The Power of Preaching
In the eyes of the world, to preach “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2: 2) is a ridiculous occupation––yet God has been pleased by the “foolishness” of that very preaching “to save those that believe” (1 Cor. 1: 21). It achieves success where man’s profoundest wisdom utterly fails, for it changes lives for the better––radically, permanently and to the glory of God. So what is the power behind such results? What is it in the preaching that turns men––godless men “from idols to serve a living and true God”? (1 Thess. 1: 9). Now this is a question that every servant of God must face if he is to carry out “[the] work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4: 5) successfully. Many are not spiritually intelligent as to it, and having been discouraged by the apparent power of the forces that oppose the Gospel, have sought to supplement the preaching with human devices. In essence, they do not believe that the simple preaching of God’s word alone is sufficient for the task.
Look now at those hostile powers. Is not the natural man in direct enmity with the truth of God? He has an indwelling antagonism to the divine word. It is not only foolishness to him, but it stirs up his ungodly passions, as it did against the Lord––the Truth––Who was hated, despised and crucified. Then there is the withering influence of the world––a world that provides everything that ministers to the fleshly appetite of the unbeliever and tends to make him settle down in his alienation from God. And of course there is Satan, the god of this world and the arch–enemy of Christ, who uses all his consummate subtlety to hinder the work of the Gospel and drag souls to hell. What power has the evangelist to overcome such awesome foes? The solemn answer is, NONE AT ALL!
Is all hopeless then? No! The Lord Jesus has not left His servants here to win souls for God by their own energies––fruitless as that would prove to be. Before His departure from those who were to be His witnesses in the world, He promised to send the Holy Spirit who would be in them, and work through them. Thus the preaching of the Gospel would not be “in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of [the] Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2: 4).
Accordingly, on the day of Pentecost a Galilaean fisherman, filled with the Spirit of God, charges the Jews with crucifying Jesus the Nazarene whom God had made both Lord and Christ. The result of that testimony was the conversion of three thousand stiff–necked and hard–hearted men. Subsequent to this, the testimony of Jesus from the mouths of the simple and unlettered is acknowledged as the power of God unto salvation by Jewish priests and Roman courtiers, Ethiopian eunuchs and runaway slaves, imperial deputies and common jailers. What was the secret? Simply that men spoke by the Holy Spirit given to them (Acts 5: 32).
Yet there is another thing to consider. While the Spirit of God is the great personal witness and the power of testimony for Christ in the world (John 15: 26), the written Word is the revelation of God to man, which shall judge him at the last day (John 12: 48). Coming, as it does, from God, it bears the stamp of divine authority and power, and to despise its unique characteristics is to undermine the very basis of sound preaching. How can the word be proclaimed (2 Tim. 4: 2) when the word that is written is set aside? “The word of God” says the Holy Spirit, “[is] living and operative, and sharper than any two–edged sword, and penetrating to [the] division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of [the] heart” (Heb. 4: 12). Nor is this power lost in the day in which we live. Rather, in contrast to the ephemeral things around us, “the word of [the] Lord abides for eternity” and “this is the word which in the glad tidings [is] preached to you” (1 Pet. 1: 25). Let the servant of God take heed lest he too lightly value that which is the Spirit’s sword (Eph. 6: 17).
It is clear then that the power of testimony for Christ in the Gospel must be the Holy Spirit operating through the Word of God. Truly “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassingness of the power may be of God, and not from us” (2 Cor. 4: 7). This fundamental principle of evangelisation––that its power is always of and from God––can never be too much before our minds. To supplement this power with any human device, whether modelled from either the elements of the world, or from the wit or taste of man, is to bring into question the sufficiency of that power and to ignore the solemn warning of 2 Cor. 6 against the mixture of light and darkness.
The Scriptures provide an example of a man who acted in entire dependence upon the power of God in the Gospel––the apostle Paul. When he visited Corinth he knew he had to do with a people who were easily impressed by clever speeches and impassioned orations. What could be more natural than for the apostle to seek to gain the attention of the Corinthians by providing what appealed to their tastes––a speech of impressive delivery, fine literary quality and philosophical content. Here surely was the means both to attract hearers to the preaching and at the same time make the Gospel palatable and popular. How did Paul proceed? Let him answer himself: “And I, when I came to you, brethren, came not in excellency of word, or wisdom, announcing to you the testimony of God. For I did not judge [it well] to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; and my word and my preaching, not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of [the] Spirit and of power; that your faith might not stand in men’s wisdom, but in God’s power” (1 Cor. 2: 1–5). The apostle knew very well that if they were drawn to the Christian way simply by his eloquence or reasoning (that is, by the world’s wisdom), they would be building on a foundation of sand. There must be a divine work to produce a divine faith and hence the apostle avoided the use of anything that might become a false basis for their souls.
