The Necessity of the Holy Spirit in Preaching


How utterly dependent we are on the Holy Spirit in the work of preaching! All genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation. You wake up on Sunday morning and you can smell the smoke of hell on one side and feel the crisp breezes of heaven on the other. You go to your study and look down at your pitiful manuscript, and you kneel down and cry, “God, this is so weak! Who do I think I am? What audacity to think that in three hours my words will be the odor of death to death and the fragrance of life to life (2 Cor 2:16). My God, who is sufficient for these things?”-John Piper [1]


“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” ( 1Cor 2:1-5 ESV)

The Apostle Paul spoke out boldly against the excesses of the Corinthian church’s abuses of the Spirit’s gifts and the counterfeit gifts being promoted as the Spirit’s work. Yet, he began his letter by confessing that his message was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel message, considered foolish by this world, requires a messenger who will derive his power from the Spirit who sent him.

A biblical preacher needs to consider his task as a proclaimer of the supernatural message of our God and he must remember that the unbeliever is totally depraved, and that any human effort to affect his heart through methods and manipulation is foolish (1Cor 2:14). This is necessary because the radical depravity of man can only be overcome by the work of the Holy Spirit and not by our clever devices. Charles Spurgeon, related the effects of radical depravity on preaching:

“I shall not attempt to teach a tiger the virtues of vegetarianism; but I shall as hopefully attempt that task as I would try to convince an unregenerate man of the truths revealed by God concerning sin, and righteousness, and the judgment to come.”[2]

Without the Spirit, every message preached will fail to penetrate the sin-soaked hearts of man. Therefore biblical expositors who desire to remain faithful to the Lord and His Word cannot push the Holy Spirit to the outer rim of their theology, and treat Him as incidental and unnecessary in ministry. We cannot succeed without Him!

Therefore, I’d like to propose that every biblical expositor:

Must Be Committed to Biblical Power and Clarity
The undeniable fact is that preaching every week can become wearying if the pastor’s motivations are not right. If we seek to be true to our calling we must begin by searching our own hearts for the motive behind what we do in the pulpit. Do we preach to please the people or to proclaim the truth, come what may? When the crowds fail to knock down our doors, but instead flock to the church down the street that has a three-ring circus going on, do we begin to doubt the power of the Word preached? Does our theology of God’s power working through the instrument of His Word make its way into our pulpits Sunday after Sunday? The fact is, we must look to the source of the power that accompanies authentic biblical preaching: the Holy Spirit. This power comes in two ways:

Power in Prayer

E. M. Bounds wrote,

“What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use—men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men.”[3]

How dependent are you on God when you preach? How much time do you spend in prayer before you step into the pulpit? Paul not only said he was weak (1Cor 4:10), but he repeatedly asked for prayer: “Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you” (2Thess 3:1). Again and again Paul asked for prayer because he knew he was weak without God.

John Owen confronts us,

“A minister may fill his pews, his communion rolls, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”[4]

Secondly we find:

Power Centered in the Piercing Word

Hebrews 4:12-13 says,

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Taken together, the thoughts and intentions of the heart are those deepest internal workings of the mind and those affections that are most hidden. According to Hebrews 4:13, this all-pervasive scrutiny of the Word, like a divine X-ray of the soul, penetrates every dark corner of the heart exposing everything that is hidden.

So powerful is God’s Word that Paul mentions the reaction of an unbelieving stranger when exposed to it: “…he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all,  the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (1 Cor 14:24-25).

The power of preaching does not come from the preachers style, outline, education, vocabulary, sense of humor or style of dress. The power comes from the Word of God preached through the Holy Spirit.
This is no excuse for laziness in the study, but the God of heaven does not need our ability to parse Greek verbs to change the souls of men.

The Power of the Word In the Study

Study is described by Paul as labor, it is hard work (kopiao) “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” (1Tim 5:17). Study takes diligence (spoudazo-“persistent diligence” 2Tim 2:15)-“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
John MacArthur has written,

“What is our responsibility? The answer is in Ps. 119:130; “The unfolding of Thy words gives light.” God’s words are unfolded to us first by discovery. Through diligent Bible study, we unfold or unwrap God’s truth. We discover that meditation with a view to applying the truth deepens its impact. Discovery and meditation, combined bring the brightest light of illumination to our hearts.”[5]

Hard study is not Spirit-quenching. It is quite the opposite, it is Spirit illumined and Spirit blessed.


Clarity Derived from the Spirit: Illumination of the Expositor

From the Pulpit to the Pew

Illumination is necessary for the expositor in his study, but this is only part of the influence that the Spirit has upon His Word. It needs to be acknowledged that no matter how talented the expositor may be, the reception of the message is dependent upon the Spirit’s work in illuminating the hearts and minds of those listening.

Sermons preached have little effect upon dead ears unless the Spirit moves to open up the hearer to the truths expressed in His Word. Although the preacher of the Word needs to be diligent and faithful to prepare a thoroughly biblical exposition of the text and assemble it into a sermon that includes application of the Word, this alone is not enough. We cannot forget that the Gospels refer to the disciples coming away from the words of Jesus four times with the phrase “did not understand” (Mk 9:32; Lk 9:45; Jn 8:27; 10:6) and multiple times the crowds were confused at the words of Jesus. Illumination is not a matter of intelligence, it is a matter of spiritual enablement.

For the pastor proclaiming the Word in the pulpit, the Spirit gives clarity to the hearers in His act of illumination of their hearts and minds to His Word. When we step into the pulpit if we are centered on the Word, dependent upon the Spirit and have been with God in our study, we will have the confidence of God.
When Christ is exalted and the message of the cross is declared from the pulpit with prayer, passion, and precision, there is power. Power because the preacher is not depending upon his own strength. Power because the preacher believes what he is preaching is the fragrance of life to life, and death to death (2Cor 2:16). Power because the preacher has labored in the study and has come away having encountered the risen Lord in the pages of the living Word. When this type of preacher steps behind the pulpit, God moves through the Spirit using some or all of these means to accomplish His purpose.

Steve Lawson has said,

“Both literally and figuratively, the preacher should always be pointing to the biblical text. This Word-centered focus in the pulpit is the defining mark of all true expositors. Those who preach and teach the Word are to be so deeply rooted and grounded in the Scriptures that they never depart from them, ever directing themselves as well as their listeners to its truths. Biblical preaching should be just that—biblical—and all who stand in the pulpit must show an unwavering, even relentless, commitment to the Scripture itself. As a practicing physician knows and prescribes medicine, so every preacher should be ever studying, learning, and dispensing heavy doses of the healing balm of God’s Word to all his patients. Whatever the ailment, there is but one cure for the soul—the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God to the human heart.”[6]

Brothers, don’t allow poor theology and hyper-emotionalism hijack from our churches the biblical ministry of the Holy Spirit!

[1] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1990), 37-8
[2] C. H. Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry (n.p., 1900;  reprint, Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1994), 322.

[3] E. M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, paperback ed. 1972), 7.

[4] Cited in I.D.E. Thomas, A Puritan Golden Treasury (Carlisle, Pa.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 192.

[5] John MacArthur Jr. Rediscovering Expository Preaching ( Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishing, 1992), 115.
[6] Steven J. Lawson, Famine in the Land: A Passionate Call for Expository Preaching (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 81-2.

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