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The Necessity of Preaching in the Modern World, part 3[1]

Robert Letham

Preaching and the Holy Spirit

The Reformed confessions uniformly witness to the inseparability of Word and Spirit in all the means of grace, preaching included. This is directly counter to the Anabaptist separation of the two, a view that is rife in the wider evangelical world, particularly in the revivalist camp. It also stands in clear distinction from a purely instrumentalist view of preaching, often associated with Lutheranism and some contemporary branches of evangelical Anglicanism. Whereas the Anabaptists and revivalists tend to focus on the distinction between Word and Spirit at the expense of their inseparability, the Lutheran idea stresses that they are inseparable but tends to minimize their distinctness.

Here the Westminster Larger Catechism (1648) is of great help.

Q.155. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

Q.158. By whom is the word of God to be preached?
A. The word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.

Q.159. How is the word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?
A. They that are called to labour in the ministry of the word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully ... wisely ... zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people.

According to the Catechism, the demonstration of the Spirit and of power is evidenced by the faithful preaching of sound doctrine, wisdom, zeal and—above all—fervent love. Preaching is an effectual means of grace. The diligent and faithful preaching is the instrumental cause, while the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause. The two together are indispensable. The Word without the Spirit is ineffective, the Spirit without the Word is inaudible. The Spirit is the author of Scripture and continues to speak in it today (cf. Heb. 3:7, WCF 1:4, 10). The Word and the Spirit go together for that reason. However, the Spirit is sovereign and free to work as he wills. Moreover, the Word itself—whether as the text of Scripture or as the message proclaimed by the preacher—does not have power of itself.

In this, there is a contrast with the idea that the Word works grace invariably unless it is resisted, the position associated with Lutheranism. The Augsburg Confession (1530) 5 states that “by the Word and sacraments, as by instruments, the Holy Spirit is given: who worketh faith, where and when it pleaseth God, in those that hear the Gospel,”[2] going on in the same article to condemn the Anabaptists “who imagine that the Holy Spirit is given to men without the outward word.” This view of the Word as the instrument of the Spirit has commonly been connected with Lutheran sacramental theology, in which grace is given objectively and is efficacious unless there is resistance. It seems to some that this minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is held to work through the Word, rather than with the Word.

The Anabaptist and Revivalist Theology of Preaching Is to Be Rejected

The Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530) 5, strongly opposes the Anabaptists “who imagine that the Holy Spirit is given to men without the outward word.”[3] Theirs was a radical separation of the Spirit from the Word of God, and was adopted in order to justify claims of special extra-biblical prophetic inspiration. In more recent times, under the impact of the revivals of the eighteenth century, a doctrine of preaching has arisen, exemplified by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones,[4] stressing the sovereign freedom of the Holy Spirit. In support of this approach to preaching, the prominent British evangelical Stuart Olyott argues that the preaching of the gospel is often powerless, urging the faithful to “strive and agonise and prevail in prayer,” to “storm the throne of grace, determined that by sheer importunity they will persuade God to accompany the word to be preached.”[5]

Lloyd-Jones makes a contrast between what he describes as “an ordinary ministry” and one characterized by an exceptional outpouring of the Spirit resulting in mass conversions and a transformation of the church. He provides a number of examples from the Welsh revivals. In each case the basis is an experience. In the story of David Morgan, it started with a certain Humphrey Jones who had a great experience of revival in the USA “who said to himself, ‘I wish my people at home could experience this.’” So he returned to Wales “and began to tell the people of his home country about what he had seen and experienced.”[6] One night Morgan heard Jones preach “with exceptional power” and became “profoundly affected.” He went to bed that night as David Morgan and awoke “feeling like a lion.” Previously “just an ordinary preacher” he began to preach with such power that “people were convicted and converted in large numbers.”[7] One day some time later he went to bed feeling like a lion but awoke as David Morgan once more, and thereafter “exercised a most ordinary ministry.”[8]

This school of thought was influenced by the Welsh revivals. These brought large scale additions to the church but left in their wake an emotionalism that has proved an inoculation against biblical Christianity. Wales is now the most resistant area of the United Kingdom to the gospel. In the recent UK census it led the country in the proportion of avowed atheists and pagans. It has the lowest percentage of church attendance in the UK. A similar scenario is evident in the USA, where New England and upstate New York, where revivals aplenty occurred, are the hardest areas to reach with the gospel. There can be no denying that remarkable things happened at those times. However, the point I am making is that Lloyd-Jones to a certain extent constructs his theology of preaching around these experiences and, in so doing, distorts the picture presented in the Bible and unwittingly and certainly unintentionally undermines the regular use of the means of grace.[9]

