The Holy Spirit, Prayer, and Preaching
I have a growing conviction, and it is this: The great need of the church today is for a fresh and long-lasting work of the Holy Spirit. This conviction, for me at least, is not simply about the church’s need for the Holy Spirit to come down and revive or empower us. Rather, this conviction is related to our need for him to reveal the reign of Jesus Christ both to others and for us.
If, like me, this conviction is surfacing in your heart and mind with renewed energy and force, it might be good to ask: “How will we know when the conviction has truly taken up residence within us?” That is, “What proves that we genuinely embrace it?”
A COMMITMENT TO PRAYER
Recently, I’ve been mulling over these kinds of questions, and think at least two signs would be observable.
First, this conviction is embraced when a commitment to prayer is present; the praying person “gets it.” In fact, I’m tempted to say that only those who regularly go before God in prayer are those who really embrace the conviction. For by their prayers, they demonstrate a belief that God alone, in and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, is able to accomplish the work of regeneration. If we’re a non-praying people, it indicates we still think we can get the job done.
Now, if I’m right, that is, if prayer is a manifest evidence of our conviction, then those who desire God to do a fresh gospel work in our day will be people who pray.
Interestingly, at decisive points in Luke’s Gospel, this dynamic connection is made. At least four times people recognize Jesus for who he is in close proximity to someone praying:
- Right before Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus prays alone. (9:18–20)
- Peter, John, and James go up on a mountain to pray, and then the voice of God comes down from heaven to reveal not only who Jesus is, but what his followers are to do in light of this knowledge. (9:28–36)
- At his baptism, Jesus is praying when the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven affirms Jesus as his Son. (3:21–22)
- Aged saints, Simeon and Anna, recognize Jesus for who he is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and in the ordinary context of offering regular prayers.
These four vignettes are important. And they are given to us, I believe, by design. They teach us that when people come to Christ and begin to follow him, they do so through the fresh and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit—and that, through prayer.
When we genuinely embrace the conviction of our need for the Spirit, we give ourselves to the work of prayer.
A COMMITMENT TO BIBLICAL EXPOSITION
Second, when the conviction for a fresh and long-lasting ministry of the Holy Spirit is embraced, prayer isn’t the only thing present. A commitment to biblical exposition emerges, too.
As the church recovers a sense of our great need, people and preachers alike will hunger for a simple and raw exposure to the proclamation of God’s Word. Put another way, the one in prayer is the same one who will give himself to the biblical text, and this by necessity.
THE HOLY SPIRIT AND PREACHING WORK TOGETHER
Now I’m aware, for many readers anyway, that the relationship between our conviction on the Holy Spirit and preaching is not readily understood. After all, many of us have been led—mistakenly so—to believe we must choose between a commitment to the Holy Spirit or a commitment to the Word of God. One can seek “street cred” or “spiritual maturity,” but not both.
These same folks would have us believe that one attends a “Spirit-led church” or a “Word-centered church,” but one cannot attend both. This conventional wisdom has been ingrained in us. But it is a false notion to think one has to select between relevance in our neighborhoods, or relevance to those who already believe.
To be blunt, I am weary of it all. I am tired of those who frame the discussion along these lines, as though the Spirit and the Word were at odds with one another. The dichotomy is a false one—and it’s about time we learn how to put it to rest.
What I would argue instead is that the person who recognizes the church’s need for a fresh and long-lasting ministry of the Spirit will be the same one who devotes himself not only to prayer, but to biblical exposition. This is because the ministry of the Holy Spirit has always been dynamically related to the ministry of the Word.
LOOKING TO SCRIPTURE AS OUR EXAMPLE
One text, though many could have been selected, is sufficient to illustrate the point. Look at Hebrews 3, particularly verse 7, which begins this way: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says . . .”
Two wonderful surprises exist in these five words. First, notice, the writer refers to the authorship of the Holy Spirit when he quotes Psalm 95. This is striking, and we are meant to take notice. He didn’t say, “As the Bible says,” or, “As the Psalmist says,” or even, “As the Scriptures say.” Rather, he writes, “As the Holy Spirit says.”
The significance of this is important: If you want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, you’ll find it dynamically related to biblical texts. That is, the Holy Spirit is already present as the author, in words long ago set down in Scripture. I think it was John Piper who tweeted something like, “If you want to hear God speak to you today, go in your room, shut the door, and read the Bible out loud.” I concur. The Word of God is the voice of the Spirit. Therefore, our conviction that the great need of the church is for a fresh and long-lasting work of the Holy Spirit means, out of necessity, that an equal commitment is made to biblical exposition.
The second surprise in Hebrews 3:7 is one of grammar: the verb is in the present tense! It reads, “As the Holy Spirit says. . .” The significance of this shouldn’t be missed. Psalm 95, originally given to an ancient people who lived in a very different time, is said to be God’s present and living Word for those of a much later generation—and the same is true for us today. Hebrews 3:7 establishes an ongoing and dynamic relationship between the present-day ministry of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God expounded.
And there you have it. A conviction for a renewed work of the Holy Spirit is needed, and we’ll know that conviction is settling into our bones and marrow when the attending commitments of prayer and preaching are also present.
In recent days, this conviction has been seeping into my own soul with fresh force and vitality. I know this to be authentic because prayer and preaching are increasingly having practical effects in my life. And I want the same to be true for you.