The first time I heard John Piper preach I didn’t like it. It was about fifteen years ago. Someone had given to 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 of the sermon should match the emotional gravity of the text. I disagreed with Piper, believing that he had embraced an anthropocentric view of the preacher’s task. As far as I was concerned, the Bible was the point of preaching not the preacher’s delivery. I didn’t understand how Piper could be so wrong.
At the time, I was in reaction against the vacuous emotionalism that I had encountered in the charismatic movement. I do not mean to say that all charismatics are vacuous. I’m only commenting on 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, I became convinced that it was all vanity and that there had to be more to Christianity than this.
As a result of this experience, I sort of overreacted. I began to discount all religiously motivated emotion as manipulative and wrong. Thus emotive preaching and bible preaching were antonyms as far as I was concerned. Piper sounded to me like the charismatics that I was trying to get away from, and I didn’t want to hear from him anymore.
Fast forward a few years. I was in seminary and was reading Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections for the very first time. I became convinced that my former allergy to emotive religious expression was entirely wrong-headed. 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 all saving faith. I found that truth confirmed all over the Bible, but 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. 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.” â€“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.
Is emotive preaching manipulative and wrong? No, not necessarily. When the Bible is the subject matter, the preacher cannot show indifference toward God’s truth. There must be some connection between the gravity of the text and the persona of the preacher.
That is what I learned from Jonathan Edwards many years ago, and it is what I am still learning today.