What does the church need most from its preaching?
Dr. John Piper, The Pastor as Theologian: Life and Ministry of Jonathan Edwards
They (the church) need to see a God-entranced man on Sunday morning and at the deacon’s meeting. Robert Murray M’Cheyne said, “What my people need most is my personal holiness. That’s right. But human holiness is nothing other than a God-besotted life.”
And our people need to hear God-entranced preaching. God himself needs to be the subject matter of our preaching, in his majesty and holiness and righteousness and faithfulness and sovereignty and grace. And by that I don’t mean we shouldn’t preach about nitty-gritty practical things like parenthood, and divorce and AIDS and gluttony and television and sex. We should indeed! What I mean is that everyone of those things should be swept right up into the holy presence of God and laid bare to the roots of its Godwardness or godlessness.
What our people need is not nice little moral, or psychological pep talks about how to get along in the world. They need to see that everything, absolutely everything – from garage sales and garbage recycling to death and demons have to do with God in all his infinite greatness. Most of our people have no one, no one in the world to placard the majesty of God for them. Therefore most of them are starved for the infinite God-entranced vision of Jonathan Edwards and they don’t even know it.
They are like people who have grown up in a room with an 8-foot flat white plaster ceiling and no windows. They have never seen the broad blue sky, or the sun blazing in midday glory, or the million stars of a clear country night or some trillion-ton mountain. And so they can’t explain the sense of littleness and triviality and pettiness and insignificance in their souls. But it’s because there is no grandeur. What our people need is the God-entranced vision of reality that Jonathan Edwards saw.
About five years ago during our January prayer week, I decided to preach on the holiness of God from Isaiah 6. And I resolved on the first Sunday of the year to take the first four verses of that chapter and unfold the vision of God’s holiness,
In the year that king Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high an lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
So I preached on the holiness of God and did my best to display the majesty and glory of such an unapproachably holy God. I gave not one word of application to the lives of our people (not a good practice regularly).
Little did I know that in the week prior to this message one of the young families of our church discovered that their child was being sexually abused for over a year by a close relative. It was incredibly devastating. There was police involvement. Social workers. Psychiatrists. Doctors. They were there that Sunday morning and sat under that message.
I wonder how many advisers to us pastors today would have said, Piper, can’t you see your people are hurting? Can’t you come down out of your ivory tower of theology and get practical? Don’t you realize what kind of people sit in front of you on Sunday?
Several months later the sad details began to come out. And the husband came to me one Sunday after a service and took me aside, and said, “John, these have been the hardest months of our lives. You know what has gotten me through? The vision of the greatness of God’s holiness that you gave me the first week of January. It has been the rock we could stand on.”
Just a week or so ago I spoke with a woman who has been coming to this church for over seven years. She’s not a member. She was getting a divorce in those early days and she knew I was against it. She said last week, “For all my turmoil, and mixed feelings and loneliness I have needed your stand and your vision over these years. They have been crucial in my spiritual survival.”
And, O, how I wish we had time to talk about what the vision of this God has meant for the missions movement here at Bethlehem. Let me put it in a word. Young people today at Bethlehem don’t get fired up about denominations and agencies. They get fired up about the greatness of a global God and about the unstoppable purpose of a sovereign King.
I believed it before I was a pastor. I believe it even more strongly now after eight years of pastoral ministry. The majesty and sovereignty and beauty of God is the linchpin in the life of the church, both in pastoral care and missionary outreach. In other words, the God-entranced worldview that Jonathan Edwards had was not the product and prerogative of an academic theologian. It was the heartbeat of his pastoral labors.