Chapter 5

What the Holy Spirit Can Do in Your Preaching

In times like these, we need the power of God more than ever.

Jesus said that the presence and work of the Holy Spirit resembles wind blowing in the leaves of a tree. What a perfect metaphor to describe a reality that no human can understand, much less control, but O how we long for the leaves to flutter when we preach! To that end, we spoke with Brooklyn Tabernacle pastor Jim Cymbala to see what preachers can learn from his new book "Spirit Rising: Tapping into the Power of the Holy Spirit" (Zondervan, 2012). Why do preachers and their congregations need to tap into the power of the Holy Spirit?

Jim Cymbala: Christianity is in decline in America. A radical evaluation is needed of what we are doing and how we are going to turn the tide. That will require preaching that wins souls, brings glory to God, and strengthens believers to go out and share Christ. There is no hope without the Holy Spirit coming. Call it revival, call it renewal—I'm not talking about emotionalism or fanaticism—but something has to happen, and that something has to be from God's only agent on earth: the Holy Spirit.

Your book says the Holy Spirit is the forgotten member of the Trinity and the least preached about member of the Trinity. How should a pastor correct that deficiency?

It starts with time alone with the Lord to see where we are with the Holy Spirit. Is the Holy Spirit producing fruit in our lives? Is our preaching singed by his fire-like presence? In Jeremiah 23 the Lord says, "Is not my word like fire?" Without that fiery influence that burns and penetrates and removes dross and sin, our preaching is futile.

So it has to start with our walk with the Lord. Are we filled with the Holy Spirit? Are we being controlled by the Holy Spirit? Have we humbled ourselves before the Lord and let him work in us? The hardest part of the sermon is what God has to do in us, so that we can go up and preach with moral authority and spiritual power. Three points and a conclusion is not hard to do; what's hard is having a message that penetrates and gets rid of the junk that God wants to deal with.

That has to start with the minister, and then the Lord will lead. There is no formula; there is no paradigm. Everyone has their own way of preaching, but it starts with us: God, send the Holy Spirit and work in my life in a new way so that my church and my preaching resembles the kind of preaching in the Book of Acts.

So it is not enough just to pull out a systematic theology and preach on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

We have to preach about the Holy Spirit, obviously, but that can become merely intellectual. You can have correct doctrine about the Holy Spirit and not have him within a hundred yards of the church, it would seem.

So yes, preach about him. What does the Bible say about the Holy Spirit? What were the promises? How could Jesus say, it's better for you that I leave? The disciples thought, No way, Rabbi. You're our teacher. You walk on water. You heal everyone. You always know what to do. It's better for us that you go?

Today, if most Christians had the choice between having Jesus in physical form walking with them or having the era of the Holy Spirit, do you think they would choose the latter? No. But God has made promises to us in Scripture about the Holy Spirit.

One dilemma is that the excesses of the charismatic movement have frightened away serious Bible believers, and they've thrown out the baby with the bathwater. A friend of mine went to a seminary for two-and-a-half years, and the only thing said about the Holy Spirit is he convicts the world of sin and he inspired Scripture. End of story. Well, there are a lot more promises concerning the Holy Spirit than that. We've been scared off by the excesses and ended up going to the other extreme: let's just have a Bible study, sing a couple of praise songs, and go home for dinner. That's not the Christianity I read about in the Book of Acts.

There is an authority, a power of penetration, that the Holy Spirit gives.

Since the power of Satan seems to be growing in its manifestation, what will counteract that but some manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our churches and in our preaching? I'm yearning for this, and I've met all kinds of serious men and women of God across the land and across the world who are saying, God, I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. I'm sick and tired of the same old, same old. Lord, what do I do? I've tried imitating this other paradigm for two years, but the spiritual level of the church is pitiful, and I know it. Maybe we have to admit, I'm prayerless, and I don't sense I'm being controlled by the Holy Spirit.

All revivals have been preceded by people saying, I can't take this anymore. Christ's name is not being honored. So we get humble. We go down low before God. Then he lifts us up and begins to show us things.

It's often said that good preaching is better caught than taught, and it seems that would certainly be true of Spirit-filled preaching.

Although I've read articles and sermons that have sent me to my knees, you can't capture in print what Spirit-filled preaching is. It's hard to describe. You have to be there and see the fruit.

I would say, though, that Spirit-filled preaching often includes spiritual discernment about our hearers. Without the Holy Spirit helping us we cannot "read" the church as it is in God's sight. Jesus knew exactly what every one of the seven churches in Revelation needed. He did not send the message that was for Philadelphia to the church at Laodicea. Was it still Jesus speaking? Yes, but that's not what they needed.

