The Mystery of Preaching: The Spirit, The Word, and Human Agency

 |  November 30, 2018

In his classic work, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, John A. Broadus stresses the need for effective preaching, arguing that the “the record of Christian history has been that the strength of the church is directly related to the strength of the pulpit.”[1]John A. Broadus, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4th ed., rev. Vernon L. Stanfield (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 7.   To be sure, there are many areas of homiletics that deserve the preacher’s careful attention, which will help improve his effectiveness in preaching and, thus, strengthen the church.  One specific area in homiletics that every preacher must strive to understand to be most effective in preaching is the mysterious nature of preaching.  The nature of preaching is mysterious because both a divine element and a human element characterize the event of preaching.  Specifically, God’s design of preaching integrates the Spirit, the Word, and human agency.

The Spirit. The preacher must realize the critical role that the Holy Spirit plays in preaching.  Jesus brings to light the important role of the Spirit in His preaching in Luke 4:18, announcing that the Spirit of God was upon Him and that He was anointed to preach the gospel.  Similarly, the Apostle Paul underscores that his preaching was “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4).  Clearly, Scripture teaches that the human messenger stands in need of divine strength for the task of preaching.  An effective preaching ministry, therefore, requires the special presence of the Spirit, who uniquely empowers and enables the preacher.

So, what must the preacher do to experience this necessary power of the Spirit in his preaching?  While such power may ebb and flow mysteriously according to God’s sovereign will, at least two things are essential.  First, the preacher should daily practice walking in the Spirit.  That is, the preacher should strive to stay close and clean in his relationship with God through personal prayer, Bible study, obedience, and worship.  By cultivating daily intimacy with God in these ways, the preacher will be sensitive to the Spirit’s leadership in his life and ministry.  Power in the pulpit stems not merely from what the preacher does on Sunday, but how he walks in the Spirit daily.  Second, the preacher should pray for the Spirit’s empowerment.  Since the preacher needs the Spirit’s power in declaring God’s Word, it only makes sense that the preacher should humbly and diligently ask God to anoint his life and ministry, crying out that He might fill him with divine strength.  A preacher should plead to God daily for the Spirit’s help and blessings with the whole preaching event—the preparation, the delivery, and the results.  And, after he has prayed, he should pray some more and keep on praying, for our Good Father in Heaven gives what is good to those who ask Him (Matt 7:11).

The Word. The preacher must also realize the important role of the Word of God in the preaching event.  A preacher’s task is not merely public speaking.  Second Timothy 4:2 commands the preacher to preach “the word”—the Holy Scriptures.  Since all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16), the Bible is rightly understood to be the divine Word of God, which is inherently living and powerful itself (Heb 4:12).  Thus, the preacher’s message and authority derive solely from the Bible and not his position or rhetorical skills. To have anything meaningful to say with the sure backing of God, the pulpit ministry of the preacher cannot have any foundation other than the Bible.  To preach effectively, then, every preacher bears the high responsibility and calling to make sure that every sermon faithfully explains and applies a biblical text.

How can the preacher fulfill this responsibility practically?  First, such faithful exposition of biblical texts demands that the preacher prioritize sermon preparation.  Put simply, the preacher’s attitude toward sermon preparation cannot be: “After everything else is done, then I’ll study.”  Perish the thought!  Instead, his resolve must be: “I’ll study, and after that everything else will get done.”  So, the preacher will have to be disciplined to guard his schedule against all the other good things in ministry that compete for his time, so that sermon preparation takes priority.  Second, such faithful exposition of biblical texts demands that the preacher preach text-driven sermons—sermons that are driven by the biblical text in both their substance and structure.  Paul instructs the preacher to take pains with the study of Scripture, so as to accurately handle God’s truth (2 Tim 2:15).  The goal of the preacher’s study is to rightly interpret and expound the biblical text’s original intent.  In simple terms, the preacher aims to resay what God says in the biblical text and apply the message of that text to the lives of his listeners.

Human Agency. In addition to the divine elements of the Spirit and the Word, the preacher must not overlook the human aspect of the preaching event.  While it is true that both the preacher’s strength and message are divine in their sources, it is equally true that preaching does not take place without a human agent.  In His sovereignty, God calls out and speaks through human beings.  As human beings, every preacher is imperfect and unique.  Since he’s imperfect, the preacher must give constant attention to growing personally and developing his spiritual and natural gifts.  Pursuing a theological education, reading articles/books on preaching, listening to/watching one’s own sermons, seeking constructive feedback on sermons, attending preaching conferences, listening to other preachers, and praying for his preaching ministry are a few tools the preacher may engage to improve his preaching abilities.  Since he’s uniquely made by God, the preacher serves and honors God best by being himself in the pulpit.  Yes, a preacher can learn from other preachers to improve his preaching.  But, a preacher cannot be a different preacher.  Truly, comparing oneself with other preachers will be a thief of all joy in the pulpit!  The preacher must preach, therefore, with his personality, his style, his voice, and his words.  When he commits to growing as the preacher God has made him to be, that preacher will become more and more effective in the pulpit.


Donald Schmidt is the Senior Pastor of Lakeland Baptist Church in Lewisville, Texas.

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