The Word That Comes Worshiping

Savoring What We Say About God

Preaching as Worship: Meditations on Expository Exultation | Rom Lectures | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School | Deerfield, Illinois


The aim of preaching is worship. That is, all preaching should aim to wean the human heart off the breast of sin and bring it to satisfaction in God as the Fountain of Life. The assumption here is this: God is most glorified in our people when our people are most satisfied in him. That is, the essence and heart of worship is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ. I will try to root that assumption more deeply in Scripture today.

Therefore, if the mission of preaching is to beget and sustain a satisfying, liberating sense of the glory of God in the human heart, then the matter of preaching must be the glories of God and of his Son, Jesus. The people can’t savor what they don’t see. Therefore, our task is to show the glories of God concretely, specifically, compellingly, and not from our own imagination but from the revelation of that glory in God’s word. That is, all Christian preaching is expository. It “exposes” the all-satisfying God as he speaks and reveals himself Scripture.

So the mission of preaching is worship. And the matter of preaching is the manifold glories of God revealed in Scripture. Now, what about the manner the preaching? I have agreed with James Stewart that preaching not only aims at worship but is worship. Therefore, I have defined it as expository exultation. Preaching should not only awaken a satisfying sense of God’s glory in the people; it should also exhibit a satisfying sense of God’s glory in the preacher. It exposits the perfections of God and it exults in those perfections in the process.

This is what I meant yesterday when I said that the preacher does not need the music of piano or guitar or synthesizer to make his God-exalting sermon palatable — the way contemporary worship songs are assisted by the music to draw people into their God-exalting lyrics. The preacher does not need to forsake the centrality of God, nor does he need the support of any music, but the music of his own soul. When the preacher’s own soul exults and sings and worships over the truth that he preaches, he makes his own music, and the hearts of the people are engaged with the value of his God. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Magnify Christ in Life and Death

I would like to focus with you first on Philippians 1:18–21. Paul writes from imprisonment in Rome. Those who don’t like him are gloating over the fact that they are free to preach and he is not. But Paul is not discouraged by this. He says,

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice, yes, and I will rejoice. For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that I shall not be put to shame in anything but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

Pause here, and notice what his mission is: above life and death his mission is to magnify Christ, to show that Christ is magnificent, to exalt Christ, and demonstrate that he is great — “that Christ shall be exalted in my body, whether by life or death.” Now comes a tremendously important verse to explain how it is that Christ could be exalted in life and death. Notice the reference to “life” and “death” in verse 20 and then the link up with the words “live” and “die” in this next verse 21: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

What I want you to see here is the connection between magnifying Christ and treasuring Christ. What this text teaches is that if you want to exalt and magnify Christ (for example, in your preaching), then you have to treasure Christ above all things. If Christ is to be proclaimed for the praise of our people, he must preached as the prize of the preacher. We can’t declare him worthy of praise if we don’t delight in him as our prize.

Death Is Only Gain

Paul makes this explicit in the connection between verses 20 and 21. Look carefully. In verse 20 he says that his expectation and hope is to magnify, exalt, glorify Christ in life or death. Then in verse 21 he shows how Christ can be magnified in life or death. He says, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” So the way that Christ is magnified in death is that we experience death as gain. And the reason death is gain is given in verse 23: “My desire is to depart [die] and be with Christ.”

“We can’t declare God worthy of praise if we don’t delight in him as our prize.”

Death takes us into more intimacy with Christ. Therefore death is gain. And when you experience death this way, you show that Christ is a greater treasure to you than anything on earth. And that is magnifying Christ. The key to praising is prizing.

If you want to glorify Christ in your dying, you must experience death as gain. Which means Christ must be gain to you. He must be your prize, your treasure, your joy. He must be a satisfaction so deep that when death takes away everything you love, but gives you more of Christ, you feel it as gain.

Life Is Only to Magnify Christ

It’s the same with life. We magnify Christ in life, Paul says, by experiencing Christ in life as our all-surpassing treasure. That’s what he means in verse 21 when he says “For me to live is Christ.” We know this because of Philippians 3:8 where Paul says, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

So “to die is gain” because it means greater intimacy with Christ, and he is our treasure and what we long for more than anything. And “to live is Christ” because living means counting everything as loss for the sake of gaining Christ.

Prize Jesus to Praise Him

The common denominator between living and dying is that Christ is the all-satisfying treasure that we embrace whether we live or die. And this truth in verse 21 is given as the explanation and ground of verse 20 (see the “for” in verse 21), namely, that for this reason Paul knows that Christ will be exalted, magnified, praised in his living and in his dying.

Christ is praised by being prized. He is magnified as a glorious treasure, when he becomes our unrivaled pleasure. Christ is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is the Biblical foundation for that all-important sentence.

This is the music the preacher must make. The preacher’s song is this: “Christ is my treasure in life. Christ is my gain in death. Christ is the all-satisfying fountain of my hope and peace and joy. I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And when the thread of that song is woven through the fabric of all your God-exalting sermons, it will awaken and engage the hearts of your people more deeply than all the best tunes of contemporary worship songs put together. If you would draw them into praising Christ, they must see you prizing Christ.

This is why the ministry of preaching, with all its pain and pressure is a great and happy work. James W. Alexander gets it exactly right when he says in his Thoughts on Preaching,

There is happiness in preaching. . . . The declaration of what one believes, and the praise of what one loves, always give delight: and what but this is the minister’s work? (117)

Preaching is the declaration of what one believes, in a way that praises what one loves. It is expository exultation.

