Having something to say and using acceptable words (Eccl 12:10) to ensure its reception is communication, but preaching is more than communication, much more than public speaking, much different from entertainment or a performance. Preaching is having a message from God (I Pet 4:11, “Let him speak as the oracles of God…”) and effectively delivering it to the listener. If worship is a privilege unlike any other and praying is an opportunity unlike any other, preaching is a responsibility unlike any other. Gospel preaching flows through the preacher’s heart and connects God’s heart and the sinner’s. As a result of natural ability and learning, entertaining, performing, public speaking and communicating can be effective. Ability and learning may contribute to preaching, but preaching can be effective only through the power of God. Early gospel preachers “preached the gospel … with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (I Pet 1:12). The greatest pitfalls to preaching the gospel then must be impeding, interfering with or being independent of the work of the Spirit.
Independence of the Spirit’s Work
Somehow preaching ought to be like walking a tightrope without a safety net, with no other power but God’s to fall back on. Only by divine enablement can such a message be preached as it ought to be preached (Col 4:3). Preaching without due preparation of thought is doing the work of the Lord negligently (Jer 48:10, JND). Yet having a message from God for the hearers is far more important than having passages, points and presentation in order. Prayer for the listeners is primary. Dependence on the Spirit expressed in prayer and in giving prominence to the Word of God is essential. Illustrations are helpful; experience is invaluable; personality can be useful; a flow of words can be effectual. To depend on any of these in preaching the gospel is lethal.
Impeding of the Spirit’s Work
Concerning the Spirit, the Lord said, “He will reprove the world of sin” (John 16:8). He indicts the conscience. That is His point of contact with the sinner. Failing to preach man’s ruin, present God’s holiness and press home the sinner’s guilt means failing to move in the current of the Spirit’s work. Neither our manner nor our presentation should be offensive, but such a message will offend. Although we cannot insist on the length or depth of conviction, there can be no genuine conversions without Spirit-wrought conviction. We cannot convict sinners, but must so preach that the Spirit has material to use.
The Spirit of God instructs the mind. When the Son of Man sows the Seed, those who respond have understood the truth of God’s Word (Matt 13:23). Our thoughts should be as cogent as possible, our words as comprehensible as possible, our presentation as clear as possible. If we confuse the listener, we are moving out of step with the Spirit of God. Let there be no question in the hearer’s mind about the central theme of the gospel. If he leaves the meeting without understanding that Christ alone is God’s remedy for his soul’s need, that the work of Christ is sufficient and available to him, and that personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ brings assurance of salvation, we have failed him. Some of the greatest gospel preaching I have heard has thrilled me by its simplicity. Salvation was made so simple, so available. Clarity in the presentation will not save sinners, but it assists the Spirit in His work.
In Matthew 22:9, the king told his servants, “Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.” Comparing this with Luke 14:17, “Come; for all things are now ready,” shows that the Spirit invites sinners. Imagine one of the king’s servants inviting a person and at the same time telling him that he might not be one of those chosen to be at the marriage. His commission was to invite “as many as ye shall find.” Telling the sinner about election hopelessly confounds the gospel. God’s message to the world is “Whosoever will” (Rev 22:17). God is inviting men through the gospel, and each sinner must clearly understand the responsibility to “Strive to enter in” (Luke 13:24). He cannot wait for the “moving of the waters” nor hope for a “more convenient season.” God’s invitation is, “Come now…” (Isa 1:18). We cooperate with the Spirit’s work by placing in the sinner’s hand the responsibility to receive this “so great salvation.”
Interference with the Spirit’s Work
The Parable of the Great Supper, while similar to the Parable of the Wedding Feast, contrasts the work of the Servant with the work of the servants. The Spirit of God alone has the commission to compel sinners to come to Christ (Luke 14:23). Putting undue pressure on sinners interrupts the Spirit’s work. Emotional appeals are in the same class as prayer forms to sign, pressure for decisions and invitations to come forward. The modern evangelical method of altar calls follows the pattern of Charles Finney, noted American evangelist of the past century. Finney’s “anxious bench” communicated that sinners “were expected at once to give up their hearts.” While the Bible teaches that salvation is for “whosoever will,” it also says that the new birth is “not of … the will of the flesh, …but of God” (John 1:13). We pray for sinners and preach to them, but pressing them to enter is the Spirit’s work. Through Philip’s guiding him to Christ (Acts 8:31-35), the eunuch was saved during their conversation; nevertheless, whether in personal conversations or in our public methods, we cannot interfere with the Spirit’s work by compelling souls to come. We make the issues clear, convey the urgency of salvation and give all the help needed for understanding the message; only the Spirit can “close the sale.”
The Spirit converts the soul. Paul likened salvation to creation: “For God, Who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Just as the Spirit moved on the face of the waters in Genesis 1:2, so the Spirit moves in producing spiritual light and life. He alone can cause the light of the gospel to dawn (2 Cor 4:4). Sinners will only be confused if they are told to wait for a revelation of Christ. God’s message to the sinner is to “believe on,” “look to,” “come to,” “receive” Christ; yet the preacher knows that the Spirit of God alone can reveal Christ to the sinner. He does not reveal Christ to an unrepentant sinner. Only He knows when the sinner has finally submitted to God. If the sinner is not saved, we can safely conclude he is still resisting God. When the sinner repents, light dawns by the power of the Spirit of God. We preach propitiation to the sinner. That is, our preaching declares that the work of Christ was a payment sufficient to satisfy God and provide salvation for every sinner. The Spirit of God reveals substitution. When the soul “discovers” from the truth of God’s Word that Christ meets his need, that the sufferings of Christ were for his sins, that “Jesus died for me,” faith follows. He is saved. We enjoy the wonderful truth of substitution and testify to it: “He died for me.” To teach the sinner that the Lord Jesus Christ was his Substitute, “He died for you,” is to preempt the Spirit’s work. Our privilege and responsibility is to preach Christ to the sinner; the Spirit’s prerogative is to reveal Christ to the sinner. The sinner who has merely “learned” substitution then views salvation as an experience or a realization. To him, there must be more than Christ and His finished work. The key to salvation, he reasons, lies in his believing. By interfering with the Spirit’s work, we add to the sinner’s darkness.
Publishing an article like this should preferably be done posthumously. Pointing out pitfalls for others’ preaching is about the same as planting land mines for one’s own preaching. Unitedly and humbly, we aspire to this mark of the early believers: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and were speaking the Word of God with freedom” (Acts 4:31, Young’s Literal).