“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Rom 1:16 ESV
It would seem that some people who are all for church planting are unaware of Romans 1:16, so I have reproduced it here for the benefit of those who think that a church is best planted by human invention.
What do I mean by ‘human invention?’ How about slick marketing programs that blanket the city? Or freebies, raffles, and give-aways that are meant to be a spiritual bait-and-switch? There are surveys meant to find out what unbelieving pagans want in a church so that a church can be tailored for them, and there are those ‘church planters’ who blanket Christian radio, Christian bookstores and encourage their core team to invite their friends over to their cool, new church that is so much better than the one they’re in now. There are other so-called church planting and church growth gimmicks I could mention, but I think that you probably know of one or two places like this.
Then there is Holy Spirit power that converts a soul from being a prisoner of darkness into a light-reflecting child of the Kingdom. Those churches that seek to grow from preaching a gospel that leads to Spirit-regeneration of the souls of men are true church plants. And those who plant churches by the power of the gospel do so in the methodology that gives all glory to God and cannot be conjured up by Madison Avenue methods.
To all my brothers out there who are holding forth the truth in faithfulness, keep it up. For those growing weary of doing good, email me and I’ll join you in prayer so that you won’t be tempted to give in to powerless quick fixes that yield a crowd, but not gospel growth.
“I mull over the text, I pray. I meditate and exegete. I talk to my Bible, and ask questions of the text. I take notes. I think. I sweat. And then God gives me what he wants me to have.”—Warren Wiersbe
Like many things in the Christian life, the preparation and delivery of a sermon is neither solely the work of the Holy Spirit nor is it solely the work of the preacher. The former leads to mysticism and poorly prepared sermons that are more heat than light and the latter leads to sermons that are devoid of the power of God.
In order to gain a better grasp of how the Holy Spirit acts within the preparation of biblical exposition we must first recognize that any study of the text which seeks to be accurate and God empowered is a work of the Spirit which carries along the expositor in his study as much as in his delivery.
A Preliminary Distinction
Before we can launch into the working of the Spirit in the study of the Scripture by a regenerate Christian, we must understand how it is that an unbeliever can accurately study any given text and still accurately understand what the text is saying to a certain extent. By examining how this is possible, we will be able to better understand how the Christian expositor is different and how his resultant study will yield spiritual fruit. To accomplish this, it is helpful to distinguish between comprehension of a biblical text and apprehension of the Word of God.
Comprehension as I am using it here is the ability to gain a knowledge of the text of Scripture through the technical sciences and application of hermeneutical principles. Comprehension allows for the accurate observation of such elements as grammar, syntax, and other exegetical and linguistic features of the text, i.e. the unbelieving exegete is not prevented by the noetic effects of sin from recognizing the verb forms of a biblical passage. He may gain additional insights regarding the biblical text from his knowledge of archaeology, background, culture and a multitude of other disciplines.
However, it must be acknowledged that the unregenerate exegete cannot come to the text in a purely “scientific” way because his presuppositions will taint his methodology and will not allow for the Bible’s claim to be the voice of God. His comprehension will be flawed and be limited as he or she seeks to understand the fact of the text in light of their intended meaning.
Different from a raw knowledge of the facts of a text’s features and most basic meaning is what can perhaps be referred to as “apprehension.” Apprehension would include in addition to the comprehension of the text the additional aspect of the reception of the meaning of the Word of God in heart and conscience and communicates the intention of the passage and the desired response of the Holy Spirit to those that hear the message “with ears to hear.” This apprehension may include the preacher as well as those who hear the message. Paul wrote about this reception of the Word in 1Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thessalonians 2:13, ESV)
The contrast between the understanding of the biblical text by the unbeliever and the believer is most markedly different in the comparison of these two aspects—comprehension and apprehension.
The inability of unredeemed men to comprehend the meaning of Scripture nor can they hear the revelation of God in any form is expressed in such passages as:
Romans 1:18–20—They are “truth suppressors” and cannot grasp what God has made plain, yet they are without excuse.
1Cor 1:18-25; 2:14—The Word of God is “folly” (Gk. moros) to the world’s wise men. Not only are they foolishness to the natural person, but they are incapable of understanding them.
