Book Review: Expository Exultation, by John Piper
John Piper, Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship. Crossway, 2018. 328 pages.
In an age of TED talks, YouTube videos, and Facebook Live, the very idea of listening to a man lecture on an ancient book seems irrelevant, if not awkward. If Christian preaching is just an opportunity for another lecture about an interesting idea, then the priority of preaching in Christian worship has been vastly overstated.
But Christian preaching is something more than a lecture. It’s more than just the transference of information from one person to another, more than just defining terms and explaining their context, and more than just the opinion of one man. The weekly sermon is of supernatural import, where both the speaker and listener are transformed by the word of God. As Tim Keller suggests, preaching really does have the power to “change people in their seats.”
APPLYING CHRISTIAN HEDONISM TO PREACHING
Written for pastors and those training for the pastorate, John Piper’s Expository Exultation is the third in a trilogy of books from Piper including A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness (2016) and Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (2017).
Expository Exultation demonstrates that “preaching itself is worship and is appointed by God to awaken and intensify worship” as “the preacher simultaneously explains the meaning of Scripture and exults over the God-glorifying reality in it” (51, emphasis original). To no one’s surprise, Piper applies to the task of preaching his familiar thesis that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Expository Exultation explores the task of preaching in seven parts: A Setting for Preaching, Why is Expository Exultation is Integral to Corporate Worship?, How Does Preaching Become a Means of the Miracle of Worship—Supernaturally?, How Does Preaching Become a Means of the Miracle of Worship—Naturally?, Rigorous Attention to the Text for the Sake of Radical Penetration into Reality, What Reality Shall We Preach?, Expository Exultation and the Old Testament.
PREACHING IN LIGHT OF “REALITY”
Piper focuses on the need for preachers to show their hearers the text of Scripture because he is concerned that even preachers who preach the Bible expositionally often “do not help [their] people see the connection between the reality they are heralding and the very wording of the text (164, cf. 164–167). He also stipulates that textual constraint is necessary but not adequate in the pulpit, as there are often larger theological issues encroaching on the near context of Scripture (194).
There are aspects of an author’s intention that are sometimes not explicitly included in the very words you are reading, but which you need to know in order to interpret him correctly, and which you may learn from other parts of Scripture, especially other things the same author has written. (191).
Piper suggests three dominant themes that frame “reality”: the glory of God as the ultimate goal of all things, Jesus Christ crucified as the ground of every good that comes to God’s people in every text, and the Holy Spirit as the enabler of the transformed life (269). He argues these “Trinitarian, interlocking emphases should be woven through” all preaching, through every sermon (270).
It’s not entirely clear what Piper means by “the reality factor in the task of exposition” (161). He explains that “the content of preaching, in its essence, is not the biblical text (which, nevertheless, remains indispensable in all its details), but the reality that the text is communicating” (160). And, in order to access this “reality,” the preacher needs to know “not only the immediate intentions [the author] makes clear in the text, but also the all-encompassing vision of reality that governs the way [he] thinks about everything” (190). But the entire discussion comes across as somewhat vague..
PREACHING TO AWAKEN WORSHIP
The thesis of Piper’s book—that “preaching itself is worship and is appointed by God to awaken and intensify worship” (51)—discourages pastors from taking a casual approach to the pulpit. Piper writes, “preaching is not conversation. Preaching is not discussion. Preaching is not casual talk about religious things. Preaching is not simply teaching. Preaching is the heralding of a message permeated by the sense of the greatness and majesty and holiness of God.” Preaching, according to Piper, “is both accurate teaching and heartfelt heralding. It is expository exultation” (66, emphasis original). As Piper further explains “the message of the preacher, the herald, is not merely a body of facts to be understood. It is a constellation of glories to be treasured.” (66). He argues preaching is a dangerous and glorious calling because the preacher knows “if he fails in his expository exultation, if corporate worship languishes in lifelessness because the word of God does not come with clarity and faithfulness and soul-satisfying power, all the ministries [of the local church will] suffer” (307).
