Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Preaching and the power of the Spirit (2)

In the first post on this subject (the series will be linked through the Word and Spirit label below), I sought to set out a Biblical framework for understanding the relationship between preaching and the power of the Spirit. Now, my intention is to look at this matter from an historical point of view. Of course, the Biblical teaching is what matters most, but it may be helpful to reflect on how past generations have viewed these things. Sometimes we may be reluctant to receive what the Bible says because we have been over-influenced by contemporary issues and concerns. For some, the idea that preachers need to be filled with the Spirit as set out in Acts and the New Testament Epistles is suggestive of Charismatic thinking. This perhaps leads them to so emphasise the value and importance of the Word that the Spirit's role in preaching is downplayed. If we look at what pre-Charismatic movement Reformed writers had to say about preaching in the Spirit, we may be given a different perspective on the New Testament's teaching.
Last year I listened to an Australian evangelical Anglican speak on the power of God's Word. He had many excellent things to say about the subject, concluding with Luther's comment on the Reformation, "The Word of God did it." In the Q&A session that followed his address, I asked him to comment on the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching. The speaker didn't really know how to respond. He spoke in general terms of the need to rely upon God in all things, including preaching, but that was about it. Earlier Reformed writers had quite a bit to say on this subject.
Calvin had a balanced view of the relationship between Word and Spirit in gospel proclamation, saying that preaching is 'dead and powerless, if the Lord does not make it efficacious by his Spirit'. (From Pentecost Today, by Iain Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, p. 81). William Perkins, the early English Puritan also reflected on this,
'The demonstration of the Spirit is, when as the minister of the word both in time of preaching so behave himself that all, even ignorant persons and unbelievers, may judge that it is not so much he that speaketh, as the Spirit of God in him and by him...This makes the ministry lively and powerful.' (PT p. 82)
John Owen, the great seventeenth century Puritan divine believed that revival in the church is invariably linked to Spirit empowered preaching.
'When God shall be pleased to give unto the people who are called by his name, in a more abundant manner, 'pastors after his own heart, to feed them with knowledge and understanding'; when he shall revive and increase a holy, humble, zealous, self-denying, powerful ministry, by a more plentiful effusion of the Spirit from above; then, and not until then, may we hope to see the pristine glory and beauty of our religion restored to its primitive state and condition.' (PT p. 84)
In his An Earnest Ministry, The Want of the Times, John Angell James (1785-1859) gave a chapter to the work of the Spirit in preaching.
'Without the truth, there is nothing to engage the attention and employ the intellect of man as a rational being; without the Spirit there is no right disposition of the heart, when the truth is presented...Consequently, however earnest the preacher's manner, and however scriptural his matter, no saving result will follow, unless the Spirit gives his blessing.' (1993 Banner of Truth Trust reprint, p. 285).
He went on to write that,
'The ministry of reconciliation is the ministry of the Spirit.' This should make us expectant that the Spirit will own and use our preaching, 'This idea, that we are under the Spirit's economy, should enlarge our expectation of rich communications of this invaluable and essential blessing.' (p. 287).
Charles Haddon Spurgeon regularly preached to thousands at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in Victorian London. But he did not trust in his oratorical gifts, or even in his prepared sermon as he ascended the great pulpit to preach the Word of God. As he climbed the pulpit steps, he could be heard saying, "I believe in the Holy Ghost". That was more than a creedal confession for Spurgeon. He knew that he could not preach the gospel effectively unless he was endued with the power of the Spirit. Spurgeon devoted a talk to this subject in one of his Lectures to my Students Second Series (Passmore and Alabaster, 1881). In The Holy Spirit in connection with our Ministry, he drew attention to the words of the creed I have just quoted,
'Having pronounced that sentence as a matter of creed, I hope we can also repeat is as a devout soliloquy forced to our lips by experience. To us the presence and work of the Holy Spirit are the ground of our confidence as to the wisdom and hopefulness of our life work. If we had not believed in the Holy Ghost we should have lain down our ministry long ere this, for "who is sufficient for these things?" Our hope of success, and our strength for continuing the service lie in our belief that the Spirit of the Lord resteth upon us.' (p. 2).
That preachers should seek the power of the Spirit in the proclamation of the gospel, is not the rather idiosyncratic teaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones (here). As I tried to show in the first post in this series, the New Testament teaches that the empowering work Spirit is indispensable for bold, passionate, effective preaching. This emphasis on the Spirit's work in preaching was recognised and embraced by earlier generations of Reformed writers. We should not allow Charismatic excesses to blind us to the need for preachers to be filled with the Spirit as they declare the Word of God. Of course, the Spirit may use a preacher who does not agree with the view that I am arguing for. He is sovereign and gracious. But neglect of the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching may have the effect on turning preaching into little more than a well-delivered exposition of the Bible rather than an event where God himself is encountered by his Word.

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