The Supremacy and Sweetness of God: How Not to Blaspheme God

William E. Conger Lectures | Birmingham, Alabama


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

One of the great advantages of being in a church for 17 years is that the life mission statement of the pastor and the mission statement of the church tend to become one, which is exactly the case at Bethlehem, to my great joy. We spent a year and a half or so working on a mission statement about two years ago, and I was on a team with 23 of our people working on that. And after a few months of gathering and thinking and praying and asking who we were and where we’re going, they sent me away for a few days all by myself to bring back a mission statement that they would then tweak. And what we settled on as a church, and what I have settled on as a life, is what you just heard from Dr. George.

We exist — and I personally say John Piper exists — to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. Every word counts in that sentence. Every letter counts — including the S on the end of people — in that mission statement. And I love it. I live it. It is my life. The only reason why I am here at this school is because my elders said, “All right, if that’s why we exist, and they’ll let you spread that there, go ahead and accept that.” And if you wanted me to do something else, I wouldn’t come. So I am here for that reason. And these next two lectures I think will make obvious that that’s the case.

Belittled in the Pulpit

And the first one is entitled “How Not to Blaspheme God in the Pulpit.” And I got the idea of the title from a 1991 article in First Things. Actually, it wasn’t an article, it was one of those little blurbs at the end by Richard John Neuhaus, where everybody goes first who reads that magazine. And it was a quote from Charles Misner about Albert Einstein. Meisner’s a general relativity specialist, and he was talking about Einstein’s attitude towards religion. And it so stunned me when I read this that I said, “I’ve got to use this and make sure this doesn’t happen among preachers wherever I can.” And it was a very sobering thing. So let me read the paragraph. Charles Misner said,

I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business . . . . It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing.

That took my breath away, because as I contemplated my awareness of the American pulpit (and I confess to you it’s a narrow awareness since I preach and don’t listen to preaching much), I see that that’s true in the American pulpit in large measure; I think that’s the present state. That was 1955 when Einstein was living and complaining about the state of the church. It seems to me to be the case (taking it a piece at a time here) that preachers don’t seem to have seen as much majesty in the word as scientists have seen in the world. Preachers just don’t seem to be talking about the real thing. Preachers do not seem to have a proper respect for the author of the universe. Preachers seem to be blaspheming. And, of course, that word is loaded, but the point of the word is: there is an unintentional belittling of God in the pulpit in America.

Reverence and Respect

For those who are stunned by the indescribable magnitude of God and what he has made, the steady dribble of practical how-tos and psychological soothing and relational therapy, seems to people — the kind of people like Charles Misner — dramatically out of touch with reality. Pastors desperately trying to get in touch with people’s reality, lose touch with Reality with a big R. And the people sit there, the scientists at least, and say, “He’s not talking about the real thing. I can get this anywhere. Somebody in my life has got to talk about the Real Thing, with a big R.”

Now, scientists know that light travels 5.87 trillion miles a year. It’s called a light year, right? And scientists, or tenth-grade astronomy students, know that our galaxy is about a hundred million light years across. So with a little multiplication, you can say that our galaxy is 587,000 trillion miles across. Now, within the optical range, presently, of our best telescopes, there are about a million such galaxies. And in ours, which is a moderate galaxy, there are about a hundred billion stars. And our sun, which is shining so brilliantly outside today, is a small one. It’s about 6,000 degrees centigrade on the cooler surface, and it travels at about 155 miles a second in its orbit through the galaxy, and will complete its revolution in 200 million years.

Now, scientists know these things; they know these things. And you know these things. And they say, “If there is, as the Christians say, a personal God, who spoke this into being, and who upholds it with the word of his power, there should be a certain respect and reverence and wonder and dread coming through when you talk about such a God. And certainly, you should talk about such a God a lot in relation to everything because he’s the main reality in the universe.”

On Our Faces

Now, you can feel the force of this when you go to the Bible and you read things like Isaiah 40 where it says,

To whom then will you compare me,
     that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
     who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
     calling them all by name.

What’s the point of saying that? I mean, why did he say that God calls out all the stars by name? It’s because he wants us on our faces. He wants us on our faces before such a God. He wants us to stand in awe before such a God. That’s why he said that. He knows them by name, by number. Now Einstein felt this; Einstein saw this, and he said, “These preachers are not talking about the real thing.” It isn’t coming through. It’s just chatty, relational, psychological, how to get along at home and at the workplace, which you can read in ten thousand books at Barnes and Noble in the self-help section, which is huge. What is wrong?

