The Gift of Preaching: The Power of the Holy Spirit

Ockenga Lectures on Preaching | South Hamilton, Massachusetts

What I’ve been pleading for is the supremacy of God in preaching. Let me try to sum up where we’ve come from and bring us to the point where we are this morning. It means a commitment to display and magnify God’s glory as the constant goal of preaching, and it means that the all-sufficiency of the cross of God’s Son is the validation of preaching, and the humiliation of the pride of the preacher. And today it means that the sovereign work of the Spirit of God is the only power by which any of this can be achieved.

Desperate for the Spirit

And so, I want you to feel today how desperately dependent you are on the Holy Spirit in preaching. I really believe that all true preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation. You get up, 4:45 or 5:00 Sunday morning, and you smell the smoke of hell on the one side, or you feel the cool, crisp, clean breezes of the springtime of heaven on the other side, and you grope your way to your study and you look down at this little manuscript, and you pick it up and you walk around behind your desk. And you get on your knees and you feel so utterly, utterly hopeless and inadequate. And you cry out to the Lord, “How will I ever take words like this and make them an aroma of life to life and death to death?” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

And there is this feeling of desperation three hours before the service that unless God moves in here, this is all over this Sunday morning. I won’t have anything that I need to do what needs to be done here. Phillips Brooks was right when he said to young preachers, “Never allow yourself to feel equal to your work.” If you ever find that spirit growing up inside you, be afraid. And one of the reasons why we must be afraid, if we ever begin to feel adequate for our work, is that your Father loves you, and he will break you; God will see fit that you are not self-reliant in the ministry if you are his chosen servant.

Do we have any reason for thinking that God would treat us any differently than he treated the apostle Paul? You have read, I hope, 2 Corinthians, which, is perhaps the most important pastoral book.

We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)

That’s a frightening pastoral observation — namely, that God may see to it that you come to the brink of despairing of life itself, so that you will bank only on the one who raises the dead, and not upon yourself. Or, Paul went on the say,

To keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7)

In other words, be afraid if you ever start to feel adequate for your work. The dangers of self-reliance and self-exultation in the ministry are so insidious, that God will strike us if he must, in order to break us of self-assurance and of the casual reliance on professional technique. And so, Paul rose to preach at Corinth, describing his ministry like this: “I came in weakness and in much fear and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). He was reverent before the glory of God, and he was broken in his native pride. Again and again in the Bible (at least three times) he refers to himself as the chief of sinners with no worthiness to preach. Crucified with Christ, shunning the airs of eloquence and intellect.

And what happened, according to 1 Corinthians 2:4? There was “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” when he came in weakness and inadequacy. Without a demonstration of the Spirit and power, the aims of preaching will never be achieved. No matter how much people might admire our cogency, or enjoy our illustrations, or learn from our doctrine, the great goals of preaching will not be achieved without a demonstration of the Spirit and power. The goal of preaching, you remember, is the glory of God reflected in the glad submission of his people.

How the Spirit Empowers Ministry

Now how? How — that’s the question today. How is God to get the glory in an act that is so manifestly human? It’s the great mystery of preaching: How is God to get the glory in an act that is so manifestly made up of hands and faces and voices and clothes and preparation?

Well, I want to direct you to a text where I believe the answer is found. If you have a Bible, you may turn with me to 1 Peter chapter four. The first epistle of Peter. If you were to ask me, What is the verse that would summarize your philosophy of ministry most completely? it would be 1 Peter 4:11. But I’m going to read verses 10–11 as an answer to the question, How does a person preach so that God gets the glory? I’ll start verse 10, I believe.

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

In other words, Peter says when it comes to speaking and when it comes to serving — both of which are pastoral preaching functions, I believe — speak the oracles of God and serve in the power of God, so that all glory goes to God. That’s the answer to the question right there on the face of the text; you don’t need to do any twisting and turning: the one who gives the power gets the glory in verse 11. And so, the answer to the question, How do you preach so God gets the glory is: You must not preach in your strength or your word. You must speak oracles of God in the power of another. So, I want to focus on those two aspects this morning:

  1. the oracles of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit,
  2. and the power of God, given by the Holy Spirit in preaching.

