Last week Mary Ann and I listened to Piper's teaching on George Whitefield. Whitefield was an amazing 18th century evangelist/preacher, and a contemporary of Jonathan Edwards and the Wesleys. John Piper's teaching is over an hour long, and the written copy has almost 90 footnotes, so clearly I can't talk about a fraction of it here. But there was one part of it that really spoke to me above the others and I will try to capture it.
In the teaching Piper addressed the accusations that Whitefield was just an actor on stage—an accusation made because of his drama and energy and oratory. According to Piper, a fellow by the name of James Lockington was present at a sermon which Whitefield gave and he recorded the following words by Whitefield:
“I’ll tell you a story. The Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 1675 was acquainted with Mr. Butterton the [actor]. One day the Archbishop . . . said to Butterton . . . ‘pray inform me Mr. Butterton, what is the reason you actors on stage can affect your congregations with speaking of things imaginary, as if they were real, while we in church speak of things real, which our congregations only receive as if they were imaginary?’ ‘Why my Lord,’ says Butterton, ‘the reason is very plain. We actors on stage speak of things imaginary, as if they were real and you in the pulpit speak of things real as if they were imaginary.’”After quoting this John Piper then writes:
“Therefore,” added Whitefield, ‘I will bawl [shout loudly], I will not be a velvet-mouthed preacher.”This really spoke to my heart, probably because I often ask myself, "Erick, do you really, deeply believe what you say, because if you do your life should look a lot differently." These words of Piper and Whitefield pierce my heart the way the words of a song do which I listen to now and then which says, "I don't want to talk about You [God] like You're not in the room."
This means that there are three ways to speak. First, you can speak of an unreal, imaginary world as if it were real—that is what actors do in a play. Second, you can speak about a real world as if it were unreal—that is what half-hearted pastors do when they preach about glorious things in a way that says they are not as terrifying and wonderful as they are. And third is: You can speak about a real spiritual world as if it were wonderfully, terrifyingly, magnificently real (because it is).
If Piper's assessment of Whitefield's heart is accurate, Whitefield did not need to drum up passion or drama—he simply expressed what burned in his soul at the level it burned in his soul. To Whitefield the reality of heaven and hell and judgment and the return of Christ and the blood of Jesus and the love and power of God were so real, so tangible, so present that he did not need to fake anything, but simply to speak truth with the passion he felt for it.
I wonder, beginning with me, where are those who are so aware of the presence of God, of the spiritual war we are in that wages around us, of the casualties of war and of the victory of Jesus' blood, of heaven and of hell, that their speaking of it, and of Him, burns with the passion of that truth at the level it deserves? After all, no one would have to fake drama or passion if they were screaming about an oncoming truck about to hit an unaware pedestrian, nor would one need to fake emotion or passion talking about someone who jumped on a grenade to save their life—the reality of those truths would naturally evoke passion when spoken of.
I long for God's Word, and God's truth, and God's love, and God's presence, and eternity, and spiritual war, and the awe and holiness of God, and the hatred of sin (not sinners), to be so real to me that I would naturally talk about them (and act on them) with a passion so deep, and a present awareness so real, that others would have to question if I was acting because only burning passion, or stage drama, could explain my body's words and cry.
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You can get to the Whitefield teaching by clicking here.