A Case for a Spirit-Driven Methodology of Expository Preaching

In a recent Knight Ridder news service article on the Holy Spirit, Michael Clerkley, pastor of Lighthouse of Church of God in Christ, had this to say about the Holy Spirit’s role in a Christian’s life:  “We are Clark Kent, but with the Holy Ghost, we become Superman.”  Immediately the images of Superman come to mind: superhuman strength, death-defying capabilities, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound…it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a Spirit-filled Christian?  Talk of turning into Superman via the power of the Holy Spirit may fit well in a culture obsessed with “Extreme Makeovers,” but it certainly has no foundation in Scripture. 

In fact, Paul’s self-assessment of his own role in the ministry stands in stark contrast to any Superman mentality: “What after all, is Apollos? And what after all, is Paul?  Only servants” (1 Cor. 3: 5).  Paul’s humble approach to the Corinthian church is less than Superman-like as well: “I came to you in weakness, and in fear, and with much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3).  Superman couldn’t handle his inherent weakness to kryptonite, yet Paul is willing to boast, even delight, about his:  “Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, and in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul hardly sounds like a man of steel in 2 Corinthians 12, yet no honest reader of the New Testament would contest the fact that Paul’s ministry was empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Paul himself confesses that his ministry had little to do with his own abilities:  “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom (not even Superman’s!), but on God’s power.”  (1 Cor. 2:4).

So what does the Spirit’s power look like when active in a Christian’s life?  More specifically to the preaching context, what does a preacher look like when empowered by the Holy Spirit: Superman or Clark Kent?  These questions lead us to the often acknowledged but seldom explained topic of the Holy Spirit in preaching.


Arturo Azurdia, in his influential book, Spirit-Empowered Preaching, candidly exposes the evangelical quandary when it comes to the doctrine of pneumatology:

To be brutally honest, over the years my concern has been directed more toward avoiding charismatic excesses than it has been toward rightfully acknowledging the sovereign Spirit as he presents Himself on the pages of His own scriptures.  Consequently, the majority of my efforts in pneumatology have been devoted to establishing what the Spirit does not do, almost to the complete exclusion of establishing the magnificence of His person and the indispensability of His ministry in a positive way. (Azurdia, 1998, 32-33).

Azurdia is right.  I can remember sitting in one of my seminary classes, watching a video of the Toronto blessing, and being instructed by the professor that this was not an “authentic work of the Spirit.”  He established what the Spirit did not do, but left us wondering what a genuine movement of the Spirit actually looked like.  I believe many evangelical preachers are in the same predicament today:  they have been taught a reactionary theology of what the Spirit does not do, and as a result struggle to articulate, much less experience, the Spirit’s power in preaching.  

For example, preaching textbook after preaching textbook calls for the crucial involvement of the Holy Spirit in preaching, yet none give a comprehensive Spirit-driven methodology of expository preaching that tells the preacher how to fully involve the Holy Spirit in his preaching ministry.  Further, the fruit of evangelical publishing and scholarship over the last two decades demonstrates that evangelicals are better at telling what the Spirit does not do in preaching as opposed to what the Spirit must do if powerful preaching is to take place.  Even in our own preaching, we tend to avoid the third member of the trinity, as the great expositor James Montgomery Boice once confessed:

For example, I had been in the ministry for about seven years when my morning preaching through Philippians, the Sermon on the Mount, and John eventually brought me to the discourses of John 14-16, in which the work of the Holy Spirit is described. Strange to say I had never done any serious preaching on the Holy Spirit before that time. (Boice, 1986, 96)  (Italics added).

I believe evangelicals must overcome their fear of being labeled charismatic, pentecostal, experiential, or even mystical and begin to talk about the Holy Spirit’s dynamics in preaching.    Evangelicals by and large have failed to connect the discipline of homiletics with the doctrines of pneumatology, and as a result find themselves “Surprised by the Spirit” when the Spirit does move!  My prayer is that this article will serve as a catalyst for evangelicals to establish a positive theology of preaching which makes clear the integral role of the Holy Spirit as the driving dynamic governing the entire discipline we call homiletics.  My belief is that the dynamics of the Spirit must complement the mechanics of exposition if Spirit-empowered expository preaching is ever going to take place.