Experience the Truth

About a year ago, I began to spend a good bit of time with John Owen, the 17th-century pastor whom J.I. Packer calls “the greatest among the Puritan theologians.” And I found in him a magnificent model of what I am trying to get across in this final message.

“Christ is my treasure in life. Christ is my gain in death.”

Owen warned against the danger of preaching that we are prone to preach without penetrating into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years, words begin to come easy for preachers, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; of God’s holiness without trembling; of sin without sorrow; of heaven without eagerness. And the result is a terrible deadening of the spiritual life and depletion of preaching power.

Words came easy for Owen, but he set himself against this terrible disease of inauthenticity by laboring to experience every truth he preached. In my words, he aimed not just at exposition but at exultation. He said,

I hold myself bound in conscience and in honor, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish [preach] it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, “I have believed, and therefore I have spoken.” (Works, X, 488)

So for example, his Exposition of Psalm 130 (320 pages on eight verses) is the laying open not only of the Psalm but of his own heart. One of his biographers, Andrew Thomson, says,

When Owen . . . laid open the book of God, he laid open at the same time the book of his own heart and of his own history . . . [It] is rich in golden thoughts, and instinct with the living experience of “one who spake what he know, and testified what he had seen.” (Works, I, lxxxiv.)

The conviction that controlled Owen was this:

A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us.” (Works, XVI, 76)

Owen’s life was full of controversy and upheaval. He was an incredibly busy and embattled man. Richard Baxter called him “the great doer.” What kept him steady in the battle was this commitment to first experience the reality of God and then preach it. Here is the way he put it in the preface to The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated (1655):

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth — when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us — when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts — when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for — then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.

There’s the key: living, heartfelt “communion with God in the doctrine we contend for” — exultation in God through our exposition of God.

At the end of his life in 1683 at the age of 77, as a kind of fugitive pastor in London, Owen was working on a book called Meditations on the Glory of Christ. It was the last thing he chose to think about. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “O, brother Payne, the long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world.” In other words, “to die is gain!”

But Owen saw more glory in this world than most of us see, and that is why he was known for his holiness. And that’s why, even 300 years later, his preaching has a God-exalting power that most contemporary preaching does not even aspire to. He saw and experienced the glory of Christ before he preached it. So his preaching was real and powerful because its mission was worship, its matter was the glory of Christ and its manner was exultation.

My mind begs for one more message in this series. The first was the mission of preaching: awakening in the people a heartfelt satisfaction in all that God is for us in Christ. The second was the matter of preaching: proclaiming the all-satisfying glories of God. The third has been the manner of preaching: exhibiting that very satisfaction in God by exulting over what we preach.

How to Exult in Preaching

If there were one more message in this series it would be the means of preaching: how do you become that kind of preacher and sustain a heartfelt exultation in the great things of God? So I content myself with an outline in closing:

1. You must born again.

“Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). I do not doubt that there are preachers who have no life in the pulpit because there is no life in the soul. The natural man cannot receive, let alone exult in the things of the Spirit. If you do not delight in the things of God search your heart to see if you are born of God.

2. Turn off the television.

It is not necessary for relevance. And it is a deadly place to rest the mind. It’s pervasive banality, sexual innuendo, and God-ignoring values have no ennobling effects on the preacher’s soul. It kills the spirit. It drives God away. It quenches prayer. It blanks out the Bible. It cheapens the soul. It destroys spiritual power. It defiles almost everything. I have taught and preached for twenty years now and never owned a television. It is unnecessary for most of you and it is spiritually deadly for all of you.

3. Meditate on the word of God day and night.

Paul said, “Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). How do you get filled with the Spirit? The same way you get drunk with wine: you drink a lot of it.

“If you do not delight in the things of God, search your heart to see if you are born of God.”

Paul is pretty clear how we drink the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14, it is by welcoming the things of the Spirit of God, and in Romans 8:5 it is by setting the mind on the things of the Spirit. And in both cases the “things of the Spirit” refers mainly to the words taught by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:13).

Which means simply that if you want to be filled with the Spirit of passion and exultation over the great things of God you must fill your mind day and night with the word of God. Pour over it. Memorize it. Chew it. Put it like a lozenge under the tongue of your soul and let it flavor your affections day and night.

4. Plead with God unceasingly for passions that match his reality.

When you meditate on a passage of Scripture ask yourself this question, Am I experiencing affections in my heart that accord with the reality revealed in the text? Is my exposition creating in my own heart a corresponding exultation? And if not, then repent for your hardheartedness and plead with God for your heart to be stirred with emotions as terrible as hell and as wonderful as heaven. John Stott said,

I have always found it helpful to do as much of my sermon preparation as possible on my knees, with the Bible open before me, in prayerful study. This is not because I am a bibliolater and worship the Bible; but because I worship the God of the Bible and desire . . . to pray earnestly that the eyes of my heart may be enlightened.

5. Linger in the presence of God-besotted saints.

Hebrews 13:7 says, “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith.” It is a biblical value to have God-besotted heroes. I fear that many contemporary pastors read more Barna and Shaller and Drucker than they do Owen and Edwards and Spurgeon (to name my heroes).

Judge for yourselves: what writers are so saturated with God that you come away with your mind rich and your heart exulting? Find your God-besotted heroes and live with them.

6. Finally, leave your study, go to a hard place, take a risk for the kingdom.

Prove to your own soul that you treasure the promises of God more than the pleasures of this world.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds and from joy over it sells everything he has to buy that field” (Matthew 13:44)