Preaching: The Word of God and the Work of the Spirit

People often ask me why I am committed to expositional preaching.  Sometimes I answer by testifying to the great influence such preaching has had on my own life.  I can point to lessons I’ve learned and growth I’ve experienced personally.  Indeed, under God, my spiritual growth has been most pronounced in times of great struggle and suffering on the one hand, and times when I was sitting under sound exposition on the other.  (Sometimes both at once!)

Other times, I answer by pointing to the long-term preaching ministries of great men in the past.  Expositional preaching not only benefits individual Christians such as me, it is also used by God to shape entire congregations.  The lasting legacy of churches shaped by the regular preaching of God’s Word is rich and deep.  In fact, I think a case can be made that the most effective preachers over the long haul are expositional preachers.  There are exceptions, of course, but I think the mainstream lessons of revival, and of church history in general, point in that direction.  (This is one of the burdens of the seven-volume series by Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church – well worth checking out.)

But these reasons, though compelling in my mind, are not the primary explanation for my commitment to expositional (or expository) preaching.  Rather, it is what the Bible teaches about the work of the Holy Spirit that most persuades me.

When we read through the Bible, we see again and again that God’s word and God’s Spirit work together.  Even in the first chapter of Genesis, when the personhood of the Holy Spirit has not yet been revealed clearly, we see God create by His word, with His Spirit “hovering” throughout the process.[1]  We also know that the Holy Spirit is responsible for God’s written word, the Bible: “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[2]  In other words, God’s word and Spirit work together in creation, and God’s written word is produced by the work of God’s Spirit.  It is no surprise, then, that Peter uses the name of the human author, the term scripture, and the name of the Holy Spirit interchangeably: “Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David…”[3]

There is a wonderful illustration of the intimate connection between the power of God’s word and the work of God’s Spirit found in Ezekiel 37.  In this chapter, the prophet is taken into the wilderness and shown a pile of dried bones.  He is told to prophesy – to proclaim God’s word – to the dried bones.  As the prophet preaches to the bones, they come together, they grow sinews and flesh, and they stand in line.  They are described in the end, as “an exceedingly great army.”[4]  What does this illustrate?  The Lord explains it this way: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.  Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken and I will do it, declares the Lord.”[5]  Once again, the word of God is used by the Spirit of God to do the work of God.

This intimate connection between God’s word and His Spirit is underscored in the life of our Savior, the word made flesh. In Luke 4, for instance, after Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, he returned, “in the power of the Spirit.”[6]  As he entered the synagogue of Nazareth, he read from Isaiah and applied it to himself, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”[7]  But what is it that the filling of the Spirit leads to in Jesus’ life?  Well, in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…to proclaim.”[8]  And the power of the Spirit in which he ministered, leads him to “teach;”[9] the Spirit leads him to “proclaim;”[10] the Spirit’s power leads to “gracious words coming from his mouth.”[11]  In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Jesus led to his teaching, preaching, and speaking God’s word.

The same is true of the earliest Christians.  In the book of Acts, the early believers gathered together for a time of prayer.  At the end of their meeting, “The place where they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.[12]  Once again, the work of the Spirit leads to the proclamation of the word.

Because the Holy Spirit and the word work together, the Bible can talk about our conversion as a work of the Holy Spirit or a work of God’s word.  For instance, emphasizing the role of the word of God, we read, “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”[13]  And again, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth…”[14]  Or again, “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”[15]  But the Bible speaks with equal clarity about our new birth as a work of the Holy Spirit, as in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus:

Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit…The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.[16]

Simply put, I am committed to expositional preaching because I believe in the Holy Spirit as He is revealed in scripture.  Again and again the Spirit of God is shown to work through the word of God to do the work of God.  I do not want anything about my ministry to be merely a result of human ability or human wisdom.  I want the work that is done through me and those I train to be lasting, eternal, and spiritual.  I rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit to do the work of conversion, of sanctification, and of instruction.  And I know that the instrument He uses – throughout the Bible and throughout Church history – is the Bible, the word of God.  It is no accident that when Paul is instructing believers in Ephesus, he puts it this way: “And take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[17]  The Bible is indeed the Spirit’s sword, and woe unto us if we do not take up this sword ourselves in our preaching.

[1] Genesis 1:2.

[2] 2 Peter 1:20-21.

[3] Acts 1:16, italics mine.

[4] Ezekiel 37:10.

[5] Ezekiel 37:14.

[6] Luke 4:14.

[7] Luke 4:18a.

[8] Luke 4:18, italics mine.

[9] Luke 4:15.

[10] Luke 4:18, 19.

[11] Luke 4:22.

[12] Acts 4:31.

[13] 1 Peter 1:23.

[14] James 1:18a.

[15] Romans 10:18.

[16] John 3:5-6, 8.

[17] Ephesians 6:17.


Jonathan Master