If you have any kind of theological library then you know that some of your books are used more than others. Some books you use every week as you prepare a sermon or lesson but other books you use only when you get in a theological or exegetical bind. Then, of course, there are those books that were given to you by well-meaning people but in your heart you know you will never crack it open and use it (and even us bibliophiles cannot bring ourselves to get rid of these books).
Preachers and pastors fall on a similar spectrum when it comes to the Holy Spirit. Some pastors consistently rely on the Holy Spirit in their sermon preparation. Other preachers only appeal to the Holy Spirit when they are in a bind like when a text is difficult or when there’s some frustration in wording a certain point. Unfortunately, there are pastors who rarely depend on the Holy Spirit for anything sermon related. Instead, they rely on rhetorical ability or are more concerned with relevance.
Preaching textbooks will of course talk of the Holy Spirit's role in sermon preparation and delivery. They encourage readers to let the Holy Spirit illuminate the text. They encourage preachers to depend on the Holy Spirit to apply the Word of God and to work through the preacher’s sermon. These books are right. We should rely on the Holy Spirit in these matters. The problem is that you cannot stop there. The problem is when these are the only matters in which the Holy Spirit in considered in sermon preparation.
What if the Holy Spirit, who he is and how he relates to the other two members of the Trinity, played a more central role in our preaching? What if instead of the Holy Spirit only aiding our preparation we let the Holy Spirit determine the very approach to the task of preaching, how handle a text of Scripture, and how we preach a passage?
Irenaeus, The Trinity, and The Word
I have been challenged in this respect from somewhere I was not expecting. I came across the following statement while reading Irenaeus’ Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching:
For as many as carry (in them) the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son; and the Son brings them to the Father; and the Father causes them to possess incorruption. Without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word of God, nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit.
Let’s unpack this quote. Irenaeus states that the Spirit of God brings people to the Word of God, and by bringing people to the Word of God, they are brought to the Son of God. Notice that he states that the Spirit leads to the Word of God, “that is to the Son.” For Irenaeus, for the Holy Spirit to bring people to the Word is to bring them to the Son of God. If we were to flip that, to bring people to the Son is to bring people to the Word.
If people are not brought to the Word then they are not brought to the Son. The severity is that if people are not brought to the Son then they are not brought to the Father. Irenaeus further says that without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word (the Son), nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father for the knowledge of the Father is Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit.”
The point here is that if the Holy Spirit does not bring people to the Word, that is, to the Son, then they are not brought to the Son. If they are not brought to the Son then they are not brought to the Father. Perhaps the Holy Spirit should play a more pivotal role in developing our approach to and theology of preaching.
The Holy Spirit and A Theology of Preaching
In formulating a theology of preaching we must remember the role of the Holy Spirit. We as preachers should not put obstacles between our people and the Holy Spirit. If putting an obstacle between people and the Word is to keep people from Christ, and to keep people from Christ is to keep them from the Father, then what does it mean to put obstacles between people and the Holy Spirit? What obstacles to the Holy Spirit do preachers put up, whether intentionally or unintentionally?
As it regards preaching, primarily we disregard the text of Scripture. When I speak of disregarding the text of Scripture I mean we pay little or no attention to the structure, substance, or spirit of the text. If the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, then this means that the words are not only inspired but the structure and spirit of a passage are as well.
That is why expository (text-driven) preaching is vital — because it is preaching that seeks to honor the substance (words), spirit (genre and tone), and structure (linguistic structure) of the Scriptures. Our sermons are to honor and to follow the structure of the text of Scripture.
So, preachers, let us not disregard the text of Scripture. Let us honor the structure. Let the main point(s) of the text be the main point(s) of our sermons. If the text is a lament, let us lament! If the text is a psalm of praise, then let us praise! If it is a teaching passage, let us teach. Let us be men who so honor the text of Scripture!
By honoring the text of Scripture, the Holy Spirit brings the hearer to the Word, that is, to Christ, and by bringing them to Christ we help them come to the Father!