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.