Previous article in this series: August 2007, p. 437.
In the past two issues of the magazine, the editorials treated what I called the “admittedly sensitive” subject of elders working with ministers for the improvement of the preaching. The first article noted that the Reformed Church Order, the Questions for Church Visitation, and Reformed church history call the elders to take an active (not just re-active) role in the supervision of the preaching.
The last editorial proposed a method by which the elders could judge one particular dimension of the preaching ministry—the content of the sermon. The editorial did not treat the sermon’s delivery or organization, two very important aspects of sermons that do bear on the sermon’s quality. The editorial limited itself to the question whether the sermon’s contents glorify God and edify the people of God. God’s glory and the congregation’s upbuilding are the elders’ main concern. The article suggested that the elders ask whether the congregation is built up in faith(both the knowledge and assurance of faith), in hope (for the near and distant future), and in love (for God and the neighbor). These three Christian graces may well cover the whole counsel of God, which preachers are called to declare.
But there is another dimension to sermons that is not so obvious, a requisite quality that almost defies description. Yet its absence is so plain that children and young people can sense it.
The quality is best described as spirituality. God-honoring sermons are spiritual sermons. Edifying sermons are spiritual sermons. Spiritual with a capital “S.” That is, they are sermons that have their source and power in the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. An elder may not find this quality in a sermon manuscript he might read. The people of God may not see it in an outline distributed to the congregation. But they know it when they hear it. We preachers do, too.
There is something about a good sermon, therefore, that goes beyond orthodoxy. Without denying the absolutely essential element of orthodoxy, and without doing anything to minimize the importance of truth (God forbid), what must be emphasized is a dimension in the preaching that an unspiritual man cannot have. Balaam’s ass can bring a word from God, a true word. King Saul can work for a time among the prophets. But God does not often edify believers and gather His elect through donkeys and unregenerate men.
This spirituality has a mystery and power to it that only a spiritual man can understand. For “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).
Preaching is one of those “things of the Spirit of God” (I Cor. 2). Preaching is the Spirit’s grand domain. The Spirit brought forth the Word that must be preached (II Tim. 3:16). The Spirit enlivens men and women, and opens their hearts, so that they are able to attend to the things spoken in the preaching (Acts 16:14). The Spirit of Christ issues the saving call and makes it a power in the people of God.
Thus, the man who brings the Word in the preaching must have a vital interest in making his work a spiritual work, from beginning to end.
He must himself be a spiritual man. The spiritual preacher will be one in whom the Spirit has worked His sin-convicting, repentance-inducing, life-giving, Christ-loving power. The spiritual preacher is a believer. The spiritual preacher hates the ways of his own flesh, loves righteousness, seeks the kingdom of God, esteems others better than himself, loves God, and loves his neighbor. He “tastes and sees that the Lord is good.” He is familiar with the realities he speaks about. He is “first partaker” of the fruits (II Tim. 2:6). He is spiritual.
His sermons also are spiritual.
These spiritual sermons will have recognizable characteristics—one mainly.
Yes, Christ’s Spirit will produceliberty in the minister. This is a freedom that releases him from fear of people’s opinions, even while he is sensitive to their needs. It is also a liberty to say what the Spirit gives him—even during the course of delivering the sermon.
Yes, the Spirit will produceconfidence in the minister. Confidence that the Word he studied is truly the Word of God. Confidence that his message is the fruit of “rightly dividing” the Word of truth. Confidence that enables him to stand on the pulpit and speak as King Jesus’ ambassador.
But the characteristic of most interest to elders isearnestness. The spiritual minister comes to the pulpit with a passion and zeal that are unmistakable as the work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
The people of God recognize this in their pastor as an earnest love for the Lord, whose Word he brings, and a passionate love for them as the dear children of God. One might not find this in a manuscript or sermon outline, but God’s people recognize it.
No preacher can force this earnestness. A note in the sermon’s margin “Be Passionate Here!” will not produce it. No pastor can tell himself successfully, “be more earnest today.” A rhetorical “pulpit fire” is not the same as the earnestness produced by the Spirit. There is a life in the preaching that can come only from the Spirit of Christ.
