Chapter 9

Spiritual Formation through Preaching

Three components of Bible-based preaching

Recently I was asked to speak at a preaching conference on the topic, " Spiritual Formation through Preaching. " The first thing that popped into my head was, Spiritual formation—what else do you do through preaching? Maybe evangelistic preaching wouldn't qualify as spiritual formation, but it certainly is aimed at starting the process.

Whatever the homiletical structure or approach—every word I speak from the pulpit is under the functional authority of Scripture.

My second thought was, Through preaching? How else would you ever help people grow spiritually? Oh, I almost forgot—counseling could do it, though it doesn't often intentionally do so. Or teaching, though many a teacher thinks merely of informing the frontal lobe. Writing could surely qualify, though most of it is aimed in other directions. And then there are the newer models aimed at spiritual formation—small group sharing and one-on-one mentoring. Or the latest form of personal discipleship—new for Protestants at least—enlisting a spiritual director. But I'm with Stephen Olford, master of old style oratory and Stuart Briscoe, pioneer in new style communication—Holy Spirit-anointed preaching is the means that seems best designed to aid spiritual formation.

There. I've done it, the inexcusable—my musings about the topic have given away my prejudices, my access code! At least that has the merit of enabling you to click delete if we're not tracking. But if you resonate with my understanding of the purpose and potential of preaching, click here, and we may get some clues on how to promote spiritual growth through preaching. Practically speaking, how do we make sure our preaching results in spiritual transformation?

I suggest four indispensables. Our preaching should be:

  1. Bible based
  2. Spirit energized
  3. Verdict demanding
  4. Audience connected

In the first few installments in this series, we'll consider the biblical universals (1-3 above), then turn to the fluid particulars of the audiences we address (4).

Bible-based preaching

When I say Bible-based, some people automatically think expository preaching. Expository preaching is my favorite. In fact, I usually go away feeling malnourished when the message isn't expositional, flowing from the text. I feel like the author and seminary president Walter Kaiser who, when asked if he ever preached a non-expository sermon, replied, " Sometimes. But then I always repent. " Though I've heard him more than once, I've never heard Walter preach an expository sermon. But I take his word for it that's what he usually does! It is okay when he doesn't, though, because, for the life of me I can't find a single expository sermon in the New Testament! Still, I like that kind of preaching.

But that's not what I mean by Bible-based. Whatever the homiletical structure or approach—every word I speak from the pulpit is under the functional authority of Scripture. It is true to the meaning of Scripture, true to the emphases of Scripture, true to the purpose of Scripture. The Word of God is designed to function as the controlling authority. That is, every sermon must be developed, consciously and intentionally, under the authority of Scripture so that the Bible—not tradition or a theological system, not my pet theme or contemporary pressures—functions as the control center. This Bible is not just a V-chip to filter out false teaching, but the programmer in charge. So, when it comes to promoting spiritual formation, three grand themes of Scripture will control my content:

These themes are pervasive in Scripture, but they are more than pervasive. They are the point of revelation, so if my preaching does not constantly focus on these themes, how can I claim to be Bible-based? Consider them briefly.

God's standard

God's standard is no less than God himself. From Genesis, where we are created in his likeness, to Revelation, where the image is fully restored; From Jesus' command that we are to be perfect as the Father is perfect (Matthew 5:5-58) to Paul's assurance that the new self is being renewed after the likeness of him in whose image it was originally created (Colossians 3:9-10)—our goal is God. We must ever hold before our people in pragmatic detail and specific application God's standard for the Christian life.
I arrived for a missions conference in a dynamic, growing, missions-oriented church in Florida. On meeting the senior pastor, I was surprised to have him say we had met before and even more surprised to hear that first meeting had been ministry-transforming. At the end of a missions week in a major evangelical seminary, Brent told me, he had volunteered to take me to the airport. I had shared with the students the story of God's love for the whole world, clearly revealed from Genesis to Revelation, and the mandate we have for full participation in completing what he began. As a doctoral student Brent apparently hadn't attended the chapels. As we sat over coffee at the airport, I asked about his ministry, and he said he preached the Word. By that he meant verse-by-verse exposition. I asked about the missions program of the church, and he said there wasn't much of one. So I responded, " And what word is it you're preaching? " In that instant, he testified, his whole life and ministry were transformed.