Eph 4:17-19—Unbelievers are marked as living “in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding…”
This suppression, mocking and darkened understanding affects some comprehension and prohibits apprehension of the Word of God when it is studied by the unbeliever, no matter his depth of knowledge in biblical studies.
Biblical Examples of Comprehension without Apprehension
The murderous Jews who searched the Scriptures but could not accept Jesus as the Christ—John 5:18, 39-47
The indifferent chief priests and scribes who had no apparent desire to seek the Christ-child in spite of knowing some were seeking his birthplace—Matt 2:1-6
The ignorant, yet searching Ethiopian who studied the prophet Isaiah but could not find Christ on his own—Acts 8:26-30
The missing element that links Comprehension and joins exegesis to the heart is the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination.
Comprehension and the Work of the Preacher
“Exegetical imprecision is the mother of liberal theology. When pastors can no longer articulate and defend doctrine by a reasonable and careful appeal to the original meaning of Biblical texts, they will tend to become closed-minded traditionalists who clutch their inherited ideas, or open-ended pluralists who don’t put much stock in doctrinal formulations. In both cases the succeeding generations will be theologically impoverished and susceptible to error.”—John Piper
It is necessary to state that the necessity of Holy Spirit working through the believer for the comprehension of the biblical text does not guarantee that the interpretation of the text is the correct one. Many passages in the Bible have been a matter of debate by believers and Christian scholars for centuries. Simply because the Holy Spirit is present does not automatically mean that serious exegetical study is not required, nor that such study guarantees the outcome of that study.
However, without Spirit dependent exegesis and the careful application of hermeneutical principles, the correct understanding of any given passage of Scripture will not be able to correctly interpret the passage as the Holy Spirit intended it to the original audience then applied to the present audience being addressed.
Accuracy with the biblical text assures that the message of the Scripture is understood accurately, but the work of the Holy Spirit is not complete. He must still work to bring about the apprehension of the message he intends.
Apprehension and the Work of the Preacher
Beyond the need for proper hermeneutical principles and accurate exegesis, there is the necessity of the work of God’s Spirit. As Paul reminded the church in Corinth:
“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.” (1 Corinthians 2:4–5, ESV)
Accompanying the words of the message there must be the Spirit and his power. A sermon that is empowered by God himself must be more than simply an accurate message, although it cannot be less. The inerrant Word will only successfully penetrate the heart when the Spirit acts.
I. Howard Marshall is correct when he writes:
“Once the sense of the text has been understood, there is the task of seeing what it has to say to a particular audience, be it the probable readers of a book or a congregation listening to a sermon. The sense of Scripture is something that can be determined with a measure of objectivity as something that is fixed; it is what the original writer intended his original readers to learn from what he wrote. The application of this to new sets of readers in new situations can be very varied. It is here that the expositor particularly feels his dependence upon the Spirit in the task of making Scripture speak again in the new situation. In a sense he is trying to repeat what the original authors had to do—to speak forth God’s Word in a way that would grip their audiences; receiving Scripture as God’s Word, he now has the task of speaking it forth so as to grip his audience. If the original authors were dependent upon the inspiration of the Spirit to do so, how much more is the modern expositor thrown back upon the guidance and illumination of the Spirit in his task?”
The illuminating work of the Holy Spirit refers to the Spirit-given ability to understand the Word of God as it is studied or as one considers its implications for life. Paul referred to the inability of the natural mind to understand the spiritual mind of God in 1 Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14). It is not that the unbeliever is not able to understand the bare words and thoughts of the Bible, but he cannot understand their spiritual meaning or their application to his own soul. This is best illustrated in the account of Nicodemus in John 3. Although he was a preeminent teacher of Israel, Nicodemus could not conceive of the new birth, even though Jesus condescended to teach him these things in natural pictures, relating the new birth to a human birth.
Jonathan Edwards related this to the unregenerate man having some sense of what is being referred to, but being incapable of having a total understanding of the matters of Scripture:
“The natural man discerns nothing of it (agreeable to 1 Cor. ii.14) and conceives of it no more than a man without the sense of tasting can conceive of the sweet taste of honey, or a man without the sense of hearing can conceive of the melody of a tune, or a man born blind can have a notion of the beauty of the rainbow.”