Unless we learn to rely on the word of God in preaching and the power of God in preaching, the aims of God in preaching will not be achieved. So, let’s take them one at a time:

  1. relying upon the gift of the Spirit’s word — the Bible, and
  2. relying upon the gift of the Spirit’s power in preaching.

Oh, how much needs to be said. I even wrestled weeks ago with the issue of whether the whole theme of the series should be the Bible in preaching. But I’m always going further up and further in when I have one chance, and so I said, no, God in preaching. If I ever came back it would be the Bible in preaching.

Rely on the Holy Spirit in His Word

But let me give ten minutes on the Bible in preaching anyway.

Inerrant, Inspired, Authoritative

  1. Relying upon the Holy Spirit at the point of his oracles — it means believing that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). That’s the first thing it means to rely upon the word of the Holy Spirit.

  2. The second thing it means is to believe with all your heart that no Scripture “was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

  3. And it means, thirdly, to have an overwhelming conviction that these words in this little book “not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:13).

Where the Bible is esteemed in that way — as the inerrant, inspired, authoritative word of God — preaching will flourish. And where it’s not — where the Bible is treated as a kind of valuable, antique collection of religious insight — preaching will die.

Not Automatic

But I better qualify that: t is not automatic that preaching will flourish where the Bible is believed to be inerrant; it is not automatic. The reason it’s not automatic is because of evangelicals today, there are other very effective ways of silencing the Bible in the church. For example:

  • There are subjectivist epistemologies that belittle propositional revelation.
  • There are linguistic theories that cultivate an exegetical atmosphere of ambiguity.
  • There are cultural, relativistic ideas — sort of popular, cultural relativism — that enables people to dispense flippantly with serious biblical, ethical, doctrinal teaching.

All the while affirming the Bible’s inerrancy, and all the while fleeing its power and its truth. Where these kinds of things take root, the Bible will be silenced in the preaching of the church, and what preaching will become is a reflection of current issues and religious opinions.

Speak Scripture

Surely, that’s not what Paul wanted to happen when he introduced preaching to Timothy with this overwhelming preface to his exhortation. I’ve never read anything quite like this anywhere else in Scripture:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word. (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

Why did he precede that simple exhortation with that overwhelming, solemn “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.” The word — that’s the focus. Preach the word. All Christian preaching should be an exposition and application of the word of God in Scripture — the Bible, biblical texts. Our authority as preachers rises and falls in proportion to the degree that our word reflects accurately God’s word, revealed in the Bible. There must be, I believe, in preaching, a manifest allegiance to the text of Scripture.

Show and Tell

Underline the word manifest, and think about it with me for a moment. There must be a manifest allegiance to the text of Scripture. Here’s what I mean by that: There are many preachers who affirm that they do exposition — I don’t know any preacher who says he doesn’t. They say they do exposition, but they do it in such a way so that they do not ground their assertions during the sermon in the text, manifestly, so people can see where they’re getting their ideas. They don’t show their people clearly that the assertions they’re making are coming right out of readable words and sentences and paragraphs that they can point to in the Bible.

One of the biggest problems that I have in critiquing young preachers, when I’m called upon to do it, is to get them, during the sermon, to quote the Bible. Quote it. Quote it. Don’t just say, “as the Bible says” and then use your language. People lose the train of the message. Point to the verse. Don’t say, “1 Peter 2b.” That’s academic talk. Say, “In the second half of 1 Peter 2:4,” and then wait, and all the heads go down, right?

Now, I’m talking about preaching in a literate culture. I wouldn’t say this if I were teaching you how to preach in an illiterate or preliterate missionary situation. When everybody brings a Bible to church, as they ought to do — in fact, when I came to Bethlehem seven and a half years ago, I remember the Sunday evening of my installation service, and I talked about the favorite sounds, colors, sights, that I would have. And I said the favorite sound that I would have is this sound of five hundred people opening their Bibles to find a text. It’s a great sound at Bethlehem on Sunday morning. I say, “Let’s look at 1 Peter 4:10,” and whoosh — all the heads go down, because I have taught my people I have no authority if I can’t show it to you in this book. And I mean, manifestly show it to you in this book.

