A Spirit of Brokenness
Good preaching comes from a spirit of brokenness and tenderness. For all his authority and power Jesus was attractive because he was “gentle and lowly in heart,” which made him a place of rest (Matt. 11:29). “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). There is in the Spirit-filled preacher a tender affection that sweetens every promise and softens with tears every warning and rebuke. “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:7–8).
One of the secrets of Edwards’s power in the pulpit was the “brokenhearted” tenderness with which he could address the weightiest matters. In his own words we catch the scent of this demeanor:
All gracious affections . . . are brokenhearted affections. A truly Christian love . . . is a humble brokenhearted love. The desires of the saints, however earnest, are humble desires; their hope is an humble hope; and their joy, even when it is unspeakable, and full of glory, is a humble, brokenhearted joy, and leaves the Christian more poor in spirit, and more like a little child and more disposed to an universal lowliness of behavior.1
In this hardcover edition, long-time author and teacher John Piper draws from the preaching ministry of Jonathan Edwards to encourage pastors and leaders to gladly preach the cross, for the glory of God, to a people hungry for God and his word. Includes four extra chapters not included in the original edition.
Genuine spiritual power in the pulpit is not synonymous with loudness. Hard hearts are not likely to be broken by shrill voices. Edwards was persuaded from Scripture that “gracious affections do not tend to make men bold, forward, noisy, and boisterous; but rather to speak trembling.”2 The eye of divine blessing is upon the meek and trembling: “This is the one to whom I will look [says the Lord]: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2).
Therefore, Edwards says:
Ministers should be persons of the same quiet, lamb-like spirit that Christ was of . . . the same spirit of forgiveness of injuries; the same spirit of charity, of fervent love and extensive benevolence; the same disposition to pity the miserable, to weep with those that weep, to help men under their calamities of both soul and body, to hear and grant the requests of the needy, and relieve the afflicted; the same spirit of condescension to the poor and mean, tenderness and gentleness towards the weak, and great and effectual love to enemies.3
The spirit we long to see in our people must be in ourselves first. But that will never happen until, as Edwards says, we know our own emptiness and helplessness and terrible sinfulness. Edwards lived in a kind of spiraling oscillation between humiliation for his sin and exultation in his Savior. He describes his experience like this:
Often since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sinfulness and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up.4
It is not hard to imagine the depth of earnestness that this kind of experience brought to the preaching of God’s Word.
But of course one is on the precipice of despair when one focuses only on sin. This was not Edwards’s aim nor his experience. For him there was a response to guilt that made it an intensely evangelical and liberating experience:
I love to think of coming to Christ, to receive salvation of him, poor in spirit, and quite empty of self, humbly exalting him alone; cut off entirely from my own root, in order to grow into, and out of Christ; to have God in Christ be my all in all.5
This is the supremacy of God in the life of the preacher that leads straight to God’s supremacy in preaching.
When we speak of Edwards’s intensity, it is plain that it was not a harsh and loud and belligerent thing. Edwards’s power was not in rhetorical flourish or ear-splitting thunders. It was born in brokenhearted affections.
Edwards was described by Thomas Prince as “a preacher of a low and moderate voice, a natural way of delivery; and without any agitation of body, or anything else in the manner to excite attention; except his habitual and great solemnity, looking and speaking as in the presence of God.”6 Edwards stands as a rare testimony to the truth that good preaching—preaching that makes God supreme—comes from a spirit of brokenness and tenderness.
What’s at Stake
Good preaching gives the impression that something very great is at stake. With Edwards’s view of the reality of heaven and hell and the necessity of persevering in a life of holy affections and godliness, eternity was at stake every Sunday. This sets him off from the average preacher today. Our emotional rejection of hell and our facile view of conversion and the abundant false security we purvey have created an atmosphere in which the great biblical intensity of preaching is almost impossible.
Edwards so believed in the realities of which he spoke, and so longed for their reality to stagger his people, that when George Whitefield preached these realities with power in Edwards’s pulpit, Edwards wept during the whole service. Edwards could no more imagine speaking in a cold or casual or indifferent or flippant manner about the great things of God than he could imagine a father discussing coolly the collapse of a flaming house upon his children.7
Lack of intensity in preaching can only communicate that the preacher does not believe or has never been seriously gripped by the reality of which he speaks—or that the subject matter is insignificant. This was never the case with Edwards. He stood in continual awe at the weight of the truth he was charged to proclaim.
One contemporary said that Edwards’s eloquence was
the power of presenting an important truth before an audience, with overwhelming weight of argument, and with such intenseness of feeling, that the whole soul of the speaker is thrown into every part of the conception and delivery; so that the solemn attention of the whole audience is riveted, from the beginning to the close, and impressions are left that cannot be effaced.8
Good preaching gives the impression that something very great is at stake.
In his introduction to John Gillies’s Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival, Horatius Bonar in 1845 described the kind of preachers God had been pleased to use to awaken his church through the centuries:
They felt their infinite responsibility as stewards of the mysteries of God and shepherds appointed by the Chief Shepherd to gather in and watch over souls. They lived and labored and preached like men on whose lips the immortality of thousands hung. Everything they did and spoke bore the stamp of earnestness, and proclaimed to all with whom they came into contact that the matters about which they had been sent to treat were of infinite moment. . . . Their preaching seems to have been of the most masculine and fearless kind, falling on the audience with tremendous power. It was not vehement, it was not fierce, it was not noisy; it was far too solemn to be such; it was massive, weighty, cutting, piercing, sharper than a two-edged sword.9
So it was with Jonathan Edwards just 250 years ago. By precept and example Edwards calls us to “an exceeding affectionate way of preaching about the great things of religion” and to flee from a “moderate, dull indifferent way of speaking.”10 We simply must signify, without melodrama or affectation, that the reality behind our message is breathtaking.
Of course, that assumes that we have seen the God of Jonathan Edwards. If we don’t share the greatness of his vision of God, we will not approach the greatness of his preaching. On the other hand, if God in his grace should see fit to open our eyes to the vision of Edwards, if we were granted to taste the sweet sovereignty of the Almighty the way Edwards tasted it, then a renewal of the pulpit in our day would be possible— indeed inevitable.
- Edwards, Jonathan, Religious Affections, (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1984), 302.
- Ibid., 308.
- Edwards, “Christ the Example of Ministers,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, 961.
- Edwards, “Personal Narrative,” Selections, 69.
- Ibid., 67.
- Quoted in The Great Awakening, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, 72.
- See the illustration quoted above, pp. 54–55.
- Sereno Dwight, Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), cxc.
- Horatius Bonar, “Preface,” in John Gillies, Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1981), vi.
- Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 4, ed. C. C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 386.
This article is adapted from The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper.
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