Although every believer has the ability to understand the Word of God because he has the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), the remaining effects of sin nature impede thinking and understanding. Thus, a preacher needs to be continually renewing his mind with the Word of God (Rom 12:2), asking God for clarity and understanding as he searches the Scriptures to glean its truths and apply them to his life and the lives of his hearers.
The Pastor in His Study
The effect of illumination on the heart in preaching is two-fold. Illumination must occur as the pastor prays over Scriptures and wrestles with the text that is to be preached to his congregation. The doctrine of illumination is not meant to be pitted against the need for careful study and preparation. Millard Erickson has written that,
“…illumination by the Holy Spirit helps the Scripture reader or hearer understand the Bible and creates the conviction that it is true and is the Word of God. This, however, should not be regarded as a substitute for the use of hermeneutical methods. These methods play a complementary, not competitive role.”
Illumination also occurs as the pastor stands in the pulpit and preaches the Word to the congregation. The words that are spoken, though they have illumined the heart and mind of the pastor in his study, will fall dead if the hearts and minds of the congregation are not also illumined by the Spirit to hear and understand. It is here that one sees most clearly the interrelatedness of the Spirit and His Word working through the Spirit-filled man of God.
John MacArthur, well known for his dedication to diligently present the Word of God, describes the necessity of illumination:
“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.”
Recognizing that the Word of God energizes the preacher and the hearer does not give pastors the right to become lazy. The Spirit most frequently works through means rather than directly in applying His Word to the human mind. Believers have been commanded to love the Lord God with their whole being, and that includes the mind (Matt 22:37). Erickson writes that even though the Spirit gives an inner testimony of the truthfulness of His Word:
“He [the Holy Spirit] creates certainty of the divine nature of Scripture by providing evidences that reason can evaluate. He also gives understanding of the text through the exegete’s work of interpretation. Even Calvin, with his strong emphasis on the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, called attention to the indicia of the credibility of the Scripture, and in his commentaries used the best of classical scholarship to get at the meaning of the Bible. Thus, the exegete and the apologist will use the very best methods and data, but will do so with a reiterated prayer for the Holy Spirit to work through these means.”
Even though the fool says in is heart that there is no God, his claim is contrary not only to the facts, but his raging against the God that he says does not exist shows that he does not believe his own words.
“Restore us, O God of our salvation, And cause Your indignation toward us to cease. Will You be angry with us forever? Will You prolong Your anger to all generations? Will You not Yourself revive us again, That Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your lovingkindness, O Lord, And grant us Your salvation.”
(Psalm 85:4–7, NASB95)
What is true biblical revival? Where does revival come from and what needs to precede true revival in order for heartfelt change to occur in each person? And what about the broader culture? How does a revival in the Church spread to a revival in society? All of these questions are answered in these verses, leading us to seek the only true source of life–God Himself!
Although verse 4 is a cry for restoration, restoration was not enough for Israel. They knew that their disobedience betrayed an ugly truth about their spiritual state. They were spiritually dead. They needed to be brought back to life; they needed revival.
When the Bible refers to “revival” we need to know that it is not simply whipping up some experience in the church. It’s not a tent meeting. It isn’t where the Holy Spirit shows up with a special outpouring in a new and fresh way like being slain in the Spirit, or some other ecstatic experience. These aren’t even biblical practices. So, what is a revival?
Walter Chantry helps us to understand it a little better when he writes,
“There have been outstanding periods in the history of the church when the intensified activity of the Holy Spirit has amazed her. Such times are known as revivals. True revivals do not result from some special work of the Spirit of God different from his normal gracious influences! Rather they are the effect of an increased measure of precisely the same power and grace which operate at every time and in every place that the church has been found since Pentecost. In revival times the Spirit’s work remains what it has ever been since Pentecost, namely, the work of inwardly convincing the unconverted by the Word, inwardly regenerating sinners by the Word, inwardly teaching and sanctifying saints by the Word, and inwardly prompting worship of Father and Son by the Word.”[i]
What I want you to see in Chantry’s definition and as seen in Psalm 85:4-7 is that revival, as biblically defined, is a mighty work of God, and not of man. Just like forgiveness, which must come from God’s mercy, so too revival is a result of the mercy of God, or else we would never have it.
