Preaching and Power

By John Frye

I am thankful the Apostle Paul talked about his own preaching. The startling connection Paul made was between his words and the power of the Holy Spirit. Gordon Fee writes, “Both the content… and the form of his preaching lacked persuasive wisdom and rhetoric; indeed, his preaching was more effective than that, Paul argues. It was accompanied by a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, evidenced by the conversion [of people]. And it was so, Paul adds, in order that their faith might rest in ‘the power of God’” (God’s Empowering Presence, 849, emphasis added).

Paul was an effective communicator, no doubt. I’d even say he was a creative wordsmith often coining new terms that served the gospel he preached (e.g., “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16). Why no persuasive wisdom or rhetoric? Paul believed that the announcement (proclamation) of the gospel—Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ was born, lived, was crucified and buried, and alive from the dead—carried a Holy Spirit energy with which no human persuasion or rhetoric could ever compete. To just utter that Jesus, a crucified Jew, is now alive from the dead and reigning as Lord, scandalous and moronic as it sounded, unleashed supernatural power to change human lives.

By the way, just because a preacher may believe fiercely in inerrancy does not mean he or she is an empowered preacher. If the highest calling a preacher follows is to defend the Bible, then woe to his or her congregation. Defending the Bible and loving God are not necessarily identical. “I preached Christ and him crucified,” declared Paul.

Consider this triad of transformative disciplines:

1. developing Christian character by living in existential humility demonstrated by prayer,

2. working hard with the text with all the resources and skills available, and

3. acknowledging every time you preach there is no formula whatsoever that puts the Spirit’s power at your disposal.

The first is soul work pointing us toward a holy life. The second is mind work challenging us with eternal verities. The third strips us naked in the preaching moment (metaphorically speaking) reminding us that we can do nothing, effect nothing apart from the gracious work of the Spirit. Fee reminds us that not only were Paul’s words empowered, the Holy Spirit accomplished deeds/works of power as part of the speech act GEP, 849-850). The primary work being conversions to the Christ.

While there is no formula to bottle the magic of the Spirit, there is the committed process of following Jesus, learning from Jesus, living for Jesus, and making Jesus known. The Spirit gravitates to the praying heart. The Spirit enjoys imparting the things of Jesus to us. The Spirit of Truth treats honesty as holiness. The Spirit shines light on sin (darkness) in us and in others. By the way, that the Spirit’s function, not mine. Making people uncomfortable by preaching is not the same as the Spirit and the Word “cutting to the dividing apart of soul and spirit.” Haranguing people with the Word is not a holy thing to do. “What do you mean? You know we must rebuke people! It says so in the Bible.” Friend, if the reality of your rebuke does not feel like a word (rhema) of God’s love to people, then keep it to yourself. We will discuss love and preaching next time.


About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.