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The Necessity of the Spirit’s Presence in Preaching

Category Articles
Date July 30, 2013

For our gospel did not come in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

No one took the preaching of Jesus in a casual, ambivalent manner. They either loved it or hated it, were drawn to him or repulsed by him. The same was true of Peter and Paul’s preaching. At Pentecost the people were cut to the quick and cried out, ‘What shall we do?’ (Acts 2:37), but later Peter was arrested, and except for divine intervention, would have been executed (Acts 12:6ff). Paul’s preaching at Ephesus wrought remarkable societal mpact, bringing down the worship of Diana, causing exorcists to burn their fetishes and to follow Jesus (Acts 19:11ff). It also brought a riot where the mob would have killed Paul if they could have found him. The preaching of John Knox rocked the nation of Scotland. So did the preaching of John Calvin in Geneva. The preaching of John Livingston at the Kirk o’ Shotts in June, 1630 in Scotland brought the conversion of six hundred people in one sermon. John Girardeau, in preaching on the last judgment to the South Carolina legislature at the First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, preached ninety minutes. The packed assembly leaned forward on every word, and when he had finished all leaned back together and gave a collective sigh.1

Have you ever heard preaching like that? I have on occasion, but perhaps you would agree with me that it is exceedingly rare. Why is that the case? I suggest that we generally lack what these great preachers had – a deep, abiding, desperate belief in the necessity of the Holy Spirit in preaching. I am not speaking here about the necessity of the Holy Spirit in our daily walk with Christ. That, of course, is also vital (Eph. 5:18; Gal. 5:16). Nor am I speaking of the necessity of the Spirit in sermon preparation. As the preacher sits at his desk to prepare his sermons he certainly should ask for the Spirit’s illumination of the text before him (Psa. 119:135). I am speaking, however, of the necessity of the Spirit’s presence in the actual delivery of his sermons.

You will note from the text listed above that Paul did not come to these formerly pagan Thessalonians in word only. He knew that mere dissemination of information would never do. Like his later preaching to the Corinthians (his preaching was not in persuasive words of wisdom, 1 Cor. 2:4-5) he came in the demonstration of the Spirit and power. Much of the preaching today lacks converting, convicting, and sanctifying power (the content of 1 Thessalonians 1 clearly reveals that the people turned from their idols and spoke of Jesus to everyone who would listen). It lacks this kind of power because the preacher thinks that all is required is to stand up and open his mouth, that his preparation and delivery is all that is required, that the Spirit will automatically help him preach.

Jesus, the prophets, the apostles, and all the great preachers, past and present, have understood the necessity of the Holy Spirit in sermon delivery. Jesus, the very Son of God and Son of Man, 100% God and 100% man, did not begin his earthly ministry of preaching and performing signs and wonders until the Holy Spirit came upon him at his baptism. Though the disciples were well equipped and called to their apostolic ministries, though they had seen the mighty deeds and preaching of Jesus, though they had seen him after his resurrection, though they had seen his ascension, they nonetheless were told not to preach until they had been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). The same is true with Paul, as he makes clear in 1 Corinthians 1:18ff – ‘The word of the cross is to those who are perishing, foolishness; but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.’

The proof of this promised power in preaching is portrayed in its product. It takes. It does something to people. It comes in power. The Greek New Testament word is dunamis, from which we get our word dynamite. Just as dynamite is used in making relatively level road grades, bringing down mountains and bringing up valleys, so the Spirit-empowered, preached Word of God brings down people’s mountainous pride and lifts the depressed and downcast up from the slough of despond. Like a hammer that shatters rock, preaching in the Spirit shatters people’s unbelief, creating new life in them, sanctifying them, converting them. Such preaching is drenched with the Holy Spirit. Such preaching comes with a supernatural authority and unction. People listening and watching (yes, watching a man preach is vital to the sermon’s delivery) know they are being dealt with by God. It brings conviction of sin which brings change. Sinners will not sit long under this kind preaching without being convicted. Their discomfort will increase. They will either leave because they can no longer bear the discomfort or they will run to Jesus for refuge in repentance and salvation.

One aspect of the glory of this Spirit anointed preaching is what happens to the preacher during sermon delivery. While it is true the Holy Spirit helps the preacher in sermon preparation by giving him insight into the passage he is studying, and while the preacher can be – should be – deeply moved by the passage in his preparation time, the romance of preaching in the Spirit is what it does to the preacher’s mind, heart, and will while he is preaching. As he is preaching, the preacher sometimes finds the Holy Spirit enlightening his mind, giving him something ‘on the fly’ he was not expecting to say. Afterwards he often marvels at this, saying to himself or his wife, ‘Where did I get that? How did I get that insight?’ The Spirit also enlarges the preacher’s heart. Paul spoke of his fond affection for the Thessalonians, imparting his own life to them; of dealing tenderly with them, like a nursing mother with her children (1 Thess. 2:7-8). He told the Philippians that he longed for them all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:8). And because the Spirit enlarges his heart he cannot help but speak with passion. John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary wondered if preaching without passion could really be called preaching.2 Charles Spurgeon wondered something similar – ‘If you believe the gospel . . . you will speak like a man who has something to say, which he knows to be true.’3 And preaching in the Spirit also loosens the preacher’s tongue. God gives him a divine eloquence which he typically does not possess. I remember a preacher from many years ago who was a stutterer and it was painful to hear him speak on the floor of Presbytery, but when he preached the stutter was gone! Divine eloquence.

How does a preacher preach in the Holy Spirit? There is a great cost. He must be willing to pay the price. It requires much time in prayer, meditation, and study. It requires confession of sin, keeping short accounts with God (more on this next week as we look at the hindrances to the Spirit’s presence in preaching). It demands supplication (earnest prayer), meditation (reflecting deeply and practically on the Word of God, Scripture saturation), and expectation. Jesus said, ‘If you being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him’ (Luke 11:13). Preacher, do you ask for the Holy Spirit when you preach? Church member, do you pray for the Holy Spirit to rest on your preacher as he preaches to you the unfathomable riches of God’s grace? Do you expect the Spirit to come down upon the preaching of the Word of God – to bring conviction, conversion, to promote holiness? Preacher, does the Spirit give you fresh insight ‘on the fly’? Is your heart ever enlarged as you preach, being overcome by the glory of the gospel? Do you possess divine eloquence, felicity of speech, depth of vocabulary, ability to explain vividly, to hold people in rapt attention? This is the kind of preaching we must have today. Is this merely for the nineteenth century or earlier? Is this kind of preaching antiquated? What do you think would happen if we had several thousand preachers in our country who preached in the Spirit?4


    1. See David Calhoun’s Our Southern Zion: Old Columbia Seminary (1828-1927), p. 238, published by Banner of Truth.
    2. Collected Writings of John Murray, volume 3, p. 72, published by Banner of Truth.
    3. Lectures to My Students, p. 269, published by Banner of Truth.
    4. For far more information on this vital subject I urge you to read Preaching in the Holy Spirit by Albert N. Martin, published by Reformation Heritage Books.


Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.


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