God's provision

You might say God's standard produced that response in him. But God's standard could be dreadfully distressing without God's provision. The second great theme of Scripture is God's provision for our salvation in its full splendor—from initial forgiveness through the final denouement " when we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is " (1 John 3:2). The standard must be coupled always with the provision.
Enter the Holy Spirit, the One who created us on God's pattern in the first place (Genesis 1:27), who convicts us of our hopelessness and helplessness (John 16:8), who breathes new life into us (John 3:6), changing us into altogether new creations with vastly new potential (2 Corinthians 5:17), who takes up residence as our inside companion (John 14:17), the one who gave us the Book (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and who daily illumines its meaning, the One who transforms us from one degree of Jesus' glorious character to another (2 Corinthians 3:18). The person of the Holy Spirit is the provision of the triune God for living godly in an ungodly world.
Not all teach this. In the church I attended for two years I loved the profound expository preaching. Gradually, however, I began to realize something was missing. The preacher obviously believed strongly in human sinfulness. He also believed in justification and glorification. But I gradually came to understand he didn't believe in much in between. A nationally recognized biblical scholar also attended, but left the church before I did. The other day I met this influential Reformed scholar again, and we spoke of the view of the Christian life we had both been exposed to. " Arrogant pessimism! " he said. " Those fellows don't offer any hope of power to live the life. " By selecting only those passages that advanced his " doctrines of grace, " as our preacher termed them, we were left with little hope for the interim between initial and final salvation. But God has made full provision in the person of the Holy Spirit, empowerment to be transformed from one degree of his glorious character to another. Just as the standard is God himself, so the provision.

Our responsibility

But your congregants will ask, how do I connect? How does it happen? We must be faithful to explain the implications of our personal responsibility for accessing that provision. The access code is simple. The glorious truth is it is available to all! Faith. Faith for initial salvation, faith for transformation, faith for growth toward our goal. " Let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us down, of the sinful habit that clings so closely, and run, with all endurance, the race for which we are entered, our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom faith depends from start to finish " (Hebrews 12:1-2, NEB).
Why do so many church members seem to be spiritually on hold? Of course, a spiritual plateau isn't really possible—we're either spiraling up toward ever greater likeness to Jesus and ever greater intimacy with him, or we're spiraling downward, away from that tight connection, ever less like him. What must we do when the spiral up falters? What's gone wrong? We say faith is the key, but why doesn't it seem to work? Why doesn't the connection seem to produce the promised results?
Perhaps there's a disconnect after all, perhaps the preacher has only plugged them into the positive pole of faith, neglecting the negative pole of repentance. Bible faith—whether for salvation or sanctification—is bi-polar: repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). If " faith " is just intellectual assent to certain essential truths, a person is no more saved than the devils who also believe (James 2:19).
And sanctification? Yield and trust, the same two poles of biblical faith. Neglect one or the other and growth stops because there's a disconnect. Preach one or the other out of proportion to the need of the people? Disconnect!

These, then, are the themes that must fill the menu of our people's diet if we are serious about nurturing spiritual formation: God's standard—himself; God's provision—the Spirit; and our responsibility—faith.

It's quite possible to fascinate a congregation so that numbers steadily increase, to explain the Bible text so professionally one's reputation reaches back to the halls of alma mater, to inform the mind so carefully our people are recognized as Bible experts, and still miss out on spiritual formation. Without the energizing power of the Spirit, fresh each time one enters the pulpit, our people will not demonstrate any miracle quality of life. Family and co-workers will not be impacted by the inexplicable. Any good psychologist could explain their attitudes and behavior in terms of genes, early environment, and present circumstances. And who would go to church in search of such an unsupernatural life?

Unless the fire of the Spirit breaks loose, we can forget about spiritual formation.

Unprepared for Christ's mission

That's the lesson the disciples had to learn. After three years in Jesus' seminary, after the trauma of their teacher's gruesome death and the exhilaration of his resurrection, they were still on their own agenda—an agenda set by traditions, centuries of misreading the Scriptures, and by their worldly ambitions. "Is this the time for setting up the Kingdom?" they asked (Acts 1:6ff). (They had in mind throwing out the Romans and, no doubt, putting themselves on twelve thrones surrounding King Jesus.) Jesus responded, "No, no. That isn't your assignment. I do however have an assignment for you. But you're not ready for it." Not ready? After three years in Messiah's School of Theology!

Unless the fire of the Spirit breaks loose, we can forget about spiritual formation.

Following his resurrection, over a period of six weeks of final preparation, he'd given his marching orders at least three or four times already (John 20:21; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15). And still they didn't get it. So he told them to return to Jerusalem and wait till they were ready. Wait for what? For the Holy Spirit! "Wait till the fire falls—then you'll be equipped to carry out the plan." There's no record he told them to wait on their knees, but I imagine he did tell them because that's what they did. And then the fire fell. Perhaps we're miscuing on what he has in mind for us. We're just plain not ready for his earth-shaking assignment. Is he saying, "Wait. Tarry on your knees. Back to your study till the fire falls"?

