Exposition Idolatry & The Power of the Holy Spirit in Preaching

We study hard. We exegete the text. We dig into the Greek and the Hebrew.  We plow through only the best of commentaries. We quote Jonathan Edwards. We preach long, precise, well-articulated, Word-centered messages, and yet our sermons can remain powerless

The single most underestimated element in our preaching may be the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Could it be that at times we are so afraid of some of the abuses that we have seen in the more “Spirit-centered” churches, that we overcorrect, and neglect the person of the Holy Spirit altogether? Who said we can’t preach expository sermons with deep theological convictions, and at the same time, beg and expect for the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in ways that may not have made the bulletin?

What if we didn’t seek after “balance,” but we were fully committed to both the Word of God and the Spirit of God in our preaching? 

The single most underestimated element in our preaching may be the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

While our commitment to the Word of God is paramount, if we’re not careful, we can fall into exposition idolatry.  Here, we read, study, cross every “i,” and dot every “t,” and yet we can become nothing more than lifeless, mechanical sermon factories and powerless preaching machines.  Quoting the best Spurgeon quotes are wonderful, but only the Spirit of God can raise the dead to life. 

Complicating matters is that we often have proclivities towards strength, expertise, intellect, and sophistication. Yet when we look at the writings of the Apostle Paul, we see that the power of the Holy Spirit tends not to be drawn to such attributes. 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. [2] For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. [3] And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, [4] and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, [5] so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

What if we didn’t seek after “balance,” but we were fully committed to both the Word of God and the Spirit of God in our preaching? 

Our impressiveness; our smooth articulation; our exegetical expertise, when driven primarily by our ability and our effort can quench the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.  We can preach textually-accurate, beautifully illustrated sermons, and yet true, long-lasting fruit in the lives of our people only comes when the Holy Spirit is present in great power and conviction.

In fact, this is how Paul wrote that he knew God was at work among the Thessalonian Christians; it was because, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).

For many of us, our greatest need in preaching isn’t more commentaries.  It’s probably not even working on our eye-contact and smooth transitions (as important as these things are).  Our greatest need in preaching is a deep sense of helplessness and an utter dependence upon the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Yet this power only comes through our weakness. It comes through our dependence. It comes through humility. This is why James writes, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:10).

Weakness is the pathway to power in preaching. Prostrate-like dependence is the invitation for the Spirit to demonstrate His presence.  

Piper writes in The Supremacy of God in Preaching, “How utterly dependent we are on the Holy Spirit in the work of preaching! All genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation. You wake up on Sunday morning and you can smell the smoke of hell on one side and feel the crisp breezes of heaven on the other.  You go to your study and look down at your pitiful manuscript, and you kneel down and cry, ‘God, this is so weak! Who do I think I am?”

In conclusion, three questions to ponder:

  1. In our sermon preparation, what if we spent less time crafting well-articulate sermons, and more time waiting and pleading before the Lord on our knees? In his book Spirit-Led Preaching, Greg Heisler writes, "Fundamentally, preaching is more about listening and reporting than about creating and crafting.” 
  2. What if we became more willing to deviate from our well-prepared, “exact” manuscripts? Preparation and precision are essential, but what if we created “space” in our sermons to allow the Holy Spirit to come and say things through us that may not have made the manuscript?
  3. What if we invited other people to pray for the Spirit’s power during our preaching? 
Weakness is the pathway to power in preaching. Prostrate-like dependence is the invitation for the Spirit to demonstrate His presence.  

Spurgeon attributed his power in preaching to this idea of a “boiler room” - where people gathered on their knees during his sermons – begging and pleading with the Holy Spirit to come in great power. 

Brothers, Sunday is coming. More than anything, we need God to come. In the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Preaching & Preachers, “Seek Him! Seek Him! What can we do without Him? Seek Him! Seek Him always. But go beyond seeking Him; expect Him. Do you expect anything to happen when you get up to preach in a pulpit . . . ? Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life? Are you expecting anyone to have a climactic experience? That is what preaching is meant to do. . . . Seek this power, expect this power, yearn for this power, and when the power comes, yield to Him. Do not resist. Forget all about your sermon if necessary. Let Him loose you, let Him manifest His power in and through you. . . . This ‘unction,’ this ‘anointing,’ is the supreme thing.  Seek it until you have it; be content with nothing less.  Go on until you can say, ‘And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”

Jamus Edwards