Every preacher that I have ever met has a genuine desire to preach powerful sermons. It seems that the general consensus among those who teach or write about powerful preaching is that you must diligently and “sacrificially” pray for Holy Spirit power in order to anticipate spiritual potency in the pulpit. To use a common metaphor, your spiritual gun must be loaded before you fire your sermon.
I am not sure where this idea began but it seems to have its roots in Charles Finney’s New Measures for revival. Finney wrote extensively on “effectual prayer” indicating, “A minister need not expect much success unless he prays for it.” (Revival Lectures, 73)
As a preacher and student of preaching this sentiment raises two related questions: Is this idea biblical? And is it helpful? Obviously, praying for spiritual power in preaching is not heretical or sinful. Therefore, my goal is not to denigrate the importance of prayer for the preacher or the congregation. Nor do I desire to mitigate the importance of the work of the Spirit in preaching.
How Should We Pray?
I believe that any effectiveness in preaching is the direct result of the convicting and convincing power of the Holy Spirit. The question, then, is not whether we should pray or whether we need the Spirit to work, but how should we pray so that we might experience the power of the Spirit?
First, let us consider if we are instructed in Scripture to pray for power from the Holy Spirit. If there is any explicit instruction to ask for the Holy Spirit it is found in Luke 11:13. Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” While this verse, taken alone, seems to clearly instruct disciples of Christ to ask for the Spirit, the context seems to point in a different direction.
The word “ask” (aiteo) in verse 13 has no direct object and in verses 2–4 Jesus instructed his disciples to ask for daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from temptation. The answer to these requests is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this verse is not directly or indirectly related to preaching or to receiving power from the Spirit. Jesus promises the presence of the Spirit to those who pray in the way Jesus teaches them.
The other place in the New Testament where it could be implied that we should ask for the power of the Holy Spirit is John 14–16. In this passage Jesus discloses the intent of the Father and Son to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples “to be with you forever” (14:16), to “teach you all things” (14:26), “bear witness about [Jesus]” (15:26) and “convict the world concerning sin…righteousness…[and] judgment” (16:8–11). In this same passage Jesus instructs his disciples four different times to “ask anything” in his name and it will be given (14:12–14; 15:7, 16; 16:23–24).
It seems logical, then, to assume that Jesus is instructing his disciples to ask for the Holy Spirit, but again the context paints a different picture. In fact, in 14:16 Jesus Himself is the one who asks for the Spirit to be sent to the disciples. He says, “And I [Jesus] will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper to be with you forever.” Furthermore, the greater New Testament witness seems to make it clear that the sending and receiving of the Spirit is a matter of the Father and Son’s sending rather than the believer’s asking (See John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, 12–15; 20:22; Acts 1:8; 2:33; 5:32; 2 Cor 5:5; Gal 3:5; 1 John 4:13).
What Should We Ask For?
If we are not to ask for the Holy Spirit or power from the Spirit, then what should we ask for? According to John 14–16 we should ask the Spirit to cause us to abide in Christ so that we might bear fruit. The center of the John 14–16 passage is 15:4–5. Jesus says, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Two of the verses where Jesus instructs his disciples to “ask anything” directly reference abiding in Christ and bearing fruit. In 15:7 Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” And again in 15:16 Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
Therefore, the diligent prayer of the preacher should be that he might abide in Christ. Rather than pleading with the Father for the chance to wield the power of the Holy Spirit in the pulpit, the preacher should humbly request to be hidden in Christ.
The Power of Preaching
Every believer is indwelt by the Spirit of God and has received His power. Jesus promised in Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” There is no greater power than the actual indwelling presence of the eternal God. Rather than diligently and “sacrificially” praying for God’s power in the pulpit we should ask that He would “teach us all things,” that we could “abide in Him” and “bear witness about Jesus” and that He would “convict of sin, judgment and righteousness.”
If we preachers would, through the power of the Holy Spirit, hide behind Jesus, knowing only “Christ and Him Crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), rather than seek to aim and fire the Spirit, we could rest assured that our speech would go forth “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). The power of preaching is found when the preacher disappears and Jesus appears as the Word of Christ is faithfully proclaimed.