Secondly, I want you to see that revival is an inward work of God that results in soul-work—reviving of a person who is dead in their trespasses and sins, bringing them to new life. They are vivified, they are born again. So, when a church wants to see revival, it must recognize that it is speaking of two related but different matters—either it recognizes that it is spiritually dead and filled with many unbelievers who think that they are believers and need new life, or it is speaking of evangelism outside of the church. Often true revival of the church will have the effect of spreading out to the community around it when those newborn Christians begin to live and speak for the glory of God.
With these things in mind, let us turn tour attention to Psalm 85:6-7. Again, “revive” refers to being made alive, to recover life. This verb in Hebrew is in the piel form, which means that God must put into action what the psalmist is asking. To say it differently, just like normal human life finds its origins in God, so too God must bring revival. If God does not bring it about, it will not happen.
There is an amazing picture of revival found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. I’ll leave you to read the passage for yourself. But in it the prophet Ezekiel is shown an old battlefield where there are probably hundreds of human skeletons lying about on the ground. These bones have been here for a long time because they no longer have flesh on them and are bleached out from being exposed to the sun. The Lord asks Ezekiel if these bones can once again become alive. The prophet wisely says that it depends upon God, who alone knows. After all, unless God raises dead bones, they will remain dead.
Then God tells the prophet to speak to the bones….
Notice a few things about this biblical illustration:
The question of whether the bones could be made alive again was not dependent upon the response of the bones, but God-v. 3.
Although it was ridiculous, the means that God chose to “activate” these dry bones was the Word of God as spoken by his servant Ezekiel-vv. 4-10.
Also notice in those words of prophecy that the power for life comes not from the bones, nor from the prophet, but from God alone who can cause these dry bones to live-v. 5.
Finally note that this whole scenario was set by God to show Ezekiel that God alone revives the spiritually dead.
Every time that God saves a person, he revives their dead souls. But that isn’t what we mean by revival—a soul saved here and there. That happens all the time. Revival is the accelerated work of God, whereby a small stream of people saved join together to become a torrent of saved souls. When this happens, the work of God is the same, but He acts in a wider and broader way with more people.
But with an increasing work of God in revival, there is more than just increased activity of the Spirit bringing about saving faith—there is a sudden influx of new Christians whose changed hearts are producing changed lives and then changing society around them.
We need to keep ever before us that when the gospel message changes a heart, it will change a life, and that means changed actions. This makes sense because our allegiances and loyalties are radically altered from darkness to light and from the evil one to Christ. When God changes a heart, he changes a whole life.
In the New Testament, as the gospel swept through the world, people were changed. These changes weren’t a fad, or even popular among unbelievers. These new Christians were despised and rejected of men, like their Savior. They had to survive wave after wave of persecution from the unbelieving world around them.
But they did it.
And as Psalm 85:6 says, if God will bring about revival, it will bring about the result that his people will rejoice in him. You see, rejoicing will not come until revival in the heart has occurred. Revival will not happen until God does his cleansing and saving work in us.
[i] Chantry, Walter, Signs of the Apostles: Observations on Pentacostalism Old and New. Banner of Truth, 1976, 129-30. Italics in the original.
I’ll never forget the day that I was teaching a lesson during the Sunday school hour at church on our doctrinal statement. Our church required that every prospective member go through twelve lessons to cover what we believe. I was on lesson two, on the doctrine of the Trinity. Each lesson began with the IFCA Doctrinal statement. The lesson began: “Doctrinal Statement: We believe in one Triune God eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; co-eternal in being, co-identical in nature, co-equal in power and glory, and having the same attributes and perfections (Deut 6:4; 2Cor 13:14).”
It was not unusual for current members to attend this class to refresh their understanding of what we believe, and it was always good to see the interaction between newer attendees who were considering membership and long-time members who loved the church. In this particular class we had in attendance a couple of long-time members that preceded my coming as their pastor.
As I explained the lesson on the Trinity, one of the older members objected to something I said regarding my explanation of the distinction of Persons and the unity of Being and how some have used illustrations that actually taught heresy. She explained to me that she had been a long-time Sunday school teacher to our children and that she had explained the Trinity in terms that I had just said were invalid, of which she took offense. It was at this moment that this former Sunday school teacher grew quiet and then expressed her confusion because she didn’t intend to teach unbiblical ideas of God, and yet she had.
