As a young Christian I used to speak often of “powerful preachers.” Certain men seemed to me to preach with great force and relentlessness. They had power. Or, so I thought.
As I grew older in the faith and listened to more preaching and preachers, I came to discover something. The “power” of some preaching resided in the force of personality or in a kind of rhetorical coercion. Some preachers could say things in a way that suspended thought, manipulated feelings and coerced the listener into assent. The preaching was really a kind of bullying.
Bullying is not power; it’s really weakness and insecurity hiding behind shows of force. Bullies live on playgrounds and they live in pulpits.
But real power does accompany preaching. It’s not the power of personality or rhetoric. It’s the power of God. That’s why I wasn’t altogether correct to refer to “powerful preachers.” For if a preacher has true power–whether they are monotone and almost void of personality, or whether they’re demonstrative and witty–that power comes not from the preacher but from God. In actual fact, that power flows forth not just through a man but very often despite the man.
Yesterday we began a series of posts unpacking a definition of preaching I used at the John Reed Miller Lectures on Preaching at RTS:
“Preaching is God speaking in the power of His Spirit about His Son from His word through a man.”
The first part of the definition contends that in true preaching man is not speaking–at least not alone. Yesterday we maintained that God is the primary speaker in preaching. Today, I want to take up the second phrase of that definition–“in the power of His Spirit.”
In the Power of His Spirit
One of the deadliest traps a preacher can face is to believe that somehow the power of his preaching resides in his “special way” of preaching. That special way can be his personality, his style, his method of preparation, his emotional force, his mastery of the languages or history or theology, or his ability to illustrate with a story or a joke. All preachers have tendencies and idiosyncratic elements that feel “right” to them, habits that suggest we’re “really preaching” when those things are present or that we’re “off our game” when they’re not. We find ourselves tempted to trust those idiosyncracies as the source of power.
But where does true power come from in preaching? The scripture gives us a couple answers, all associated.
Power comes from the message of the gospel itself
Romans 1:16–“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to every one who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
1 Corinthians 1:18–“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
1 Corinthians 1:23-24–“we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
“Powerful preachers” are men who proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Any time the gospel is rightly announced in our preaching, we can confidently expect God’s power to go forth. Power inheres in the message not the man.
Moreover, power comes through the message even when the man is weak. The apostle’s experience and writing confirm this when he says: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:1, 3). No eloquence. No great wisdom. Weak. Afraid. Trembling. Paul doesn’t sound like a beast, does he? He doesn’t sound like some lion of a man. We might even think his attitude is unbecoming gospel preaching. Who would dare bring “the testimony about God” in such a condition? Only someone who knows the power is in the message itself. Only someone who thinks, If I can only proclaim the words then the power of the message will more than compensate for the puniness of the messenger.
That man whose confidence is wholly in the gospel’s power will proclaim the gospel no matter how he feels. And that gospel will have power! In fact, the gospel will have so much power the pitiful preacher can boast in his weaknesses! (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
Power comes from the Spirit of God
But there is a double power in preaching. There is the power of the gospel itself, and there is the power of God the Holy Spirit who makes the gospel effective.
1 Cor. 2:4-5–“My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.”
1 Thes. 1:4-5–“For you know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”
In true preaching, the Spirit of God takes the message of God and turns it into the life of God in the people of God. God not only speaks in preaching, He also unleashes His power. Omnipotence launches from human lips. The Holy Spirit takes the words of men about God’s Son and He works faith, deep conviction, and joy in the hearer.
The result is that our hearer’s faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. The preacher’s wisdom or eloquence makes a flimsy shelf upon which to rest the weight of men’s souls. What happens when the preacher is no longer “wise,” no longer funny or clever, no longer insightful or profound, no longer overwhelming in emotion? If the people’s faith has been resting on that man, then their faith will collapse and shatter like delicate glass baubles.
Preacher, we don’t want the people resting their hopes on our wisdom! Not for a minute! As John Henry Jowett puts it: “We never reach the innermost room in any man’s soul by the expediences of the showman or the buffoon.” Never. Not once. Not by our wisdom.
But the good news is that our hearers’ faith can rest on an unbending, never-falling, never-sagging shelf–the shelf of God’s power through His Spirit. In true preaching, God the Holy Spirit does all the work in men’s hearts. We don’t need the counterfeits of manipulation and bullying. With perfect precision, the Spirit of God will do exactly what needs to be done in every human heart, taking the very same sentence we utter and giving an infinitely diverse remedy to the various people before us. Isn’t this part of the wonder of preaching? God uses our feeble words to effect change–different changes from the same words–in the many hearts before us. And how many times have people referred to “something we said in the sermon” that was “just what they needed” when we can’t even recall saying it? The Spirit preaches a better more powerful sermon than the preacher ever does! What a glorious mystery is this power of God’s Spirit in the act of preaching!
The Freedom and Hope of Preaching
Relying on the power of God the Holy Spirit in preaching brings remarkable freedom. We don’t have to impress. We don’t have to “muster up” a performance. We don’t have to supply new wisdom or innovative insight.
We simply have to pray, trust, and proclaim. We pray for the filling of God’s Spirit, for the Spirit’s anointing of the message, for His power to be seen and felt in the hearers, and for Him to glorify Jesus Christ. We pray the Holy Spirit would mortify the preacher; hide him behind the cross; loosen his lips, quicken his mind, and make gracious his heart. We pray that the Holy Spirit would enlarge His ministry of exalting Christ, converting sinners, and edifying the saints.
We pray, then we trust God to do it. It is the Father’s will to unleash His power in preaching. So we add trusting faith to our prayers. We preach in a confident, expecting hope. We know with certainty that God will own His word preached in the power of His Spirit. Such a word never returns void (Is. 55:10-11).
Trusting, and forgetting all else, we preach Jesus Christ–righteous, crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, reigning, coming, and glorious for praise of God and the salvation of sinners! We proclaim and we stand back, watching and waiting as the power of God works, sometimes in bright and brilliant flashes and sometimes in slow increasing burns. But His power will be seen because His Spirit works in preaching. Praise be to God!