect are going to come there.

The Need for Preaching

I said that I was going to conclude this section with a defense of the fact that preaching is a unique kind of speech — namely, it is an exulting, a heralding with a strong didactic element. Your people are going to be learning, learning, learning. Taking notes is not the greatest thing during a sermon. I’d rather people just be stunned and listen and have their hands be paralyzed with wonder rather than take notes like it’s a schoolroom. I’m not eager to have people take notes. I never produce an outline or hand out that kind of stuff. I don’t use an overhead. I’d never use one of these on Sunday morning, though I would on Sunday night or Wednesday night.

This is just me, so don’t hear me saying it has to be this way. But I’m not into anything that creates a lecture feel on Sunday morning. I want a moment of thunderclap on Sunday morning. I want God to show up in power in his word and in a worship context so that there’s a numinous sense of transcendence and wonder and awe.

We used to say at our church Sunday morning is the Mount of Transfiguration and Sunday evening is the Mount of Olives. You could also call Wednesday night the same thing, or whenever you do something other than the big thing. What we meant by that was that on the Mount of Transfiguration they saw Jesus and his face shone like the Sun, they went on their faces, and they didn’t know what to say. They were so confused. They said, “Should we build tents?” and they were just discombobulated by the grandeur of it all.

However, on the Mount of Olives at the end of the day I’m sure Jesus stretched out on the grass, leaned on his elbow, looked at Matthew and Simon, and said, “How’d it go today, guys?” And they had problems. The problem is so many of our pastors want to turn every church meeting into that kind of gathering. They want every meaning to be kind of a living room setting where you put chairs around, spread the carpet, ruin the acoustics with all kinds of padding and carpet, and never have any sense of power, thunder, or wonder. So I’m pleading for a both-and approach. Preaching has that heralding component, that affectional component, and that didactic component.

The Head and the Heart

Now here would be my theological defense for that. I’ve given you some texts. Here’s Jonathan Edwards’s theology, and I think it’s awesome and true:

God glorifies himself towards the creatures in two ways: (1) by appearing to their understanding and, (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting him, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. God is glorified not only in his glory’s being seen, but in its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart.

Now there aren’t many paragraphs in literature more influential for me than this one. You know maybe the sentence that I would choose to sum up my whole theology: God is most glorified in us when we am most satisfied in him. Does that look familiar? I didn’t make that up, I just made it rhyme. This is right here: “God is glorified not only by his glory being seen” — understood with the mind, doctrinally apprehended — “but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.”

This is nothing new. I think Edwards got it from Augustine, Augustine got it from Paul, and I got it from Edwards, and I think it’s true. But now here’s the implication for preaching. Edwards would trace the understanding and the heart (the affections) up into the two persons of the Trinity — the Logos, or the Son, and the Spirit. The Father is the originator, begetting the Son, and the Spirit is the energy of joy flowing back and forth between the Son and the Father. If this conceptuality of the Trinity is even close to the truth, then preaching is the kind of communication that does these two things. It apprehends the text with understanding (we call that exposition), and it exults over the text (we call that rejoicing, delighting, or enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself).

Expository Exultation in the Life of the Church

So my argument is that preaching belongs in the worship life of the church because it is the one kind of communication that pulls together and captures the nature of God and the nature of how the human being is to apprehend God — namely, we are to see with our understandings and exult with our hearts over what we see. If you leave out the exultation, he gets half his glory. If you leave out the exposition on understanding, he may get less than half his glory because your joy is probably not even rooted in the truth.

So I hope you see that in a way that will cause you to feel like, “Wow, this thing that I’m about here, this weekly or more than weekly communication through understanding a text, exulting over it in my own heart, loving the God that I see there, loving salvation that I see there, longing for the life that is described there, I will now take that and I will let my exultation over that show in front of the people, as I open it to them with whatever means I can on Lord’s Day morning or Saturday evening, or whenever.”

