Editor’s note: This is an eight part series by Charlie on expository preaching.
- In his first post Charlie looked at the essential element of good preaching.
- In his second post Charlie looked at preaching to glorify God and transform lives.
- In his third post, he looks at how the Word of God effects transformation.
- In his fourth post, he looked at preaching the actual words of God.
- Today he looks at prayer and communion with God.
Prayer is more than something Christians do. Prayer is a vital part of the communion we have with God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit. This is why Paul issues such an extreme directive as this in 1 Thessalonians 5:17—“pray without ceasing.” Have you ever taken time to think seriously about this command? It is very extreme. Paul is saying that we should pray and never stop praying. That we should pray as often as our hearts beat. That prayer should be as instinctual to the Christian soul as breathing is to the human body.
Now, if prayer was simply a duty or an activity in which Christians engage, this directive would make no sense. Frankly, it would be impossible. We might give lip-service to the words but every one of us would have to admit that we don’t give ourselves to prayer like this.
But if prayer is a vital part of our communion with God, through Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, then this directive makes perfect sense. Through Jesus Christ we have come into an infinitely deep and rich fellowship with God the Father and therefore being with Him, learning from Him, thinking of Him, calling on Him, serving Him, glorifying Him, and worshiping Him ought to characterize every aspect and every moment of our lives. In and through and over and beneath and beside and between everything we do, we must enter into communion with our Father. This is the essence of what it means to be Christian.
It has become popular in some evangelical circles to speak of prayer as a two-way conversation between God and his children but I must say that I don’t see this teaching in Scripture. To be sure, communication is always a two-way street but the Bible never calls God’s side of the equation “prayer.” Rather, the Bible teaches us that the Father speaks to us through His Word—by which I mean both Christ and the Bible—by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (John 1:1-4, 14:26; Colossians 3:16-17; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-4). Then as the word of Christ dwells in us richly, our thinking about God, our communion with God, and our cries to God are shaped by the wisdom of His Word (John 15:7-8). We learn to pray in a language that accords with the will of our Father and thus He is pleased to answer our prayers and so glorify His name.
This dynamic cannot simply reduce to an activity in which Christians engage because the very essence of it is a reconciled relationship with the Father through the Son. Prayer in itself accomplishes nothing because it’s not a sort of magic. Prayer is communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, and it is this communion that moves mountains because only our Father can accomplish such things.
The presence of this kind of communion with God, or lack thereof, greatly impacts preaching. At the end of the day, it is neither the insight nor the eloquence of the preacher that glorifies God and transforms lives but the very being of God pulsing through the preacher who is learning to be in unceasing communion with him.
As I said in my last article, it is imperative for preachers to preach the actual words of God but at the end of the day the mere commitment to doing so is not enough. It is possible by means of common grace to discover meaning in words and connections between words and applications of those words to life. It is possible by means of common grace to inform and inspire and even give shape to people’s lives through our messages. But sermons that simply emerge from a preacher’s process without much regard for communion with God rarely glorify God or transform lives.
Why? Because “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Hebrews 11:6; Romans 14:23). In other words, sermons that are simply born of a preacher’s process rather than communion with God do not please God and are even a kind of public sin. To represent a word as coming from God when in fact it does not is a terrible offense. It is treason. It is, as A. W. Tozer said, “promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ.”1 This sin is so serious that at one time it earned the death penalty for the offender (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
A Word that comes from God is both faithful to His actual words and born of communion with Him. I do not mean to say that the process of developing sermons is irrelevant because it’s not. But I do mean to say that any process devoid of communion with God is essentially worthless. The actual words of God are like the wood on a fire and the Spirit of God is like the flame. Sermons that glorify God and transform lives must be piled high with the wood of the Word and burn bright with the presence of the Spirit. And both insight into the Word and the fire that makes that Word live, are born of communion with God.
Thus, it’s not a matter of arguing for a process of preaching over against communion with God; it’s a matter of arguing for a process of preaching that’s filled with such communion. Or better put, it’s a matter of arguing for a life that’s filled with such communion and naturally continues throughout the entire preaching process.
