The title of John Piper’s recent book on preaching, Expository Exultation, tells you most of what you need to know. For Piper, preaching ought to be expository, in that it exposes what is contained in the Bible, and it ought to be exultation, in that both the preacher and the listeners should find themselves exulting (rejoicing) over what is preached (cf. pp. 16, 51-53). In other words, for Piper, ‘preaching is worship’ (as in the book’s subtitle), and ‘preaching … serves worship’ (p. 25, cf. p. 16) in that it ‘is appointed by God to awaken and intensify worship’ (p. 51).
Throughout the book, Piper uses ‘worship’ to mean ‘consciously knowing and treasuring and showing the supreme worth and beauty of God’ (p. 17). Or, if you prefer, ‘Worship is seeing, savoring, and showing the supreme beauty and worth of the triune God’ (p. 123). These three are related, with knowing being the root, treasuring being the inner essence, and showing being the branches (p. 31). This places the treasuring or savoring or enjoying of God right at the heart of worship, in line with Piper’s catchphrase, that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him’ (p. 207).
What are the implications of this?
First, for exposition, it must be made clear and explicit that the preacher’s message is derived from the biblical text:
That is, we aim not only that what we proclaim be based on the wording of biblical texts, but also that our people see it for themselves (p. 189).
Second, for exultation, it means that preachers should aim not only to teach the truth to their congregations, but they should aim for their hearers to respond to what is preached in worship: delighting in what they see, and showing that by living their lives for the glory of God. Some would argue that Christian gatherings are for the purpose of edification and not for worship, but Piper is surely right to claim ‘that seeing the spiritual beauty of biblical truth without savoring it is sin’ (p. 25).
(There is an exhilarating chapter on the Trinity, in which Piper, drawing on Jonathan Edwards, seeks to describe knowing God in relation to the Son, and enjoying God in relation to the Spirit.)
That is the essence of Parts 1 and 2.
Parts 3 and 4 explain how this happens: through prayer and (Christ-exalting) eloquence.
In the remainder of the book, Parts 5, 6 and 7, Piper develops this by considering the relationship between the text of Scripture and the reality to which the text of Scripture refers.
If we are going to exult in what is preached, this means the sermon must not be about the text, but about God. We are intended to rejoice not in the beauty of the text, but in the beauty of God. Piper argues ‘that the content of preaching, in its essence, is not the biblical text …, but the reality that the text is communicating’ (p. 160, cf. pp. 52-53). (Karl Barth isn’t mentioned in Piper’s book, but there are echoes here of Barth’s desire, in his Epistle to the Romans, not to write a commentary about Paul, but to write a commentary with Paul, in other words, to write a book about God, not about Paul. See the Preface to the Third Edition of The Epistle to the Romans.)
What, then, is ‘the reality that the text is communicating’? Each text, Piper contends, must be preached for what it says directly, but also in relation to ‘the all-encompassing vision of reality that governs the way the author thinks about everything’ (p. 190). For Piper, this ‘all-encompassing vision of reality’, which stands behind every text, and which should therefore stand behind every sermon, has three components:
- the ‘glory of God’ as ‘the ultimate goal of all things’,
- ‘Jesus Christ crucified’ as ‘the ground of every good that comes to God’s people’, and
- ‘a life of love and holiness’, brought about ‘through the Spirit, by faith’, as the intended response (p. 269).
In other words, every biblical text, once it has been penetrated deeply enough, will be seen to provide us with some kind of blessing that comes from the death of Christ, will lead us to glorify God, and will lead us to love people. (I think Piper is speaking here of the relationship between exegesis and doctrine, though he doesn’t express it in that way.)
All of this, I think, is immensely helpful, and I’ve already found it making a difference to my own preaching.
Briefly, and slightly less positively, I did find the book somewhat longer than necessary. Piper has written more than fifty books, and this is only the second one I have read. The first was Desiring God, which I read years ago, and I think it would be fair to say that there are certain similarities between the two. Piper tends to preach on very small passages of Scripture (as with his series of 225 sermons on Romans, for example). Is there a danger in such an approach, that you settle on one specific way of articulating the ‘all-encompassing vision of reality’ behind the Bible, and use every text (or book) as an opportunity to articulate it once again? I don’t think Piper is wrong in what he says, but I’m left wondering whether there is more to the gospel than his sermons and books might lead you to imagine.