Monday, November 10, 2008

The Spirit and the Word in preaching

This article was originally published in the July edition of Evangelical Times.
In the last few decades there has been a welcome recovery of expository preaching in the UK. In both the Free Churches and the Church of England, men are being trained to teach the Bible. It is right that preachers should give attention to accurate exegesis, biblical doctrine, sermon structure, the use of illustrations and telling application. But the role of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the gospel is sometimes neglected. This can turn preaching into little more than a well-delivered exposition rather than an event in which the God of gospel grace is encountered in his Word.
I once went to hear an address on ‘The power of God’s Word’. The speaker said many helpful things about God’s Word, both written and preached, encouraging us to have confidence in the power of Scripture. But he neglected to say anything about the role of the Spirit in preaching and I raised this in the question session. He replied that in preaching we must rely upon the God who upholds all things, but still had nothing specific to say about the Holy Spirit. Sadly, in some circles, any talk of seeking the Spirit’s empowering is dismissed as worryingly Charismatic. These friends suggest that the Spirit is so wedded to the Word that the Word invariably comes with power.1 But is this necessarily so?

The Word has power

The Second Helvetic Confession admirably sums up the Reformed view of preaching thus: ‘The preaching of the word of God is the word of God’ (chapter 1). We cannot emphasise enough the authority of God’s written Word. The business of preaching is to proclaim no other Word than the biblical gospel. But we live in a visual society where words are often discounted — which creates a problem for preachers, for words are our stock in trade! But words are never ‘just words’. They always do something — they are ‘speech acts’. In the Bible we have God’s Word in words. Scripture is composed of basic units of speech — words and sentences. Now, words are very powerful things. When a Minister says to a couple, ‘I now declare you husband and wife’ it is then that they are married. In everyday life, we accomplish things by speaking words — whether we ask someone to pass the salt cellar or book a holiday.
In Scripture we have God’s ‘speech acts’. By words he makes promises, utters warnings, and enters into a covenant relationship with his people. Scripture is not simply a record of God’s words — it is the communicative action of the triune God. But it is one thing for God to do things with his words, like make promises. But what guarantees that God’s words will produce results? He may make a promise, but we still have to trust in that promise!

The Spirit enables our response

It is here that the work of the Holy Spirit comes into its own. He enables people to respond appropriately to God’s communicative action in Scripture.2 That is why the Bible emphasises the importance of the work of the Spirit in relation to preaching. Paul testifies: ‘our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance ...’ (1 Thessalonians 1:5; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Yes, Paul’s message came in word. But it was the Spirit who enabled the apostle to preach with power and full conviction. That was the reason why many in Thessalonica turned from their idols to the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). Certainly, ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God’ — but our preaching will only be received as such by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. ‘For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe’ (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

The Spirit’s presence in preaching

On the Day of Pentecost, the risen Christ poured out his Spirit upon the church. God’s people were filled with the Holy Spirit to enable them to bear witness to the gospel (Acts 1:8; 2:1-4). Empowered by the Spirit, Peter preached and 3,000 people were converted, baptised and added to the church. Pentecost inaugurated a new era of the Spirit. As such it was an unrepeatable event. But there was still need of further fillings to empower gospel preaching (see Acts 4:8, 31). Art Azurdia comments:
'While it must be affirmed that all Christians are indwelt by the Spirit permanently, and all believers will experience the effects of the Spirit’s presence in their lives ... there is another work of the Spirit directly related to the proclamation of the word of God, a unique filling of the Spirit which amounts to an access of power. This is a spontaneous work of God attending the declaration of his word which is given sovereignly and selectively’.3
The Holy Spirit gives preachers clarity of thought, boldness of speech and heaven-sent authority. The Jewish Sanhedrin witnessed ‘the boldness of Peter and John’ (Acts 4:13). The Jerusalem church prayed, ‘Now, Lord ... grant to your servants that with all boldness they may preach your word’ (Acts 4:29). Their prayers were answered — ‘they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’ (Acts 4:31). Paul asked for prayer that, ‘I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel’ (Ephesians 6:19).

