How does the natural act of thinking become the occasion for the supernatural experience of authentic worship — seeing and savoring and showing the beauty and worth of God? I will let the apostle Paul show the answer.
In Romans 5:3–5, Paul has just made the case for Christians to rejoice in suffering. His argument (and notice that it is indeed a logical argument!) goes like this: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”
Then come two arguments for why hope will not put us to shame. The relationship between these two arguments carries spectacular implications for preaching and for the way natural means, like rational thought and historical observation, become the occasion for supernatural experiences of the beauty and worth of God.
“The Holy Spirit takes that natural truth — heralded by you, the preacher — and he works a miracle with it.”
When I speak of natural means, I include not only logical argumentation, but also historical observation. The principle behind how God makes natural means serve supernatural experience is the same for both logic and history. In Paul’s argument for why hope does not put us to shame, the intersection between the natural and supernatural is between historical observation and the work of the Holy Spirit in giving us a supernatural sense of the love of God.
“Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:5–6).
Supernatural Experience of God’s Love
Paul’s first argument for why hope will not put us to shame is that the Holy Spirit is present in us (“who has been given to us”); and what he does in us is make real to us the love of God. This is not a mere fact we learn from the Bible. It is a real experience that we have today. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” It really happens in our hearts. It is a sensed and sure taste of the love of God for us, because God the Holy Spirit is in us giving us that taste of the love of God.
So Paul’s first way of showing us why our hope will not disappoint us is to say that God gives us a real supernatural experience to confirm our hope. It is supernatural because it is given through the Holy Spirit, who is supernatural. This is what we are aiming at in our preaching — real supernatural, radically transforming, empowering experiences of the beauty and worth of God, including his love for us.
Our preaching is not aiming at mere information transfer, or mere persuasion of doctrinal truths, or mere human excitement about God. We are aiming at authentic, Spirit-given experience of God himself — in this case, as Paul calls it here, the pouring out of God’s love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).
Natural Ground for Supernatural Experience
But then Paul does something in Romans 5:6 that has huge implications for preaching. He gives a ground, or basis, for supernatural experience. And it is a natural ground. A historical ground. We can see the ground in the word for (Greek gar) that begins verse 6. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For . . .” What makes the ground so striking is that it is a statement of historical fact along with a theological interpretation of the fact. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:5–6). “Christ died” is a historical fact. “For the ungodly” is a theological interpretation of the fact.
“We say all that the text gives us to say, and we exult over it with as much joy as the Spirit grants us to taste.”
How are the natural and the supernatural related here? There is a supernatural experience of God’s love given by the Holy Spirit in the heart, and there is the declaration of the ground — the foundation — of this experience of God’s love in history (“Christ died”) and theology (“for the ungodly”). The experience is supernatural (given by the Holy Spirit). The foundation is natural (a historical fact and a theological statement that even the Devil would agree with).
They relate like this: what it means to be loved by God is revealed by the historical and theological observation, “Christ died for the ungodly.” The Holy Spirit does not give this information to the heart. The Bible and the preacher give it to the mind. It is not the job of the Holy Spirit to describe the love of God to you. That is the job God has assigned to history and to Scripture — and to preaching.
Our people learn the nature and content of the love of God from the way that love acted in history in Jesus Christ. Then the Holy Spirit takes that natural truth — heralded by you, the preacher, with expository exultation — and he works a supernatural miracle with it. He causes their hearts to see God’s love as supremely beautiful and to feel it as supremely precious. He gives them the real, heartfelt experience described in verse 5: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Uniting Natural and Supernatural in Preaching
Both the natural fact of history with its interpretation and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit are essential. If we make claims to have experiences of the love of God without solid foundations in history and its God-given meaning, we become cultic, emotionalistic, and fanatical. If we claim to understand what happened in history and its theological meaning, but we don’t experience the love of God poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, we become barren, impotent, and intellectualistic.
“We aim in preaching at real supernatural, transforming, empowering experiences of the beauty and worth of God.”
The place of preaching in this process is to be the mouthpiece of the historical and theological truth that “Christ died for the ungodly.” We say all the wonderful things about the death of Christ that the text, and the reality behind it, give us to say — this is our exposition. And we exult over it with as much joy in it as the Spirit grants us to taste. That is our preaching — expository exultation.
But our aim is what only the Holy Spirit can do — the supernatural experience of the love of God in the hearts of our listeners. We aim for them to see and savor and show the beauty and worth of this love. The glory of preaching is that, even though we cannot make this happen by our own effort, since it is the work of the Holy Spirit, he will spare no effort to clarify the beauty and worth of the historical facts and the theological interpretations.
Heralding that beauty and worth is our work. It is an indispensable and glorious work.