Question and Answer

That’s the end of my section on the basis of preaching. I had a biblical basis that I tried to trace from Ezra on through to the Pauline descriptions that preaching really does belong in the corporate public life of the church, and it belongs there not only because there’s biblical warrant for it, but because it belongs to the very nature of God and the nature of his communication. Do you have questions about any of that before we shift over to the ultimate aim of all preaching?

Cultivating a Pastor’s Head and Heart

Question: Where do you like to be as far as head space and heart space before the event of proclamation?

Answer: That’s an easy question to answer. The harder question would have been, “Where are you?” Where I like to be and where I am are often different. I’ll give you the answer. This may be the place to say it. It wasn’t always this way except for the last 25 years. The first five years were experimental, and for the last 25 years, I have started my preparation on Friday morning, no sooner. The reason is that if I start on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, it tends to fill up everything. All I ever do is sermon preparation, so I wouldn’t read anything, think about anything, or write anything else but sermons, so I squeeze it into the weekend. On Friday morning I say, “Here we go,” and I know my text that’s coming in.

If I’ve never ever studied the book, like if I were to preach through Ecclesiastes, I would have to alter this because I’d have to do some study other than the preparation. I don’t understand Ecclesiastes, and I would need to do some background work earlier and bigger, maybe on vacation, and get the thing in front of me. But when I’ve got Romans, John, Galatians, or Malachi, I’ll start Friday morning and I’ll take as long as it takes. It may be done in eight hours. That would be nice. It may be done in 10 hours or 12, or I may have to stay up till 2 a.m. if I hit a roadblock. I just sit there as long as it takes. I want it done Friday night. I can sleep in Saturday morning. I don’t care how late I stay up. I’d rather not stay up late but if I have to, I will.

That’s all spent in the text — reflection, construction, design, notes, doodle, form, typing everything, trying to get a manuscript of about 10 double-spaced pages in 12-point font Times New Roman, which is about 2,500–2,700 words. That takes me about 45 minutes to preach, which shows you how much ad-libbing I do because that’s not a long manuscript. What I want to be done on Friday night is that manuscript. And when it’s done, I’m more or less excited about it, but I’m not burning at that moment to preach it. It’s so much headwork, so much poking around trying to figure out what the text means and figure out how to say it. There’s a lot of headwork going on.

I go to bed, I get up the next morning, I go out to eat lunch at Leeann Chin with Talitha, and I come home at about 1:00 p.m. And from 1:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. I am on that manuscript. And that’s where I want it to burn. I want to see the glory. I pray, “Oh God, open my eyes to see wonderful things in what you gave me yesterday. And if there’s anything here I missed, add it. And if there’s anything here that looks off now that I see it again, get rid of it.” So I’ll put red marks down and change things around and reword things, but mainly right there I’m doing heart work. I’m praying, “Get this thing into me.”

Admit, Pray, Trust, Act, Thank

At 4:15 p.m. I go over to the church, and I meet with anywhere from 5 to 20 people who pray. We pray for 30 minutes, mainly over me and that hour — pray, pray, pray. We pray, “God, come. Meet us here in power tonight.” And then we’re singing and the text is going to be read by somebody else. And the last thing that happens, generally, as I’m sitting on the front row there, is that I do A-P-T-A-T, which is jumping ahead but I’ll go ahead and say it now. This is my little acronym, and I’ve used it for goodness knows how many years. I put it in the book The Supremacy of God in Preaching, which goes way, way back 20-plus years.

A — Admit

Admit that without Christ I can do nothing. This is what I’m doing in my head right now. How do you preach in the power of the Holy Spirit? This is my answer: admit that without Christ you can do nothing. John 15:5 says: “Without me you can do nothing.”

P — Pray

What do you pray for? I pray for power. I pray for prophetic insight. I pray for love. I pray for humility. I pray for liberty. I pray for recall. I pray for Joe, who I just saw is in the service and needs Christ. I pray for marriages – whatever is needed. I’ve got about a minute and a half while this text is being read, and I’m paying zero attention to the text. I’m praying that God would work in me and in this people.