What are some reasons for the Spirit’s absence in our preaching?  A.J. Gordon, writing more than one hundred years ago, gave his assessment:

Our generation is rapidly losing its grip upon the supernatural; and as a consequence the pulpit is rapidly dropping to the level of the platform.  And this decline is due, more than anything else, to ignoring the Holy Spirit as the supreme inspirer of preaching.  We would rather see a great orator in the pulpit, forgetting that the least expounder of the Word, when filled with the Holy Spirit, is greater than he. (Gordon, 1985, 102).

As evidence, one need only look back to the classic textbooks of a previous generation of homileticians to see Gordon is correct.  For example, I believe Broadus’ work On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons to be a classic text on preaching, yet upon reading the text you discover there is little substantive discussion on the Holy Spirit.  A generation of preachers were raised on Andrew Blackwood’s preaching texts in the 1940’s and 1950’s, yet there is little mention of the Spirit’s role in preaching in his books as well. The absence of the Spirit from these classic preaching texts and others reveals that most preaching books of the eras represented were more concerned with presentation, style, and the mechanics of preaching rather than the unseen theological dynamics of preaching represented by the Spirit’s ministry of the Word.

To be fair to Broadus, Blackwood, and others, the Spirit’s role in preaching was most likely implied or assumed; yet therein lies the problem for evangelicals.  Evangelicals teaching preaching in colleges and seminaries today cannot naively assume that students of preaching know what it means to be empowered by God’s Spirit; we cannot assume students know what it means to be led by the Spirit when selecting a text or when choosing an appropriate illustration.  When’s the last time we taught our churches about the Spirit’s illumination (not inspiration!) in the study of God’s word?  How does the Holy Spirit “open our eyes” that we may see the wonderful things in His word? (Psalm 119:18).  How does the Spirit move in the preacher’s prayer life to empower and direct his preaching?  How do we know when the Holy Spirit leads us to say something we had not planned on saying – or keeps us from saying what we had planned to say!  We will never understand these unseen yet critical components of preaching until we open up and overcome what James Forbes identifies as our “Holy Spirit-shyness.”

Only recently, with the publication of Jerry Vines and Jim Shaddix’s Power in the Pulpit (1999), as well as Stephen Olford’s book Anointed Expository Preaching (1998), have books on preaching included more than a passing reference to the work of the Holy Spirit in preaching.  Perhaps this is understandable, given the fact that evangelicals have been faithfully engaged in a battle defending the trustworthiness and accuracy of the Bible.  Hence, much of our writing on the subject of preaching, especially expository preaching, has centered around the text – how to study it in the original languages, how to diagram it, outline it, and apply it.  Without a doubt,  these are necessary and essential disciplines for the task of expository preaching, and expository preaching cannot happen without them.  But in so emphasizing the text have we unintentionally neglected the Spirit?  By constantly and sometimes exclusively hammering away at the needs of the text, have we inadvertently separated the powerful symbiotic relationship between Word and Spirit?  Is the way we approach, define, and even teach expository preaching producing exegetical scholars but not Spirit-filled preachers?  Can we not have both?     

One problem unique to expository preaching is that most of our textbooks focus on the biblical  text in order to be considered “expository.” As a result, most homiletics textbooks simply teach the mechanics of preaching and pay very little attention to the dynamics of preaching.  This can lead the student of preaching to believe that if the text is simply handled “correctly,” expository preaching takes place.  Ramesh Richard explains this phenomenon by pointing out the emphasis of his own book, Preparing Expository Sermons: A Seven Step Method For Biblical Preaching:

By intention, the Scripture Sculpture sermon-preparation process is focused on the mechanics of expository preaching.  Yet the best-prepared and best-preached sermon would turn into mere noise-making if the dynamics of the preaching process were not in place.  The critical link between the mechanics and dynamics of the preaching process is the preacher’s spiritual life. We ought to pursue an increasingly vital relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit through faith in God’s Word. (Richard, 2001, 96).

