Tag Archives: John Piper

Listening As If For the Last Time

In his book Expository Exultation, John Piper describes how he prays right before preaching.  As an elder is reading the text for the sermon, Piper pleads with God for strength and effectiveness in the pulpit.  He understands the significance of what he’s about to do and so he begs God for help.  I can relate to that.

I’ve been preaching now for over 20 years.  In earlier times, I’d usually pray beforehand, but back then it was mostly because of nervousness and fear.  My first time on a pulpit in a Canadian Reformed Church was in my home congregation in Edmonton.  At that time (1999), it was the largest Canadian Reformed Church – over 600 members.  I was petrified.  What if I said something wrong?  What if I messed up the order of worship?  I had everything I had to say written down, just in case.  And I prayed and prayed.

As time went on, I became more comfortable with preaching and leading worship.  Only then did the momentous significance of what I was doing on the pulpit begin to really grip me.  It was a process.  Somewhere along the way I read the words of Richard Baxter, “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  Along the way, I experienced more than once that a person heard me preach on one Sunday and then, by the next, they were no longer there.  God had called them out of this life.

The event that most impacted me was how God called home a United Reformed colleague, Rev. Eric Fennema.  I didn’t know him personally.  But I heard about him from a close friend who did.  One Sunday he was preaching as a guest minister in the URC in Lynden, Washington.  He preached a powerful, amazing sermon on the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).  You can still listen to it here.  He exhorted the congregation to always be ready to meet the Lord.  If you were to make one sermon your last, you would want it to be that one.  It was his last.  Late the following week he was playing golf and had a heart attack.  He never preached again.

Thus I gradually learned the urgency of preaching.  Preaching is life and death.  I now approach each sermon with two thoughts in mind.  First, what if this is the last sermon I ever preach?  Second, what if this is the last sermon someone in the pews will ever hear?  Those thoughts drive me to make sure I preach the gospel each time.  They also drive me to prayer far more than my early nervousness ever did.

Late last year and early this year, I enjoyed a sabbatical of several months.  I love preaching, but having that burden of urgency off my shoulders was refreshing.  I was blessed to have my old pastor, Rev. Richard Aasman, on the pulpit for a good portion of my sabbatical.  I could just sit and listen – and ponder.  I then learned there’s a flip-side to the urgency of preaching.

Listening to the preaching of God’s Word is also a matter of momentous significance.  If you knew that this was the last sermon you would ever hear preached, how would you listen differently?  But you don’t know.  It could be your last sermon – and that’s how you ought to approach it.  You should approach it prayerfully.  Ask God to help you treat it as the life-and-death proclamation of his Word to you.  Ask for the Holy Spirit to help you listen as if your life depends on it.

Eric Fennema’s passage from Matthew 25 certainly warns us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v.13).  You don’t know when the Bridegroom will appear with the clouds of heaven, but you also don’t know when he will call you to himself.  Therefore, you need to be watchful.  Part of being watchful is giving heed to his every word to you.  Urgently hang on his words as he speaks to you through preaching.  As our Lord says in another place, “Pay attention to what you hear…” (Mark 4:24).

To drive home the urgency of listening to God’s Word preached, we could rephrase Baxter’s dictum:

I listened as if never sure to listen again, and as a dying man listening to a dying man.”

It’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later!


Piper: Can the Divine Author Say More than the Human Author?

One of the topics John Piper discusses in Reading the Bible Supernaturally is meaning.  He stresses how important it is to reach for the intended meaning of any given Bible passage.  Specifically, what did the human author intend to say?  Of course, Piper insists that God speaks through these human authors and their words in Scripture.  But that raises the question:  does it ever happen in Scripture that there is more to a human author’s words than he might have been aware of when he wrote them?  Listen to Piper:

So, can the human author intend things of which he is not conscious at the moment?  The answer is yes.  I know this sounds contradictory, since I have defined meaning as what the author intends to communicate.  And now I am saying he can intend something he is not conscious of.  What does that mean?

It really is not that strange.  You do this every time you use the little abbreviation etc.  Or when you say, “and so forth.”  Suppose you say, “Any green vegetable that you can buy at the grocery store is good for you, including lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, etc.”  At that moment, those are the only green vegetables that come to your mind.  You are not conscious of any others at the moment you speak.  But the term etc. is designed to carry your intention beyond what you are conscious of.

Etc., in your sentence, can’t mean just anything.  You have given it boundaries.  You said, “Any green vegetable,” and you said, “that you can buy at the grocery store.”  These two traits limit the meaning of etc.  So if someone said, “Do you mean — that is, do you intend — to include asparagus?” you would say, “Yes.”  You meant asparagus even though you were not conscious of asparagus.  Another way of saying this is to point out that necessary implications of our conscious meaning are included in our meaning, even if we are not conscious of all of them.  (pp.318-319)

Piper follows this up with examples.  The first is the prophecy of Caiaphas in John 11:49-52.  Piper writes:

Caiaphas’s immediate intention was to communicate that it would be better that Jesus be killed than that the Jewish nation be wiped out by the Romans.  God communicated to John that God had a different intention with the same words, namely, that Christ’s death would indeed, by a substitution, save his people, but that salvation would be greater, both in depth and scope. (p.320)

The other example is from Col. 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Notes Piper:

God sees every single one of the billions of acts included in “everything” and intends for us to do each of them in the name of Jesus.  Paul, however, cannot see the specific implications of the word everything for every Christian who ever lives.  Therefore, God, in this sense, always intends a fuller, more specific, meaning than the human authors.  (p.321)

Well-said!

Reading the Bible Supernaturally is available for free on-line here.


Piper: No Desire to Read the Bible?