I want to ask two questions.

  1. Why, then, should we make God supreme in preaching?
  2. How do you do it?

Because I believe we should, and I believe he’s not supreme in the American pulpit, by and large. And so I want to as the biblical question, Why? and then I want to ask, How do you do it?

Why God Must Reign Supreme in Preaching

A couple of years ago I did an interview with Preaching Today when I published that little book on preaching, and the first question they asked on the telephone was, “Why do you think the supremacy of God in preaching is important?” And the first thing that came to my mind was: the supremacy of God should be important to us in preaching because the supremacy of God is important to God in redemptive history. Or to boil it down: to the bottom line, the supremacy of God should be important to us because God is supreme to God; we should count supreme what God counts supreme, and God counts God supreme. That was my answer: the supremacy of God is the surpassing and pervading theme of redemptive history, and it is the theme of God’s character.

God’s Chief End

Jonathan Edwards, in that same book I referred to yesterday, The End For Which God Created The World, argues this sentence. “The great end of God’s works, which is so variously expressed in Scripture, is indeed but one; and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called, the glory of God.” The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.”

Isaiah 48:9–11 is probably the most thudding, consistently hammer-blowing, God-centered text in the Bible. And it goes like this, explaining why God has not destroyed his people:

“For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
     for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
     that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
     I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
     for how should my name be profaned?
     My glory I will not give to another.

God is radically passionate for the supremacy of God. And therefore, if God is supreme to God, who are we to say that anything else should be supreme in preaching but God? That was an easy question to answer: God is supreme to God, and therefore, he should be supreme to me in preaching who he is. God wills to be known, folks. God is on one massive PR campaign in the universe about himself.

Great Is the Lord

I walked out of my suite this morning up on the hill, and all I could say was, “The heavens are telling the glory of God in Birmingham.” Does anybody see it? Does anybody hear it? Does anybody bow down? Does anybody worship? Does anybody weep over what they did last night, with this display of God in Birmingham? If preachers don’t get up next Sunday and ask that question, but dink around on some little level that every other people-helping person who doesn’t know God can dink around at, what’s the point? Let’s shut the house down and go outside, and maybe we’ll get the message.

All the nations you have made shall come
     and worship before you, O Lord,
     and shall glorify your name. (Psalm 86:9)

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
     sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
     tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
     his marvelous works among all the peoples!
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised. (Psalm 96:1–4)

He’s great, and therefore, he is to be praised greatly everywhere: among all of the peoples, and all the neighborhoods, and all the churches — and that’s what preaching is about; that’s what you’re being trained for.

Give thanks to the Lord,
     call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
     proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4)

The other morning I was meditating on Psalm 40, and I came to verse 16, and it is so precious. It’s one of those things where you just memorize it, you put it under the tongue of your soul, and you head off into the day to let the juices seep down into your heart and nurture you all day long. And it said,

But may all who seek you
     rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
     say continually, “Great is the Lord!”

Let me ask you: Do you love salvation? If you love salvation, the Bible says, “You will continuously say, ‘God is great. God is great. God is great.’” Why? Because salvation is the pathway to the enjoyment of the greatness of God, and nothing else satisfies. If it doesn’t terminate on God, it isn’t salvation.

Display of Glory

So God’s on a PR campaign to make himself known in the universe. It’s all over the New Testament. Those were Old Testament quotes. Here are a couple of New Testament ones:

God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:22–23)

Do you hear the make known words? He willed to make known his wrath. He willed to make known his power. He willed to make known the riches of his glory. God wills to be known as glorious in wrath and justice, mercy, wisdom and truth, and faithfulness. We must preach God.

Our people don’t know God. They don’t know God. They don’t know him. And we think that in order to help them with their marriage problems, and their kid problems, and their eating problems, and their work problems, we’ve got to leave God aside, and not talk about the contours of his character, and his attributes, and his ways. And we’ve got to get down there and deal with some psychological processes by which they can feel better, or they might not come back. And what they need, folks, desperately, is something they never dreamed they needed: they need to know God. It’s a remedy that nobody is prescribing because nobody knows the sickness, because they don’t read their Bibles carefully enough.

