The Exposition of Scripture – The Power
Having already examined the definition and purpose of preaching in the first two posts of this series, the power of preaching is now the focus. In one word, the power of preaching is God. In at least five ways, God is the true source which makes preaching possible. Through the Holy Spirit, prayer, the word of God, the gospel, and the joy of the Lord; He sends, supplies, and sustains preachers.
1. The Holy Spirit
Some may wonder why the salvation of sinners has not yet appeared in the definition or purposes of preaching. Salvation was not included within the purposes of preaching because I firmly believe that this is an act of sovereign grace and a purpose of God. He is glorified when sinners repent and throw themselves on the mercies of Christ. What effect would preaching a sermon have in the absence of the Holy Spirit? We must be careful not to create a human formula for salvation and leave out the one vital element. No one can come to the father unless they are drawn (John 6:44). Sinners need to hear the preaching of God’s word and preachers must understand that the spirit alone can regenerate a hard heart.
God is sovereign over His creation. No cunning or craftiness of man can accomplish the glad purposes of God. He alone saves and He alone sanctifies. Salvation is God wrought, blood bought, and spirit caught. Sanctification is no different. Paul illustrates this in Philippians 2:12-13.
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
We are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Most assuredly, salvation is by faith alone and nothing we can do. Therefore, this cannot be a working to merit salvation. It is a living out what God has worked within. God works in us through the person of the Holy Spirit to change our will and to guide our lives. In this manner, our motives and actions are internally shaped. Preaching is an instrument through which God works this inner miracle and causes His children to grow closer to Him. However, even the most educated, well-spoken, and dynamic preacher will be powerless without the Holy Spirit to minister to the heart of the listener. We often understand that regeneration is performed by the spirit, but we tend to leave new converts to live the rest of their lives with only human exertion to aid them. The God who saves also sanctifies. He plants the comforter in our hearts that our hearts might be changed to align with His. In this way, God continually draws us nearer to Himself through the Holy Spirit. To further illustrate the crucial role of the spirit I think we must grasp grace. Paul writes to the Colossians and helps us in comprehending the fruit producing effects of understanding grace.
Since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have to all the saints, For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you, since the day ye heard of it, and knew the grace of God in truth” (Colossians 1:4-6)
How can we bear fruit and grow or in other words, how does sanctification take place? This is perhaps one of the central questions every Christian ponders and one of the key goals of the body of Christ. I believe these three verses give an extremely overlooked answer. The word of truth (the gospel) bore fruit and caused growth when people heard it and understood the grace of God in truth! God’s grace is vital to growth. Have we come so far from grace that we seriously believe all of our strategy and all of our tactics can outperform the miraculous hand of God? Grace means we freely receive by the hand of the Lord what is completely undeserved. It is the sovereign work of the father enabling and bestowing upon fallen man that which he is utterly incapable and unworthy of. When we understand God is ultimately responsible and when we know how far beneath the mark of holiness we are, we take the first steps to bear fruit and grow. Grace understood aright would be of more benefit than a thousand evangelical growth seminars. Perceiving divine power always outweighs implementing human tactics. Do you want to grow and bear fruit? Go ponder Grace! Whether preaching to win the lost or preaching to feed the sheep, the spirit must not be overlooked because it is one of the powers of preaching. Let sermons issue forth from every direction and let us understand well that without the spirit every sermon will fall on deaf ears.
2. The Word of God
Another equally important power of preaching is the well from which we must draw the water of life to carry to a spiritually dehydrated world. The well is the word of God. Many disciples turned back from following Jesus on one occasion and He turned to the twelve and asked if they wished to turn away as well. Peter spoke words that clue us in to the power of the words of God. “Where else could we go? You have the words of eternal life”, Peter said (John 6: 66-69). Let us consider this same question. Where else can we go for the words of eternal life? Imagine a teacher of mathematics using a history book to instruct their class. The students would probably learn a few things, but they wouldn’t learn the prescribed knowledge. The big danger in leaning on resources other than God’s infallible word is providing people with information that is temporarily beneficial, but eternally insignificant. Only God has eternal words. Any words we add to this are mere shadows to the fullness of His stature. When defining preaching earlier through various biblical phrases, one phrase that continued to manifest itself was preaching the word. Again Peter sums this up for us in 1 Peter 1:23-25.
Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.”
We are born again by the word which lives and abides forever. Man’s flesh and mans glory in all their Earthly effort cannot stand perpetually. The words of the Lord continue on in eternity and these words are the gospel which should be preached. Any attempt of man to supplement the infinite worth of divine inspiration is at best a withering blade of grass and a falling flower. In a world of such depravity, can we afford to stand up and hold forth the blossom of fleeting hope? It should be noted that there could be an initial attraction to the gospel of withering flowers; for even withering flowers have their day of beauty. However, that day soon passes and hope passes with it.
Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman on one occasion and taught us what truly satisfies. The Samaritan woman ventured out to draw water from the well and instead found a Jewish man claiming to be living water and able to eternally quench her thirst. Not very long into the dialogue she discovered that this was not simply a Jewish man and that the water He spoke of was not merely a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. As the scene opens, we see this woman bringing her water jar to get a drink. For some reason, after her conversation with Christ, she doesn’t seem concerned at all with water and leaves her jar behind (John 4:28). Could it be that she came to a well of water and actually found the well of eternity? She arrived at the well hoping to refresh her parched lips and found what could renew her parched soul. The words of Christ had refreshed her spirit as only they could. If the pulpit echoes forth with the latest helpful tips on finances or fiancés, yet sidebars the living word of God, then short term benefits may be gleaned; but the fruit of eternity will not be harvested. God’s word is the well of eternity that will never run dry as it satisfies the souls of all who would dare to drink. Hearers must not be sent to drink from any other source and the preacher must drink deeply from it himself.
If the spirit and the word are essential, then our dependence upon God in both of these through prayer is equally as important. The heart’s desire of Paul in Romans 10 verse 1 is that Israel might be saved and this is evidenced in his prayer to God for them. He is concerned for their salvation, he realizes that only God can accomplish this, and so he makes much of earnest prayer on their behalf. The apostle relied on prayer not only in this way, but he also called for the Ephesians to make supplication for all saints and for himself as he boldly proclaimed the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:18-19). This gives us a twofold approach to praying for the lost.
Surely we must pray for the conversion of sinners, but we must also issue a call for others to pray for preachers that the mystery of the gospel might be embraced in the hearts of its hearers. As prayers ascend to the very throne of God, He notices His people’s cries of dependence and graciously manifests His presence. Phil Keaggy has penned song lyrics which perfectly sum up this point.
There is an eye that never sleeps beneath the wing of night,
there is an ear that never shuts when sink the beams of light. there is an arm that never tires when human strength gives way,
there is a love that never fails when earthly loves decay.
But there’s a power which man can wield when mortal aid is vain.
That eye, that arm, that love to reach, the listening ear to gain.
That power is prayer which soars on high, through Jesus to the throne, which moves the hand, which moves the world to bring salvation down, bring salvation down”
If the Holy Spirit is the power to convert sinners, then prayer is the beseeching of God to unleash His power in this way. Man’s condition and God’s power are puzzle pieces that cannot fit without Christ. Should we consider, even for a moment, the lost nature of mankind, the eternal fate of unbelievers, the hope made possible through Christ, and the inability of man to connect all these puzzle pieces we would enter the prayer closet before this sentence is completed.
An amazing thought that has struck me on various occasions is that the son of God prayed. It may seem fairly common, but I think we should feel the weight of it. He shared deity with the father and yet He made supplication to the father. It almost seems paradoxical. My intercessor knelt and communed with God. He wept over spiritual blindness and called out for strength from on high. If ever there was a minister of the gospel it was the savior. He talked, walked, breathed, and lived the gospel. He was the gospel. Yet in all of His glory, He did not forego prayer.