This implies that prayer can be no token part of the preaching process. It must be constant and thoroughgoing and persistent. It must be constant because the preacher is first and foremost a child of God who’s been reconciled to Him though Christ. It must be thoroughgoing because the preacher desperately needs the guidance and favor of the Holy Spirit in every aspect of the process. It must be persistent because our flesh gets weak and we must learn, like the well-trained athlete, to push through the pain and pay the price that wins the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24).
The presence of the Holy Spirit in preaching, or any aspect of life for that matter, doesn’t come by magic. It doesn’t come by mumbling a perfunctory prayer or two along the way. Rather, it comes by being much with him, by loving Him with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, by humbling ourselves before Him and learning to walk in His ways. Then, as His presence both shapes and characterizes our lives, His presence in our preaching is simply the overflow of the life we live with Him.
Preaching is something I do but being a preacher is not who I am. I have become a son of the Most High God through Jesus Christ, and I love my Father with all of my heart for who He is and what He’s done. I preach because He’s called me to preach but ultimately preaching is His work. I have the unspeakable privilege of participating with Him in his work (2 Corinthians 5:16-21) but the work I do is not at the heart of who I am. Being His son is who I am, and as His son I long, like Jesus, to do only what I see my Father doing (John 5:19-20). But in order for this reality to take root in my life I must have a deep and unceasing communion with him that’s only indirectly related to my preaching. To the extent that this kind of end-in-itself communion with my Father characterizes my life, my preaching will accomplish the purposes for which my Father intended it.
Communion with the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit is not just another element we must secure in order to make our sermons better or more effective. As His children in Christ we must simply and desperately long for Him. He himself must be the treasure that we seek, not what He can do for our preaching.
I talk with my Father about every aspect of my preaching as I walk through the process week after week. But often before I begin the process of study or writing or delivery, I just spend time with Him. I commune with Him not so much because I need something from Him but because I love Him. He is God and he knows better than me all the things I need for preaching, and he also knows that I need to draw near to Him, receive from His bounty, confess my sin, receive his healing, and follow Him in the way that I should go.
Some of the most memorable sermon-related prayer times I’ve had with my Father were those in which I just sang to Him. I knew I needed His wisdom and guidance in the process of studying and writing, and He knew that better than I did, but for the I moment I just wanted to be with Him, enjoy Him, receive His love in Christ, and express to Him how much He means to me. And somehow I knew when it was time to sit down and give myself to the hard work of developing and delivering a word from the Word.
The work of the ministry is incidental to the life they live with the Lord. The work is important and necessary, but it is God they want. It is God they need. It is God they long for. And if he calls them to preach, praise be to His name, they will enter into that labor with passion and hope and joy. But if God calls them to wash windows and scrub floors, praise be to His name, they will enter into that labor with equal vigor. The particular labor the Father calls His children to do is not so important as the fact that he has become their Father in Christ and is their delight.
The reality of this kind of God-centered communion in the life of a preacher greatly impacts his preaching. When preaching itself is at the center of his prayer life, the preaching tends to lack potency and God-wrought passion. But when being with God is at the center of his prayer life, when communion with his Father is the true desire of his heart, his preaching has a life and power that’s as hard to describe as it is to deny.
As for the preaching moment itself, let me offer a word of caution: we preachers must be careful not to conflate the presence of God in our preaching with the perception of His power. Sometimes we will feel His power and know beyond a shadow of doubt that He’s with us. Other times our perception will not be so clear. But how many times have you felt like your sermon didn’t go well, only to hear that someone’s life was deeply touched by it? There are times when our Father allows us to soar with emotion and there are times when He seems to take it all away. Both things are a gift to us: one to reward and the other to humble. We must learn to rest, not on our feelings, but on the promises of God (Isaiah 55:10-11).
Sermons that glorify God and transform lives are born of communion with the God who has revealed Himself through His Word. In the next entry we will consider the relationship between prayer and preaching, but for now let me ask you a few questions: Biblically speaking, what is prayer? Does your life in Christ square with your definition? What part does prayer play in your preaching process? What specific actions would our Father have you take to augment your communion with Him and your fruitfulness in life and ministry?
Blog Post 6 – Pursuing a life of Holiness
Blog Post 7 – Developing Genuine Love for the People
Blog Post 8 – Preaching and Hard Work