Preachers in the Reformed tradition are deeply committed to preaching Christ. We believe that all the Scriptures point to Christ and therefore every sermon should lead people to see him more clearly. Not wanting to preach moralistic or legalistic messages, we seek to show that Christ has fulfilled the law for us. We depend on his righteousness, not our own. We also stress that we are not only justified in Christ but sanctified by him. It is by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and through union with him that we are enabled to grow in holiness.
As we seek to exalt Christ and draw people to him, it is essential to remember that this is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit. How much does the Holy Spirit feature in our Christ-centred sermons?
However, as we seek to exalt Christ and draw people to him, it is essential to remember that this is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s work is to glorify Christ and draw people to him, and without the Spirit’s ongoing work in us it is impossible for us to grow in holiness.
The question that must be asked, therefore, is this: How much does the Holy Spirit feature in our Christ-centred sermons? How often do you hear about the person and work of the Spirit in the sermons you listen to? How much focus does the Holy Spirit receive when you’re discussing the gospel in a Bible study group? I suspect that in much reformed evangelical preaching, there is far less focus on the Spirit than there ought to be.
The Spirit’s Work
It is true, of course, that the Spirit draws attention to Christ and not to himself. We might therefore tend to think that we ought not draw attention to him either. But that is not the pattern of the biblical authors. Not only do the Old Testament prophets repeatedly foretell his powerful work (cf. Ezekiel 36–37), and not only does Jesus give extensive teaching about his ministry (cf. John 14–16), but the apostolic preaching of Christ constantly highlights the power and necessity of the work of the Spirit.
In Romans, for example, there are close to thirty references to the Spirit, with a concentration of references in chapter 8 where Paul depicts the new life that we have in Christ. In Christ there is no condemnation because “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (8:2). We now “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4) and have our “minds on the things of the Spirit” (8:5). We are “not in the flesh but in the Spirit” (8:8) and if anyone “does not have the Spirit of Christ” he “does not belong to him” (8:9). The very Spirit who raised Christ from the dead now lives in us and gives life to our mortal bodies (8:11). By the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body (8:13). By him we have become sons of God and can call God our Father (8:15). The Spirit confirms this status in our hearts, assuring us of our eternal inheritance (8:16–17). Furthermore, as we wait for future glory, often agonizing in this sin-cursed world, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (8:26), interceding for us (8:27).
There is not one dimension of the Christian life that is not enabled by the work of the Spirit. Quite simply, without the Spirit there is no spiritual life. It is the Spirit who convicts us of sin, awakens our dead hearts to hear and see spiritual truths, draws us to Jesus as Saviour and Lord and unites us to him
There is not one dimension of the Christian life that is not enabled by the work of the Spirit. Quite simply, without the Spirit there is no spiritual life. It is the Spirit who convicts us of sin, awakens our dead hearts to hear and see spiritual truths, draws us to Jesus as Saviour and Lord, unites us to him, works ongoing faith in our hearts, assures us of our adoption, seals us, sanctifies us, revives us, renews us, enables us with gifts to serve Christ, leads us, assures us, teaches us, prays for us and displays to us the magnificence of the gospel of Christ. We must therefore “walk by the Spirit,” be “led by the Spirit,” and “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:16, 18, 25).
The Believer’s Need
If no progress can be made in the Christian life apart from the work of the Spirit, it is essential that believers be aware of their dependence on him. We need to know that apart from him we can do nothing. We can’t feel the depth of our sin or see the beauty of Christ; we can’t sanctify ourselves or serve the Lord Jesus; we can’t keep ourselves spiritually alive or grow in our understanding of God and his Word.
If we are not aware of our total dependence on the Spirit we will fall into spiritual error. We may well become prayerless, thinking we can change ourselves or other people by our words, our programs, or even our orthodoxy. We may lose heart in our own attempts to grow in holiness because we are depending on our effort, not on his inward enabling. We may mishandle Scripture, or at least miss many of its riches, expecting to see its true meaning by means of exegetical study without reliance on the illumination of the Spirit. We may become impatient with other people, expecting them to try harder and do better, whereas we should be pointing them to what the Spirit of Christ in them can do by his grace. We may distort the gospel, implying (if not actually stating) that while we are saved by grace we are sanctified by works.
Believers in Christ must remain utterly dependent on the Spirit of Christ. We need to pray earnestly that God would work by the power of his Spirit in us and in other people, in the church and in the world. We need to know what his work is, how he does it and how dependent we are on it. We need to worship a triune God, which includes worshipping God the Spirit as well as God the Father and God the Son.
The Teacher’s Task
In view of this, preachers and teachers (including Bible study leaders, Sunday School teachers, and theological college lecturers) need to constantly highlight our need of the Spirit’s work. We cannot afford to take this as read. Of course, the text, truth or topic we are dealing with may not be specifically about the Holy Spirit, but it is almost always necessary to speak of the Spirit when applying God’s Word to people’s lives.
Preachers and teachers (including Bible study leaders, Sunday School teachers, and theological college lecturers) need to constantly highlight our need of the Spirit’s work. We cannot afford to take this as read.
We need repeatedly to point people to their dependence on him for spiritual life. Do they need a deeper conviction of their sin and their need of Christ? Then we urge them to pray that God would cut them to the heart by the power of his Spirit. Do they want to see greater riches in God’s Word? Then we tell them that this comes by the illumination of the Spirit. Are they feeling insecure and unsure of their standing with God? Then we remind them that they have been sealed by the Spirit, and by the Spirit they can call God their Father. Are they wanting to deal with a particular sin? Then we tell them that they will never beat it by their own effort, but as the Spirit dwells in them and unites them more and more closely to Christ, he is able to subdue the power of sin and implant in them deeper and more powerful affections that will enable them to progressively say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness. Are they unsure if their prayers are being answered? Then we assure them of the Spirit’s intercession as well as Christ’s. Are they longing for revival and renewal in the church? Then we remind them of the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit who brings life to dead bones.
We could go on. There is no part of the Christian life that is not dependent on the power of the Holy Spirit.
So, to put the matter very bluntly, how often does the Holy Spirit make the cut in your sermons? Or in your Bible studies? Or even in your prayer life? Maybe preachers could look back over their last five sermons and see how much attention was given to his person and work.
Such a focus on the Spirit is not designed to replace our focus on Christ, but to enhance it. The Christ-glorifying Spirit cannot be ignored if we are to exalt Christ and see people grow in him.
First published in RTC Monthly