Plain Preaching that is Full of Power
A Series on The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 154-160
Editor’s Note: This is part 8 in a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answer 154-160.
I was raised in a church tradition where sermons were fast paced and long. The preachers were loud and their words were often accompanied with foot stomping and much banging of the pulpit. On several occasions I was told that this was evidence of Spirit-filled preaching. The apostle Paul, however, admits to us that he was not a particularly polished speaker (2 Cor. 11:6), that his speech amounted to nothing, and that he had an unimpressive personality (2 Cor. 10:10). By his own admission, Paul’s preaching did not fit the modern popular notion of Spirit-filled preaching. So, what really is Spirit-filled preaching according to the Bible? Our fathers in the faith helpfully summarise the Bible’s teaching in Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 159:
How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?
They that are called to labor 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(emphasis added); faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory and the conversion, edification, and salvation.
For our purposes, let us focus on the language our catechism borrows from the letters of the Apostle Paul, particularly, three characteristics – one negative and two positive. The first passage for our consideration is 1 Cor. 2:4 where Paul says, “… my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” First and negatively, Pauline preaching was not in a façade of wisdom. This statement is as counter cultural in our time as it was in the days of Paul. Today, any chance one might have to be heard and perhaps gain a following is reasonably won through persuasive speech that has an appearance of wisdom. Thus, many self-styled gurus have gained prominence throughout the world today, as in every age. Their speech is comprised of the best insights mankind can conjure up without reliance upon and regularly in opposition to the revelation of God. The challenge to us, brothers, is the same as Paul’s. Just as Paul avoided Greek rhetoric (which majored on a reliance upon eloquence of speech in convincing hearers), so should we avoid such a reliance, instead focusing on “Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
Secondly and positively, Pauline preaching was marked by a “demonstration of the Spirit, and of power.” Lloyd-Jones describes such preaching with the following: “It is God giving power, and enabling, through the Spirit, to the preacher in order that he may do this work in a manner that lifts up beyond the efforts and endeavours of man to a position in which the preacher is being used by the Spirit and becomes the channel through whom the Spirit works.” It would not be surprising if the apostle Paul rejoiced to see our pulpits full of many preachers far more eloquent and articulating than him. Yet, I am not sure he would feel the same towards the lack of Spirit-filled preaching that also pervades our pulpits whether accompanied by eloquence, articulation and personality or lacking in all. Dr. R.C. Sproul has said, “A close link between the preacher and the Holy Spirit must be maintained for effective preaching. The Spirit is the energizer, the dynamite (dunamis) of powerful preaching. We need the unction, the anointing of the Spirit, lest our words, eloquent or otherwise, bounce off recalcitrant hearts and evaporate.” Our encouragement is to use all our giftings within our own God-given personality as instruments of the Holy Spirit to present Christ-exalting truth.
Thirdly, and positively again, Pauline preaching was characterised by “plainness”. Our catechism receives this language from 1 Cor. 14:9: “So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?” Plainness is not synonymous with dryness. Nor is Paul encouraging uneducated, uninformed, or anti-intellectual sermons. To preach plainly is rather an encouragement to be simple in our language. It is to leave the scholarly language, stylised vocabulary and flowery speech out of our pulpits. If we intend to aim at people’s hearts and consciences, let us aim with easy-to-understand language lest our arrows fly over their heads. Let our exposition be plain. The presentation of doctrine plain. Our applications concrete and plain. Our delivery plain. Let our lives and our preaching be characterised by Spirit-filled plainness. It is through such plainness that the cross of Christ can be made much of and the affections of our congregation drawn to Him.
We are not meant to do such preaching alone. Indeed we cannot. We desperately need the power of Christ’s Spirit in our lives and His unction each time we preach. After all, it is His Word and His Work. We are but His conduits. My fellow ministers of the Word, may our preaching always be coupled with unceasing reliance upon the same Holy Spirit who raised our Saviour from the dead, is even now raising men and women to life, and chooses to use our preaching to exalt Christ.
Let me learn of Paul
whose presence was mean,
his weakness great,
his utterance contemptible,
yet thou didst account him faithful and blessed.
Lord, let me lean on thee as he did,
and find my ministry thine.
The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications Committee of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2007), 312-13.
Scripture repeatedly works the ideas of “Spirit” and “power” together. For example, see Isaiah 11:2, Micah 3:8, Ephesians 3:16, et al. Hence we will treat them together here for our purposes.
R. C. Sproul, The Whole Man in The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century, ed. Samuel T. Logan, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, paperback ed., 2011), p. 125.
Taken from A Minister’s Confession in The Valley of Vision: a Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 340.