The act of preaching is either a spiritual act or an arrogant act. There is nothing in between for anyone who stands in the pulpit.
The act of preaching can be a spiritual act empowered by the Holy Spirit, done through a man taught by the Spirit who has pondered God's word until it has gripped him in such a way that he must speak for God's glory because the living Truth has become a raging fire in his bones.
Or the act of preaching can be an arrogant act empowered by the flesh, done by a man who has pandered God's word until his cleverness has gripped him in such a way that he speaks for his own glory because there are only the charred ashes of death in his bones.
Which is preaching for you? A spiritual act or an arrogant act? You must face this question and make this decision. Consider this definition of preaching and you will immediately know that preaching must be a spiritual act:
Preaching: The proclamation of God's inspired word for God's intended purpose through God's uniquely empowered herald to God's listening (or is it listless?) people.
The preacher stands as a herald for God, a spokesman with a message that men and women must have to know Him. His word is not a word of human wisdom, neither a collection of good ideas to be considered nor nice thoughts to be pondered, but God's truth to be obeyed. His proclamation is a word from God that brings its hearers into a relationship with Him and guides them into a deeper walk with Him. With all of this, his listeners know the preacher is a mortal, but they hope--and even trust--the preacher has been in God's presence in ways they may not have been. They hope--and trust--that the preacher is on some sort of speaking terms with God, that he has an intimate relationship with God, and he has pursued God with an energy they may not be able to muster. This means he has gotten a word from God for them. They hope, but rarely find, that their preacher is an intimate with God.
For us to preach out of anything less than intimacy with God is for us to be deceivers, charlatans, living liars proclaiming truth we aren't practicing, thus demonstrating ourselves to possess an incomprehensible arrogance. No man can stand in the pulpit in his own right or speak out of his own interests. Unless a man is thoroughly overwhelmed and humbled by the task of preaching, he has no right to preach.
However, there is much about preaching that lifts a man up and exalts him rather than God. Preaching is exciting and exhilarating. There's something electric about standing in front of a congregation waiting to hear the preacher, ready to hang on to every word he says. Unless we see preaching as supremely spiritual it will degenerate into a play for recognition and fame, an effort at self-promotion and self-exaltation. We cannot allow this to happen.
We must also turn from the banal (that which is common or stale, powerless, of no value; that which replaces the power of the cross with the flashiness of the flesh or the futility of the safe), from the shallowness of nice stories and the slickness of "that'll preach" catch phrases. Eugene Peterson is right when he warns us that we can exchange a call from God for an idol, "...an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker" (Eugene H. Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant. Grand Rapids, MI: William D. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992, p. 5). To paraphrase Peterson; preaching must be blazing with the glory of God's convicting presence in and through the preacher. If we sacrifice preaching on the altar of programs and success, we will sacrifice the power of God for the idolatry of the banal. When we preach apart from intimacy with God we assume that God isn't serious about the very word we are proclaiming, that He won't hold us accountable for our hypocrisy. Yet no sin is more severely judged in Scripture than hypocrisy, as we see through Achan and Ananias and Sapphira. God is not casual about hypocrisy, and we can't be either.
All of us preach--perhaps more often than we like to admit--out of arrogance and hypocrisy rather than intimacy. Laziness, lack of discipline, overwhelming demands, a routine that anesthetizes us, deliberate sin--all of these and more rob us of our intimacy with God and make us hypocrites in the pulpit on more Sundays than we care to acknowledge. In those moments God is gracious to us. In those moments God even uses us, and it is His goodness at such times that calls us to remembrance, repentance, and a return to Him. It is of His grace that God calls us to transform our routine into intimacy with Him. Then we are reminded of our ever-desperate need to depend on Him. But we can never presume on His grace. Preaching is a spiritual act, or it is the most arrogant deed imaginable.
We must be Spiritual because we preach the God-Breathed Scriptures.
There are many reasons why preaching must be a spiritual act, but I am focusing on three in this article. We see first of all that preaching is a spiritual act because of its source: God's word. The Scriptures are God-breathed (I Tim. 3:16). This means God's Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures. We know that God's Spirit, working through the experience, the minds, the emotions, the will, the life context, and the totality of the human authors' experience, led them to the very words God desired as they recorded His truth in their original writings. Though very little of the Bible is dictated—portions such as the Ten Commandments obviously were—the Bible is still God's word. And what God birthed through the Holy Spirit, He protected through His sovereign providence. As a result we have God's Word in the fullest accuracy possible, safely preserved for our understanding, insight, and edification today.
God's breath came into the ancient world that was twisted and scarred by sin. Though it was first addressed to that ancient world, it conveyed God's truth for all men in all times. Out of that ancient world into our technologically modern yet morally degenerating world comes God's Word in a new form through our spoken word as demonstrated and confirmed by our living words.
Our preaching becomes God's word through us for our modern and post modern world. Listen to what two great men from history have to say about preaching.