Has this principle no application today? Are the evangelists to adopt the pleasant things of man, the novelties of the age or anything else to make the Gospel attractive to the world? Yet how will the truth be made “attractive” without perverting its true character? Shall the preacher cleave to the truth of God in its holy power and simplicity to awaken man’s conscience? Or is he to use means by which the man of the world shall be attracted, gratified, mollified, argued and talked into an “acceptance” of the Gospel? Surely to thus compromise the truth of God is seeking to please men rather than God. How dare anyone soften down the testimony to suit the prejudices of the unconverted? It is not even dealing honestly with the men to whom we speak, much less before the God whom we profess to serve.
Are hearers to be gained by the quality of the singing in the gospel meeting, the choirs, the solos, and the orchestral effects? That these means may appear successful is no reason for using them, for we are here to obey God and not simply to proceed with anything and everything that appears to work. Music and cultured singing do indeed work powerfully on the feelings and emotions––in short they appeal to nature––but they cannot work on the conscience. The words of a hymn, if Scriptural, may be used in new birth (James 1: 18, 1 Pet. 1: 23–25), but rhythm is never efficacious in that regard. Music, in its place, is not wrong, but to employ it as a means of attracting men and women is to enlist sensual weapons in a spiritual occupation.
Sometimes it is the personal dynamism of the preacher that is stressed ‘Come and hear the famous Mr So and So’ and the like. There were some in a bygone day who came to the Lord Himself on a similar basis––attracted by the signs that He did. The word concerning them is solemn: “But Jesus himself did not trust himself to them, because he knew all [men], and that he had not need that any should testify of man, for himself knew what was in man” (John 2: 24–25). Their faith, such as it was, was founded, not on the rock, but on the sand.
Powerful oratory and excitement, fetes and bazaars, entertainment and even theatre may all prove effective in swelling the numbers in so–called gospel meetings, but they will never bring about one iota of change of eternal worth in the soul of an unbeliever. Are we really to imagine that when the apostle said that “To all I have become all things, in order that at all events I might save some” (1 Cor. 9: 22) that he meant that it was necessary to stoop to the level of the world in order to save those enmeshed in it? Let us do away with such unbelieving thoughts and instead hold fast to what Paul said, by inspiration, as to God’s simple and unadulterated Gospel: “For I am not ashamed of the glad tidings; for it is God’s power to salvation, to every one that believes” (Rom. 1: 16).
The Power of Testimony
Christians are always affected, more or less, by the prevailing spirit of the world that surrounds them. In the days of primitive Christianity this was illustrated by the Corinthians, who, dwelling in a city noted for its luxury and license, soon had these evils springing up amongst them, (see 1 Cor. 4: 8; 5: 1). One of the most striking features of the present day is its general shallowness, and lack of that force and serious purpose which deep conviction gives; and nowhere are these sad features more painfully pronounced, than in the Church of God.
Brethren, we shall not fail in our pathway of testimony on earth because of lack of knowledge, but rather because, though knowing much, we are not utterly possessed by it, and hence feel things so little. We resemble some broad but shallow lake, rather than a well of small circumference, but deep. It is the man of depth and feeling who is effective in the service of God.
As an illustration of a man who powerfully affected his fellows, take Ezra. Failure and trespass began to appear in the shattered remnant of Israel that returned from Babylon, and the old sin of intercourse with the people of the land threatened again to ruin them. It was an emergency indeed. Ezra called together no committee; he laid no elaborate plans for reforming this abuse; he just felt things before God, and as they affected God. He so felt things that he rent his clothes, plucked off his hair, and sat down overwhelmed, until, realising the full extent of it all, he fell on his knees, and commenced a memorable prayer of confession by saying “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God”, (Ezra 9: 3–6). Then as Ezra was himself moved, others were moved with him, (v.4). Indeed, as the work of God in repentance and confession deepened in him, so the power of God radiated forth through him, until “there were gathered to him out of Israel, a very great congregation of men and women and children; for the people wept very much”, (10: 1). As a result there was a national cleansing from their false associations, and the plague was stayed.
What a contrast there is between the noisy and ineffective machinery of man’s making, and the quiet ease and grace of a heaven–sent movement, but that movement works through a man who feels things with God. Jonah illustrates another phase of the same thing. He was one of the most effective preachers of antiquity. Though addressing a people of great wickedness, and carrying a message of judgement—always an unpopular one—yet his simple words produced astonishing results. To a man, the Ninevites sought the face of God, and turned from their evil way, (Jonah 3: 5–9).
Why was there such extraordinary power with the message? Was it not because the man who cried “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”, (Jonah 3: 4), came up to his mission, fresh from an overthrow himself? Jonah learnt experimentally what it meant to be overthrown by God. When, in the belly of the fish, all God’s billows and waves passed over him, the agony of it must have burnt into his soul in a way never to be effaced. When therefore this man preaches an overthrow, there is a power, a pungency, a heaven–born velocity about his words, that is otherwise unknown.
Brethren in Christ, it were better for us to master well one lesson in the school of God than to acquaint ourselves with much in a superficial way.