Indicators of a Spirit-filled life

Often the New Testament uses picture language to describe this experience, Spirit "filled." What will you feel like, what will you look like if you are Spirit filled? The New Testament uses this picture word, full, in three different ways. Sometimes it seems to refer to what most contemporaries who specialize in Spirit filling have in mind—an inner sense of the Spirit's presence— "filled with joy in the Holy Spirit," for example (Luke 10:21). God pity the preacher who never has that rush, that ecstatic sense of God's presence.

Sometimes, however, the Bible seems to indicate a relationship more than a feeling—who is in charge? (Ephesians 4:29-32; Ephesians 5:17). If the Holy Spirit is in full charge of a relationship, you could say the person is filled with the Spirit. God pity the congregation where the preacher is not unconditionally yielded, fully at the disposal of the Spirit.

By far the most common use of this picture language is to point to the outcome, the evidence of a Spirit-filled life, called "fruit" or "gifts" (Galatians 5:22; 1 Corinthians 12). That is what it means to be filled with the Spirit—so under the Spirit's control that a miracle life is evident, an abundant harvest of Spirit-fruit that every fruit inspector in the congregation can see. So the only way to explain the results of that man's preaching is to say—Spirit power!

Notice something about those Spirit-filled apostles: Every time a crisis erupted, a new opportunity loomed, things didn't go according to plan, what did they do? Back to their knees! And what did God do in response? He filled them with the Spirit. Then they preached with boldness, with life-transforming power. Spirit-filled people were filled, the record says (Acts 4:31). How can that be?

I find the analogy of a sailboat helpful. A schooner skimming across the water, sails filled with the breeze, is a beautiful sight. But then a stiff wind comes up from the west and whoosh! Those sails, filled already, are really filled. And so with the Spirit. He may be steady state in charge of the preacher's life and ministry, but then comes a special need, a special opportunity. Then comes the time to enter the pulpit. He's been on his knees, he's pleaded the wind of the Spirit to blow. And that day there is Spirit-filled preaching. If spiritual formation is ever to take place through preaching, that will be the day.

Spiritual formation is change, and change takes place when choices are made.

If I am to preach in a way that results in spiritual formation, my sermon must demand a verdict. This principle of preaching isn't in the same category as the first two principles in this series — that preaching be Bible-based and Spirit-energized — but it does reflect what Bible-based, Spirit-energized preaching is all about.

Preaching for a verdict is one of the things that distinguishes preaching from teaching. Teaching is aimed at the mind, preaching at the heart. Hold on! When I teach, I'm seeking to move my hearers to action, and when I preach I'm educating my people in the truths of the Word. Of course. Good teaching is aimed at change, and good preaching is solid teaching.

Why, then, the distinction? Several major streams of influence in preaching hold that the correct homiletical approach is verse-by-verse exposition of a text, teaching as many truths as the author may pack into the passage. I would say that is better described as teaching. But when the preacher pulls together the teaching of a passage toward a single goal that calls for response, or marshals evidence from various passages of Scripture to drive home a point that requires action, that's preaching, preaching that demands a verdict.

In my student days a favorite teacher used to thunder, " Young men, don't ever fish with a slick line! " Our aim is not merely to fascinate the audience — entertainers do a better job. It should not be our aim just to add to the store of accurate biblical information — a book or computer might serve that end. What we're after is change. If the audience leaves stirred, or more biblically literate, but doesn't change, there's been no spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is change, and change takes place when choices are made. And so, preaching that demands a verdict is critical to spiritual formation, or, as Paul would put it, to transformation.

He is even more specific. He calls us to transform our minds — reformat our mental programs — till more and more we display an accurate depiction of God's good, acceptable, and complete will (Romans 12:2). How does that happen? " I plead with you by the mercies of God to make a grand presentation " — a sacrifice, in fact (v. Romans 12:1). Paul's charge was verdict-demanding. Change comes by Spirit power when choices are made, so preaching must be verdict demanding if spiritual formation is to occur.

Perhaps you're saying, Bible-based, I can see, and Spirit-energized — those are pervasive in Scripture. But where do you get this requirement to be verdict-demanding? There may not be many instructions to preachers to preach that way specifically in Scripture, but virtually every preacher in the Old Testament and in the New followed this principle. When they opened their mouths, they demanded a response. Their preaching was verdict-demanding.