T — Trust

Trust particular promises. Those usually generally come from my devotions in the morning. I pray, “Give me some promise, O Lord, that you will help me here.” And if I can’t remember one from the morning, which I can’t right now by the way, I’ll default to Isaiah 41:10 or a similar one:

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.

I’m going back there over and over again. He says, “I’m going to help you.” I’m saying that, and I think you’ve got to get really real at this moment. Your eyes are shut and you’re looking Jesus right in the face, so to speak, and you’re saying, “Jesus, do you mean that for the next 45 minutes for me?” And he says, “Yes, I do. That’s why it’s in the book. And I bought it for you. I died for you.” He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him freely give us all things (Romans 8:32), including help for this sermon. So I know he says, “Yes, I mean it. Will you trust me, John Piper?” And I say to him, “I trust you. I trust you right now to help me with this sermon.”

A — Act

I have a will, I have a mind, and I have muscles. I have to use them. The created world order is that way. I can’t sit there and say, “Preach the sermon, Lord. You’ll get all the glory if you preach the sermon. Preach it well. I’m staying in the pew.” It won’t get preached. This is the great mystery of means or human agency. First Peter 4:11 says, “Let him who serve, serve in the strength that God supplies that in everything God may get the glory.” That’s one of the most important verses in the ministry for me — “Let him who serves, serve in the strength that God supplies.”

I have to go to the pulpit. I have to open my mouth. I use my hands. I’m waving my arms, I’m speaking, I’m thinking, and it’s me, me, me. And he says, “No, no, no. Do it in the strength that I supply.” And I’m just trying to figure out, “How do you do that?” This acronym is an attempt at how you do that. You act trusting that without him you can do nothing in the promise.

T — Thank

And then when you’re done, you walk out of there and you’re saying, “Thank you. Thank you for anything you did here. Thank you that I didn’t collapse. Thank you right now in Mars Hill that my sore throat is still holding up. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for the people. Thank you for the Holy Spirit. Thank you for the truth. Thank you for coming again. How many times have I asked you to be faithful to me, to get me through this, and you did.”

So that’s my answer to, “What do you hope for as you stand up to preach?” I’m hoping for the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which I have no control over, at all. I’m asking. I’m pleading for it.

Preaching the Whole Christ from the Whole Bible

Let’s go to lecture number three. This one, out of all the ones that you have, I just wrote on Wednesday. It’s the only one that’s new in this course, and I’m excited about it because I know that I have learned things over the last 10 years or so because of how much is being written these days about gospel-saturated preaching, preaching Christ from the whole bible, and so on. I’ve been learning things, but I’ve never written them down. I’m just trying to live them out. Graeme Goldsworthy wrote a book called Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.

That book had a walloping effect on my life the year it came out. I read it over summer vacation, and I can sum up the impact it had on me in one sentence: “Never preach a sermon that a Jewish person would like.” He’s not meaning a converted Jew, but a good, Orthodox Jew that goes to the synagogue and doesn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. What that means is that if you’re going to preach from the Old Testament (for example, the Ten Commandments), you better do it in a Christian way, because what makes the sermon Christian? If a person who rejects Jesus as Messiah likes your sermon, that’s fishy. I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but it had a huge effect on me because I think I probably have preached a good number of sermons that weren’t nearly dense enough with Jesus and his work on the cross.

So what you’re going to see now as we work quickly through these is my effort to explain the ultimate aim of all preaching; that is, how is all preaching gospel preaching, or how is all preaching the proclamation of Christ crucified?

The Ultimate Aim of Preaching

These are ten theses, and they build on each other. I’ve got texts to support each one.

1. God’s Undeserved Grace

Whatever lasting good God ever does or ever did or ever will do for any individual person, he does and did and will do because of his free, utterly undeserved grace.

What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Corinthians 4:7).

Everything is grace. Everything is a gift. You didn’t earn anything good.

