In Part 1 of this series, I focused on the biblical teaching on the relationship between preaching and the power of the Spirit. We looked at the subject from an historical point of view in Part 2. Now, in this concluding post I would like to reflect on some of the practicalities. I am not suggesting in any way that I am an expert in these things. One of the reasons for doing this series was to help to clarify my thinking on this matter and to sharpen my desire an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon my own ministry.
1) Preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit does not mean preaching without preparation
During times of revival it has sometimes been the case that men have been able to preach very powerfully with little or no sermon preparation. When the revival period has ebbed away, some of these men foolishly continued to preach in this way with disastrous effects for their ministries and their people. We must not make the exceptional the rule. If we would preach in the power of the Spirit, we must prepare our messages diligently. The Spirit will honour his Truth. Our sermons therefore must be as exegetically accurate as possible. The preacher's calling is to "rightly divide the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15 ). It is the "entrance of God's word that gives light (Psalm 119:130 ). Preachers need to give attention to exegesis, doctrinal matters, sermon structure, illustration and application. I do not think that it is wise to lay down rigid rules on sermon construction or to dictate how long it should take to prepare a sermon. But we need to put in the hard work of developing a message. This holds true whether we adopt an extemporary style of preaching, or we use notes to a greater or lesser extent. We cannot expect the Holy Spirit to make good our lack of preparation. But if we rely upon him in the study, we may look for his help us in the pulpit.
Our general reading and study are related to this point. Yes, we must consult the commentaries for our sermon preparation, but beyond that, preachers must be readers. We should read works of theology and doctrine to deepen our understanding of God's word. Books about church history and biography can serve to inspire and warn us. We should try to be aware of some of the major contemporary doctrinal controversies. Our people may be affected by certain errors and we need to be able to help them. But we should not read "professionally" because it is our job to be informed. The preacher should read passionately as one who hungers for a better, deeper and wider grasp of the truth. We need to be able to read people too and have some understanding the contemporary situation so that we can apply God's word effectively to our congregations. Those who have known most of preaching with great power have often been voracious readers. Think of Paul, Luther, Calvin, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
2) Preaching in the power of the Spirit and the life of the preacher
The preacher is above all else a Christian. We are called to live in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and produce the fruit of the Spirit (22 & 23). Sin grieves the Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) and lack of spiritual sensitivity quenches his work (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Robert Murray M'Cheyne famously said, "A holy minister is a terrible weapon in the hands of God". This does not mean that preachers have to be perfect. We are sinners saved by grace. But it does mean that we are to be men of God, who seek to live for the glory of Christ. If we would know the power of the Spirit upon our ministries, then we must be godly men. All preachers are not equally gifted, but gifts without godliness are useless. This is what John Owen had to say,
"Preaching in the demonstration of the Spirit, which men so much quarrel about, is nothing less than the evidence in preaching of of unction... No man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart; for unless he finds the power of it in his own heart, he cannot have confidence that it will have power in the hearts of others. It is an easier thing to bring our heads to preach than our hearts to preach. To bring our hearts to preach is to be transformed into the power of these truths: or to find the power of them, both before, in fashioning our minds and hearts, and in delivering them, that we may have benefit; and to be acted with zeal for God and compassion for the souls of men. A man may preach every day in the week and not have his heart engaged once. (Works of John Owen Volume 9, p. 455, cited in Pentecost Today? by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 1988, p. 82.)
May the Lord help us to preach his Word from our hearts. We need to be like Bunyan who said, "I preached what I smartingly did feel."
3) Preaching in the power of the Spirit and prayer
Jesus taught that Christians should pray expectantly to the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13). Preachers are especially in need of the Spirit's work in their ministries. In the first post in this series, we looked at what Paul had to say about preaching in the power of the Spirit in his own ministry. The apostle did not regard this as being in any way automatic. He constantly urged the churches to pray for him,
"praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints— and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak". (Ephesians 6:18-20).
In Acts 4:29-31, it was through the Holy Spirit filling the church that they spoke the word of God with boldness. Paul said about his preaching Thessalonica, that it was not "in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance". (1 Thessalonians 1:5). In his second letter to the church, he asks for this prayer,
"Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you" (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
Both preachers and people need to pray urgently that the Spirit will empower the proclamation of the gospel.
4) The power of the Spirit in the act of preaching
On this point, I can do little better than to quote the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones,
"How do we recognise this when it happens? Let me try to answer. The first indication is in the preacher's own consciousness. 'Our gospel came not unto you in word only' says Paul, 'but in power and the Holy Ghost, and much assurance'. Who knew the assurance? Paul himself. He knew something was happening, he was aware of it. You cannot be filled with the Spirit without knowing it. He had 'much assurance'. He knew he was clothed with power and authority. How does one know it? It gives clarity of thought, clarity of speech, ease of utterance, a great sense of authority and confidence as you are preaching, an awareness of a power not your own thrilling through the whole of your being, and an indescribable sense of joy. You are a man 'possessed', you are taken hold of and taken up. I put it like this - and I know of nothing on earth that is comparable to this feeling - that when this happens you have a feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on. You are looking at yourself in amazement as this is happening . It is not your effort; you are just the instrument, the channel, the vehicle: and the Spirit is using you, and you are looking on in great enjoyment and astonishment. There is nothing that is in any way comparable to this. This is what the preacher himself is aware of".
From Preaching and Preachers p. 324, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.
From Preaching and Preachers p. 324, Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.
May the Lord help us to know more and more what it is to preach in the power of the Spirit.