Preachers must not coddle their listeners because the sermon is not about the audience. Instead, sermons must demonstrate the truth about God revealed in Christ crucified so that listeners’ lives might be realigned, affections recalibrated, and hearts re-focused to the glory of God in Christ. Piper is right, “nothing can replace preaching” (307). Only by focusing on God and delighting in him will the deepest needs of the congregation be met. Preachers must labor to preach excellent sermons.
Expository exultation is essential because the gospel is a message that comes to God’s people in words and God has ordained that people see the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8) in those gospel words. The calling of the preacher is to open the words, sentences, and paragraphs of Scripture and display the glory of Christ who is the image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:6).
A SERIOUS-MINDED, THEOLOGICALLY-RICH EXPLORATION OF PREACHING
Expository Exultation is a serious-minded examination of the task of preaching. Piper’s book stands out among homiletical literature on account of how vigorously he defends the primacy of the preaching event—indeed, as Piper asserts, “Nothing can replace preaching” (307)—while simultaneously showing that preaching and worship go hand-in-glove. Therefore, preachers must not only approach their task prayerfully, with a sense of gravity; they must also approach it reverently as they worship their Triune God.
I have already given this book to aspiring pastors to help them cultivate a Scripture-soaked approach to the preaching task. Piper’s book helps young preachers see their personal responsibility to immerse themselves in the faith-forming narrative of the Bible so that they may more faithfully—and more compellingly!—present a coherent theological understanding of Scripture while heralding the truth of Christ crucified. Additionally, Piper, a pastor-scholar, guides his reader through the process of coming to know the Bible even as they grow in their understanding of how to proclaim it.
12 Quotes from Expository Exultation:
- Preaching in corporate worship is essential for the health and mission of the church. (15)
- Exultation without explanation is not preaching. Explanation without exultation is not preaching. (51)
- The “natural person” can see many amazing things about Jesus. Judas certainly did. But the natural person does not “discern” Christ’s compelling beauty and worth. The gospel of Christ is folly to them rather than their greatest fortune. He is not the treasure hidden in the field that we sell everything to obtain (Matt 13:44). He is not the pearl of great price (Matt 13:46). He is not of “surpassing worth” that by comparison makes all else seem like rubbish (Phil 3:8). Of such “seeing” Jesus says, “Seeing they do not see” (Matt 13:13). (85)
- The preacher has only one definitive access point to the realities that matter infinitely—Christ, grace, righteousness, eternal life—and that is the inspired words of God in Scripture (175).
- I am pleading against a widespread kind of preaching that is Bible based but not Bible saturated. I am pleading against the reading of a text followed by preaching that makes it points—sometimes very good points actually found in the text—without showing people the very words and phrases from which the points are taken. I am pleading against preaching that fails to help people see how the text actually takes us to the reality that is all important. (181, emphasis original)
- Every sermon that offers anything good to believers in Christ, or that helps believers see that God will turn for good everything bad in their lives, must be a sermon that exults in Christ crucified. (225)
- For we would not have anything but wrath without the cross . . . preach every biblical reality in relation to the death of Jesus . . . the cross is the foundation in every sermon of every good offered in every text. (229–230)
- The more rigorously we attend to what God put in the text, the more radiantly will his glory shine out of the text. (239)
- Without the death of Jesus there would not be a single good in all the world that would be a lasting benefit to any believer. (279)
- Preaching is not everything, but it affects everything. It is the trumpet of truth in the church. And it echoes in every ministry and every household, for joy and strength and love and perseverance—or not.” (307)
- Nothing can replace preaching. Books are wonderful. Who has not been deeply affected by a great book? Lectures and discussions and drama and poetry and film and paintings are powerful. But any effort to replace preaching with anything else will—sooner or later—fail. (307)
- God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Jesus, for the glory of God. He will help you. (308)
This is a direct quote from John Piper’s T4G sermon: “Why Expositional Preaching Is Particularly Glorifying to God.”