How to Show God Supreme in Preaching

Let’s go to the second question: How? How do you do it? What do I mean? Some of you are probably out there thinking about all the horribly broken people in your church. I’m a pastor, OK? Patty’s dying of cancer. She’s 38. She has four kids. I went over to Roger’s house, who just had a recurrence of the tumor that’s blocking his bronchial tubes now, and his hair is just growing back after a bout with cancer. Now he’s got it again. I can name five husbands who’ve abandoned their wives. I sat for two hours with weeping parents, because Sue is pregnant at 17, and their hearts are broken. I’m a pastor. I live in the real world. And I believe everything I say here — and they’re not leaving my church. I wish I could stop here and tell you stories about how the supremacy of God meets needs.

Let me tell you: you don’t have an answer when four daughters are abused by an uncle for three years, and there are venereal warts everywhere, and there’s no future for these kids as far as their parents can see. You don’t have an answer for that; nobody’s got an answer for that. Nobody can heal that. Nobody can get those parents through a year’s worth — let alone forty more years — of wondering if the girls will have any marriages, or wondering if they’ll be so totally distorted in their attitude toward men now that there’s no possibility of any future relationship.

But you know what can get them through? God — great and supreme and holy and powerful and wise and loving and sovereign over every single horrible thing in the universe. And I’ve watched it; and it can happen.

The Most God-Centered Sermon

Let me get down to the preaching part of how you do it. I want to take you to Acts 13:17–30 for a few minutes, to a biblical sermon that I think gets close to being a model here of what I mean. This is a sermon preached in Antioch of Pisidia by the apostle Paul, and it is a stunning sermon. And I want to walk you through it. We won’t take the time to read it, but we’ll walk through it. And I’m just going to walk from verse to verse, pointing out what probably many of you simply breeze over because you read too fast (like I said yesterday).

This sermon took place in a synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. It is the most God-centered sermon in the Bible, I believe. Watch for all the places where he simply ascribes things to God, and draws attention to God, and makes God central and supreme as he preaches.

The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. (Acts 13:17)

It was God who chose Israel from all the people of the earth. It was God who made the people great. It wasn’t just natural fertility down there in Egypt. He could have said that: “Jews are naturally fertile people, so they had a lot of babies, and they became great.” But he said, “God did that. God made them grow.” God led them out of Egypt with an uplifted arm. What does that mean? It means he’s a show-off. He made sport of the Egyptians. That’s the literal translation of the Hebrew word. He could have done it one plague; he did it in ten plagues. Why? To show that he can rule dust, as well as flies, and darkness, as well as blood. He could have escaped them to the north, and he packed them into a corner. Why? He wanted to show that he could divide a sea. The whole thing was to put God on display with an uplifted arm.

And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. (Acts 13:18)

There’s a textual variant here of just a single letter in the Greek. It might mean God bore them, he carried them. It might mean bore with them. In either case, he’s father, he’s guide, he’s sustainer.

And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. (Acts 13:19)

And you could say, “Oh no, it was they who swung the sword. Well, Proverbs 21:31: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” That’s the point. To Paul, God did it. God did it. Doesn’t matter what human agency he used. God did it. And it was God who gave Israel the land of Canaan. How can he give it to them? He owned it. The earth is the Lord’s, for he made it, and he gives it to whomever he pleases. No Canaanites owned this land; they disqualified themselves as owners by the wickedness they performed, according to Deuteronomy 9. The earth is his, and he gave it to the people that he freely chose, owing to no righteousness in them whatsoever.

And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. (Acts 13:20)

These rulers didn’t just rise up. They didn’t just rise up; God did that.

Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, “I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.” (Acts 13:21–22)

So God gives Saul, God removes Saul, just like it says in Daniel 2:21, right? “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings;” Or Daniel 4:32: “The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will.” So God gives it to David, gives it to Saul, takes them out, puts them in. In other words, God is in charge here. God’s running this history. God’s the main actor here in this narration. And David, the son of Jesse, is just a nobody: sling-shooting, harp-playing, shepherd boy. God did that. Nobody thought of David; he was least to be expected. God did that.

Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.

Not as though he’s some impersonal force in nature or history, but notice the phrase, “as he promised.” What does that mean? It means he planned it a long time ago, and he did what needed to be done to put things in place so that he could fill the promise that he made. And therefore, he’s active before, he’s active in getting it ready, he’s active in giving the Son; God’s doing this thing called incarnation in a savior coming into Israel.