Two particular instances rise to the forefront of my mind. The first takes place in the garden of Gethsemane. I always imagine the Lord kneeling with unknown depths of sorrow in His soul. His sweat was as great drops of blood and His heart was heavily troubled. He was experiencing the full spectrum of stress and sorrow. It was there and in this condition that He lifted up His voice to the father and uttered the seven words that only He could have uttered at a time such as that, “not my will, but thine be done.” Can you feel the staggering force behind such a statement? The creator of the universe called out in humble submission to the sovereign God. Not only did He pray, but He instructed His disciples to pray as well that they might not enter into temptation. If God’s son, the only perfect preacher ever to exist, prayed and commanded His followers to do the same can we not also see the absolute necessity of prayer?
A second prayer of Jesus came from the cruel cross. As they nailed His hands and feet, offered Him sour drink, and mocked Him; He returned their disdain with prayer. “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”, he muttered from parched lips. Still praying redemptively for a people who scorned Him, Jesus sets the example. He fully knew that only God could grant forgiveness and repentance in the human heart. I can’t think of a more direct call to prayer in preaching than the living gospel’s dying example.
Another avenue of prayer which should take priority for the preacher is praying in order to see scripture supremely. The heart has many distractions and the heart of the preacher or even the man after God’s own heart is no different. David teaches us this very important point. David prays and asks for God to open his eyes to see wondrous things in the word (Psalm 119:18). What a need we have for God’s ministers to see more than facts, morals, or sermons in God’s word. To open the bible and behold wondrous things is a miracle wrought in our hearts through the spirit and accomplished through prayer, as demonstrated by David. A few short verses later, David prays and asks that God incline his Heart to His testimonies (Psalm 119:36). The point is prayer moves the hand that rearranges the affections of our heart and we must constantly make this supplication before our creator. If the word of God is a power of preaching, we must pray that it might grip us. Imagine going to a thirsty people with only the dryness of morality or perhaps the dullness of philosophy. It would be as if we walked up to the well of living waters, passed it by, filled our cups with the sand beneath our feet, and then offered others to drink from our cup. Until we are moved by the word we will not be effective, and we will not be moved by the word unless we are moved by God’s sovereign hand. Let us pray!
4. The Gospel
Previously, in clarifying definitions, one of the major phrases that surfaced was preaching the gospel. So what is the gospel? How should the gospel be presented? These two questions are incredibly urgent and are often brushed aside. Paul writes to the Corinthians, refusing to tamper with the word of God, and gives a concise meaning of the gospel.
Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not; but have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them. For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6)
As seen in this passage, the gospel could be defined as light which is the glory of Christ who is the image of God. Some would object to this simple definition saying that an accurate explanation of the gospel must include Christ’s virgin birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. This of course is true, but I wish to point out that the Gospel is not merely facts. It is plausible that a person could accept the above list of facts as true and not truly accept “the gospel” in its saving power. Even Satan and his demons believe the aforementioned points. The gospel must not simply be statements about Christ, but the heralding of the glory of Christ who is the image of God! How then will this difference in definition change how the gospel is presented? If the gospel is characterized only by mere facts it will be presented similarly. For example, preaching that sinners should repent and accept Christ because one day they will see their loved ones again does not point towards the glory of Christ, but towards a benefit of the glory of Christ. The danger is in substituting side effects of glory for glory. The gospel should never be stated as merely escaping hell, reuniting with loved ones, better marriages, or golden streets. All these things are true and good, but they are only glimmers of the glory of Christ.
Careful thought must be given as to how to proclaim the gospel. If the pulpit is to have divine power ushering from behind it, then the gospel preached must be the gospel of God’s glory. This ensures that the preacher understands the spirit is solely responsible for souls and that God is in all ways given glory for every aspect of ministry. Neglecting the gospel means forsaking the very substance of the message. If the gospel is compromised you can be sure that pulpits will be powerless.