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Romans 9:15–16).

All you ever get, if you’re getting anything good, is mercy.

We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:9–10).

So if anything good comes to you it is not owing to your righteousness. You don’t have any. It’s all owing to mercy. Psalm 130:3–4 says:

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
     O Lord, who could stand?

Answer: nobody.

But with you there is forgiveness,
     that you may be feared.

So if we’re going to be dealt with on the basis of justice and iniquities, we’re cooked. It’s all over. And so we’re dealt with on the basis of mercy.

Riches of Mercy

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4–5).

I think Paul inserts this intrusion into the sentence, and then picks up again, and says that he raises us up with him — “When we were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ” — and then pauses to say, “By grace you’re saved,” in order to show that making us alive when we were dead is what grace does.

So when I think of grace, I think of what you need as a dead person in order to live, which means there’s actually nothing you can do. There is a kind of grace that does respond to your faith, but there is another kind of grace that we need that gives us faith and gives us life when we’re dead. We don’t get anything without it.

[God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace . . . (2 Timothy 1:9).

When [Apollos] arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed . . .

So we believe through grace.

But 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.

Even Paul’s hard work is owing to grace. Thesis number one is that anything we have that is good and lasting we have because of God’s free, sovereign, undeserved grace.

2. The Substitutionary Death of Jesus

This free grace, that gives every lasting good to people, can benefit us justly only because of Jesus’s wrath-absorbing, righteousness-providing, sin-atoning, guilt-removing, substitutionary death for us.

In other words, we can’t get grace and forgiveness unless Christ dies for us, because it wouldn’t be just. And this is the key text, isn’t it?

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness . . . (Romans 3:23–25).

It’s as though God’s righteousness has been called into question by his grace, and the redemption that is in Christ is showing that he is righteous, even though he is justifying the ungodly, which is an abomination to do according to Proverbs 17:25.

Because in his divine forbearance he passed over former sins (Romans 3:25).

When you pass over sins, you look like you’re a bad judge. A judge who passes over sins is an unjust judge and should be removed from the bench. You should impeach a judge in Seattle who passes over rape and murder and lets a guy go free when he knows he’s guilty. But God lets us go free, so how can he be righteous? Well, because he sent his Son to die in his place, at the present time, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

The point here is that every good thing — you can see where this is going to go for preaching — that you or your people experience in a lasting way is owing to blood-bought grace. I hope you begin to see how all preaching is going to be gospel preaching. Every single good thing you offer is going to be bought by the blood of Jesus.

3. Further Condemnation

Without this kind of atoning death of Christ, God’s grace would not save us but only increase our condemnation because of the hardness of our hearts.

That’s what it says in Romans 2:4–5. I’m going to pass over that because it’s marginal compared to the rest of these.

4. Salvation Secured

But by the blood of Christ, God really purchased us for himself and secured not only every lasting good that we receive but also the gift of repentance and faith through which we receive everything else.

Now, this is controversial. Can you see what doctrine is implicit there? This is the L in TULIP. I’ve asked Rick and others who know Mark about this. I know Mark gets a little bit concerned about the way limited atonement is talked about. And I’ve asked, “Has Mark ever called himself a four-point Calvinist?” And the answer has come back, “No. He talks about unlimited, limited atonement, and things like that.” And I just want to make sure that you understand what I mean by definite atonement or particular redemption. You don’t have to use the term limited atonement if it has connotations that are unhelpful in your context. The other two are definite atonement and particular redemption.

What it means is that when Christ died, he didn’t just achieve save-ability for the elect, which they finish. He didn’t just purchase the benefits that come to their faith; he purchased their faith because that’s one of the benefits they don’t deserve. He purchased their repentance, which he did not do for any but the elect. Christ did not purchase the faith or the repentance of the non-elect. Otherwise, they’d be saved because what he purchased, he procured, and they receive by the work of the Holy Spirit. Here are the texts:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).