Verses 24 and 25 are interesting because for some reason he now believes at this point in his sermon, he should bring John the Baptist into the scene of things. He could have skipped John the Baptist. He didn’t need to bring John in here. Why’d he bring him in? Well, of all the things he could have said about John the Baptist, what did he choose to say? He said, and quoted John,

I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie. (Acts 13:25)

John the Baptist becomes a foil in these two verses for the magnificence of Jesus. That’s the whole point of introducing John. The point of introducing John is so that John might decrease. So that John can have one word to say, “I’m not him.” So put him on the scene for just a little glimpse in order that he can call attention to the main person. That’s all.

This sermon is God-centered. He is directing attention relentlessly, verse after verse after verse, toward God. Now verse 26:

To us [the generation after John and Jesus] has been sent [passive verb] the message of this salvation.

By whom? The answer: God. God planned it, God accomplished it in Jesus, God is now sending it. Now verse 27. Paul seems to go out of his way to show that even those who never knew God’s plan, did God’s plan. If you read it, you see it.

For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him.

Now that’s odd. This is an odd thing to say. What’s he saying here? Why does he go out of his way? Why does this preacher, Paul, go out of his way to say, “They didn’t understand the utterances of the prophets, and thus, fulfilled them”? What’s the point? This is an exam question. I would ask this question on an exam. What’s the point?

The point is this: if you fulfill prophecy without knowing anything about the prophecy, you didn’t calculate, by your wills, to fulfill the prophecy; God did. That’s the point of the text. God did this thing, and Paul is working this thing; he’s working this thing. This is not accidental. He knows what he’s doing here: he is bending every fiber of his homiletical ability to get across: this is a God thing. These people who fulfilled killing Jesus didn’t go back and say, “OK, there’s probably no God, but somehow or other these things were written in the Old Testament. We’ve got to work it so that this happens so the people will keep believing there’s a God.” They fulfilled to the letter without knowing they were doing it; that’s God. That’s the point: that it’s God. Verse 29: Paul make the same point again:

And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb.

So what was happening in the arrest and the trial and the death was all the fulfillment of what God had promised and done. Verse 30:

But God raised him from the dead.

Now, Jesus said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” I love that verse. Love it. Love it. Don’t you love that verse? “If I lay my life down, I can take it again. I’ll raise myself from the dead.” Well, that’s half the story. The Father raised him from the dead also. They got together on this. That’s the way the Trinity is. They’re never in conflict with each other.

God Behind It All

Now I want you to just think about this sermon for a minute. Do you talk like that when you narrate your life? “God did this, and God did this, and God did this, and God did this, and God did this, and God did this, and God did this, and God did this.” This is a strange way of talking. Ordinary Americans don’t talk this way. But the preacher talked this way. The apostle talked this way. And we need to talk this way more. There is a great and glorious God, folks. Know him, reckon with him, think about him. He’s the main worker in history. He’s the explanation for everything. He should be central; he should be supreme.

Age of Superficiality

What are we going to do with this? We live in an incredibly naïve and superficial age. We live in an incredibly superficial America. What I mean by superficiality is this: you’re superficial — no matter how many degrees stand behind your name, or what university you teach in, or how many books you’ve written — you are a superficial person if the realities you are dealing with, you deal with without making any connection between them and the main, ultimate realities that give them meaning. That’s my definition of superficial.

So if you become an expert in the pieces of reality on the earth — science, sociology, psychology, homiletics, you name it, running a church, growth, worship; you become an expert — and you don’t make connections between that and Reality with a capital R — namely, God, you are a superficial person in the extreme. I don’t want to be superficial, and I don’t want you to be superficial. But we live in an age where virtually all communication media are superficial. Virtually all educational enterprises, at least the secular ones, and many — I’m tempted to say most — Christian ones are superficial, because they don’t deal with the most important aspects of their subject — namely, the connections with God. News reports are superficial. History books are superficial. Public education is superficial. Editorial and news commentary is superficial.