The effectiveness of preaching

The Holy Spirit not only emboldens preachers, he gives preaching its saving effectiveness. The Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16:8). He brings the sinner to new birth as the gospel is proclaimed (John 3:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25). Christians too need to sit under Spirit empowered preaching. God transforms us by his Word. The Spirit enables believers to trust God’s promises and obey his commands. Above all else, God himself is revealed when Jesus Christ is preached in the power of the Spirit. Howell Harris said of the Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered preaching of Daniel Rowland: ‘a spiritual eye must see and acknowledge that God is there’.4
Our spiritual forebears recognised this. John Calvin said that preaching is ‘dead and powerless if the Lord does not make it efficacious by his Spirit’.5 William Perkins, the early English Puritan, taught:
‘The demonstration of the Spirit is, when as the minister of the word doth 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’.6
To summarise, the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching may be described thus —
The Spirit’s empowering presence enables preachers to proclaim the Lord Jesus with boldness, liberty and life-transforming effectiveness. His presence makes preaching an event where the God of the gospel is encountered in all the fullness of his grace and power.

Seeking the Spirit’s empowering

Some dismiss the need to pray for the Spirit’s power because they say that Spirit invariably works with the Word. But Charles Hodge reminds us that we must actively seek the blessing of the sovereign Holy Spirit:
‘It is important that we should remember, that, in living under the dispensation of the Spirit, we are absolutely dependent on a divine Person, who gives or withholds his influence as he will; that he can be grieved and offended; that he must be acknowledged, feared, and obeyed; that his presence and gifts must be humbly and earnestly sought, and assiduously cherished, and that to him all right thoughts and right purposes, all grace and goodness, all strength and comfort, and all success in winning souls to Christ, are to be ascribed’.7
We must follow the pattern of the early church and pray that preachers will be endued with Holy Spirit boldness and power. That is the great need of the hour. Jesus taught that Christians should pray expectantly to the Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit — ‘If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11:13). Let us urgently ask the Father for a fresh outpouring of the Spirit upon those who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ today.


1. See Moore Theology, by Philip Eveson, Foundations (Affinity, Autumn 2006).
2. See The Drama of Doctrine by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (WJK, 2005) on the value of speech-act theory for theological reflection.
3. Spirit Empowered Preaching by Arturo Azurdia III (Mentor, 2007) p.105.
4. Daniel Rowland by Eifion Evans (Banner of Truth Trust, 1985) p.5.
5. From Pentecost Today, by Iain Murray (Banner of Truth Trust, 1998) p.81
6. Ibid, p.82.
7. Systematic Theology Vol. III, by Charles Hodge, p.476.


michael jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael jensen said...

Most of this I would agree with - and I have never been anywhere where there wasn't a prayer for the Spirit to work in the preaching of the word. But the Azudia quote with its emphasis on spontaneity and boldness etc seems to me to be just charismaticism.

Guy Davies said...

Such language was used by Reformed writers way before the Charismatic movement muddied the waters.

Gary Benfold said...

The problem with Michael's point is two-fold. First, he says in effect 'I agree with most of this - just not the main point of the article', which is an interesting use of 'agree'! The second problemis the use of 'charismaticism' in this context. I'm all for labels: I'm a Calvinist, a Baptist, an evangelical, a Yorkshireman - and so on. But used in a context like this they can be little more than swear words. Lloyd-Jones - who would have agreed with Guy's article - was guilty of this sometimes; he called positions similar to Michael's 'deism'. But that's not the point, is it? Michael's position may have something in common with deism (or may not); Guy's position may have something in common with charismaticism (or may not). But which one is Biblical? I know Michael would agree with that, too - but it's so much easier to swear, isn't it? [Can I put a smiley here to show I'm being nice, really? ;-) ]