By Greg Heisler – Adapted from Spirit-Led Preaching (B&H Publishing Group, 2007)
Perhaps the most common misconception about the Holy Spirit and preaching is the belief that the Holy Spirit shows up only when the sermon is preached. After all, not many church members who were touched by the sermon say to us on the way out the door, “The Spirit was really moving in your office today.” Instead they say, “The Spirit was moving in church today through your message.” They locate the Spirit’s power in the sanctuary, not the study. As preachers, we know the Spirit has been involved all along, preparing us to deliver God’s Word. We experience his illumination in the study, and we anticipate his empowerment in the pulpit.
Through prayerful dependence, we demonstrate that preaching is the Spirit’s ministry, not ours. In our surrendered state the Holy Spirit as the author of our message is also free to serve as editor in chief as we deliver the message. In a practical sense, openness to the Spirit means you may change a word or use a different thought to explain something. Openness to the Spirit may mean you leave out an illustration that pops into your head because the Spirit immediately gives you an uneasiness about using it so you pass on it. Perhaps you apply a biblical truth in a different way than you had previously planned. Openness to the Spirit means you quote a verse you had not planned on quoting because the Spirit brings it to your remembrance because you previously had hid it in your heart. The verse never may have made it into your notes; but in the moment of delivery, the Spirit brings it to mind; and after you finish preaching, someone says it was just the verse they needed to hear. Spurgeon agrees that there is a sense of indeterminacy in preaching:
I do not see where the opportunity is given to the Spirit of God to help us in preaching, if every jot and tittle is settled beforehand. Do let your trust in God be free to move hand and foot. While you are preaching, believe that God the Holy Spirit can give you, in the same self-hour, what you shall speak; and can make you say what you had not previously thought of; yes, and make this newly-given utterance to be the very arrowhead of the discourse, which shall strike deeper into the heart than anything you had prepared.
A word of caution is in order regarding the Holy Spirit’s prompting: not everything that pops into your mind while you are preaching is always the Spirit’s work. We are illumined but not inspired when we preach. Preachers are human and can say wrong things, careless things, and even hurtful things. We need the Spirit’s restraining work as much as we need his illuminating work. Openness to the spontaneity of the Spirit must also include submission to his restraint. If the preacher genuinely prays, “Lord, may everything that comes from my mouth this day be pleasing in your sight,” then he should expect and trust the Holy Spirit to strain out all extraneous material as well as anything that might be derogatory and later regrettable.
In my own preaching, there have been many times in the middle of my sermons where I wanted to say something that flashed into my mind; but instead of saying it right away, I took a long pause and after a few moments of reflection decided to move on and leave it unsaid. The congregation thinks it is a planned dramatic pause of some sorts, but in reality I am searching my own heart and allowing the Holy Spirit to check my motives and my attitude for wanting to include it. If the Spirit can lead us to put it into the sermon, he can also lead us to leave it out of the sermon.