All of this, because of the incredible, unspeakable, unimaginable disregard for God everywhere in this culture. If you leave the infinite, all-defining, all-controlling, all-pervasive God out of account, all understandings are superficial. When the main thing is missing, what’s left is distorted and superficial. To which someone might reply, “Good grief, Piper. That’s religion. You want to turn everything into religion?” To which I reply, “It’s not religion; it’s Reality.” This is Reality, with a capital R, over every people group, over every sub-culture, over every discipline, over every newspaper, over every TV station, this is reality. Preachers should call the culture to reality.

It doesn’t matter what the fallout is. It doesn’t matter what jobs you lose. It doesn’t matter whom you offend, or whether any rich producers leave your church. It doesn’t matter. Your job is to call people to the supremacy of God as the Reality over all realities, to which no reality has any meaning apart from that *Reality. That’s what you’re supposed to say. Please tell me, if you don’t say that, who’s going to say it? Who is going to say it in our day? It isn’t religion.

Supreme in Spelling

I’ve got four sons, 14–25, and a two-year-old daughter, whom we adopted two years ago. And I pray for my kids. I pray for them every day. And I pray for them at school at Bethel College; and Gordon State College in Barnesville, Georgia; and at Bethany Academy in Minneapolis. And I say, “Oh God, grant that Abraham and Benjamin and Barnabas, in their school years here, would see that you are central in every discipline: that you’re behind it, creating it; that you’re under it, sustaining it; that you’re over it, directing it; that you are sovereign, designing why it exists; and that it has to do with you whether it’s geometry or whether it’s philosophy or whether it’s English or whether it’s spelling.”

To which somebody says, “Spelling?” Right, Christian spelling. Godless cynics talk can’t imagine what I mean when I pray that my kids would see God in spelling. One son challenged me on spelling. This is where this illustration comes from; I didn’t just made this up. He’s now, I think, beyond this, but there was a day when he said in his own peculiar spelling, “So why should I have to learn to spell the way everybody else spells?” And I said, “Well, because if you spell your own way, Benjamin, you won’t communicate so well with other people. You’ll put barriers in the way of getting your ideas across and communicating.” And he says, “So why should I care about communicating? I’ll just live my life. They can get it. It’s close.” Now, right here, I put myself in a teaching mode at a secular school. Right here, my son Benjamin’s talking not to Dad, but to the teacher. “So why should I care about communicating?” We’re about an eighth of an inch below superficiality here, and we’re up against God.

Because you can go two directions to answer that question for my son Benjamin. I’ll give you the godless, American, self-esteem gospel answer. It goes like this: “Well Benjamin, you need to care about communication first, because you won’t succeed in business if you don’t communicate well. You won’t make as much money. You won’t advance in the community. You won’t have as much self-esteem if people look down on your spelling and laugh at you and put you aside.” Now, all of that is true, and godless. Should he get that answer? Should preachers give him that answer?

Here’s the answer he ought to get: “Benjamin, you should care about communication, and therefore, spelling right — that is, the way everybody else spells, because you were created in the image of God, who’s a very good communicator, and you should want to be like him. Secondly, you should care about communication, because Benjamin, you have something infinitely important to communicate in the power and love and glory of God, and you should not want to put any obstacles in the way. Thirdly, Benjamin, you should want to communicate because God is love, and he is very dishonored when his human creatures scoff at whether it matters whether they communicate with gifts and knowledge that he has given them. And fourth, Benjamin, you should want to communicate because language is God’s idea. And from the beginning, he was the Word, and God is a god of order and beauty, not a god of chaos and anarchy, not even spelling anarchy.”

Spread a Passion

Unless you, students and friends of Beeson Divinity School, feel the force of the supremacy of God in spelling, you will not get the point of this message: that you should make God supreme in everything. My plea to you is that you would join me in spreading a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples.

Maybe I can drive it home in one last minute like this: if you don’t do this, if you don’t make God supreme in every sermon, if you don’t become known as the pastor who relates everything to God, and to whose church you can go if you want to hear a word about God and from God, if you don’t do that, who’s going to do it? How will your people be kept free and sober from the drunkening effects of the utterly God-ignoring, increasingly God-despising, culture that permeates everything in their lives?

I know of no other regular influence in my peoples’ life for the supremacy of God than the pulpit of my church. If you don’t do it, tell me where in Alabama — or wherever you hail from — are they going to get this relentless message? I plead with you, don’t come under the curse of Albert Einstein. Don’t let anybody leave your church and say, “I have seen more glory in the heavens than that preacher has ever dreamed of, and he is not talking about the real thing.”