So you were bought. You were really bought. He bought you. He’s going to have you. He doesn’t buy you and lose you. He doesn’t ever get jilted out of what he’s bought. What he bought, he gets. Other passages say:

You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men (1 Corinthians 7:23).

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood (Acts 20:28).

God obtained the Church of God. He obtained it with his own blood. He bought his bride.

A Special Love

When I try to explain limited atonement to my people, the most helpful thing is to say to the women, “Is it okay that I love Noël differently than I love you?” And they think, “Oh yeah, you should because then we’re safe. It’s appropriate that you do.” There’s a covenant love that God has for his people. The church is the Bride of Christ and he has this covenant love for her. She’s the apple of his eye, he goes after her, he pays a dowry for her, he gets her, buys her, dies for her, and he will have her. For her not to know and enjoy that is a sad thing, a really sad thing. So not teaching the church that they are loved with the distinguishing covenant love is a sad thing.

Just imagine if your church only feels that they are loved by God with the same love that he loves the people in hell with. How do you get encouragement from saying, “He loves me the same way he loves the people that are in hell, or went to hell, or the people that are going to wind up in hell?” How does that save me? And you realize then, “I have to supply everything here. I have to supply the difference. He’s loving me and he’s loving the hell-bound person with the same love. What’s the difference? Me.”

This is not good news. This preaches brothers. This doctrine preaches. Just get it so down into your bones that it doesn’t feel like a battle anymore. It just feels glorious. Christ came after his bride. He came after his bride. He bled for his bride. He has this bride. He’s going to love her to the end. He’s going to save her to the end. This is particular redemption. This is definite atonement.

The Gift of Repentance

Now the specifics about faith and repentance are here:

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him . . . (Philippians 1:29).

It has been granted to you to believe, so believing is a gift. Now ask yourself, if that gift was given to you, why was it given to you? On what basis was it given to you? You don’t deserve that gift. How did you get it? Answer: Christ bought it for you. He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him give us all things (Romans 8:32)? Every good thing you have, including the faith to receive all good things, is blood-bought.

What about repentance? I’ll skip over Ephesians where faith is called a gift again, but this one is to me extremely powerful. My, this is a pastorally loaded, a preaching-loaded passage. Get this thing down for you and your people really well. This is 2 Timothy 2:24–26:

And the Lord’s servant (that’s you guys) must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:24–25). It’s going to happen. It’s going to come. You’re going to be attacked. You’re going to be criticized. And you respond with kindness. That’s your part. That’s what ministers do. Does that change anybody? It might. What will make the difference?

God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:25–26).

How do you do an exorcism in the church? How do you bring people from the drunken stupor of worldliness where they don’t have the least interest in spiritual things? How do you bring them to a knowledge of the truth? How do you awaken repentance? You serve, you are kind, you teach, you preach, you endure evil, you are gentle, and then God may give repentance. And when God gives it, why did he give it? He gave it because Christ bought it. They didn’t deserve it and they didn’t make it happen.

So the point is that in preaching, the faith and the repentance that you are after, and all the good things that flow to people through the faith and repentance you’re after, come from blood-bought grace, which means every sermon is gospel, blood, and cross-based if it’s Christian.

5. Preaching Christ in Every Sermon

Therefore every sermon that holds out any lasting good to any person (as every Christian sermon must) should be based on, and interwoven with, the gospel of the Living Christ’s substitutionary death.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

What in the world? What? Can you preach on divorce? Can you preach on drugs? Can you preach on parenting? Can you preach on the Middle East? Can you preach on war? What do you mean you decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and more particularly, the crucified Christ? What does that mean? Is that a mandate for us? Is that just Paul’s peculiarity in Corinth? Before we answer, let’s get a few other texts.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

That’s off the charts particular. He is saying, “I will not boast, I will not glory in anything. I’m not going to boast in my son. I’m not going to boast in this meal. I’m not going to boast in the hope of glory. I’m not going to boast in the Church of Jesus Christ. I’m just going to boast in one thing. I’m going to exult and glory (kauchaomai) in the cross.”