I’ve learned a lot from this book so far, as I usually do from John Piper.  This excerpt here is the best part I’ve read so far.  It touches on something I’ve experienced and I imagine you have too.  He’s discussing the prayer of the psalmist in Psalm 119:36, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.”

Over the years in my pastoral ministry, many people have complained to me that they do not have motivation to read the Bible.  They have a sense of duty that they should, but the desire is not there.  It is remarkable how many of those people feel that the absence of the desire is the last nail in the coffin of joyful meditation on God’s word.

When I ask them to describe to me what they are doing about it, they look at me as if I had misunderstood the problem.  What can you do about the absence of desire, they wonder.  “It’s not a matter of doing.  It’s a matter of feeling,” they protest.  The problem with this response is that these folks have not just lost desire for God’s word, but they have lost sight of the sovereign power of God, who gives that desire.  They are acting like practical atheists.  They have adopted a kind of fatalism that ignores the way the psalmist prays.

Evidently, the psalmist too felt this terrible tendency to drift away from the word of God.  Evidently, he too knew the cooling of desire and the tendency of his heart to incline more to other things — especially money.  Otherwise why would he have cried out, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.“?  He is pleading with God to give him desire for the word.  He knows that ultimately God is sovereign over the desires of the heart.  So he calls on God to cause what he cannot make happen on his own.  This is the answer to fatalism.  This is the answer to acting like an atheist — as if there were no God who rules the heart, and can restore what we have lost.  (p.255)

A little further on, Piper speaks about how to go about this:

Don’t wait until you have lost the desire before you start praying for this desire.  If the desire is present, give thanks and ask him to preserve it and intensify it.  If you sense that it is cooling, plead that he would kindle it.  And if it is gone, and you do not feel any desire to pray, do what you can.  Repent.  Tell him you are sorry that your desire for his word is dead.  Tell him just how you feel.  He knows already.  And ask him — this is possible without hypocrisy because of the “imperishable seed” (1 Pet. 1:23) that remains in his children — ask him to give you the desire that right now you can barely even muster the will to ask for.  He is merciful.  (p.256)

By the way, you can download this book for free right here.


Book Review: Strange Fire

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Strange Fire:  The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship, John MacArthur.  Nashville:  Nelson Books, 2013.  Hardcover, 352 pages, $22.99 USD.

Although this is a great read, I hummed and hawed about writing a review.  After all, I reasoned, I don’t know too many people who would be susceptible to the types of errors exposed in this book.  I thought that most of the people I know, inside my church and elsewhere, are discerning enough to realize that the teachings exposed in this book are gospel-denying and soul-threatening.  But some friends demurred.  Some friends insisted that I write this review because they know people who are being lured by these sorts of teachings.  Moreover, it could very well be that I’m over-estimating the level of discernment around me.

What sorts of false teachings are being addressed in this book?  The basic thrust of Strange Fire is to address the error known as continuationism.  Reformed believers are cessationists – this means that we believe that the apostolic gifts (including speaking in tongues) ceased at the end or shortly after the end of the apostolic era.  Continuationism, on the other hand, maintains that these gifts continue.  We should expect to see miracles, including healings and speaking in tongues in our present day.  This is the view held by Pentecostals and charismatics – as well as by a few others.  A false teaching that often goes hand in hand with this is the so-called Prosperity Gospel.  This is the teaching that the good news is that Jesus wants to bless you with health and wealth.  Popular proponents of these false teachings include Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and Joyce Meyer. This book deftly exposes these teachings as false and does so with the Word of God.

John MacArthur is a well-known preacher and writer.  He has been the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California since 1969.  This is not his first book on the topic.  Back in the early 1990s, he wrote Charismatic Chaos.  Unfortunately, since then, the popularity of these teachings has grown significantly.  In the early 1990s, these views were widely considered to be on the fringe of American Christianity.  This was not only because of the positions taken on spiritual gifts, but also because of other doctrinal issues, especially unorthodox views of the Trinity.  In the early 1990s, you could not typically find books by men like Creflo Dollar or T. D. Jakes in your average vanilla Christian bookstore.  Today, they’re everywhere and nobody seems to care.  That does make Strange Fire an even more important book for our day.

The basic argument of the book is simple:  continuationism is an assault on the sufficiency of the Word of God.  MacArthur doesn’t just say it, he shows it.  He gives numerous examples of how continuationists are turning people away from the Scriptures as the only authoritative source of divine revelation.  He explains how the Bible itself speaks of its own sufficiency.  Not only should we not expect charismatic gifts, we do not need them, because the Holy Spirit has given us something far better:  the written Word of God.

As he prosecutes his case, MacArthur helpfully deals with a number of side issues.  What about using spiritual gifts just for your own spiritual edification?  He tackles that in chapter 4.  What about the popular book by Sarah Young, Jesus Calling?  She says that she received these devotional messages straight from Jesus.  She wanted more than the Bible and “Jesus” gave it to her.  MacArthur deals with Young in chapter 6.  And then what about some of the “New Calvinists” who hold to continuationist views?  There are men like Mark Driscoll, D. A. Carson, and John Piper who fall into that category.  MacArthur respectfully addresses them in chapter 12, “An Open Letter to My Continuationist Friends.”

I appreciated this book especially because of the author’s commitment to a high view of Scripture.  I applaud his boldness in applying Scripture to this contentious issue and also, most importantly, showing us how the gospel is at stake with this.  He has been attacked and maligned for his stand, but from a Reformed point of view, we can do nothing but encourage him to continue standing fast on this issue.  Yes, MacArthur has his own theological blind-spots.  I wish he were Reformed in his views of baptism and eschatology, for instance.  However, I didn’t detect any of those blind-spots in this book.  So, until some more consistent and confessionally Reformed author comes with something better, this is the book that I will be recommending to everyone on this issue.