Some authors firehose you with so many multiple ideas that you eventually say, “Enough!”

Others take just one thought and turn it around and around and around with such skill that they leave you crying, “Encore!”

John Piper does the latter in his short new book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, which looks at the sometimes perplexing question of if and how we should use eloquence to advance the Gospel.

It’s a question that’s long exercised me because, as Piper points out, the Apostle Paul seems to put oratorical gifts in the “worldly” category (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:17; 2:1). Yet, as Piper also proves, all the Apostles, the Prophets, and even Jesus himself, used various verbal and literary techniques in their Gospel communication.

I suppose I’m extra suspicious because some years ago I was greatly blessed through an incredibly eloquent and popular preacher who I later found out had been living a double, even triple, life. Ergo, any effort to be fancy or clever with words must be wrong.

So, how do we reconcile this seeming contradiciton?

Sovereign Grace
Piper does a superb job of explaining that the Bible does not warn against all eloquence or oratory, but only certain kinds, the kind that uses eloquence as an end rather than a means, and the kind that uses eloquence to promote the speaker rather than the Gospel. He then goes on to argue from the Bible and from three talented Christian wordsmiths – George Herbert, George Whitefield, and C.S. Lewis – that we should pour huge effort into developing our word skills for the sake of the Gospel.

Part of Piper’s argument is that only by working hard to describe the beauty of the Gospel will we actually see it. It’s a kind of virtuous circle; the more we strive for beauty in proclaiming the beauty of Christ the more beauty we and others will see in Him. Saying beautifully will help us savor and see beauty.

Don’t for a moment think that Piper is advocating mere acting, or depending upon human talent for sinners to be saved. No, throughout, Piper is at pains to underline the Calvinist doctrine of sovereign and monergistic grace. God is the decisive cause, and yet He uses our poetic effort.

Poetic effort? You mean, I’ve got to write poems?

Do not fear, fellow word-schleppers. When Piper talks about poetic effort, he’s calling us to be more poetic in our proclamation – to learn how to use words better for the glory of God and the good of sinners. We must exert ourselves, with God’s help, “to find striking, penetrating, imaginative, and awakening ways of expressing the excellencies” of Christ.

And this isn’t just for preachers, it’s for anyone who’s interested in improving their witness through words – spoken or written.

I’ve always been a bit uncertain about this whole question. I work really hard to be clear, simple, and passionate in my preaching. I strive for appropriate illustrations, quotes, and anecdotes to support my points. I pour a lot of time into memorable sermon points and themes.

But then I wonder: “Am I trying to do God’s work for Him? Am I depending on myself rather than Him?” Maybe I should follow the example of a preacher friend of mine in Scotland who tried to be as boring as possible so that when people believed, everyone would know it wasn’t him but God!

It does seem though that God especially uses men who have great natural gifts in speaking and others who have worked really hard to develop their gifts. It appears that God does bless literary and speaking gifts for the advance of His grace.

Clouds Clearing
Piper has totally cleared away my hesitation on this, mainly thought the superb introductory chapter examining the Corinthian passages that seem to condemn “wisdom of words.” I’m now totally convinced that if I do it for the right ends and in the right way, I can safely and helpfully work on becoming a more skillful verbal artist and expect God to bless that effort for His glory, the good of sinners, and the edification of my own soul.

The most common comment I get after sermons is, “That was very clear.” Which is fine; that’s one of my main aims.” But having read this book, I hope to hear more of, “That was very beautiful.” No, I hope to hear, “HE is very beautiful!”

  • Les

    It’s a great disservice to the Gospel for anyone to preach a boring or poorly prepared sermon. I knew a neuroscientist who could take an arcane subject, the role of astrocytes in premature puberty, and make it sound absolutely fascinating to a lay audience and those folks walked away with a pretty good understanding of the material. I don’t understand why pastors won’t put the same amount of love, craftsmanship and study/preparation into their sermons as an agnostic scientist puts into his lectures. There are always people in the congregation who can tell when a sermon is thrown together.

    John Bunyan’s prose is probably the finest I’ve ever read. He’s at his best in A Saints Knowledge of Christ’s Love and in Advice to Sufferers. Please take time to read these two books. There are passages on Christ’s love in Saint’s Knowledge that make me hunger to know what he writes of. The prose makes Jesus’s love mouth wateringly good for a hungry soul!

    Bunyan also describes pride in self righteousness as nothing more than a man “wearing a menstrual cloth” over his head. This is quite shocking but very much to the point.

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