What’s the difference between someone who wants to be a great preacher and someone who wants to preach great? I’m sure there’s lots, but one thing that comes to mind is hubris. The desire to be a great preacher is a desire for a reputation or popularity. On the other hand, the desire to preach well will reside in the heart of any pastor who wants his congregation to be helped by God’s word.
I, for one, go back and forth between the two. Sometimes I want the pulpit to assist me professionally. Other times, by God’s grace, I want the pulpit to spiritually help God’s people. Acknowledging our desires, questioning them, and praying that they be purified is an essential habit for every pastor to cultivate.
That said, this is not an article about copying John Piper’s preaching style so that you can be a great preacher, too. The goal here is to learn what makes Piper’s preaching so great, and then to apply those things ourselves so that we can preach a little better, and so our congregation will be helped a little more.
This begs the question, “What makes Piper’s preaching great?” I’d like to point out three things that he does in his sermons that you can do, too.
Preach the logos of the passage
Logos means logic. Piper models a style of preaching that unlocks the power of the text’s logical flow. He recognizes that the authors of the Bible were out to prove something, so he wades through their words to discern what they intended to communicate.
This is where true expository preaching lies: not only preaching the main idea of the passage, but showing what the parts of the passage contribute to that main idea, and how.
A lot of pastors think they preach expository sermons because they preach through books of the Bible. That is part of expository preaching, but there’s more to it than just that. If you use each passage in the book as a trampoline to jump to your favorite current issue or theological topic, then you’re not doing expository preaching.
True expository preaching, more than just preaching through a book, shows how the verses and paragraphs of the book fit together. You can only do this if you know how to analyze the logic of a passage. If you’ve never explored studying the Bible this way, here are some free resources to get you started:
BibleArc.com was founded to spread Piper’s passion to discover the logical flow of biblical texts. The home page has a short video where Piper explains why it’s so important.
Piper’s Biblical Exegesis: Discovering the Meaning of Biblical Texts contains clear explanations of how to follow the logic of a passage.
Thomas Schreiner has a terrific chapter on how to follow the logical discourse in “Tracing the Argument” from his book, Interpreting the Pauline Epistles. There is a companion handout to the chapter that distills the information for easy use: “Relationships between Propositions,”
Preach the pathos of the passage
Pathos means passion, emotion. The stereotype for preachers is that they are either logical but boring, or passionate but scatterbrained. But Lloyd-Jones said that true preaching is “logic on fire.” If anyone destroys these false dichotomies, it’s Piper. His appreciation for the logic of the passage doesn’t extinguish his passion, but fuels it.
What parts of the text cause you to rejoice? To weep? To become angry? What rouses compassion, and toward whom? Your emotions are tools in your homiletical belt, just like illustrations and word studies.
You may never reach Piperian proportions of passion. That’s okay, God gave you your personality for a reason. But bring with your preaching whatever element of emotion you do have. As Clarence Macartney said, “A preacher may have little or much personality, but certainly, when he gets into the pulpit he needs to use all that he has” (HT: Doug Wilson).
Ask questions of the passage
What remains, finally, is to figure out how to use the logic of the passage to fuel passion in the hearts of your people. You will accomplish this when you have done two things. One, make your people wonder what the text means. Two, make them care about what the text means. If you can do these two things, then you will marry the logos and the pathos of the passage at the chapel of your congregation’s heart.
One way Piper effectively accomplishes this is by asking questions of the text while he preaches. When he comes across a difficulty in the passage, he uses rhetorical questions to show his audience that the meaning of the passage is not obvious at first glance. “What does this mean?” “How do these two thoughts fit together?” “Why does Paul make this comment here, rather than something else?” “Why did Jesus respond this way?”
It’s amazing how a simple question conveys that there is something at stake with how we understand each sentence of the Bible.
Of course, you can only ask questions of the text for your hearers if you ask questions of the text for yourself. Piper argues that asking questions of the text is a fundamental task in sermon preparation in his article, “Brothers, Let Us Query the Text”:
“We must train our people that it is not irreverent to see difficulties in the biblical text and to think hard about how they can be resolved… If we care [pathos!] about truth [logos!], we must relentlessly query the text and form the habit of being bothered by things we read… There are profound and wonderful resolutions to all problems. He has called us to an eternity of discovery so that every morning for ages to come we might break forth in new songs of praise.”
Piper’s tactics, your personality
The goal is not to be as great a preacher as Piper. It’s to preach as great as you can. But one way to do this is to learn from the great preachers. The important thing, however, is to apply what the great preachers do well homiletically in a way that fits with who God made you to be. Then you’ll preach like Piper, but you’ll sound like you.