A popular proof-text used by this school of thought as determinative is 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance.” This is used in order to assert that the preaching of the Word may be unaccompanied by the Spirit and so, as Olyott argues, preacher and congregation are to pray earnestly, persistently, and importunately for the Spirit “to visit” the preaching. However, in saying that his preaching at Thessalonica was accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, Paul hardly implies that on other occasions this was not so. Rather, he is drawing attention to the grounds for the Thessalonians’ assurance, remembering that they were subject to outbursts of persecution (Acts 17:1–9, 1 Thess. 2:13, 2 Thess. 1:1–12). This persecution came from Jewish sources; it is probable that he is contrasting the Spirit’s power in gospel preaching with the empty words of the synagogue. In the similar passage in 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5, it is obvious that there he contrasts his preaching with the Greek hankering for rhetoric. In both cases, “word only” and reliance on “human wisdom” refer to pagan or Jewish sources, not to Christian preaching. While it would be seriously and obviously wrong to argue against prayer for the ministry of the Word, it is untenable to base a strategic doctrine on a particular, debatable interpretation of an individual clause.

While advocates of this approach to preaching have strongly resisted Barth’s theology of Scripture, their view of preaching appears to have succumbed to a similar dynamic. For Barth, revelation was an act of God, unpredictable and outside our control, to which the Bible bears witness in a human way—and therefore in principle fallibly. For Lloyd-Jones preaching was second rate and ordinary if it was unaccompanied by what he considered to be “the Holy Spirit and power.” In short, according to this line of thought, true preaching occurs when the Spirit comes in power, an event outside our control, one which we are to seek and for which we are to pray, an event that will probably transform the preacher so that he feels like a lion, but an experience that may equally suddenly and inexplicably be withdrawn. As with Barth, where God can make the Scriptures be the Word of God in this or that circumstance, so with Lloyd-Jones, God can give a quantum boost to preaching on occasions entirely at his free and sovereign determination. Ordinary preaching may bear little fruit; when these visitations of the Holy Spirit come, transformation occurs. These visitations are to be sought, and for the experience the preacher is to pray. Indeed, many in this camp refer to the Spirit as a “visitor.” That this is an erroneous view of preaching—one that has caused many a preacher and pastor to be overburdened with disappointment that their ministries have been substandard—should be clear. It entails an erroneous doctrine of the Holy Spirit, with far-reaching consequences for trinitarian theology.

So we do not seek an experience, for nowhere are we encouraged to do so. Instead, as heralds of good news, as stewards of the mysteries of God, we aim to declare the message God has given and to await those words that mean more than any other: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The idea of the revivalist school that, without revivals, we are living in the day of small things is in error, for the day of small things ended at the ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father. We should not talk disparagingly of “an ordinary ministry,” for no faithful ministry since the ascension is ordinary, let alone “most ordinary.” How can the ministry of the Word of God ever be “ordinary”? How can a preacher, lawfully called, expounding and speaking the Word of the risen Christ ever consider himself about regular, humdrum business? Lloyd-Jones, in using language such as that, adopted criteria at odds with the reality of the age in which we live. Even those bearing little apparent fruit are part of a vast scenario that God is working together to accomplish ends way beyond our wildest comprehension. We do not do this for “when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful (credimus ipsum Dei verbum annunciari et a fidelibus recipi).”[10]

So for the Reformed, the Spirit and the Word are distinct but inseparable. Lutheranism stresses the inseparability at the expense of the distinction. The Anabaptists and revivalists stress the distinctness at the expense of the inseparability. The Anabaptists stress statements like John 6:63a, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all,” referring to the Word as a dead letter, while ignoring the remainder of the verse, “The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” The revivalists for their part consider it not only possible but frequent that the Word is unaccompanied by the Spirit.

This stems from the insistence that the Word is not divine and is less than the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the Spirit is free not only to leave the Word unaccompanied by his presence and power but also to work entirely independently of the Word. While it is true that the written and preached Word are not hypostatized, and so must be understood as under the living Word, yet to make such a distinction as Hywel Jones does, that “the Holy Spirit is ‘greater’ than the Word and must not be imprisoned in it,” leaves the door open to some grave consequences.[11] We must assert that God’s Word carries the authority of God himself and cannot be detached from him. According to Scripture, the Word of God shares in all the works of God; it creates (Gen. 1:3, Ps. 33:6, 9, Heb. 11:3), maintains the universe (Heb. 1:3), brings about regeneration (John 5:24–25, Rom. 10:17, 1 Pet. 1:23), is Spirit and life (John 6:63), raises the dead (John 5:28–29), and will not pass away (Matt. 24:35). As Jesus said, “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father” (Luke 9:26).

