Where Is the Holy Spirit When We Preach?

 |  April 1, 2020

The text-driven preaching movement occurring among Southern Baptist churches emphasizes the necessity for preachers to speak the Word of God. This is done by first representing not only the biblical text but also the genre and spirit of the text. However, a proper passion for the Holy Spirit must be added to a high regard for the text itself. Carl Bates, former President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Professor of Preaching at Southern Seminary, said to Bill Benet, “Bill, if the Holy Spirit were suddenly withdrawn from the world, 90 percent of Southern Baptist churches would not notice it and carry on as usual.”[refNed L. Mathews, David L. Allen, and Daniel L. Akin, Text-Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010), 70.][/ref] R. G. Lee, a former pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee, remarked, “The Southern Baptist church is so cold at 11:00 a.m. Sunday that you could skate down the aisles as if on ice.”[1]Quoted in Mathews, Allen, and Akin, Text-Driven Preaching, 71. These statements reveal how little many Southern Baptists are concerned with the Holy Spirit.

An excellent re-presenting of the text does not guarantee that the Holy Spirit will automatically present Himself in the sermon. Faithful biblical preaching does not guarantee the working of the Holy Spirit. Outstanding expository preaching may not possess the work of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit may work through preaching that is not necessarily text-driven. If we are honest, some historically significant past preachers would fail if evaluated by today’s text-driven preaching criteria. However, the Holy Spirit moved through their sermons. Although much contemporary preaching correctly handles its grammatical structure, interpretation, explanation, and application, when the sermon is not carried out under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, preaching may not be “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). As Greg Heisler rightly pointed out, we need to remember that, “Nothing short of a renaissance of the Holy Spirit’s role in preaching will save powerless pulpits and sick churches from ineffective kingdom ministry.”[2]Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2007), 10. With this knowledge, how can contemporary preachers welcome the Spirit of God into preaching?

The Spirit Before the Sermon

Ministers should believe that the Word of God is inspired by the Holy Spirit; thus, they should pray that the Spirit of God who inspired the Bible would also help them see its truth in sermon preparation. Paul says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:14). Only a man with the Spirit can accept the revelation of the Holy Spirit. John Owen asserts, “The hearts of all men are fat, their ears heavy, and their eyes sealed, that they can neither hear, nor perceive, or understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God. These things belong unto the work of the Holy Spirit upon their minds.”[3]John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 4 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 124. It is difficult to expect the work of the Holy Spirit in sermons unless He illumines His truth through sermon preparation. It is vital for a preacher to have a bold assurance from the Spirit of God.

The Spirit in the Sermon

Preachers should remember that the Holy Spirit, who illumines the Word of God in a preachers’ sermon preparation, will also inform the audience of the truth and transform their hearts while preaching occurs. Thus, preachers should pray that the Holy Spirit is moving in their studies before asking Him to move in the church. Preachers should also pray that the Spirit of God conveys insight into the meaning of Scripture to the audience through illumination.[4]Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix, Power in the Pulpit (Chicago: Moody, 1999), 70. Millard Erickson opines that “Illumination does not involve the communication of new information, but a deeper understanding of the meaning that is there.”[5]Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 54. Then, when a preacher proclaims a message with a deeper understanding of the meaning to his audience, the Holy Spirit will open the listener’s minds to the truth of Scripture and transform their lives with the relevance of the text.

The Apostle Paul knew Greek, Hebrew, culture, and history. He was an outstanding scholar in his time. He could have preached using his own rhetorical ability and knowledge. However, Paul did not preach sermons with enticing words of human wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor 2:4). Even Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, preached to two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). A preacher must know the Bible. Like Paul, the preacher should be an expert in Greek, Hebrew, culture, history, and studies related to text-driven preaching. However, he must seek the promised attendance of the Holy Spirit in order to help listeners realize the intended meaning of the text and apply the truth to their lives so that they live not by their will but the Lord’s.

The Spirit After the Sermon

Preachers need to realize that the right understanding is not the end game in the preaching event. The goal of preaching is transforming listeners into Christlikeness. The role of the Holy Spirit includes applying the truth of Scripture to the lives of both the preacher and the audience as well as illuminating the intended meaning to them. Paul posits in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” Spirit-driven preaching is effective and applicable. Heisler defines application as “the Holy Spirit’s ministry of constantly bringing the preached Word of God to memory and pinning it to the hearts of those we preach to so that spiritual transformation continually takes place.”[6]Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching, 122. While the preacher can suggest many applications in a sermon according to the listener’s backgrounds, application alone is not adequate for the listeners’ lives. However, if the preacher gives a biblical principle of the specific text, the Holy Spirit will contextualize the principle to the listeners and cause a needed response upon their hearts.

Preachers and people alike need to receive the heart of the text. However, without the Spirit of God, there would be no text; furthermore, there would be no illumined heart to discern the Scripture (1 Cor. 2:14). This is the time for preachers to remember John Knox’s saying, “True preaching from start to finish is the work of the Spirit.”[7]John Knox, The Integrity of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1957), 89.


Gu Kwon is the Musical Worship Pastor of Refuge International Baptist Church in Irving, Texas, a Teaching Assistant at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. student in Southwestern’s School of Preaching.

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