Look at the Book

So, quote a text and get them to look at it. Wait till they see it, and tell them what it means, and apply it to their consciences with power when they look up at you in your face. Don’t say things like “as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount”, or something like that. Get them to look at the text. I’ve seen it: I have sat there watching people, listening to preaching (which every preacher ought to have a chance to do), and watch a preacher unfolding the text. And I can tell — I know this text backward and forward; I see where he’s getting his ideas. But nobody else sees it. He’s just rambling on about theological truths, and he’s not telling the people, “Because — there’s a because in this sentence, and a therefore”, and so some of the people are kind of looking down, they’re looking around, and they’re losing him — they’re losing him — while they’re trying to find the text. And he ought to be helping them follow him and unfolding step-by-step the beauty of biblical truth.

We are simply pulling rank — priestly rank-pulling — on people when we tell them what God says and don’t show them in the Bible that God says it. This does not honor the word of God, and it does not honor the work of the Holy Spirit. And I urge you to rely upon the Holy Spirit by saturating yourself with his inspired word.

Interpret in the Spirit

And perhaps I should add (although there’s no time to develop this, either), God not only has inspired the Bible for us to preach, and therefore, assisted and enabled us to preach with authority in that way, but he enables and helps in the interpretation process, getting ready for the sermon. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:13–14 that:

we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual [that is, people possessed by the Spirit, or who possess the Spirit]. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

Now what that implies for preparation for preaching is that without the Holy Spirit and his enabling work, we will regard as folly what we read in the Bible, and therefore, will reject it or twist it to make it palatable, so that our people won’t regard it as folly and reject our preaching, and thus, we will nullify the aims of preaching. But with the Holy Spirit, three things happen.

1. Providential Humility

First, we are granted the discipline to study hard. I believe that a fruit of the Holy Spirit is self-control, which means you’re willing to get up early in the morning. Actually, the word egkrateia means sexual self-control, but surely the principle is the same in the list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, that if the Holy Spirit can give you self-control over your sexual desires, he can over your sleep desires and your eating desires and your laziness (Galatians 5:22–23).

So surely, the Holy Spirit is the means by which we gain the discipline to study as we ought.

2. Providential Discovery

Secondly, the Holy Spirit grants us the precious and desperately needed providential discoveries when we are desperate. I’ve been so desperate sometimes. I announce texts months before I preach on them, not knowing all the answers to the questions in the text. And I come late into the week, sometimes not knowing what the text means, not being able to figure out the logic of the text or how it applies to my people, and so desperate. And I have seen God answer prayer so many times with a providential concordance discovery. And it was human; I found it. I didn’t really find it by myself; I asked for it: “Help me! I don’t know what I’ll do with this text on Sunday.”

I don’t believe the Lord ever speaks to us audibly to add things to the text — that is, I would be very wary of people who said that he did. I wouldn’t elect one to be president. I’d be wary of their books and their evangelism because they are so prone to pull rank on people, and elevate themselves above the Scripture on Sunday.

3. Providential Docility

And then third, which comes most clearly from the text of 1 Corinthians 2:13, the humility, the docility to yield to what you find, no matter how palatable it may be to you and your people, to yield to it.

Be like John Wesley on this matter of relying on the Spirit in the word in the Bible. He said, “Oh, give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God. I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be a man of one book.”

Man of One Book

You might be told today that the reason revival is withheld is because you’re not getting words of knowledge or words of wisdom; you’re not getting this special power of the Holy Spirit. If you know your history, if you know about John Wesley and George Whitefield, you know there is another vision of revival. You know that one day God fell on England and Scotland and New England without anybody believing that you should go beyond the word of Scripture in seeking revelation as a means to that end.

I want you to be a people who study the Bible for all its worth. When you leave this place and enter the ministry, there will be no courses and no teachers and no assignments and no accountability — just you and your Bible and the Holy Spirit and the books you took with you. And I think we need to grow in our knowledge of the Scripture day by day, by being a people of one book. And I don’t say that because other books are unimportant.

Let me read you a resolution from Jonathan Edwards: “Resolved, to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” Most pastors don’t do that. Most pastors don’t study the Bible much. They get ready for sermons; they don’t study the Bible much. When they study, they read books about the Bible or church history or contemporary issues. Very few pastors consistently, thoroughly, constantly, steadily, and frequently open their Greek and Hebrew testaments, get out a sheet of paper, with no intent to prepare for a sermon, and grow in their knowledge of the terrain of Holy Scripture. And it’s sad, and it’s harmful.

