Sunday, August 2, 2009

Preaching, but with power

A key distinctive of conservative evangelicals is that ministry, particularly the preaching ministry, is Bible-centered, meaning that the authority and reliability of scripture are held-up as all-important. It’s almost a point of pride, if I can use that word, that evangelical Christians base their beliefs and ministry so much on the words of scripture; so much so that there’s a tendency to believe that if preaching is faithful to the Word, and the Word only, that it will do its effective work and people will be convicted of sin, will repent, will come to Christ, and will grow in their Christian lives.

After thirty-plus years of being part of the evangelical community, I’ve concluded that faithful preaching of the Word isn’t enough. “Accurately dividing the Word of God,” if the result of an intellectual exercise, often appeals mainly to the intellect, not so much the heart.

Alister McGrath, author and professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, describes in his book KNOWING CHRIST how during his early days as a believer he put too much emphasis upon an intellectual understanding of classic biblical theology, to the detriment of his own spiritual growth. “I gradually came to the realization,” he writes, “that my faith was far too academic. Frankly, it was as dry as dust. I was spiritually parched, and the last thing I needed was more of the dry and desiccated material that seemed to be the staple diet of so many at this time.”

“The cultivation of an intimate personal relationship with Christ somehow seemed to get marginalized,” McGrath continues. “’Know your Bible’ seemed to be the supreme goal of these churches. They certainly produced students who knew their Bible well. Yet, sadly, many of those who could quote the most obscure biblical verses in support of some tenuous theological argument had never known the tender embrace of a loving Christ and nestled in his care. ..Knowledge of text had displaced knowledge of Christ.”

A.W. Tozer often made the same point. In THE PURSUIT OF GOD, Tozer wrote:

Thanks to…effective agencies for the dissemination of the Word, there are today many millions of people who hold “right opinions,” probably more than ever before in the history of the Church. Yet I wonder if there was ever a time when true spiritual worship was at a lower ebb….

The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intense and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, and may delight in His Presence…

One should suppose that proper instruction in the doctrines of man’s depravity and the necessity for justification through the righteousness of Christ alone would deliver us from the power of the self-sins; but it does not work out that way. Self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding Victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the Reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace, and gain strength by its efforts. To tell all the truth, it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible conference than in a tavern…

Self is the opaque veil that hides the Face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never in the mere instruction. As well try to instruct leprosy out of our system.

In the latter part of the 18th Century, William Law wrote,

Read whatever doctrine of Scripture you will, and it will leave you as poor and empty and unreformed as it found you, unless it has turned you wholly and solely to the Spirit of God. Delight in whatever passage of Scripture you can find, and your delight will be nothing unless it has strengthened your union and dependence upon Him…

The benefit that we receive from faith is the power and presence of God living and working in our beings…We must receive all our religious goodness wholly and solely from God’s direct operation in our hearts.

D.L. Moody testified of the same thing. In his 1960 book, THEY FOUND THE SECRET, V. Raymond Edman, then-Chancellor of Wheaton College, relates Moody’s story:

In Chicago, there were two godly women, Mrs. Sara A. Cooke and her friend, Mrs. Hawxhurst, who attended Moody’s meeting in Farwell Hall, and on whose hearts there came a great burden that this precious man of God be filled with the Spirit. On more occasions than one, Mr. Moody made reference to them, as he did at a meeting in Glasgow:

“I can myself go back almost twelve years and remember two holy women who used to come to my meetings. It was delightful to see them there, for when I began to preach I could tell by the expression on their faces they were praying for me. At the close of the Sabbath evening services they would say to me, ‘We have been praying for you.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you pray for the people?’ They answered, ‘You need power.’ ‘I need power,’ I said to myself, ‘Why, I thought I had power.’ I had a large Sabbath school, and the largest congregation in Chicago. There were some conversions at the time, and I was in a sense satisfied. But right along these two godly women kept praying for me, and their earnest talk about ‘the anointing for
special service’ set me thinking. I asked them to come and talk with me, and we got down on our knees. They poured out their hearts, that I might receive the anointing of the Holy Ghost. And there came a great hunger into my soul. I knew not what it was. I began to cry as never before. The hunger increased. I really felt that I did not want to live any longer if I could not have this power for service. I kept on
crying all the time that God would fill me with His Spirit.”

