As preachers, we welcome and enjoy the presence of God in our preaching. At least sometimes we do! The Holy Spirit supports us in the sermon preparation and delivery process. He doesn't leave us alone but is there to help us along the way.
A sermon involves various decisions, beginning with what to preach on, when to preach it, and ultimately, how to preach it. There is much to consider in the complex process of sermon preparation—but the primary determining factor in effective preaching is the Holy Spirit's guidance. How we want him to guide us.
Undoubtedly, you've carefully planned a sermon, yet delivered it without connection or power. Somewhere along the way, you got disconnected from the guidance of the Spirit. On the other hand, you likely have gone into the pulpit ill prepared and yet been swept up by the Spirit's power in the delivery. (The point here is not ill preparation, but rather that power comes from God and not us.)
It's one of the great thrills of preaching—to respond to the guidance of God's Spirit and then to sense God himself flowing through our words to impact our audience. Spirit-guided preaching depends on one thing: faith. Faith in preaching is the confidence that God is there, working with us in the sermon process. At times, we can behave as deists, handling sterile theological concepts with a virtual disregard for the presence of God. Or we can live and prepare and deliver our sermons by faith, sensitively following God in our preaching.
God, the Holy Spirit, guides us to the passages we preach, he opens our eyes to understand the meaning of his living Word, he shows us how he wants to apply it to our own lives and to the lives of our hearers. He even assists us in the discovery and selection of illustrations through which he desires to communicate his Word. From beginning to end, we have the ongoing opportunity—and compelling assignment—to preach by faith, to include God in the process. It's exciting, and at times frightening, to follow God in preaching.
But what's even more frightening is to depart from God in the process, to go our own way, to cease depending on him and to lean on ourselves in our preaching. For power is not rooted in the best of illustrations, nor in our intellect, nor in our skillful delivery, nor even in our command of a passage. All of these things are good, but insufficient for a truly powerful sermon.
Transforming power in preaching is found only in God himself—and God is pleased to "show up" when we preach by faith, by including him in each step of the way: "God, what are you saying in this passage? God, how shall I communicate this? How must this be applied? God, show me a clear illustration." And beyond this kind of faith conversation with God, we also develop an intuition about God's leading, which direction he wants to take us in our preaching, being prompted by him to say—or not to say--something.
What are the marks of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in our sermons? I’ll share three:
1. The Holy Spirit loves to exalt Jesus. We’ll find him regularly prompting us to do the same in our preaching.
2. The Holy Spirit loves the Word of God. We’ll find him directing us often back to the Word, bearing witness to the truths we’re teaching through multiple supporting and confirming passages.
3. The Holy Spirit is powerful. When he guides us, he also imparts his power to us so that with him we accomplish things that simply couldn’t happen without him.
When we respond to the Spirit’s guidance in our preaching, we’ll notice our preaching marked by these things.
Jesus is the ultimate preacher. He's our example in Spirit-guided preaching. As he himself said, "The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” (John 5:19) If we are to preach as Jesus preached, we must acknowledge what Jesus acknowledged: We can do nothing, at least nothing that counts, on our own. Sure, we can preach from the flesh, without satisfaction and without power. We do well to remind ourselves that "whatever is not from faith is sin." We must preach from faith! We must preach out of a connectedness to God.
There's the common temptation to lean on the illustration rather than God. But experience bears out that even in the best of illustrations, the power comes from God and is tapped through faith as we include and obey God in our preaching. But our goal is, by faith, to keep in step with God's leading by his Spirit. And when we do, we and our hearers experience his transforming power.
Again, Jesus was emphatic about trusting God in his preaching. He said, "I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him." (John 8:28-29) What a delight it is to do and speak what pleases God!
"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are Spirit and they are life." (John 6:63)
As we preach to others about following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, how appropriate it is to model what we teach by keeping in step with the Holy Spirit in our preaching!
God grant that we connect by faith with him in the preaching process. He himself is our trainer and can show us how to do this.