Now let me and everyone who speaks of the word of Christ freely boast that our mouths are the mouths of Christ. I am certain indeed that my word is not mine, but the word of Christ. So must my mouth be the mouth of him who utters it. --Martin Luther (Larsen, David L. The Company of the Preachers. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1998, p. 155.)
No matter who a man may be, if he teaches you in according with his own thought and mind his teaching is false. But if he teaches you in accordance with the word of God, it is not he that teaches you, but God who teaches him. For as Paul says, who are we but ministers of Christ and dispensers or stewards of the mysteries of God? --Huldrych Zwingli (Larsen, p. 169.)
We must be Spiritual because We Preach the God-Blessed Scriptures.
Next we see that the Scriptures are God-blessed, and, therefore, profitable for our well-being. This means they are useful and practical in meeting our needs.
They bring us life as nothing else does. As Peter put it, "You have the words of eternal life (Jn. 6:68)." The Scriptures have the words of eternal life and, as such, they do exactly what Paul says they do in II Tim. 3:16.
It is for our profit that the Scriptures correct our wrong thinking by teaching us the principles He created to enable us to live with love and joy in a world that often is depressed and without hope. They correct our distorted thinking about life, our invalid values that result in harmful practices. The Scriptures penetrate to the deepest part of our beings and show how we are wrong in light of God's truth.
The Scriptures rebuke our wrong responses by holding us accountable for our destructive patterns of life and so bring God's profit to us. They cast light on the darkness of our behavior and force us to face the futility of our own foolishness. The Scriptures' truth overwhelms us and leaves us exposed to ourselves and to others in ways we cannot deny and from which we cannot escape, so we must face the sin we commit.
The Scriptures bring us profit because they restore our right perspective. The Bible does not merely teach; the Bible doesn't merely rebuke; the Bible restores us to the right way, to God's way.
Lastly we profit from the Scriptures because they train us in righteousness. The Bible is God's training tool, God's play book, God's policy manual. Constant exposure to the Bible combined with a consistent effort to obey God's truth, develops new habits of righteousness in us. This righteousness results in freedom from the wrong and brings us in new patterns of living... Righteousness, of course, is more than behavior; righteousness is behavior that grows from and grows into healthy relationships. It grows from a healthy relationship with God into healthy relationships with others because it ultimately expresses itself in love.
So the Scriptures are profitable because nothing else can do what the Scriptures do. And how can we proclaim the Scriptures profitable apart from the Holy Spirit's power?
We must be Spiritual because the Scriptures are God-Authenticated.
Thirdly the Scriptures are authenticated by God throughout history. In the history of the church, wherever the Scriptures have been held in high value, preaching has been held in high value. And, wherever preaching has been held in high value and the church has been healthy. Thus, there is a direct correlation between the church's health and the proclamation of the Scriptures. God's word truly is God's word and God has authenticated this reality throughout all of history without fail. This means that when the Scriptures are not held in high value, preaching's currency drops, and the church's health flags accordingly.
When we preach the Bible we bring health to Christ' church, we awaken life in God's people and we shine light into the world's darkness. As John Broadus declared, "In every age of Christianity, since John the Baptist drew crowds into the desert, there has been no great religious movement, no restoration of Scripture truth, and reanimation of genuine piety, without new power in preaching both as cause and effect" (Larsen, p. 14). Consider what John Brown, the English Puritan, stated.
He who realizes the living place which preaching in its most vital forms has ever taken in the spiritual life of the Church will need no further assurance of its great importance. He will not fail to note that the preacher's message and the Church's spiritual condition have risen or fallen together. When life has gone out of the preacher it is not long before it has gone out of the church also. On the other hand, when there has been a revival message of life on the preacher's lips there comes as a consequence a revived condition of the Church itself. The connection between these two things has been close, uniform and constant. (Larsen, p. 104.)
So, throughout all of history, the Scriptures stand authenticated as God's means of bringing health to the church and light to the world. When the light of God's word shines brightly in the church, it penetrates the darkness of the world and brings life where there was only death previously.
Preaching alone does not accomplish this. The preacher is as much about living the word as he is proclaiming the word. Light and life will not overcome darkness and death without the proclamation of God's word, but spiritual health does not come through knowledge alone. Spiritual health does not come only by proclaiming God's word or hearing God's word; spiritual health comes by doing God's word. This means godly leaders must model spiritual maturity for their followers, so they can become the church in action through the exercise of its gifts, worship that exalts the living God, a passionate and pure commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, caring and serving small groups, and a longing to take God's truth to the world (See Natural Church Development by Christian Schwarz for a development of these concepts published by The International Centre for Leadership Development and Evangelism, Winfield, BC Canada, 1998).
