Must We Preach with Passion?

The first time I heard John Piper preach I didn’t like it. It was about sixteen years ago. Someone had given me a cassette tape of Piper speaking on the topic of the supremacy of God in preaching, and in this particular message he stressed that the preacher’s delivery must be done with great passion and feeling. I disagreed with Piper. As far as I was concerned, the Bible was the point of preaching not the preacher’s delivery. I thought that Piper was promoting an anthropocentric view of the preacher’s task. I didn’t understand how Piper could be so wrong.

At the time, I was in reaction against an unhealthy strain of emotionalism that I had encountered in the charismatic movement. I do not mean to suggest that all charismatics are unhealthily emotive, but it was so with the little corner of the movement that I experienced in the early 90’s. The charismatics that I had been involved with were not gospel-centered, bible-saturated charismatics. On the contrary, they portrayed spiritual growth as moving from one emotional experience to the next. After a couple years of chasing such experiences and coming up empty, I became convinced that it was all vanity and that there had to be more to Christianity than this.

So after my charismatic burn-out, I sort of overreacted. I began to discount all religiously motivated emotion as manipulative and wrong. This conclusion had a comprehensive effect on my opinions about God and ministry. With respect to preaching in particular, I believed that the preacher did not need passion in the pulpit; he needed only the word. Emotive preaching and bible preaching were antonyms as far as I was concerned. Piper’s advice on preaching sounded to me like the charismatics that I was trying to get away from—a fixation on the heart at the exclusion of the mind. I believed Piper to be too concerned with the delivery of the sermon and not enough with the substance of it. I was wrong about Piper, but I did not know it then. I didn’t want to hear from him on this subject anymore.

Fast forward a few years. A subsequent sermon from Piper opened me up to a new perspective about the place of emotions in the Christian life. I became convinced that my allergy to emotive religious expression was a wrong-headed overreaction. I understood that my cessationism need not require cessation of feeling and heart.

It was during this period that I read Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections for the very first time. Edwards argued that “true religion” lies in “gracious affections.” In other words, true Christianity always results in a heart that is much-moved by the things of God. Emotions weren’t an optional add-on to the faith. They were part and parcel of saving faith. I found that truth confirmed all over the Bible, especially in the Psalms.

Edwards applied this insight to preaching, and this time I had ears to hear what I couldn’t receive from Piper years earlier. Edwards writes:

“If it be so, that true religion lies much in the affections, hence we may infer, that such means are to be desired, as have much of a tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the Word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshiping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means.” –Religious Affections, Yale edition, p. 122

In other words, Edwards is saying that preaching must be done in such a way as to move the hearts of listeners. Edwards’s belief in the sovereignty of God did not lessen his belief in means, but enhanced it. If God uses means, then sermon delivery matters. The preacher’s delivery should be compelling and emotive not disinterested and flat.

Must we preach with passion? The answer is yes. When the Bible is the subject matter, the preacher cannot show indifference toward God’s truth in his delivery. The matter is very much like a husband’s regard for his wife. A husband who is emotionally indifferrent about his wife does not honor her no matter how much he keeps his other wedding vows. He only honors her if her best attributes are reflected in his delight and admiration of her. And so it is with the way that a preacher speaks about God. There must be some correspondence between the truth of God and the manner of the preacher. A preacher with no passion is a man who has not seen God as He is.

9 Responses to Must We Preach with Passion?

  1. Rick September 6, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    As long as he doesn’t fake it. It needs to be authentic.

  2. Matthew McKay September 6, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    I think we need a proper understanding of “passion” and “emotion” though. The tradition, southern-preacher who just yells from the pulpit about everything isn’t necessarily preaching with “passion” or “emotion.” Will you have a follow up about the “hows” and “whens” of preaching with passion and emotion?

  3. Derek September 6, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    The same goes for the folks in the pews as well, whether it is during the formal worship service or carrying out our routine and mundane activities throughout the week. If we do not live our lives in a state of worship, in a “manner worthy of the Gospel”, then what are we doing? Have we really understood or encountered the Living Christ and His glorious Gospel?

  4. Donald Johnson September 6, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    It is the whole person that God wants, this includes our emotions.

    I am charismatic and have seen what Denny describes at seeking emotion in some charismatic groups and even some non-charismatic groups and have similar concerns. I have also seen seeking no emotion in some groups, as if no emotion was a more spiritual state.

  5. Barry Applewhite September 6, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    Christian faith has long had an issue with human emotions. It seems to have begun with ideas about God. In particular, the Westminster Confession (II.i) says that God is “without body, parts or passions …” This belief that God has no emotions started with Christian apologists in the second century who were trying to build bridges to culture by embracing Greek philosophy. That was neither wise nor biblical.

    Today it is more widely accepted that God has emotions and that the Bible accurately describes them. Since we are made in his image, it is of course true that we also have emotions. Our emotions sometimes express things we have learned from the world rather than things we have received from God. But our emotions may also express the divine image in a holy and biblical way.

    To assess the proper place of emotions, I think it would be better to start with God than with John Piper. And I believe John Piper would agree with that.

    All that said, emotions may or may not be an aid to preaching in a specific instance, but I think Piper generally has the right idea about their proper place.

    -Barry

  6. Henry September 6, 2011 at 4:47 pm #

    Very interesting Denny, may I ask what segment of the Charismatic community you had experience with?

  7. Kim September 6, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Don’t forget though that Edwards has been described as a relatively monotoned preachin in terms of his delivery.

  8. jon September 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    i really enjoyed your post but i would like to add that i would rather sit in the pews of an emotionless preacher who sticks to the text than a preacher filled with emotion who is behind his pulpit giving opinions and rambling. i have seen so many ill-prepared preachers who try to fill that gap with lively presentation. ideally though, what you want is a preacher who is so moved by his text that he can’t help but get excited.

  9. Derek September 7, 2011 at 8:02 am #

    I think that the passion Piper is talking about has a lot more to do with a preacher or believer’s prayer life than it does their temperament, delivery method or style. I have seen and heard some very soft spoken, deliberate speakers who were so captivating and empowered by the Holy Spirit, that you could hear a pin drop. I imagine that this was the kind of preacher Edwards was. I totally agree that what we need is less manufactured excitement and zeal and more power of the Holy Spirit, generated by hours (rather than minutes) spent soaking in Scripture and prayer.

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