Would you like fish or chips? How about a knife or fork? Maybe you could choose between your left or right shoe? These are pretty silly questions. Mind you, it is possible to enjoy eating chips with a fork whilst only wearing a left shoe. But why do that when you can have it all?
When it comes to the work of the Spirit in preaching, it seems to me that people create false dichotomies and make statements that miss the big picture. Do you simply analyse the meaning of the passage faithfully in exegesis? Or do you wait for a work of the Spirit that is like a rushing wind in unction? We tend to zoom in and pick at certain concepts, like exegesis or unction. But, this leads to an inability to see the wood for the trees. So, let me do the opposite, let me zoom out and take in the panoramic view.
The Spirit works with the Word of God
Firstly, we must acknowledge the work of the Spirit in inspiring the Scriptures, preserving them, saving and calling the preacher, illuminating his heart and mind in preparation, and the promise that God will always accompany his word – in blessing or curse. Indeed, there is no true preaching without the Spirit. Moreover, as the Bible is the sword of the Spirit, he is always at work, even when it is preached from wrong motives or by a boring preacher with three very tenuous alliterated points.
In gospel preaching, whilst distinct, the Bible and the Spirit are inseparable. The Spirit works with the Word (not through). In his book Systematic Theology, Robert Letham writes that, without the Spirit, preaching is ineffective, but without the Bible, preaching is inaudible. So, we must not conflate them to the point of a wonky Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Scripture. However, we can have confidence that the Spirit will accompany the preached Word. As Ralph Cunnington states in Preaching with Spiritual Power, ‘God’s words are never spoken in vain; his promises are never merely scattered.’
But, we must go further.
The Spirit works in the preacher and the hearer
Secondly, we must understand that the Spirit in his sovereignty can do greater or lesser works. One author has called this subject ‘a theological Pandora’s box’. Whilst we have seen that the Spirit is at work when the Word is preached, there are certainly times when the Spirit works in more powerful ways. The obvious example would be in revivals. But I think we can also see this on smaller scales, in one congregation, or even one person. A sermon can be effective for all present, but can be completely life changing for one or two.
Gwyn Walters likened this to looking at the boats in the harbour at Aberystwyth. When the tide is out, all the boats are in a mess, lying on their sides in the mud. How often I have felt my sermon looks like that on a Sunday morning! Indeed, how often have you been listening to the first 10 minutes of a sermon and thought that?
But when the tide comes in, the boats are lifted and float into a perfect formation as they glisten in the noon-day sun. That can happen in preaching. A messy sermon can take on a beautiful and raw power as Christ is presented in his glorious grace. Have you ever had that feeling of the tide coming in and everything starting to make sense? When you don’t just hear information, you feel as if the preacher had written the sermon for you?
Why is that? Surely it is because the Spirit is sovereign and he blows wherever and however he wants. The Spirit is at work in the preacher and the hearer. Nonetheless, factors such as prayer, lifestyle and emphasis must have an impact in God’s economy. That is, someone in the congregation may have grieved the Spirit and dulled their conscience – so, the sermon may seem boring and irrelevant. However, someone else may have come expectant to hear the voice of God and desperate for a touch of his grace. But, and this is important, in his goodness, the Spirit may knock the backslider flat and give him a new vision of Jesus that changes his life completely!
We must expect both the normative work of the Spirit in preaching (which is hardly normal!) and the extraordinary work that not just informs, but transforms. An experience where we can know and feel the Lord speaking to us in power.
My fear with not understanding this is that we will try and gain power in all the wrong places: cleverer exegesis, cultural analysis, illustrations, body language, voice projection, PowerPoint, etc. All of these things are helpful and good, but they should never be our ‘go to’ to be more effective. In essence, if you believe the Spirit always works the same way, all the time, you will then create a different wonky Trinity: Father, Son, and self-reliance. Follow the model and you will automatically produce a good sermon.
I hope this article will give you equal measures of confidence and craving. Confidence that the Spirit will make preaching effective – even if we don’t feel we have prepared well enough. This means we must always expect God to speak when Christ is proclaimed. But, we must also have a craving for more power, so that Christ may be even more glorified. An experience that is not based on our preparation or crafted sermon, but the Spirit’s power. This means that both the preacher and the hearer must be dedicated to praying for the Spirit to come in power.
A humble hunger
So, how should this effect the preacher and the hearer? I think it should give us all a humble hunger. Perhaps, this posture is best summed up in Psalm 119:18:
Open my eyes, that I may behold
wondrous things out of your law.
So, do you want the Word or the Spirit? Experiential or exegetical preaching? Confidence or craving? Don’t choose one, choose both! Let us follow the example of Elwyn Davies who led a group of young people to pray Luke 11:13:
If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
Do you know what happened after he prayed that? I’ll let him tell you. The Holy Spirit came ‘and filled me to such a degree with love for God that I sat down sobbing and laughing at the same time.’
Preachers and hearers, never forget the work of the Spirit in preaching. Always be confident, but always cry out for more.