Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Preaching and the power of the Spirit (1)

It has been encouraging to see a resurgence of interest in expository preaching in evangelical circles. This interest is one that spans the Anglican / Nonconformist divide. Men are being trained to handle the Word accurately and present the truth with clarity. Attention is given to matters of exegesis, illustration and application. All this is good. But it seems to me that little emphasis is given to the work of the Holy Spirit in relation to preaching. All (I hope) acknowledge that the Spirit works through preaching. But perhaps we need to give greater attention to developing a theology of Word and Spirit in relation to the proclamation of the gospel. I can't promise to do that in this post, but here are some rudimentary thoughts:
In this first post, I will make a couple of general points and then focus on the Biblical teaching on preaching with power.
1) The Spirit is at work in the preacher as a believer
A man should not step into a pulpit unless he has been born again by the Spirit of God. Such a man will be indwelt by the Spirit and is being transformed by his work. The Spirit will have gifted the man to preach and called him to the ministry of the Word. That call will have been recognised by the church. Preaching is an expression of a believer's life in the Spirit.
2) The Spirit has given us the Word
All Scripture has been breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16). The Spirit of Christ was at work in the Old Testament prophets (1 Peter 1:10-12). By the Spirit the New Testament was written and given to the church. Without the Spirit, there would be no Word. When the Bible is read and preached, the Spirit's words are communicated through one human being to other human beings. The Spirit enables believers to understand the Word. The preacher will need the illumination of the Spirit if he is to grasp the message of his text.
3) The Holy Spirit is needed empower the preaching of the Word
It is not enough for a Spirit-indwelt man to speak the Spirit-given word of the gospel. The New Testament insists that preachers need to be filled with the Spirit. The apostles were not to bear witness to Christ until after the Spirit was given at Pentecost. Even after Pentecost, the early church prayed for boldness in speaking the gospel and was filled afresh with the Spirit (Acts 4:29-31). The apostle Peter wrote that,
"To them [the OT prophets] it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into". (1 Peter 1:12).
We find similar words in Paul's writings,
And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
This explains how the message of the cross is the power of God to those who are being saved (1:18). The Spirit makes preaching the dynamic medium by which sinners are brought to new life in Christ.
Paul reflects on his preaching in Thessalonica in these terms,
"For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake". (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
The last quoted verse worth pondering. Paul wrote that his preaching was, "not in word only". Now, as I suggested in the previous point, the word is given by the communicative act of the Spirit. What the word says is what the Spirit speaks (cf Hebrews 10:15ff). Paul knew that. But, in addition to declaring the Spirit-given word, the apostle's preaching was empowered by the Holy Spirit. Those who heard Paul's message were impressed with a consciousness that the living God was there and that he was addressing them personally. In this sense, preaching is a revelatory, salvific event.
Paul's preaching had a very powerful effect on the pagan people of Thessalonica. They, "turned to God from idols to serve the living God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come." (1 Thess 1:10). The reason for this amazing transformation is that they received the word of God which was preached, "not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which works effectively in you who believe." (2:13). As the Second Helvetic Confession (chap. 1) says, "The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God". But how does the word work effectively? By the power of the Spirit.
Kevin Vanhoozer puts this in theodramatic context, drawing on speech-act theory,
"What God ultimately communicates in his crucified Word is the reality of salvation itself: a share in the divine life. And yet, this intended effect - fellowship with God through union with Christ - is not an automatic consequence of God's utterance. Not all communicative acts are received for what they are. So, the Word accomplished something on the cross (makes atonement for sin; declares pardon); this is the illocutionary aspect. Yet it does not really communicate salvation until and unless it is received and appropriated by the hearer [the perlocutionary aspect]. The Spirit's role is to minister Christ, to make what God is saying and doing in the cross effective. " (The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005, p. 66).
Perhaps one of the reasons that so much of our preaching is ineffective today is that we have forgotten that preaching in the New Testament sense, is not in word only, but also in the power of the Spirit. It is not enough to simply deliver an accurately exegeted, doctrinally sound, well structured, interestingly illustrated and thoughtfully applied message. We need the dynamic presence of the Spirit of Christ to transform our preaching into an encounter with the living God. That, I know is the greatest need in my own ministry.

2 comments:

Sam said...

Very important point here. I often feel that people believe simple preaching the Word will 'force' the Spirit to work. I think acknowledgment is needed that that merely verbalizing the Word is not enough; the Spirit must be at work

jncolwell said...

I just discovered this blog. I’ve bookmarked it and plan to come back for more. I'm not done reading the entries about the Spirit’s roll in preaching, but I have to already say that this is a timely article about a pressing need. I know this is written pertaining to the UK, but the need for preachers to be called, sent, filled with the Spirit (not from the Pentecostal view,) and for the Holy Spirit to work with them in the proclamation of the gospel, is a universal necessity. I live in the US and the need here for truly Spirit empowered preaching is at a crisis point. Thank you for sharing these poignant insights.