Then came the great Chicago fire. On the evening of that memorable night in 1871 when one-third of the city was laid in ashes and thousands were left homeless, Moody had preached in Farwell Hall. With the institutions which he had founded in ruins, Moody went East to appeal for funds, but he said:

“My heart was not in the work of begging. I could not appeal. I was crying all the time that God would fill me with His Spirit. Well, one day, in the city of New York – oh, what a day! – I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it: it is almost too sacred an experience to name. Paul had an experience of which he didn’t speak for fourteen years. I can only say that God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to stay His hand. I went to preaching again. The
sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world – it would be as the small dust of the balance.”

The sermons were not different; but the servant was!

The truths were not new; but now they were pungent and penetrating!

A few had been converted before; now converts came by the hundreds!

Before, it had been the earnest energy and tireless drive of the man; now it was the dynamic of the Holy Spirit!

What was the difference in Moody’s life and ministry? What is the difference to which Tozer and Law refer? It is a simple difference: the difference between self and Christ; the difference between flesh and Spirit. It is a sad reality that a person may claim to have faith in Christ, and yet live their life to the best of their own ability, rather than live a life dependent on the ability of Christ to do in them what they cannot do themselves; or to claim to have faith in Christ, but live the best life that the flesh is capable of living, and know nothing of a life filled and animated by the Holy Spirit.

William Law wrote, “We can have no power to cleave to [God], to will what He wills, or to adore the divine nature, except by partaking of that eternal Spirit of love.” This is why preaching of the Word, by itself, explaining truths within it, as an intellectual exercise, is not enough, and falls short of God’s intended purposes in the Word. Again, Law writes, “…the Scriptures themselves, though they are true and infallible in these reports [of God’s working in history] and instructions about the Holy Spirit, can be no more than a true history. They cannot give to the reader of them the deeper meaning, the awareness, and the enjoyment of what they relate.”

Is this notion biblical? In William Law’s day, he said he was accused of fanaticism in his emphasis of the need for a union with Christ’s Spirit and His outworking in a person’s spirit to make the real difference in a person’s life. But the apostle Paul affirms numerous times in his letters that preaching the word is not enough; that preaching must be accompanied by the power which only comes from the Spirit to have its full effect. Consider:

Rom. 15:17-19 – …in Christ Jesus I have found reason for boasting in things pertaining to God. For I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit; so that from Jerusalem and round about as far as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.

1 Cor. 2:2-5 – For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

1 Cor. 4:20 – For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.

2 Cor. 3:1-6 – Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some, letters of commendation to you or from you? You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

2 Cor. 4:1-2 – Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth commending ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.

2 Cor. 4:5-11 – For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
Not only does Paul consider the preaching of the word with power essential to doing God’s work, but Jesus also affirms the necessity of the Spirit’s work, even in his own ministry:

John 3:21 – "But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God." (Jesus is saying that what people saw as his works did not come from him, but were works wrought and brought forth in him by God. If the outworking of God was essential in Jesus’ life, it’s essential in our lives as well.)

John 14:10 – "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works."

And finally, in Eph. 3:16-19, Paul describes the objective toward which the Ephesian Christians (all Christians, really) should be moving:

…that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

The word Paul uses for “knowledge” in terms of knowing the love of Christ is “epignosis” which can best be characterized not as a knowledge which one apprehends in one’s head, intellectually, but a knowledge one gains from experience – a knowledge of Christ and his love gained by experiencing that love. In fact, Paul describes it as knowledge that “surpasses knowledge,” literally, a knowledge that is beyond one’s ability to comprehend, intellectually, where words fail to adequately describe it. Such knowledge is not gained through reading books, attending conferences, expressing in a systematic theology, or even sitting in church on Sundays listening to sermons, regardless of how valuable books, conferences, theology, and Sunday sermons are. Such knowledge is gained through an encounter with Christ, by means of the Holy Spirit, walking with him, and experiencing his love through grace, mercy, and real interaction with him.

Having a correct intellectual understanding of what the Bible teaches about God, about us, about what God has done in Christ for us, and about our union with him, are important. But an intellectual, systematic theological understanding of Christ and his working in and through us isn’t the same thing as knowing him. Don’t fall into the trap that if you think you’ve got it figured out in your head, you’ve got it. The chances are, you don’t.

For those who want to understand more about this kind of knowledge (and, yes, there is an aspect to it which must be understood in the head as well as in the heart), I’ve given four resources: KNOWING CHRIST by Alister McGrath, THE PURSUIT OF GOD by A.W. Tozer, YOU WILL RECEIVE POWER by William Law, and THEY FOUND THE SECRET by V. Raymond Edman. Also, approaching Scripture with the understanding that knowing Scripture is not the same as knowing Christ, is a good place to start as well.

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