You should be, mainly, a person of one book. Delight in the law of God morning, noon, and night, and you’ll be like a tree whose leaf does not wither, and in everything you do you will prosper (Psalm 1:2–3). Spurgeon said of John Bunyan, “Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.”

We must know our people; we must know theology; we must know ourselves and our people, but brothers and sisters, above all, we must know the word of God. The people in the pew know other things far better than we do. They come to church on Sunday morning, like W. A. Criswell says, “We know what the editorials are saying. We know what the newspapers are saying. We know what the TV says. We want to know, does God have anything to say?”

That’s the first section: rely upon the Holy Spirit in his word in Scripture. The Bible is the Spirit’s main assistance in preaching.

Rely on the Holy Spirit in Preaching

Now secondly, and lastly, relying upon the gift of the Spirit’s power in preaching. And I want to plead forgiveness that a third point is glaringly missing on the Holy Spirit — namely, relying upon the Holy Spirit’s power in the hearer, the effectual call, the regenerating work of the Spirit. I’m just passing right over it, and I’m sorry, but I’ll leave it to your professors to fill in the gaps.

Giver Gets the Glory

The last point is relying on the power in preaching. Now back to 1 Peter 4:11:

Let him who serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.

The one who gives the power gets the glory. That’s the point of that verse. How do you do this? How does something like preaching, which is so manifestly human, happen in the power of another person? Paul talked this way. This is not an unusual way of talking in the Bible. In fact, one of my favorite verses is 1 Corinthians 15:10:

By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

I worked hard, but I didn’t do it; God did it. Or another one, Romans 15:18:

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed

I will not say one word about what Paul has accomplished, he says, but only what Christ has accomplished. Now I want to understand that: How does that happen? What do you do so that is going to happen in your ministry? It seems like such a paradox that you should even pose the question: What can I do so that I won’t be seen as doing it?

Walk by the Spirit

Well, I think it’s fitting that I close these messages by saying: I’m not sure. And I’m just learning, groping, trying to discover this greatest of all mysteries: walking by the Spirit, living by the Spirit. It isn’t just for preachers. There are a lot of non-preachers and people who never preached a sermon in this room right now. This is for you too. How do you walk by the Spirit?

If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:25)

How do you do that, so that you can come to the end of a day and say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that was with me at work today”?

I don’t see the fruit that I’d like to see in my ministry. Revival and awaking haven’t come in the measure that I’d like to see them come. I struggle with the discouragement of sin in my own church, and the weakness of our witness in a perishing world. So, I feel very, very ill-equipped to tell you how to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s a risky thing.

So, what I’d like to do in these last minutes is tell you where I am in my effort to discover the answer to that question, and give you five steps that I try to follow in walking, living, or preaching by the Holy Spirit. What do you do just before and in preaching, so as to secure, as much as it is possible, the reality of God preaching, and not me preaching?


It in an acronym. In fact, this is so much a part of our thinking at Bethlehem that we have it on little cards that people carry in their wallets. The acronym is APTAT. That’s printed on the front of this little card, and inside is a verse to go with each of those letters. And I want to show you how I use APTAT in preparation for preaching as a means to being so filled by the Holy Spirit and enabled by him, that I could say I have preached in the strength God supplies, so that in everything God gets the glory.

Picture me at 10:15, say, in the middle service on Sunday morning. The offertory is drawing to a close and ends, and one of my associates or an apprentice, like Jeff Sprinkle, stands, walks to the pulpit and announces the morning text. I’m sitting right behind him. And I have about 60 seconds left before I must preach and begin to unfold that text in the power of the Holy Spirit. I bow my head and I begin with APTAT virtually every Sunday morning.

A — Admit

Admit to the Lord that, without him, you can do nothing, and base it on a Bible verse. John 15:5: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” I do not hear the text on Sunday morning. I know the text on Sunday morning, so I don’t listen to the text as it’s being read. That’s my last chance for a transaction with God. And I say, “My heart, Lord, would not beat without you. My eyes would not see without you. My memory would fail without you. I would be distracted and self-conscious without you. I will doubt your reality and the value of this moment of preaching without you. I will feel no awe in this moment without you. Without you, what I say is going to fall on deaf ears. I can do nothing without you.” That’s my first step toward trying to find my way into the power of God.