We must affirm that the New Testament attributes efficacy to the Word (Rom. 10:17, 1 Pet. 1:18, James 1:23, John 5:25). This is due to its being the Word of the Holy Spirit, the Word of Christ, the Living Word. The Spirit who breathed out the words of Scripture, accompanies the reading and proclamation of those words. He and his words are inseparable. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). The Spirit uses means; to write critically, as Olyott does, of “mediate regeneration” is at best misleading.[12] The Spirit does not speak, only to wander off and leave his ambassadors in the lurch. Nor does he speak in disjunction from the Word he has already and definitively spoken.

There is a close connection with the sacraments. The sacraments in themselves have no efficacy, for it is the Holy Spirit who makes them effective for the elect (WCF 27.3, 28.6, 29.7; WLC 155, 161). In this, the difference with Lutheranism is clear. However, the Spirit works in and through the sacraments so that the faithful feed on Christ in the eucharist; this is no evanescent or unpredictable matter. We should never come to the Lord’s Supper pleading with God to make them effectual, as if this is uncertain or unpredictable, assuming that we must “storm the gates of heaven” or else this will not be so. That is dangerously close to Pelagianism. Quite the contrary, we believe and trust that God is true to his Word. In line with the classic prayers of the Bible, we pray on the basis of God’s covenant promises. We know that he is reliable. He is our Father and we are his sons.[13] Here the clear blue water separating the Reformed from the Anabaptists and their successors is seen vividly. In both Word and sacrament human actions and divine grace—or judgment—go together. So inseparable is the Spirit from the Word that the attributes of the one can be applied to the other.[14]

Expectations for Preaching

As a result we can expect the blessing of God upon the preaching of his Word. This is not presumption. It is simply faith, confidence that what he has promised he performs, and will continue to perform. This blessing can cut both ways; in some instances it is a form of judgment. As Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 2:1–16, “Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance of death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”

Hughes cites Calvin to the effect that the gospel is never preached in vain, but is effectual, leading either to life or to death.[15] Indeed, Calvin states that “wherever there is pure and unfeigned preaching of the gospel, there this strong savour that Paul mentions [in 2 Corinthians 2:15–16] will be found ... not only when they quicken souls by the fragrance of salvation but also when they bring death to unbelievers.”[16] Hodge comments, “The word of God is quick and powerful either to save or to destroy. It cannot be neutral. If it does not save, it destroys.”[17] Elsewhere I have written that preaching has a two-fold cutting edge, bringing life and death wherever it goes.[18] It is best to say, with Strange, that the Holy Spirit makes the Word efficacious to different people in different ways at different times, according to his sovereign will.[19]

Certainly, the preachers of the gospel are called and required to exemplify in their lives the work of the Spirit and to be examples to the flock (1 Tim. 3:1–7, 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:1–26; 1 Pet. 5:1–4). That should be self-evident. But the Reformed confessions are clear that the efficacy of Word and sacrament does not depend on the piety and godliness of the ones who administer them (WCF 27.3, WLC 161). If that were so, the church would be hostage to the daily uncertainties of individuals’ lives. Rather, their efficacy depends on the one who has established them, Christ to whom they inextricably point, and to the Holy Spirit who works through them. Can anything more secure be found? Against this, Hywel Jones’s claim that “no one who is in pastoral ministry has any grounds for thinking that his congregation will rise any higher than himself” is spurious.[20] Jones’s own concern for the freedom of the Spirit should expose the assertion as false; if it were true the Spirit’s freedom would be limited.

For the congregation, receiving the Word as blessing rather than as judgment is connected to a considerable degree to the extent to which its members have prepared themselves to hear it. In an age of egalitarianism it is quite common for professing believers to exhibit a critical attitude to anything that remotely resembles authoritative speech.[21] The Westminster Larger Catechism 160 addresses this matter.

We recall that all creation was brought into existence by the Word of God (Heb. 11:3, John 1:1–3), and continues to be sustained and directed towards its ultimate destiny by the powerful Word of God’s Son (Heb. 1:3, Col.1:18). As Athanasius said, God arranged it so that the redemption of the world is by means of the same Word who made it in the beginning.[22] It follows that categorizing the regular ministry of the Word as “ordinary” is literally beyond belief.

