Holy Power for Imperfect Preachers

Although we pastors revere the preaching of the gospel, every one of us falls short. Our performance is uneven. Our motives are mixed. Our theology isn’t perfect. Nothing about us is perfect. But even though imperfect pastors preach imperfect sermons, the Holy Spirit can empower even our ministry of the word. Amazing grace, right?

We wouldn’t want to “succeed” by any show-off tricks of the trade — our charisma, our advanced degrees, our whatever. Worse than failure, it’s betrayal. The ministry that we received from the Lord Jesus is “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). We have no right to insert ourselves where only the grace of God should be front and center.

I am struck by the words of John the Baptist, when he said about Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We might think, “Sure, I want Jesus to increase in people’s confidence and loyalty. And I can increase too. It’ll be a win-win. I’m glad to share my platform with Jesus. Hey, I owe him everything.” What a stab in his back! And the reality is, after John the Baptist makes his famous statement, he disappears from the narrative of John’s Gospel.

In Word Only?

The successful preaching every true-hearted pastor longs for is strongly marked in two ways: first, faithfulness to the truth of Scripture; second, fullness in the power of the Spirit.

In recent decades many of us have been renewed with a richer, deeper knowledge of the biblical gospel. I am profoundly grateful. But have we experienced a comparable surge in spiritual power? I wonder how many of us have even experienced preaching “not . . . in word only” (1 Thessalonians 1:5 NASB). I also wonder if our tendency to divide and turn against one another is due to head-knowledge being our only aspiration.

Doctrinal pride is touchy and brittle. How can the Holy Spirit empower that? But pastors with deep understandings and a rich anointing preach the biblical gospel with compelling impact.

Make Up Your Mind

Two passages in the New Testament, among others, invite us into the fullness of God’s power as we preach. First, 1 Corinthians 2:1–5:

I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

God refuses to bless a proud preacher. How could he, since the message preached is Christ weak, rejected, crucified?

Paul was naturally eloquent, and never sloppy. He gave the ministry of the gospel his best. But Paul strategically rejected all self-display. If he won converts to Christ by being impressive, then someone else might lure those converts away from Christ by being even more impressive.

“Have you made up your mind to align with Jesus not only in your message but also in your manner?”

Paul made up his mind: “I decided.” An uncrucified ego really can get results in public speaking — in advertising, politics, entertainment, and so forth. But Paul deliberately rejected all self-exalting strategies. He accepted his limitations. And his careful, thoughtful humility was where the Holy Spirit entered in.

The “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” means the Holy Spirit powerfully proved and confirmed to people’s hearts that Paul’s gospel message was true, absolute, final. The Spirit freed people to stake their eternal destiny on Christ alone. Only the Holy Spirit can create such profound certainty. When he does, preaching bears fruit in solid converts.

Have you made up your mind to align with Jesus not only in your message but also in your manner? If you will, the Holy Spirit will seal your ministry with his convincing power.

Love People Powerfully

Then, 1 Thessalonians 1:5:

Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sakes. (NASB)

Two realities stand out here. One, the gospel came to the people not as mere information but as a felt power from above. Two, Paul and his ministry partners proved to be men of a certain quality among the people. And here’s the key: these two realities aren’t side by side in one verse by coincidence. They belong together. The truth of the gospel landed on the people powerfully just as Paul and his friends loved these people powerfully.

Paul describes the magnificence of this pastoral relationship:

We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. (1 Thessalonians 2:7–8)

The relational beauty they shared required Paul to paint the picture with phrases of striking tenderness: “like a father with his children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11); “we were torn away from you” (1 Thessalonians 2:17); “you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:20). I could go on.

The point is, no wonder the Thessalonians “accepted [the gospel] not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). Pastors who love people with the heart of God are men of God serving in the power of God. Such pastors are sincere and expressive: not holding back, not guarded, but emotionally all-in.

Maybe we think that preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit is a matter of turning up the volume, shouting at people more dramatically. No, no, no. Paul himself links the Spirit’s power in his preaching with his own heart’s care for the people: “just as.” The Spirit moved as Paul loved.

Clothed with Power from on High

The gospel ministry is not a gig, not a performance, not a platform. It takes us to the cross of Christ, the rejected Savior. You should expect to get crucified. But your scars will make you a more powerful preacher.

Neither is the gospel ministry a way to stay aloof, distant, safely above others. It takes us into the love of Christ, the Friend of sinners. You should expect to be vulnerable. But your tears will make you a more powerful preacher.

“The gospel ministry is not a gig, not a performance, not a platform.”

Let’s not retreat one inch from the recent gains we have made in strong, definite, joyous biblical doctrine. But now let’s take the next obvious step. Let’s believe our doctrine so boldly that we dare to experience, more and more, what it really means to be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

Here is my blunt conclusion. It seems to me, with the pressures of our historical moment intensifying upon us all, we pastors must decide which way we’ll go. If all we want is doctrine, and we don’t open up to the Spirit’s power in these two ways made clear in the New Testament, then let’s admit we don’t really believe the doctrine. And let’s have the honesty not only to leave the Christian ministry but also to abandon Christ himself, because we don’t love him.

But if apostasy is unthinkable — hopefully, it is unthinkable — then let’s move sharply in the opposite direction with both the truth of the gospel and the power of the Spirit, and let’s go for it.