T. David Gordon in his book, Why Johnny Can’t Preach, states in the introduction that thirty percent at best of preachers today are able to deliver even a mediocre sermon. Even if one chooses to disregard the statistic as just another black-eye given by the plethora of writers who are presently beating on the American church, still, has any thought been given, assuming such a statistic is true, as to what such a problem creates in the expectations of those who come to church on a given Sunday? What if the statistic were thirty-five, forty, or even fifty? The answer to this, if honest, is a painful one: very few would know how to recognize preaching that is done in the demonstration of the Spirit and power.
In this connection, I can’t help but think of Christ’s words to the multitudes concerning John the Baptist, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? "But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. "But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet.” There was something about the way John preached the kingdom of God, clearly and notably different than the preaching the people had been accustomed to hearing. There was something about the voice itself—it searched, it penetrated, it convicted, it killed, it made-alive, all with the goal of increasing the testimony of God concerning his Son in the hearts of those who had the ability to hear. It was precisely John’s peculiarity of message, style, tone, authority, and delivery that made him stand out to the multitudes as someone recognizable as a prophet from God in their midst.
But imagine how we might feel if the following questions were inspired for us: What do you attend church Sunday to see? A man with earthly suggestions? But what did you go to hear? A man speaking nice things? Indeed, those who speak like that are coaches and motivational speakers. But what did you go to see and hear? A man sent by God to deliver his law and gospel?
The king of preachers was, of course, Christ himself. And it’s interesting to read of the listener response after the most famous sermon ever delivered, the Sermon on the Mount. We read in Matthew 7:28-29, “And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The word the Spirit chose to convey the response of the multitudes to Christ’s preaching is worth considering. The word generally translated "amazed" is much stronger in the original. It means that they were struck with astonishment, overwhelmed to the point of bewilderment. It would be fair to render a translation in the following manner: “And so it was, when Jesus ended these saying, the people were blown out of their minds at his teaching.”
What was it that particularly struck the people with astonishment? It was his notable and expressed authority in delivering the truth. In other words, his teaching drove people to a response. It was so convicting that they had no other choice but to be "blown out of their minds." They could not remain neutral after hearing teaching like this; they either fell before him, or further hardened themselves in unbelief. This kind of authority is set in direct contrast to the religious leaders whose speaking was recognizably this-worldly. Christ’s preaching was done in the demonstration of the Spirit and power, and everyone knew it.
In historic Protestantism, it has been common to speak of the marks of a faithful church. But rarely is the same emphasis given to the marks of faithful preaching. What are the marks of true preaching? William Perkins (1558-1602), the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, once said that there are two key marks of true preaching. Perkins writes,
[Ministers] must preach God's word in evidence and demonstration of the spirit of God. For he that is God's angel, the spirit of that God must speak in him. Now to speak in the demonstration of God's Spirit is to speak in such plainness, and yet such a powerfulness, as that the capacities of the simplest may perceive…First, plainness: for whereas the unlearned man perceives his faults discovered, it follows necessarily he must needs understand; and if an unlearned man understand it, then consequently it must needs be plain. Second, powerfulness; in that his conscience is so convinced, his secret faults so disclosed, and his very heart ripped up, that he says, 'Certainly God speaks in this man'. This is the evidence and demonstration of God's Spirit.
The marks emphasized by Perkins cannot be underestimated. All preaching should be so plain and full of authority (power) that the listener is not left in a neutral state. Like it or not, the hearer has just been confronted by God himself through the voice, and in the process, his secret sins have been so exposed and his conscience so confronted that the only proper response will be either a rejection of what is heard, or a recognition that God himself is speaking through the preacher to the humbling of the hearer before the Lord.
I wonder how foreign such a description of preaching is for most American churchgoers. I state this recongizing how insufficient my own preaching is! Nevertheless, such weaknesses should not prevent honest evaluation as to what true preaching should be, scripturally speaking. As I sit and listen to sermons given by many ministers today, I often like to probe listener response to what has been preached. It’s a tragedy when immediately after the service church goers talk about everything else under the sun rather than the spiritual truths just delivered that have the power to save their souls from death. But we shouldn’t be too quick today to blame the hearers.
After most sermons today the general response is that it was a comforting or a “nice” sermon. It was delivered by a nice guy who had some nice applications, and everything about the service that day was, well, nice. And within a few minutes after the service, it was all nicely forgotten. Everything was just great, but there was no demonstration of power, nothing life-changing. All that was generally remembered, when asked, was that the message was "down to earth", easy to listen to, and the minister was particularily witty that Sunday. Now nothing about this comports to the apostolic preaching demonstrated in the New Testament. As a side note, this post is in no way suggesting that preaching should divulge into yelling and controlling manipulation. I have heard this approach also, and such preaching is of the worst of abuses. What I am suggesting is that preaching done in the demonstration of the Spirit and power has a notable authority contrary to kind of speaking that appeals to the flesh. In other words, it is plainly evident that the message is other-wordly, and delivered with the authority appropriate to its place of origin.
True preaching must drive us to a response, in every sermon. It must so expose our conscience and the secret sins of our hearts that we are not left in a neutral state. This kind of preaching confronts us with the searching power of the law of God, exposing the offensive ways within us and our propensity to silence (Ps. 51), and in turn casts us upon the mercies and delivering power of Christ in the gospel. If this is foreign in a given sermon, then the preacher has compromised the very nature of his calling. Nice preachers with a nice message result in a nice church with a bunch of nice unconverted churchgoers. George Whitefield was once asked what was wrong with preaching in England, to which he responded, they are “as dead men preaching to dead men.”
As Christians, we all have the need to be comforted, but such comfort is only real and effectual to us when we have heard that which has descended upon us from heaven--anything else is earthly, sensual, and demonic. Like the preaching of John the Baptist, the apostles, and, of course, Christ himself, it should be plainly and powerfully evident that what you hear every time you gather before a servant of Christ is a message from heaven. If one leaves a sermon unmoved, untouched, unconfronted, and undriven to the savior, it may result from the listener's hard heart, but, I'm not convinced today the problem ultimately lies with the people--the problem begins with the pulpit. This was precisely the issue Paul had to address to the church in Corinth and we would do well to seriously reconsider what preaching is that is done in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power.