I think Galatians 6:14 and 1 Corinthians 2:2 are saying pretty much the same thing, which is a radical orientation in Paul’s life and ministry on Christ crucified — nothing except the cross.

Boasting Only in the Cross

Now here’s my interpretation and its implication for preaching. I don’t take Paul to mean that he has joy (exultation, boasting) in nothing but the cross, but that he has joy in anything only because of the cross, and he wants to make that clear all the time. Keep going to see if that makes sense. For the Christian, all other boasting — and the New Testament does have other boasting — besides the cross should also be boasting in the cross.

Think about what Paul says in Philippians 4:1, where he calls the church, “My beloved, my joy and crown of boasting.” He calls the people, the church, a crown of boasting. And so, do we say to Paul, “Wait, wait, wait, you said you only boast in the cross, and now you’re boasting in the people, calling them your crown, your exultation, your boast”? I’m arguing that the meaning is that he can do that because boasting in anything else is also boasting in the cross. All exultation in anything else should be an exultation in the cross, because for redeemed sinners every good thing, indeed every bad thing that God turns for good, was obtained for us by the cross. Apart from the death of Christ, sinners get nothing but judgment, and apart from the cross of Christ, there is only condemnation.

Therefore everything that you enjoy in Christ as a Christian, as a person who trusts Christ, is owing to the death of Christ, and all your rejoicing in all things should therefore be a rejoicing in the cross, where all your blessings were purchased for you at the cost of the death of the Son of God. That’s my best shot at trying to understand these two verses.

Paul says, “I only know Christ and him crucified, and I will not boast in anything except the cross.” And my answer is when you boast in something else, like the hope of glory, or like the people of God, or you say to your wife, “This is a beautiful meal,” or you say to your son, “That was an exquisite soccer game. I loved it. I loved being there. I exulted in that goal,” are you an idolater at the moment? You might be. Or you might be thinking, and now and then you might say — and in preaching you say it more often than elsewhere — “I only have the joy of a son and have eyes and can see with any lasting significance because Jesus died for me. I wouldn’t even be breathing now with any hope of eternal life if Jesus hadn’t died for me.”

6. Preaching Distinctly Christian Sermons

This gospel basis and gospel interweaving of our sermons should be clear enough so that the gospel deniers (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, legalists, libertines, etc) will not approve of our sermons. There should be enough of Christ and of his cross that those who deny the gospel don’t approve the sermon.

I’m arguing that the basis of everything you preach about, every text you offer, and every promise you make is interwoven with Christ as its basis and has Christ as its basis. It is weaving and it’s underneath it. A lot of times people talk about basis and then it never gets mentioned, like the foundation of a house that never gets thought about.

You may be preaching on work to the glory of God, being a lawyer to the glory of God, or being a homemaker to the glory of God. Is that a gospel sermon, helping a mom change diapers so that she feels significance in it? My point is that sermon should have woven into it enough clarity so that gospel deniers — moms who showed up because they heard you were going to talk about mothering that Sunday and they’re not believers — shouldn’t like the sermon, unless they begin to like Jesus and begin to like the gospel, They should get the feeling, “He’s treating me as though I were a sinner in need of salvation here, as if my love for my child isn’t pleasing to God unless it’s rooted in the gospel.” That’s true. That’s true. She will go to hell and suffer for changing her kids’ diapers because the changing of the kids’ diapers was not to the glory of God, and therefore it was sin. She should know that.

7. Christ Honored as the Ground and Goal of Every Sermon

This gospel basis and gospel interweaving of our sermons should be clear enough so that the living Jesus will be honored as the ground and goal of the message because of his grace-securing sacrifice for us.

