What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of preaching? It would be hard to overstate. The Spirit is the author and preserver of Scripture, the teacher and guide of the preacher and—through the words and meaning of Scripture—the power and presence of God at work in the listening congregation.
The preacher is to be deeply dependent on the Holy Spirit in the preparation of sermons and the exercise of the preaching ministry. Paul says to the elders of the church in Ephesus that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers of the flock of God and commits to them the same ministry of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace that he himself exercised (Acts 20:28). Paul writes to Timothy and urges him to ‘fan into flame’ the gift that was given through the laying on hands—namely, the Spirit’s commission to testify to the Lord even in the face of suffering (2 Tim 1:8), and to guard the gospel (2 Tim 1:14). To the churches in Timothy’s care (among others), Paul writes in Ephesians 4 that Christ the ascended King has, by his Spirit, given gifts of word ministers to his church for the church’s equipping, maturing and upbuilding (Ephesians 4:11). Today too, those who exercise Word-ministry in the church— including preaching—must do so in dependence upon the Holy Spirit so that they ‘keep the pattern of sound teaching,’ ‘guard the good deposit … with the help of the Holy Spirit’ ( 2 Tim 1:13-14) and ‘correctly handle the word of truth’ (2 Tim 2:15).
Christ the ascended King has, by his Spirit, given gifts of word ministers to his church for the church’s equipping, maturing and upbuilding
The preacher’s task is to explain the content of Scripture and apply the purpose of Scripture. Neither can be done without the help of the Holy Spirit. Preachers need the illumination of the Spirit to understand the content of their preaching passage before they may explain it to others. Preachers need the conviction of the Spirit to submit to the purpose of the preaching passage before they may apply it to others. Preachers need the empowering of the Spirit to preach God’s Word to God’s people with clarity, compassion and courage. To preach without praying is to be thoroughly unprepared.
Ministry in the Sight of God
Paul calls his ministry the ‘glorious ministry of the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:8) before describing its character:
… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2)
That preaching takes place ‘in the sight of God’ requires that no one preach without having prayed. There would be something deceptive or distorting about a preacher who spoke God’s Word to God’s people without having heard and responded to that Word themselves, in dependence upon God’s Spirit. It is right to pray for God’s work in the preacher though the words God gives the preacher to say, as well as in the preacher’s hearers. And it is right for the preacher to pray this way.
A Trap and a Challenge
Perhaps one of the most subtle and surprising forms of distorting the Word of God, against which the preacher must seek the help of the Spirit of ‘power, love and self-discipline’ (2 Tim 1:7), is that of silencing God’s Word in the act of preaching it. A preacher has unfettered opportunity to chose what to say and which parts of Scripture to expound. A preaching model based on exposition of consecutive passages of Scripture demonstrates trust in the Spirit’s arrangement and weighting of subjects in Scripture.
Nevertheless, the Lord’s rule of his church by his Spirit-breathed Word, can challenge the preacher who would prefer not to preach about the reality of sin and judgement, the glory and terror of the cross, the urgency and necessity of broken-hearted repentance towards Christ—let alone sexuality or wealth or gender or marriage or ministry. Preachers and congregations must humbly seek the help and direction of the Holy Spirit to ensure that great things are not spoken of as trivialities, or momentous truths as though they were of no real consequence. The temptation is great to downplay the seriousness of sin or to studiously or subconsciously avoid the sins of which we are most guilty. Those who preach do so in the presence of God the Holy Trinity. Let preachers pray for humility and courage to speak the truth plainly, without fear, and in love of God and those for whom Christ died.
The temptation is great to downplay the seriousness of sin or to studiously or subconsciously avoid the sins of which we are most guilty. Let preachers pray for humility and courage.
The preacher and congregation must yield to the Holy Spirit in responding to Scripture. ‘For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any two edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12). As the content and purpose of the inspired text of Scripture is preached, the Spirit wields his Word in the congregation. To fail to respond would be to ‘distort the word of God’. When the Word is explained but not applied it suggests that God’s Word is merely of historical interest and makes no immediate demand upon those who hear it; or that Christian duty is fulfilled when we merely hear; or that God’s Word can be safely confined to Sunday morning sitting in church and need not trouble the hearers at other times; all of which are impossible.
It will always be right for a congregation to respond to God’s Word in repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). But the word of God’s grace that is ‘able to build you up and give you an inheritance among the sanctified’ (Acts 20:32) may call for obedience, love, effort, hope, fear and trembling, zeal, joy, praise, prayer, perseverance, contentment, endurance, patience, thanksgiving. The Spirit is the powerful presence of God in the preaching of the meaning and purpose of the words of Scripture so preachers must expect God to meet his people in the preaching, and the people must expect to make a response to God.
It is in the inspired human words and meaning of Scripture that the Spirit will be active today as he was when those words were first breathed out by God. If the Spirit’s work is separated from the words of Scripture, then preachers will be tempted to be satisfied with a fleeting, shallow response among their hearers. No doubt such responses can be generated by affecting stories, or emotive appeals or captivating oratory. By all means let preachers ask God to produce in their hearers tears of earnest repentance: Christ-exalting joy; kingdom-gaining perseverance; Satan-spurning obedience; compassion-filled servant-heartedness; happy, hopeful contentment. Such fruit cannot come from human artfulness. Let preachers and listeners alike ask God to produce such fruit from his Spirit-wielded Word preached in the congregation.