5. The Joy of the Lord
Suppose a preacher understands the previously mentioned sources of power and yet something is still missing. He preaches in dependence on the spirit, directly from the scripture, praying continuously, and proclaiming the unadjusted gospel; but something is still out of place. Yet another power of preaching is the joy of the Lord. In at least three ways the word teaches us that preachers who do not possess joy are ineffective. From the outset, it must be clear that this is not a general joy, but a joy rooted only In God. In other words, following the last four powers of preaching cannot be going through the motions, but an earnest seeking of the presence and power of God.
Ministering without joy is like driving without wheels. The engine will start, but chances are you won’t be getting very far. Joyless preaching is futile preaching. The author of Hebrews gives us an insight into this truth.
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
The followers of Christ are urged to submit to their God appointed leaders. This submission is precisely to help leaders do their task with joy and without grief. It is hard to imagine a pastor being content if his people are unruly. According to this text, if the pastors contentment wavers, then his ministry will be unprofitable for the people. Was this not the very plight of Moses as he struck the rock? For forty years they had wandered in the wilderness and he was the ear for the complaints of the Israelites. It was the end of his journey to the Promised Land.
It is an ever constant battle to stay focused on the Lord and to let the grievances of the people remain in God’s hands. Preachers are not merely problem solvers, they simply direct people to the person who has already dealt with all true problems. Just as the people of God are commanded to be obedient for their own benefit, the servants of God must remember that serving cannot be insincere. Scripture emphasizes this point in a very solemn manner in Deuteronomy 27:47-48.
Because thou servedst not the LORD thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the LORD shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he has destroyed thee.”
God’s requirement is not action alone. The very character of God is displayed in this truth. He does not desire service that is not desired to be done. There must be joy motivating what we do in order for what we do to bring God glory. What image would we present of God if we labored continuously for Him out of mere duty? Christianity and more specifically the role of the preacher should not adopt the philosophy of Nike. By this I mean we are not to, “just do it”. We are to follow the commands of God, proclaim the word of God, and minister to the people of God from a heart ravished by God. Ministering in any other manner will only convince the people that it’s pointless to follow Jesus. If we are to preach with power we must preach with an undeniable passion for God. The apostle Peter teaches this principle in his first epistle.
The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away.” (1 Peter 5:1-4)
For a pastor to be fruitful he must labor without compulsion or constraint and with joy. His service must not flow from a sense of obligation, but from a sense of delight in God. People are not ignorant to the true motives of their leaders. Fervency cannot be faked indefinitely. Sooner or later, the reality of the heart will surface in word and deed.
Through brokenness David knew that the joy of the lord was a prerequisite for teaching and seeing sinners converted. The background to his heartfelt repentance in Psalm 51 is his sin against God. He was confronted by the prophet Nathan, became indignant with his story, and soon realized that Nathan’s parable was directed at him. Face to face with his iniquity he cried out in repentance. In the throes of his penitence he realized that only through restoration could ministry happen again. David pleaded, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit. Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee” (Psalm 51:12-13). The order here is exactly right. Teaching transgressors the ways of God and seeing sinners converted unto the living Christ can only come to pass if we first possess the joy of salvation. How quickly it can be lost in the stresses and strains of ministry and quicker still to the deadly pangs of sin. Within this same passage, David teaches us that God is not pleased with going through the motions of earnestness. God had ordained a process for forgiveness in the Old Testament through the sacrificial system under the law, but here in Psalm 51 we are taught that God requires more.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.” (Psalm 51:16-19)
The desire of God is not that we perform the ritual of service, but that we honor him with real sacrifice. The sacrifices He desires are a broken spirit and a heart that is contrite. When we are humbled to the place of contrition, we are ready to have the deepest joy of our hearts restored. Once we possess that joy, then we are prepared to continue in the ministry that God has ordained for us.
These essential powers of preaching must not be ignored. They are all interconnected in ways that we cannot fathom, but they are also independently imperative to the preacher. Neglecting these powers of preaching is to pursue ministry in your own strength. In so doing, the glory of God is relegated and this is no laughing matter. Ignoring 1 Peter 4:11 will only result in “pseudo-ministry”.
I will conclude this series by making the case for expository preaching in subsequent posts.