I’m saying it this way because I can’t give you specifics about some of this. Someone might respond, “Wait, are you saying I have to read 1 Corinthians 15:3 every Sunday? Is that what you’re saying?” No, no, no. I’m not sure how you’re going to do it. I’m saying that there’s a flavor about this sermon that Jesus was there. Jesus’s blood and righteousness and work somehow figure in. It may just be a passing reference some Sundays, and it may be the whole thing on other Sundays. I’m sure I haven’t done it ideally. I’m asking myself increasingly how to do this better.

8. The Ground of Faith

This gospel basis and gospel interweaving of our sermons should be clear enough so that the imperatives that flow from the message are, first and foremost, faith in the blood-bought reality that God is 100 percent for us in Christ (that is, faith in the justifying work of Christ), and then, secondly, the obedience that comes from this faith (that is, the fruit of the Spirit’s sanctifying work).

If people feel like, “Oh, here come the dos and don’ts, and here come the imperatives,” the ways you’re going to divide it is by grounding it all in faith in Christ. Tim Keller is as good at this as anybody because he explains that dividing moralistic sermons from gospel sermons on any issue comes down to preaching that a person must trust in Christ and believe God is totally for them before any other imperatives land, and as the ground of all other imperatives landing. That’s first. First and foremost, believe that in Christ through faith, the blood-bought reality is that God is 100 percent for you, not 99 percent for you and then he becomes 100 percent for you when you get out of bed with your girlfriend.

Legalists and Libertines

Let me just put in a parenthesis here about Tim Keller. The most important thing Tim Keller has done for me is a simple paradigm. He says that when you’re preaching to New York libertines, who are sleeping around, cheating, lying, watching filthy stuff, and living like they have no morals at all and are total relativists, you have to preach the gospel, not just the law. Traditionally Reformed folks say, “Law then gospel, law then gospel.” And I thought, “I think he’s right about that but I wonder why he would say so.” And he says this: “As soon as you say to a 20-something who is not married and sleeping with his girlfriend, “You shouldn’t do that,” the only category he has for your religion is legalism.

He knows he’s not a legalist. He knows he’s free and doing his own thing, and he’s picking up very quickly from you that he shouldn’t be doing that, so his immediate default is, “Oh, Christianity is all about, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t do that.’” Therefore, you have to preach against legalism to the libertine to protect him from defaulting out of libertinism into legalism because it’s the only other religion he knows. He only knows two things: do what you please and legalism. That’s the way the human heart is wired. The gospel is this third way, and it’s totally mind-boggling to the world. They don’t have the categories for this at all, that Christ did something that makes it possible for a fornicator to get right with God not on the basis of getting out of bed. It’s just not there for them. They don’t have those categories. That’s huge. I’m trying to get at that here.

So first, you’re displaying the imperative that flows from the message is first and foremost faith. So you’re saying to that fornicator, “Your job here this morning is trusting an alien work for you. Christ did something. And if you would have it, if you would receive it like a child and like a helpless desperate sinner receives something, you could have a God who would be 100 percent for you.” And therefore, from that, the obedience that comes from faith is the fruit of the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” So you lead them to the justifying work of Christ in faith and say, “Yes, you must believe. That’s an imperative.” And through faith, you lead them to all the other imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount and the life that’s called for.

So tonight when you make the decision to get out of bed, you say, “We’re going to call this off. We’re going to wait till we’re married. We’re going to clean up our act,” and you’re not trying to get God on your side. God gets on your side one way and one way only: through Christ and what he did in your place. And if you will trust him, if you will receive that as your highest treasure — Christ for me, God for me, in Christ — then he’s on your side. And because he’s on your side, you now will get out of bed with her.

9. The Ground, Goal, and Source of Every Sermon

In this sense then every sermon proclaims Christ. His atoning work is the ground of all the sermon offers. His glory is the ultimate goal of all it aims to achieve. And the written revelation of Christ’s unfolding ways in history (that is, Scripture), is the only authoritative source from which we bring this work and this ground and this glory to light (expository exultation).

Here I’m talking about the ground, the goal, and the source of the story that we’re telling.

Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).