The strength of a Spirit-driven methodology of expository preaching is due to the fact that it is intentionally centered on the theological and spiritual dynamics of preaching.  Although sound mechanics are critical to opening up a text of scripture and must be taught, learned, and practiced, the preached message finds its true source of power when the Spirit and the Word combine in powerful Christological witness!  In other words, the spiritual dynamics taking place under the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the preacher’s life are the source and substance of preaching that becomes a “demonstration of the Spirit’s power” (I Cor. 2:4).  A careful reading of I Corinthians 2 reveals Paul’s inner condition (weakness, fear, and trembling) precedes the Spirit’s power in preaching.  Paul’s inner spiritual condition was the soil out of which his Spirit-empowered preaching grew.  In other words, the Spirit’s dynamics add the heat and passion to the sermon’s mechanics.


Although definitions themselves are no guarantee of success, they do lay the foundation and direction for the course of action to be followed.  I think that the best definition of expository preaching will incorporate into its terminology the ministry and dynamic of the Holy Spirit as the explicit driving force behind the methodology.

In a Spirit-driven methodology of expository preaching, the inspired text is just one of many Spirit-contributed aspects to the discipline of preaching.  A Spirit-driven methodology of expository preaching finds definition in the powerful dynamic of the Word and Spirit integrated together.  There are some good definitions of expository preaching that do partially capture the theological dynamic of Word and Spirit and also incorporate some aspect of the Holy Spirit into their respective wordings.  Among modern definitions, one of the earliest references to the Holy Spirit comes from the work of Don Miller in his 1957 book The Way to Biblical Preaching.  He writes:

Expository preaching is an act wherein the living truth of some portion of Holy Scripture, understood in the light of solid exegetical and historical study and made a living reality to the preacher by the Holy Spirit, comes alive to the hearer as he is confronted by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit in judgment and redemption (Miller, 1957, 26).

Miller’s definition stresses the importance of the Spirit in relation to the preacher’s personal devotional life, as well as the Spirit’s role in applying the message to the hearts of those who hear the word of God. 

Another classic definition of expository preaching is Haddon Robinson’s:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers. (Robinson, 1980, 20)

Robinson’s definition emphasizes the clear movement of the Spirit through the inspired text, into the preacher’s heart and mind, and then penetrating the audience with the Spirit’s convicting power. Wayne McDill speaks of the “enabling” of the Holy Spirit in his definition (McDill, 1999, 20), and Danny Akin incorporates the preacher’s “submission to the Spirit” in his definition of expository preaching (Akin, 2000, 13).

Another Spirit-laden definition is provided by Stephen Olford, who writes:

Expository preaching is the Spirit-empowered explanation and proclamation of the text of God’s Word with due regard to the historical, contextual, grammatical, and doctrinal significance of the given passage, with the specific object of invoking a Christ-transforming response. (Olford, 1998, 69)

The strength of Olford’s definition is the fact that it includes a reference to the Spirit’s empowerment, a topic many homiletic textbooks avoid due to the theological controversy surrounding the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  Vines and Shaddix (1999) and Olford (1998) actually contain sections on the anointing and empowering of the Holy Spirit in preaching. 

Having surveyed some variety of definitions of expository preaching among evangelicals, I put forth the following original definition for consideration:

Expository preaching is the Spirit-empowered communication of biblical truth derived from the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit by means of a verse by verse contextual exposition of the Spirit-inspired text, with a view to applying the text by means of the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, first to the preacher’s own heart, and then to the hearts of those who hear, culminating in Christological witness and resulting in obedient, Spirit-filled living.