How Significant Is the Preaching of the Word?

Is preaching a matter of life and death? No, it’s much more important than that.[23] Preaching concerns not only this life but eternity. It points to the chief purpose of human existence (WSC 1). It relates to the glory of God. It is not only anthropological in scope but ecclesiological and above all theological. It points forward to the cosmic panorama of the redeemed universe. Hence, Jeremiah’s profound turmoil when, for a time, he refrained from declaring the Word of the Lord to Judah (Jer. 20:7–9). So too, Paul records in words that should resonate deep in the conscience of every preacher, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

As such, anything that diverts the attention of the hearers from the Word of God is counter to the nature and intent of preaching. Into this category come the kind of sermons that begin with a tale about the preacher’s family and their recent activities under the mistaken impression that this builds a bridge with the congregation by demonstrating that the preacher is “a regular guy,” “a buddy.” It should follow from the nature of church proclamation that the proclaimer is there to witness to Christ, not himself—“We preach not ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor.4:5)—and by intruding personal anecdotes he is implicitly affirming that his own activities are of greater importance. In turn, the message God has called him to declare is, by implication, not so urgent after all.

So Paul’s final, parting charge to his protegé Timothy, the charge that was most vital for him and all his successors—preach the Word, in season and out of season, when it seems productive and when it meets resistance, indifference, or hostility. Whatever the circumstances, preach the Word!

For as the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa. 55:10–11)

For no Word of God will be powerless. (Luke 1:37, my translation)

In the words of Michael Horton, “though seemingly powerless and ineffective, the creaturely mediation of his Word through faltering human lips is the most powerful thing on earth.”[24]

Disposer supreme, and judge of the earth;
who choosest for thine the weak and the poor;
to frail earthen vessels, and things of no worth,
entrusting thy riches which ay shall endure.

Their sound goeth forth, ‘Christ Jesus is Lord!’
then Satan doth fear, his citadels fall:
as when the dread trumpets went forth at thy word,
and one long blast shattered the Canaanites’ wall.

J. B. de Santeuil, 1630–97[25]

Endnotes

[1] Adapted from a lecture given at the International Conference of Reformed Churches, Cardiff, August 2013.

[2] Schaff, Creeds, 3:10.

[3] Ibid., 3:10.

[4] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971).

[5] Stuart Olyott, “Where Luther Got It Wrong—and Why We Need to Know About It,” The Banner of Truth 555 (December 2009): 27. See in reply, George M. Ella, “Where Olyott Got It Wrong,” Biographia Evangelica, n.d., http://www.evangelica.de/articles/where-olyott-got-it-wrong/ (accessed 21 December 2012); idem, “Where Luther Puts Olyott Right,” Biographia Evangelica, n.d., http://www.evangelica.de/articles/where-luther-puts-olyott-right/ (accessed 21 December 2012).

[6] Ibid., 322.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 323.

[9] Perhaps this is connected with the fact that, in his fifty years of public ministry, Lloyd-Jones only referred to the sacraments on one occasion, and that in a Friday evening lecture and not in a regular service of the church. Such an omission is both astonishing and deeply disturbing. See Iain H. Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939–1981 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 790.

[10] Schaff, Creeds, 3:237, 832.

[11] Hywel R. Jones, “Preaching the Word in the Power of the Holy Spirit,” Foundations 60 (2011): 84. To be fair, Jones does not go through this door, nor approach it himself.

[12] Olyott, “Luther.”

[13] Contra Olyott, “Luther.”

[14] Behind this lies the classic doctrine of the inseparable operations of the persons of the Trinity, grounded on their indivisibility in the one ousia of God. To posit separability in preaching is to threaten Trinitarian doctrine.

[15] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1961), 80.

[16] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: Commentary on the Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians and the Epistles to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (David W. Torrance, Thomas Torrance, eds. T. A. Smail, translator; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 34.

[17] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Banner of Truth, 1959), 46.

[18] Letham, “Preaching,” 24–26.

[19] Strange, “The Centrality of Preaching,” 199.

[20] Jones, “Preaching,” 85.

[21] Strange, “The Centrality of Preaching,” 228–31.

[22] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 1.

[23] This is to adapt a famous comment by Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool FC from 1959–74, about the importance of football.

[24] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 761.

[25] The English Hymnal, ed. Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), hymn 178.

Robert Letham a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales, teaches Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, Bridgend, Wales. Ordained Servant Online, December 2013.

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