I have a fear that we could move away from a healthy focus on the proclamation of God's word. If we are not careful, we will enter an era in which the word of God will be rare, just as Israel did so long ago (I Sam. 3:1). One of the reasons why the word was so rare in Samuel's time was because the priests of Israel turned a blind eye to its truth. Like people, like priests is as true today as it was in the ancient world. When we have a blind eye for God's word the people will have a deaf ear for our words. Who wants to listen to the nice nothings of our empty mouths? Who will turn to a god made in our image? Who will be transformed by a word from us? We run the risk of letting our busy-ness become banality and our banality become a blindness that keeps us from seeing how our own egos, jealousies, and ambitions deafen us to God's word and blind us to God's ways. If we are not careful, the flesh will paralyze our efforts as we become spiritual paraplegics, powerless to make any impact for God. If we want to see where we might be heading, take a look at the Middle Ages, a time in which liturgy superseded preaching, the Scriptures fell into disuse, clergy replaced people, and the church's light was virtually extinguished. That is why we call this era the Dark Ages. We cannot allow a movement from preaching God's word to take us toward a new Dark Ages.
Today we are told that the driving question governing our preaching is What do the people want? and we hear They don't want the Bible. The experts tell us that the Bible is not relevant to where they are. What people want is to hear stories, "chicken soup tales," that warm their hearts and make them feel good. Could we be in danger of becoming ticklers of the ears? Of course we must strive for interest and relevance, but, as our Lord suggested about His cousin John, men on fire for God will always draw the crowd God wants them to have. People will go anywhere, even the Judean wilderness, to see a man on fire with God's truth. This doesn't mean we have to be angry or harsh or proclaim "camel hair" sermons. But it does mean we have to be committed to the proclamation of God's love and holiness and speak in ways that the eternal once again enters time and is clothed in living human flesh right in front of the hearers. This is only possible through the proclamation of God's Word through the power of God's Spirit by a man who is free from the need to impress others through his preaching.
Of course we cannot be irrelevant or dull or uninteresting or any of the other things that are said about preaching today. We certainly use the technology of our times through videos and other visual supports. We can implement drama, music, dramatic readings, any of a number of tools that help communicate to our age. But there will always be a place for a preacher on fire for the Lord, burning with the holiness that ignites without consuming, calling for people to take off their shoes because they stand on holy ground. God will speak through that preacher in the twenty-first century even as He did in the first.
You must not allow the word to become rare in your generation as it did in Samuel's time. You must commit yourself to proclaim God's word with accuracy, clarity, interest, and relevance. You must strive to be creative without being cheap, to be effective without being shallow, and to use technology without letting it use you. You must never sacrifice accuracy for relevance, nor clarity for the sake of interest. You must commit yourself to the hard work of simplifying difficult concepts, of clarifying complex truths, of bringing heaven down to earth. People must see Jesus in Levis and loafers, Abraham in Cole Haans and Dockers, the disciples in Bermudas and sandals--all without diluting Christ's deity, Abraham's impatience, or the disciples' efforts to hide their fears in their drive to become #1.
Most of all, you must remember that preaching is a supremely spiritual act.
You can never be too busy to be spiritual; you can never give in to what works; you can never allow yourself to become blind to the covetousness of the flesh. If you allow this to happen, all you will have is nice nothings about a god made in your image. All you will have is a word from you driven by your ego and your ambition. As preachers, remember above all else that preaching is a supremely spiritual act. When it isn't spiritual it becomes supremely arrogant, an affront to God and man.
If your preaching is to be a spiritual act, it must come out of your intimacy with God. You must allow nothing, absolutely nothing, to keep you from His presence virtually daily. You are in the greatest position of privilege in the world, the privilege of bringing a message from God to the troubled and the peaceful, those who are successful and those who are failures, those who know Christ and those who don't. You must undertake this grave responsibility out of intimacy with God or you will fail. Intimacy with God will give you integrity, not only in your character, but also in your message. You will learn how to grow. You will show others how to recover from failure, how to keep on going when you are having to face sin in your life, what it looks like to struggle with growth in Christ. Your listeners will learn more from your model than they will from your message, but they will believe your message because they know you do.
Intimacy and integrity bring you intensity, not an intensity of delivery, although that may come, but an intensity of reality. This person who speaks for God is real, genuine, alive, not someone who is trying to present himself as perfect, which impacts His listeners as plastic. He is truly committed, ready to pay any price he must to tell us of God's grace and power. And through this intimacy, integrity, and intensity, you will ignite a flame in your ministry that will touch and change lives, not just in your community, but all over the world. You see, once God knows He can trust you, He will give you an influence you never dreamed possible.
So there you have it: intimacy, integrity, and intensity igniting a flame of influence exceeding abundantly above all that you could ever ask or think because you proclaim the God-breathed, God-blessed, God authenticated word in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International (LFI) as well as Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Bill began LFI in 2002 to minister to leaders around the world who are impacting the nations for Christ. Having watched God form his own life as a leader-mentor over thirty-seven years in ministry (including twelve years as a founding pastor, twelve years as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership, and over twenty-three years as a seminary faculty member), Bill helps other leaders recognize the reality that their success as a leader depends upon God's formative work in their heart. Bill has been privileged to personally serve leaders in Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He has also produced a six-part video/workbook series, Forming Davids for the 21st Century, which is a perfect resource to help groups of individual leaders engage with each other in the leader formation journey.
Publication date: June 8, 2010