Theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards is considered by many to be one of history’s greatest theologians. Edwards, who preached one of America’s all-time great sermons, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, played a big part in the Great Awakening that caused thousands of men and women to come to faith in a major revival that swept across much of America and into Europe.
In the seventh chapter of The Supremacy of God in Preaching, John Piper, who himself points to Edwards as his #1 theological influence outside of Scripture, shares ten characteristics of Edwards’ preaching that, he suggests, apply to all who desire to preach well. Here is a short summary of those ten characteristics (edited for length):
Stir up Holy Affections.
“Good preaching aims to stir up ‘holy affections’—things like hate for sin, delight in God, hope in his promises, gratitude for his mercy, desire for his holiness, tender compassion. The reason for this is that the absence of holy affections in Christians is odious…”
Piper quotes Edwards,
“Outward acts of benevolence and piety that do not flow from the new and God-given affections of the heart, which delight to depend on God and seek his glory, are only legalism and have no value in honoring God.”
Enlighten the Mind.
“…affections that do not rise from the mind’s apprehension of truth are not holy affections. For example, he [Edwards] says, ‘That faith, which is without spiritual light, is not the faith of the children of the light and of the day, but the presumption of the children of darkness. And therefore to press and urge them to believe, without any spiritual light or sight, tends greatly to help forward the delusions of the prince of darkness.’”
“…the good preacher will make it his aim to give his hearers ‘good reason’ and ‘just ground’ for the affections he is trying to stir up.”
Saturate with Scripture.
“I say that good preaching is “saturated with Scripture” and not “based on Scripture” because Scripture is more (not less) than the basis for good preaching. Good preaching does not sit on Scripture like a basis and say other things. It oozes Scripture.
Again and again my advice to beginning preachers is, “Quote the text! Quote the text! Say the actual words of the text again and again. Show the people where your ideas are coming from.”…Edwards expended great energy to write out whole passages in his sermon manuscripts that gave support for what he was saying.”
Employ Analogies and Images
“Experience and Scripture teach that the heart is most powerfully touched not when the mind is entertaining abstract ideas, but when it is filled with vivid images of amazing reality. Edwards was, to be sure, a metaphysician and a philosopher of the highest order…he knew that abstractions kindled few affections. And new affections are the goal of preaching…And he sought to compare abstract theological truth to common events and experiences.”
Use threat and warnings.
“Edwards was fully persuaded that hell was real. ‘This doctrine is indeed awful and dreadful, yet ‘tis of God.’…he esteemed the threats of Jesus as the strident tones of love.
- ‘Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matt. 5:22).
- ‘It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell’ (Matt. 5:30).
- ‘Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 10:28).
Edwards could not remain silent where Jesus was so vocal. Hell awaits every unconverted person. Love must warn them with the threats of the Lord.”
Plead for a Response
Edwards said, “Sinners…should be earnestly invited to come and accept of a Savior, and yield their hearts to him, with all the winning, encouraging arguments for them…that the Gospel affords.” … “Almost every sermon has a long section called ‘Application’ where Edwards screws in the implications of his doctrine and presses for a response. He did not give what is known today as an ‘altar call,’ but he did ‘call’ and expostulate and plead for his people to respond to God.”
Probe the Workings of the Heart
“Powerful preaching is like surgery. Under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, it locates, lances, and removes the infection of sin. Sereno Dwight, one of Edwards’s early biographers, said of him, “His knowledge of the human heart, and its operations, has scarcely been equaled by that of any uninspired preacher.””
Yield to the Holy Spirit in Prayer
“…The goal of preaching is utterly dependent on the mercy of God for its fulfillment. Therefore, the preacher must labor to put his preaching under divine influence by prayer. By this means the Holy Spirit assists the preacher. But Edwards didn’t believe the assistance came in the form of words being immediately suggested to the mind. If that’s all the Spirit did, a preacher could be a devil and do his work. No, the Holy Spirit fills the heart with holy affections and the heart fills the mouth.”
Be Broken and Tenderhearted
“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.”
“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…Edwards could no more imagine speaking in a cold or casual or indifferent of flippant manner about the great things of God than he could imagine a father discussing coolly the collapse of a flaming house on his children.”