Paul tells Timothy, "Preach the Word," and I'm all for that—I abhor a departure from preaching Scripture—but what Scripture? What's the spiritual condition of the church you're pastoring? For example, Paul says to the Corinthians: I couldn't give you meat. I had to give you milk, and you're still not ready for meat.

So if a church is lukewarm and about to be vomited out of the mouth of the Lord, and you're preaching about the importance of tithing, that might not be the message that's needed. But without being in the presence of God, having our eyes opened, and receiving the gift of discernment from the Holy Spirit ….

How does Christ see the Brooklyn Tabernacle? I'm constantly asking God that. How would I know what to preach if I don't know what the ailment is? How can I strengthen what is weak if I don't know what's weak? A doctor doesn't hand out prescriptions without first making an examination. Only then can he tell you what you need to do.

Positional truth, positional theology, is needed—we can't stop preaching that—but today there's a scarcity of any kind of prophetic element in the pulpit. I mean preaching that is prophetic not in foretelling but in forth-telling, proclaiming the word that fits the situation, that tells people what they need to hear. That all comes from the Holy Spirit.

Otherwise the sermon is three points and a conclusion. It's biblically true and doctrinally sound. But how is the church doing? You can't have a prayer meeting because no one will come. The people don't love anyone unless they're the same color and ethnic group. There's no passion for those who don't know Christ. Giving is minimal. There's not the radical Christianity of the New Testament.

You can't just teach radical Christianity—you can't even preach it—it has to come from the Holy Spirit. It starts with preaching that throws people into the arms of God and gets them at the throne of grace saying, "God, change my life."

How does preaching with God's presence differ from preaching without God's presence?

Preaching with God's presence means you get something from God in your preparation. The Holy Spirit makes it real and deals with you about the subject. How am I going to preach about love unless the Holy Spirit has dealt with me about love? Now, I could say doctrinally sound things about love, I can get all my references straight; but when the Holy Spirit has dealt with the minister about love, there's a different ring to it, a different tone.

Then as you deliver the message, you're anointed by the Holy Spirit. There is an authority, a power of penetration, that the Holy Spirit gives. Jesus' preaching stood out to everyone because he spoke as one having authority.

When the Holy Spirit helps us preach, we speak as in the immediate presence of God. We're aware of him. He not only gives us words to say, but also gives a holy sense of his presence that helps us be saved from all our complexes, insecurities, and tendencies to pride.

The Holy Spirit produces in us a deep compassion, as Paul had for the church at Thessalonica: "We were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us" (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). No wonder he was so effective. He not only had a message and a methodology—dependence on the Spirit—he also had a motive: he was possessed by love for the people. Later he said to them, "Now I really live since you are standing firm in the Lord." You can't make that stuff up. That's not phony emotionalism. That's a passion that comes only from God the Holy Spirit, and it makes for a sermon that is unforgettable.

In addition, preaching with God's presence includes an abandonment and openness to the Holy Spirit. Spurgeon said: I never get locked into my notes too closely because who knows what light God could send into my heart while I'm preaching that would edify the people listening.

How can preachers prepare themselves to be aware of and dependent on God's presence?

Here's what God has been making real to me. Jesus went up on a mountain and called the twelve to himself "so that they would be with him and that he could send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out the demons" (Mark 3:14-15).

Notice the first calling on those who are going to represent him. The first calling is not to preach, build a building, write a book, nor have authority over evil spirits. The first and critical calling is that they would just be with him. In our hyper-paced society with all the voices calling us, one of the hardest battles is for ministers just to be with him.

The Lord says to Jeremiah about the false prophets who were speaking the wrong word, making up stuff in their heads: "If they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people" (Jeremiah 23:22). They would have helped the people; instead, they made the people more ungodly.

And so, preaching with a sense of God's presence begins by being with the Lord, not only laying our petitions before him, but also listening, reading the Bible, meditating on it. We open our hearts and say, "God, I'm not moving until you make something real to me about my life, from the Word, how I can better serve you, how I can better glorify your name, what I can preach." But my first calling is not to preach; it's to be with him. It's not to have authority over evil spirits; it's just to be with the Lord.

Imagine, the God of the universe wants me alone with him. And by being with him, there is an authority, a sense of his presence, that comes to us. Our ear gets tuned. We get discernment. Wisdom is imparted just by being with him.