What’s the big deal? Aren’t doctrines like the Trinity best left up to high-tower scholars locked up in libraries with their books? I mean, what does deep theological discussion have to do with evangelization, discipleship, and helping the single mom who is struggling to pay her bills and raise her kids? As a matter of fact, it makes a world of difference to all of these things, and more. This is because, when we evangelize, we must point people to the Savior-God. But how can we do so unless we know who He is and how He has worked righteousness on our behalf? Salvation is trinitarian! And discipleship requires teaching the Christian not only about holy living, but about the Holy God of the Bible, who is Trinity! And the struggling mom, why does it matter to her? Because if she is to find hope in this life, she must know that the God of the Universe cares for her—but to know that fact she must come to an understanding of the wonderous beauty of this God—who has revealed himself in the complexities of the Trinity.
But even beyond all of these practical reasons for understanding this doctrine is this truth: if we have been redeemed by the God of the Bible, then we need to understand and know Him as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. He is not like us. He is Creator and we are creature. So, we may struggle and we may unable to understand the mystery at times, but we push forward to grasp his magnificence because as Christians, we long to see Him as He is, not as we make Him out to be.
As Kenneth Daughters, president of Emmaus Bible College has written:
“When the average Christian is asked about the Trinity, he is content to quote a brief definition. Were he challenged to contemplate the meaning of the Trinity, he would quickly struggle. Few Christians have ever taken the time or trouble to think deeply on the subject. To most it is as abstract as a complicated mathematical expression. How sad! Actually, the Trinity is God’s highest revelation of himself. Far from being a subject that is too deep to be relevant, God intended for man to order his world in light of it. All forms of unity and diversity in the universe find their source in the nature of God as triune.
It is impossible to adequately understand God without understanding him as triune. To try to relate to God as a mono-personal being is to ignore his revelation to us and to deny his beauty. Some consider the concept of the Trinity too difficult to comprehend, so they operate in a functional denial of God’s Trinitarian nature. Others attempt to understand the Trinity but fall short conceiving him in a modalistic or tritheistic form. Not only have they failed to understand God and relate to him properly but they also have no basis for accurately balancing the unity and diversity all about them.”
Kenneth Daughters, “The Trinity and the Christian” in Understanding the Trinity, ed. John H. Fish III, 2003, (ECS Ministries: Dubuque, IA), 363.
Understanding the glorious doctrine of the Trinity is not meant to be first and foremost, utilitarian. We do not stare into the majestic beauty of the Trinity to find out what to “do.” In many ways, popular preaching and popular Christianity has become a self-help system that seeks to make you a better you. But the doctrine of the Trinity demands that we stop looking into our cellphone cameras and gaze upon the ineffable God who has revealed Himself in Scripture as Triune.
Consider the ramifications of the Trinity for a moment. If Christ is not God, then our worship is idolatry. If the three Persons are three gods, then we are not monotheists, but polytheists, and the Scriptures are not true, for they tell us that there is only one God. And what if Jesus is only an exalted creature, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim? Then we are still lost in our sins because a creature cannot atone for the sins of men!
Athanasius, the great Bishop of the Church in Alexandria (295-373 A.D.), was called the “black dwarf” by his enemies who longed to see him forever banished from the face of the earth. His crime? He defended the deity of Christ against the attacks of Arius, who claimed that Jesus Christ was only an exalted creature, and not God. For his stand, Athanasius was exiled from his church five times during a period of about fifty years. At times it seemed like it was Athanasius against the world. But the stakes were too high, and he would not give in while he still had life and breath in him. The Arians, according to Athanasius, had slid into heresy in at least two ways. First, they had lowered the Person of Christ to the position of a mere creature, and thus denied the deity of Christ, thereby denigrating the Trinity. Second, they had elevated the humanity of Christ so that they justified the worship of Christ while still claiming that He was not God, which if true was an act of blasphemous idolatry. In effect, the Arian attack against the Trinity was an attack against God himself. No Christian should stand for this.
John Calvin wrote, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” May we understand and know the true nature of God so as to defend the biblical doctrine of the glorious Trinity and may our knowledge drive us to the profound worship of “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1Tim 1:17, ESV)
This article was originally published in the VOICE magazine (Sept/Oct 2019). Used by permission.