Thus, his sermons are not full of heavy-handed criticisms of everyone else. His rebukes are moderated by the sense of his own sins. His instruction is not cold, intellectual presentation of fact, but declaration of truth that is living.
Because the Spirit of Christ is aperson, spiritual sermons are personal. God lives His covenantal life with His people through the preaching. And because the covenant life is a personal life, covenantal preaching will be personal preaching, full of applications that will address the needs of the saints.
Because the Spirit is the Spiritof Christ, spiritual sermons will be sermons that are full of Christ. The preacher will not have to ask, “Where is Christ in this sermon?” because he has been living with Christ, and dying with Christ, all week long. Christ is the ground of gracious forgiveness, the power behind the holy life, the reason for thankful obedience. If the Spirit’s great work is to manifest Jesus Christ in the world (John 16:13, 14), then a spiritual sermon shines, and gives the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ (II Cor. 4:6).
Because the Spirit is like a fire(Matt. 3:11), spiritual sermons will be fiery sermons. Fiery, not only in that they call to holiness, but fiery in their zeal. The Word of Jesus Christ burns within the preacher. Jeremiah said about God’s word: It “was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay” (Jer. 20:9). Like that prophet, Spirit-filled preachers today cannot restrain themselves when they come to the pulpit; they weary of holding back. To use different biblical figures, they must unburden themselves of the Word’s load. They bubble over with what the Spirit puts in them.
The Spirit works in preachers in such a way that the love of God for His people in Jesus Christ oozes, as it were, from every part of the minister’s being. To the simplest hearer it is obvious that the minister groans to make the Word clear to him. To the distressed members it is plain that the minister wants the Word to comfort them. And the hardened sinner really senses that the minister has been praying that the words of the sermon will be sharp arrows to pierce his rock-hard heart.
How clear this is in the Word of God. Scripture describes the faithful preacher as the one whose heart yearns for the welfare of the people. The apostle Paul bared his soul to the church: “O ye Corinthians, our mouth is open unto you, our heart is enlarged” (II Cor. 6:11). His mouth opened in the preaching because his heart was enlarged toward them. He loved them. He was not afraid to say it. And his work among them showed it. “Out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears… that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you” (II Cor. 2:4). Paul will pour out his life for them, even when he knows they do not love him as much as he loves them: “…I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved” (II Cor. 12:15; and note the “gladly”). Their lack of love does not stop him. The Spirit of Jesus Christ drives him to love them, and empowers him to show that when he preaches.
Every faithful preacher implores God to give him this in all his preaching. Spirituality. Earnestness.
The Spirit gives this most often after a week of careful, spiritual preparation in the study. Study that does justice to the Spirit’s authorship of the Word. Study that prays God to make the Word clear to him, and make him clear to the people.
His preparation includes the whole of his life, day and night, publicly and privately. His life does justice to the Spirit’s holiness—separation from sin and devotion to God. He is painfully aware that the Spirit will be grieved (Eph. 4:30) and withhold His blessing when he lives carelessly. He has learned that the Spirit will not fill the minister who is not devoted to God and His cause, will not empower the minister who contradicts God’s holiness. He has learned that the hard way.
But primarily the Spirit comes through the Jacob-like wrestling in the study: “Lord, I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” Sometimes it takes all night. Usually all week (which is why old sermons are usually hard to preach). Finally, the Lord enlarges his heart, opens his mouth. Now he can stand before the people of God whom he loves: “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, Grace, Mercy, and Peace be unto you….” He declares that with authority from God. With all his heart, he wants it for them. And that becomes plain in the preaching.
To speak with the minister about this spiritual dimension of the preaching may be difficult for the elders. But they should consider it carefully as they oversee the gospel ministry—their primary task. They will certainly pray about it: “Lord God, fill our pastor with Christ’s Spirit, so that he may reflect Thy heart in his sermons. Enlargehis heart. Open his mouth. By his preaching, magnify Thy name; we love Thy name. And edify the saints; we love them, too.”