P — Pray

I pray — that is, petition for help. “I beg you, Father, grant me the power, grant me the humility, grant me the love, grant me the memory, grant me the freedom from distraction and self-consciousness, grant me a love for your glory, grant me a gladness in that glory, grant me the ingathering of the elect. Grant, O God, whatever it takes to accomplish your saving purposes in this moment.”

I should say here that my preparation in prayer, and this P point in APTAT did not begin 60 seconds before the sermon. I get up at 4:45 on Sunday morning. Our first service starts at 8:15, and I spend at least two hours over the sermon in prayer, and trying desperately to become a Christian all over again. I don’t know about you, but I don’t wake up a Christian in the morning; I have to get converted every morning, and that’s why fighting the fight of faith in the word of God is crucial.

And in my meditation, I open the Bible. I have a systematic way of reading the Bible. Right now, it’s a Psalm and a Gospel and a portion of Genesis. And I just keep myself moving around in the Scripture in the morning meditatively. And I look, when I read the Bible Sunday morning, I look for a specific promise of God that will assure me of his help in the pulpit. Because what I find is that in spiritual warfare on Sunday morning, everything is flying in your head. “Why didn’t they shut the doors?” “What’s that smell?” “Why didn’t they open the windows?” “Oh, they didn’t pray right.” Just every possible dart is being shot at the mind and the heart of the preacher to distract him from the awesomeness of his task.

How do you fight in that moment? I have found myself sometimes in that moment utterly unable to think of a word from Scripture, unable to remember a Bible verse. It’s deadening, it’s frightening, so I memorize a Bible verse early Sunday morning, and I take it with me and say it again and again and again. And as I bow, I move to point three on APTAT.

T — Trust

And I don’t have a hazy vision in my mind of what that means. I don’t mean trust in the general goodness of God; I mean trust in the specific promise that I memorized that morning. Let me mention a couple that in the last few weeks or days have meant a lot to me. Just little things like this.

As for me, I am poor and needy,
    but the Lord takes thought for me. (Psalm 40:17)

That’s all I need. I’ll say it 35 times on Sunday morning on the way to church, as I walk and as I bow, and I lay hold on it like a lifeline. “I believe it, Lord. You’re going to take thought for me. I know I’m poor and needy and unworthy, but you said in your word you think about me, you set your favor upon me. And I try to unpack the implications of that text and let everything else fall and trust the word of God for me in that moment.

I take it as a dagger sometimes. And when Satan comes and he offers his half-truths and says things like, “Look, you’re a sinner and God doesn’t cotton with sinners.” And you take the dagger of Psalm 25:8:

Good and upright is the Lord;
    therefore he instructs sinners in the way.

Take that, Satan! Get out of here! I don’t know how you fight the evil one, but the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, is the only way I know to defeat the temptations that come to give up in the work of the ministry. And they come regularly, because Satan hates the ministry of the word. So, the third step is Ttrust in a specific, enabling, precious promise to accomplish what you need to accomplish.

A — Act

And then Aact. Get up. Don’t be a quietist, don’t be a pacifist, don’t say, “Well, I’ll just sit here until I feel some special moving of the Holy Spirit.” Get up! You’re supposed to preach. Get up and begin to do your work. Get up, go to work. Get up, iron the shirts. Get up, do what needs to be done. God calls you to act, but you have prepared in such a way that now you act in the confidence that the power that is carrying you is God. It’s like Philippians 2:12–13, right?

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for [underneath, in, and through] it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Act in the confidence that God will bless.

T — Thank

Thank God for helping you at the end of the message, that he’s given you what you need.

Well, I dream after thanking God on Sunday morning, and I dream here that twenty years from now maybe some 42-year-old preacher will stand in his pulpit, with a ministry a hundred times more fruitful than John Piper’s, and say, “Twenty years ago, I was in a chapel or in a service one time with John Piper, and he preached on the glory of God. And the cross of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit were so beautiful that I was decisively drawn into the ministry of the word.