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Four Keys to Spiritual Formation (part 1)

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.

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

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 that 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.

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

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 hear him say we had met before and even more surprised to hear that our 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 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 Bible (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. For the first two years in one church I attended, 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 is 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.

Part 2 of this article focuses on the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching that results in spiritual formation.

Robertson McQuilkin is a writer and speaker, and president emeritus of Columbia International University, in Columbia, South Carolina. He is author of Understanding and Applying the Bible (Moody).

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