That was the text from Goldsworthy that made the greatest impact on me. Jesus talked about himself from Moses and the prophets and all the Scriptures.

So every text is now about Christ, concerning Christ, and these nine theses are my way of explaining how are they concerning Christ. Pick out any promise from the Old Testament, like the one I use so often from Isaiah 41:10, which says, “Fear not, for I am with you.” Now, what if the devil whispers in my ear, “First, you can’t use that because it’s an Old Testament text. It’s given to Israel, not to you, so it’s not yours. Therefore, don’t trust it.” Well, I remember the mystery of the gospel and say, “No, no, no, the Gentiles have been brought near. The Gentiles have been reconciled to God with the people of Israel into one. I’m part of that. I am a true Jew. I am a true Israelite. It counts for me because in Christ I am a Jew, and in Christ, I am a seed of Abraham. It’s mine.” So the devil missed on that one.

And then the devil says, “Yes, but you’re not good enough for that and the promises are only for the people who are good enough.” And then you fight with the gospel, right? You say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute. All the promises of God are yes in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). I’m in Christ. All the promises of God are yes in Christ. Therefore, Isaiah 41:10 is mine in Christ. It’s not mine because of my righteousness; it’s mine because I’m in Christ by faith alone, so you get out of here devil, and leave me alone. I have embraced this promise. It is mine. I live in it.”

All the benefits we offer from all the texts of the Bible are blood-bought, gospel-based promises.

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8).

Him we proclaim . . . (Colossians 1:28).

I’m just saying that Christ sums up all our preaching. Pauls says, “Him we proclaim.” He was preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ and Christ himself. So Christ is the basis, the goal, and ultimately the matter of every sermon.

10. To the Praise of His Glorious Grace

Thus, with Christ-crucified as the ground and goal and matter of every sermon (and all of life), the ultimate aim of God in creation is advanced: the praise of the glory of God’s grace through the joy of his people in him.

That comes from this passage: “to the praise of the glory of his grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6).

Or consider this passage:

In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4).

The gospel is the gospel of the glory of Christ, and this glory is most fully finally seen in grace. It’s the glory of his grace. The ultimate aim of preaching is the praise of the glory of the grace of God (Ephesians 1:6), most fully manifested in the Beloved that is in the gospel of the glory of Christ.

So every sermon is going to offer spectacular riches to your people, riches of all that God’s ever done in history, riches of what’s coming, constantly lifting him up as the bottom and the top and the middle — from him, through him, to him are all things — so that there is an overwhelming impact of your preaching over time. You’re going to have some really bad days, trust me. You’re going to go home and want to quit. But over time let the people say, “We get mainly a diet here of a really big vision of God.”

Building a Firm Foundation

One of the most rewarding things is to be at a church for a long time, to have families grow up, and then to experience great tragedy — lose a mom or dad, have a child born with a terrible disability that breaks your heart and changes the rest of their life — and to have them say this is what sustained them.

I remember one situation in particular. There was a family who had a 21-year-old son. They’d been coming to the church for about five months. They brought him up for prayer and they said, “This is a terrible lump. We’re going in to have a biopsy done on it. Would you pray for him?” I prayed for his healing and I prayed for his faith. He had leukemia, and he died about a year and a half later. I did his wedding six months before he died. I knew he was going to die. Have you ever been faced with that choice? He wanted to marry six months before he died. He knew he was going to die, and I thought it seemed like the right thing to do. And then I walked with that family through his death. He was 22 years old when he died, six months after his wedding.

The mother came to me and she said, “I think I would have gone insane watching my son die if we hadn’t been here for these five months to discover the greatness and goodness of the sovereignty of God.” So when I say, “Let the flavor of your preaching be a big, strong vision of a glorious Savior, a glorious sovereign God who saves sinners and works all things together for their good,” you will be greatly rewarded if you do that with some remarkably transformed folks.

Let me pray with you and then we’ll break for tonight’s session, and pick it up again in the morning.