There wouldn’t be a person, busy in gospel ministry, who hasn’t, at least occasionally, asked themself questions like: Why do I feel so inadequate and lacking in spiritual power? Why am I not more aware of the Spirit’s active input into my life and ministry?
We tend to avoid the language of spiritual power in our reformed circles. But is this right?
We hear stories of great triumphs from our Pentecostal friends, and deep down feel pangs of envy. And perhaps, even as a reaction, we downplay our own modest successes for fear of overstating the ‘power factor’ in ministry. Meanwhile we comfort ourselves in our theology which emphasises divine sovereignty and human faithfulness in the daily slog of ministry. In so doing we tend to sidestep the subject and avoid the language of spiritual power in our reformed circles. But is this right?
A Recent Personal Experience
Over many years of pastoral ministry I have developed and refined certain patterns of operating; daily disciplines, well-drilled weekly routines, proven methods of sermon preparation etc. I like to be organised and well-prepared. In many ways this is commendable ministry practice. But I recently found myself in a situation where, over a sustained period, the demands of ministry were overwhelming, and I felt pushed well outside my comfort zone. Being overseas at the time, challenged culturally, and with limited resources at my disposal, my sense of inadequacy was compounded.
This was unfamiliar territory for me. All I could do was commit my situation to the Lord, do my best, and trust him to accomplish his purposes through my feeble efforts. And yet, in a strange, humbling, yet deeply fulfilling way I had that experience of the Lord carrying me and using me in a way that I have rarely experienced before. I felt that I had reached the end of my own resources, but that God had taken over. His power was literally being made perfect in my weakness. This was both a refreshing reminder and a sobering rebuke to me about the utter necessity of the Holy Spirit in my ministry.
The Spirit’s Role in Frontline Ministry
A quick overview of NT references shows the Spirit at work in two particular ways in the work of gospel ministry.
1. In the person doing the ministry
When preparing his disciples for their future ministry, Jesus gave them specific instruction about the Holy Spirit.
- It is the Spirit’s role to communicate to us and through us the words of Jesus (John 15:26; 16:13).
- It is the Spirit’s role to give power for evangelism and mission (Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8).
- It is the Spirit’s role to tell us what to say in the face of opposition (Luke 12:11-12).
In the book of Acts, we see repeatedly the difference it made when the Holy Spirit was at work in those early gospel workers.
- He enabled them to ‘speak the word of God boldly’ (Acts 4:31,33).
- He enabled them to die fearlessly as martyrs (Acts 5:54-60).
- He inspired the mission of the early church (Acts 13:2-4).
- He gave them courage to confront sin and evil (Acts 13:8-11).
- He filled them with joy even in the face of persecution (Acts 13:49-52).
- He gave wisdom to the assembled leaders (Acts 15:28).
- He gave guidance in planning their missionary itinerary (Acts 16:6-10).
- He warned about dangers ahead (Acts 20:23, 21:11).
And, of course, there is the role of the Spirit in equipping us with gifts for ministry and encouraging us to use them (2 Tim 1:6-7).
This is how Paul summarised his ministry challenge to Timothy:
What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
(2 Timothy 1:13-14)
2. In the people being ministered to
The Holy Spirit is also working vitally in the hearts of those we may be ministering to.
- It is the Spirit’s role to bring people to a conviction of sin, righteousness and judgement (John 16:8-11; 1 Thess 1:5).
- It is the Spirit’s role to reveal ‘the deep things of God’ and ‘spiritual realities’ (1 Cor 2:6-16).
- It is the Spirit’s role to pour God’s love into people’s hearts (Rom 5:5).
- No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12;3).
- He is the ‘seal’ and ‘guarantee’ of those who believe (Eph 1:13-14).
- He gives joyful acceptance of the gospel even despite persecution (1 Thess 1:6).
Under Peter’s Spirit-empowered preaching on the Day of Pentecost, we read what happened:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
How often do we see a response like this to our preaching?
When gospel ministry is energised by the Holy Spirit, the gospel’s power is released.
The Bible is consistent that there is an intrinsic, supernatural power in the gospel message (Rom 1:16), and when gospel ministry is energised by the Holy Spirit, the gospel’s power is released.
Like Paul we may come ‘in weakness with great fear and trembling’ (1 Cor 2:3), but that should not daunt us. Instead, it should spur us to greater dependence on the Spirit, and affirm to us that the ‘all-surpassing power is from God and not from us’ (2 Cor 4:7).
How do we Hinder the work of the Spirit?
In his excellent book, ‘I Believe in Preaching’, John Stott says:
Why, then, does the power of the Spirit seem to accompany our preaching so seldom? I strongly suspect that the main reason is our pride. In order to be filled with the Spirit, we have first to acknowledge our own emptiness. In order to be exalted and used by God, we have first to humble ourselves under his mighty hand (1 Peter 5:6). In order to receive his power, we have first to admit, and then even revel in, our own weakness.
Pride in ministry can express itself in many different ways, such as:
- neglect of prayer
- reliance on our preparation
- lack of preparation
- dependence on methods or techniques
- adherence to systems that have worked in the past
Perhaps the greatest expression of pride is an unwillingness to trust God’s authoritative Word and depend utterly on him. If that is so, then as preachers and teachers of the gospel we must repent of our unbelief.
Hear Stott again:
Only Jesus Christ by his Holy Spirit can open blind eyes and deaf ears, make the lame walk and the dumb speak, prick the conscience, enlighten the mind, fire the heart, move the will, give life to the dead, and rescue slaves from Satanic bondage ….. Therefore, our greatest need as preachers is to be ‘clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49).
Some keys to Spiritual Power
There is no ‘formula’ for tapping into the presence or power of God. And we should be very wary of those who suggest otherwise (and in wider church circles today there are many false teachers who do). However these are some heart attitudes which should undergird all our ministry:
- Acknowledge our utter helplessness
As Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)
- Be bold
No heart is impervious to the Word of God. We are not wasting our time persevering in gospel ministry.
- Be patient
God is sovereign over all evangelism and all ministry. He works in his own time and way. We may simply be a link in his chain.
- Be prayerful
Cry out to God for ‘power from on high’. Prayer is the very best way to express our dependence on him and the power of his Spirit.
The story goes that there were 15 steps leading up to the massive pulpit in the Metropolitan Tabernacle (London) where Charles Spurgeon preached for 38 years. As he mounted those stairs Spurgeon would repeat 15 times to himself the words: “I believe in the Holy Ghost, I believe in the Holy Ghost …” Enough said!