I once heard about a young preacher who had so much to say one Lord’s Day that he virtually ran up the pulpit stairs with anticipation. He made such a mess of the message that he walked down those same steps with his head bowed and tears in his eyes. He made his way slowly into the vestry. A wise old elder came to him and said, “If you’d gone up the way you came down, you’d have come down the way you’d gone up.”
Sometimes our expectation of power in preaching is our very undoing. Our presumption squelches the passion, and the congregation is no better after leaving.
Last time, we considered a definition of preaching with unction. In this post, I want to think about how we should pursue the Spirit’s blessing on our preaching. We must be sagacious at this point. While I believe the Bible gives us ordinary grounds for the Spirit’s blessing, it gives us no formulaic guarantee of spiritual power. The Spirit moves whenever and however on whomever He pleases. You will go wrong if you treat what I’m about to say as a guarantee.
What I am saying is that unless the following things are present, you have no reason to expect the Spirit to visit your preaching with peculiar power.
4 Things You Must Do If You’re to Preach with Power
You must preach Christ crucified. The Spirit loves to amplify Jesus Christ. He comes to glorify Christ’s name in all nations. When the sermon is in haste to preach Jesus Christ, you can expect that Spirit is eager to attend that service.
Let’s revisit The Upper Room. Jesus says in John 16:13–14, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” J. I Packer spoke of the Spirit’s ministry as a spotlight ministry: he delights in putting Christ in the highest light. When preachers follow the apostolic agenda for preaching Christ, they continue a Spirit-approved plan for building the church.
You must preach in dependence. Phillips Brooks said, “Never allow yourself to feel equal to your work. If you ever find that spirit growing on you, be afraid.” The sin of self-sufficiency is to unction as baking soda is to a stove fire. No man can depend on himself and burn with the spirit.
This is the essence of what Paul’s after in 1 Corinthians 2 when he says, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Logical speech and lofty rhetoric were tools in the apostle’s bag of tricks, but he knew they had no place in the preaching of Christ. Such human ability robs Christ of His glory and signals the Spirit is not needed. Such a preacher may blow hard, but he’ll prove to be just that: a blowhard. Piper cries, “How utterly dependent we are on the Holy Spirit in the work of preaching! All genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation.”
Until you learn the lesson of total dependence on the Spirit, you’ll struggle for familiarity with the Spirit’s movement. If you are genuinely called to the ministry, you will learn the lesson of dependence one way or another. God tends to make his preacher’s through heartbreak and suffering. It’s only when selfish dreams are dashed, refashioned after Christ’s kingdom, and release by the Spirit that a man will truly preach. Elijah had his depression. Jeremiah had the pit. Peter had his denial. And Paul had his thorn. A march through church history uncovers profound sorrow behind and underneath those preachers that God has used.
You must keep in step with the Spirit. Paul told the Thessalonians to not quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). He exhorted the Ephesians, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by which you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30; see also Psa. 78:40; Isa. 63:10). Of course, unrepentant sin is a barrier to spirit-filled preaching. Sincere spirituality means the channel through which the Spirit flows is clean and unimpeded by the rot of impurity. For the Great Apostle, purity was a necessity in pastoral holiness—see 1 Tim. 1:5, 5:22; 2 Tim. 2:20–22.
Return with me to The Upper Room. Jesus says something about the primacy of holiness in ministry. It’s a truth that’s all too often neglect, and probably explains our weak efforts in preaching. In John 14:21, Jesus says, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Christ delights to visit—manifest Himself—the obedient servants. Unction is not identical to ardent piety, but ardent piety is the air in which unction can live and thrive.
Brothers, let me give you a warning on this point. You cannot relax your watch against Satan’s schemes to get you to fall into sexual sin. No snare entraps more pastors than impurity. Paul warns against this in 1 Thessalonians 4:7–8, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” To disregard the need for purity is to say you don’t need the Spirit in preaching.
You must pray for the Spirit. Jesus said in Luke 11:13, “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!” Too many preachers do not have because they do not ask. Our small prayers for the Spirit reveal our great trust in our own gifts. Too many preachers today spend hours in sermon preparation and only a few minutes in prayer. I understand the need for maintaining a spirit of prayer throughout the entire process of preparation. I don’t understand, however, why so many preachers think multiple, long periods of sustained prayer for the sermon aren’t necessary each week. Spurgeon said, “The best and holiest men have ever made prayer the most important part of pulpit preparation.” Or, in another place, “The fact is, the secret to all ministerial success lies in prevalence at the mercy seat.”
Brothers, the Worm named Satan will tempt you to fill your schedule with counseling, discipling, and sermon preparing, so that there is no time for prayer. Good things can sqaush the greatest thing.
A pastor who doesn’t pray is a pastor who doesn’t believe he needs the Spirit.
I’ll let the Prince have the final word this morning. Spurgeon said, “The gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were a mysterious power going with it the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. Oh Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word to give it power to convert the soul.”