The following is a lightly edited transcript.
I’m going to talk about preaching. In my mind, and as I see it in the Bible, the act of preaching and the aim of preaching are humanly impossible. They are only possible in the power of the Holy Spirit. So, this message is about how you preach in the power that is not your own, which is a very strange thing if you stop and think about it.
What I am doing right now, the Bible calls me to do in such a way that it is not I, but he who does it. So how do you do that? What did I do to get ready for this? What should I be doing in my head or heart right now so that that happens? That’s what I’m going to talk about.
Never Only Oratory
I’m going to start with what I’m not going to be doing. My question is not, What are the natural things that you can do or I could do as a preacher to increase natural knowledge and natural feelings? That’s not my goal. And the reason is this:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14
So, I’m not interested in merely doing natural things to increase natural knowledge, with natural feelings. I’m just not interested in that. You can certainly do amazing things with rhetoric. Just think of the power of human oratory in figures like Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy. Think of what can be done simply with the mouth for a nation or for a people.
“You can grow a big church without the Holy Spirit.”
You can grow a big church without the Holy Spirit. So, I’m just not interested in helping you do that. I’m not interested in creating remarkable oratory. Even though it can achieve things that will make you a lot of money and get you a lot of praise and look so successful, this is not my interest.
What did Paul mean by “the things of the Spirit of God” when he said that the natural person can’t even grasp them — that they’re just foolishness?
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18
So right at the center of what he meant was that the cross and Christ crucified and risen is just unintelligible and foolish. I have a son who has looked me in the face and said, “That makes no sense.” In my mind, the chief end of preaching is to bring people — now this is impossible — to see Jesus for who he really is, to savor him for the value that he really has, and to show him to the world that way.
That’s the goal of preaching in my mind: seeing, savoring, showing. Three s’s. Nobody can see him, nobody can savor him, nobody canshow him in a merely human way. It cannot be done. What I’m after in this message — it’s almost a paradox to say it — is, helping you with my own mouth, do what you can’t do. That’s the goal, because that’s what I find all over the Bible.
A Miracle in the Making
So, what makes preaching unique is that it’s a miracle. It’s not just after miracles; it is
a miracle in itself. One of my books is calledExpository Exultation
, and that gives you my two-word definition of preaching.
- Expository: you better see what you say in the book.
- Exultation: you savor and leap over what you’ve seen in the book.
That can’t happen by human means. But it has to happen. It has to happen in the preacher. It has to happen in the people, or we are wasting our time. I want to bring about the seeing, the savoring, the showing of Christ for who he really is — as valuable as he really is, as beautiful, glorious, and great as he really is. I want that to happen in me. I want it to happen in my hearers. That’s what preaching is. It doesn’t happen apart from the Holy Spirit.
And so, the question then becomes, How do you preach in the power of the Holy Spirit? Let me give you some texts to show you what happens. When the Holy Spirit is mightily at work, God Almighty, by the Spirit, through the Word, is doing these things:
He takes a heart of stone and puts in a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26
He goes beyond what flesh and blood can do and reveals the truth of Christ like he did for Peter. (Matthew 16:17
He shines “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6
He unveils our face so that “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed . . . from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18
In other words, without the sovereign, life-giving, blindness-removing, heart-illumining, glory-revealing work of God’s Spirit, preaching doesn’t happen and doesn’t exist. Preaching is not a subspecies of rhetoric in the university; it’s unique in the universe. I tried to unpack why and how biblically in the book, but that’s my assumption right now. It is a seeing in the word — truth. It is a savoring of that truth, in accordance with its worth. And it is a showing — or, in the case of preaching, a saying — of that beautiful, infinitely valuable truth in such a way that the Holy Spirit awakens the same thing in the people.
I’m asking, How can a preacher become the means by which the Holy Spirit works miracles in the people — the miracle of seeing, savoring, showing? Not just in the building but a life of showing the beauty of Christ. Another word for this is worship. How do I preach so that it is not I but Christ?
God’s Work — and Ours
Now, some of you Bible folks will recognize that phrase, “not I but Christ,” and you’ll think of a verse. And the interesting thing about the verse for us is it doesn’t have to do with preaching. ButGalatians 2:20
does have to do with everything, right?
I remember one time I was so sick for three weeks in the hospital in college with mononucleosis, and the chaplain walked in and said, “Johnny, what’s your life verse?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. I didn’t have a life verse. But I said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
And I had no idea what that verse would come to mean. I no longer live. Piper does not preach. That’s what it says. But Christ lives in me. And then he contradicts himself. That’s an awful, horrible thing to say about the Bible, right? It’s glorious. Let’s call it a paradox. “And the life I now live” — wait a minute, Paul. You just said you don’t live. “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
So, there’s an answer to the mystery there. I want to get that. What in the world are you talking about? A life that you’re not living, but Christ is living, but you are living by faith. I have to get that. Your people have to get that. Your new converts, who’ve never gotten a clue about anything in the Christian life, have got to get that. So, that’s what we’re after.
“By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me
.” (1 Corinthians 15:10
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, butonly God who gives the growth
.” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure
.” (Philippians 2:12–13
We have to figure out these paradoxical statements in the Bible. We have to live this. This has to be the way we preach and the way we live.
One of the most impactful papers I’ve read from my professor in seminary when I first got there as a raving Arminian confronted me with: who’s doing the work, Piper? Who’s doing the work? And it was just a message onPhilippians 2:12
: You work out your salvation because God is at work in your doing the doing, doing the willing.
So, how does the preacher, how do I, become the means, the instrument by which the Holy Spirit works miracles in people? How can we have an effect on people so that they know God did that this morning? We want them to say, “God opened my eyes this morning. God caused me to love Jesus this morning. God is filling me with the passion to show Jesus. That guy up there didn’t do it. That guy cannot do what just happened here.” That’s the way I want to preach.
How to Work Hard and Depend on God
For forty years, I have pursued preaching in the power of another by means of an acronym, which I call A.P.T.A.T. I’m going to walk through A.P.T.A.T. in relation to preaching and give you Bible verses to explain it. But I mainly want to camp out on T in the middle.
A is admit you can do nothing.
P is pray for the help you need.
T is trust the promise of God to give you what you need in the moment of crisis, preaching, or whatever else.
A is act in that faith.
T is, when you’re done, thankhim.
So, I’m going to walk you through that and make it as absolutely practical for preaching as I can. And the rest of you who are not preachers will find it very easy to transpose what I’m saying to preachers into your daily challenges.