I recently revisited a sermon by John Piper, titled, 'How to give the Bible functional authority in your speech and writing'. As you would expect, Piper didn't spend a lot of time trying to come up with a pithy sermon title—and spends a reasonable amount of time defining some specific terms used in both the title of the sermon, as well as some of his opening remarks.
The reason I'm drawing your attention to this sermon is due to the fact that I've now watched it three times, under three differing circumstances, with the net result of experiencing some significant wrestlings with its application in not only my own life, but ministry in general. I see no point in breaking down Piper's full sermon structure here, as you really should just follow the link, spend the 37 minutes and take your own notes. However, I do want to share what struck me most about his points. As I followed this sermon through on numerous occasions, each time feeling the growing weight of the Spirit's promptings, it occurred to me that Piper was giving voice to many of my dreams and aspirations as a Preacher of God's word.
I've divided Piper's five exhortations into rough areas; 1) The Preacher's Effort, 2) The Preacher's Position 3) The Preacher's Goal.
The first of Piper's exhortations is Depth. In it, he implores the preacher (or writer) to do the hard work in moving below the surface and dig deeper into the unifying root of what seems, at least at a superficial glance, to be passages that are at odds with each other.
God has pressed onto my heart a burning desire to go deeper; though often, my definition of deep seems awfully shallow! So many obstacles have been erected, most by me, that have proven to be effective barriers against this worthy effort.
"Oh God of the depths, forgive my shallow thinking, my shallow living, my shallow speaking. Open my eyes to see the self erected barricades hemming in the rich treasures of your Word. Give me courage to dive deep, to go further, to stay under longer. Strengthen my feeble heart to bear the holiness of the richness of your wisdom as I seek to carry this great treasure in a vessel of earth and clay."
From Depth, Piper moves onto Precision. His rationale is that if you've done the hard work in the text, you must then articulate what you have found with a commensurate amount of precision. The Word of God deserves it. Your listeners deserve it.
I have always had a keen interest in language and how it should be used, though I must admit, it has often shown itself in petty arenas that hold no eternal significance. Yet if a cause should have men and women who carefully, and precisely, articulate their thoughts, should it not be the infinitely worthy cause of Christ?
"Oh God of precision and clarity, forgive my empty words; words that should speak life, yet often drain confidence in your Word. Loose my tongue. Enlarge my ability to choose words that act as vehicles for your grace and truth. Let my words turn the treasure of your word in the light of your glory so that your sanctifying power will reflect into the hearts of all who hear."
The Preacher's Position
After exhorting preachers and writer to go deep into the word and then speak with precision, Piper reflects on the effect that has on how a congregation (or reader) views the speaker. As depth and precision rise, Piper says authority follows.
I found this point confronting. I feel a tension exists between the intrinsic, inherent authority of the Word itself, and the secondary authority that the speaker carries. This secondary authority does not reside within the speaker, but is imbued to him by the authority of the Word. It's not that I feel these two forms of authority are at odds with each other, instead, the tension I experience is within myself. Every preacher of the Word should periodically test himself in this area; "Do I crave the respect of others in a way that usurps the authority of the Word, so that the messenger exceeds the message?", is a question we must regularly ask ourselves.
Piper gets around this by defining this secondary type of authority as 'giving the Word functional authority'. I found his definition helpful, and in fact, as he precisely defined how he used such a phrase, I found it eased my internal struggle around this issue. Although I pray I will never draw attention away from the intrinsic authority of God's Word, I do want to speak with authority as a preacher of the Word. I want to help people develop a deep confidence in the Word of God, and the way I do that, is to speak as one who has done the deep work of investigation and spoken with precise clarity.
"Oh God of sovereign authority, forgive my arrogance and pride in the times when I have sought to gain a following through my speech. Humble my proud spirit and break me. Let me be a weak vessel that your strength holds together. Let the authority of your Word carry the authority of my message. In my speech, arouse the confidence of my hearers in you and you alone."
When people develop a confidence in the preaching of God's Word—functionally authoritative preaching that is the result of deep work in the text and precise speech that arises out of the text—the result is, faith grows. I can think of no greater goal of any preacher than the growing faith of his hearers. If the faith of our hearers is not our goal, then what should it be? I can think of only one other goal, but that's our next point.
"Oh God, the giver of faith, forgive me when my preaching has been about any lesser cause than that of the faith building of my hearers. Let those that hear your Word thrive in the garden of your grace, reaching up to the light of your Son, watered by the Word of Life; may my words give cause for their roots to drive down deep into the foundation of your truth."
When we go deep. When we speak with precision. When the Word is spoken with authority. Faith grows, and God is glorified.
Of course, God is always glorious. In a similar way to which we give the intrinsic authority of the Word functional authority in our preaching, God's glory is intrinsic to Himself, however, we may demonstrate (or indeed, tarnish) His Glory in the world. To continue the analogy, we can give functional glory to God.
"Oh God of glory, forgive me for glorifying myself instead of displaying your awe-inspiring, devastating glory. Let your glory shine in the life of your church. Cause the eyes of this world to see your glory reflected in the face of Jesus Christ and bow their knee to your authority and power. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen."
If you are called to take the pulpit, or the pen, then let your effort have depth and precision, articulate truth with authority, and aim for the growing faith of others so that Christ may receive the glory due his name.