I believe the strength of this definition is its comprehensiveness regarding the Spirit’s role in preaching.   First, the Spirit’s role in expository preaching is made explicit (as opposed to implicit or assumed) and highlights the multifaceted ministries of the Holy Spirit revealed in Scripture.  Second, the Spirit’s ministry in preaching is intentionally identified in the following six ways: (1) the inspiration of the text, (2) the illumination of the preacher, (3) the conviction of the truthfulness of the message, (4) the anointing or empowerment of the preacher, (5) the Spirit’s Christological witness, and (6) Spirit-filled living.  Third, the definition incorporates the theological categories of Word and Spirit by combining the dynamic element in preaching (Spirit) with the inspired text (Word).  Fourth, the definition is scripturally sound and grounded in a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit (John 16:13; 1 Cor. 2: 4-13; Gal 5:16, 22; 2 Tim 3:16). Fifth, the definition maintains the Christological emphasis of the Spirit’s witness to Christ.  Sixth, the definition’s termination point is practical obedience in Spirit-filled living (audience-focused) as opposed to simply communicating truth (preacher-focused).  


Evangelicals have dedicated entire volumes to defending the inspiration of Scripture.  Yet how many times do we find the equally important doctrine of the illumination of the Holy Spirit expounded upon?  A survey of the literature reveals that we really do not even know where to put a discussion on the illumination of the Holy Spirit – does it belong in a book on systematics, pneumatology, preaching, hermeneutics, evangelism, or teaching methodology?  This confusion reminds us that any approach to the Spirit’s involvement in preaching must be interdisciplinary because the Holy Spirit overlaps in so many areas of study.  The Holy Spirit brings together systematic and biblical theology, biblical studies, hermeneutics, and evangelism and unites those areas in homiletics. 

The illumination of the Holy Spirit in the preacher’s study is essential to powerful, expository preaching in the pulpit.  Since our sinful and depraved minds are being renewed in the truth day by day (Romans 12:2), we need the help and light the Holy Spirit gives us to see and feel the heat, passion, and power of the text and the urgency with which we must apply it!  Listen to Calvin on the beauty of the Spirit’s quickening in the life of a believer:

Therefore, as we can never come to Christ, unless we are drawn by the Spirit of God, so when we are drawn, we are raised both in mind and in heart above the reach of our own understanding. For illuminated by him, the soul receives, as it were, new eyes for the contemplation of heavenly mysteries, by the splendor of which it was never before dazzled. And thus the human intellect, irradiated by the light of the Holy Spirit, then begins to relish those things which pertain to the kingdom of God, for which before it had not the smallest taste.  (Calvin, Institutes, vol. I book 3, 34).

Biblically, Jesus foretells the Spirit’s illuminating ministry in John 16:13-14: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.  He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.”  Paul speaks of the need for “spiritual discernment” for understanding the “things that come from the Spirit of God” in I Corinthians 2:14.  Perhaps the best illustration of illumination is when Jesus opens the eyes and hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24.  Notice the opening of the Scriptures coincided with the opening of their hearts!  Their illumination results in hearts set ablaze and burning within them!  Preachers who expect their listeners’ hearts to burn must “open the Scriptures” from their own burning hearts, set on fire by the Spirit’s illumination (Luke 24:32).  Think of it this way:  What the Spirit illumines in the study, He will empower in the pulpit.  Passionate, Spirit-empowered preaching is the Spirit’s illuminating work in the study overflowing into the pulpit!    


The preacher following the Spirit-driven methodology must embrace the biblical theology of Word and Spirit as the foundation of the preaching endeavor.  A correct biblical theology of pneumatology and bibliology must drive and under-gird any methodology of homiletics. Yet  confusion and controversy regarding the Word and the Spirit has resulted in the following standoff:

The contemporary failure to understand the intimate relationship between the Word and the Spirit of God is particularly evident in the modern controversy among ‘evangelicals’ and ‘charismatics’.  Each side of this deeply felt debate seems to have an emphasis on an important theological reality which it believes the other is neglecting.  The evangelical emphasis (by definition) is on the Word of God, in the form of the Scriptures.  The charismatic emphasis is on the Spirit of God.  The charismatic caricature of the evangelical is that he or she has intellectualized the faith into understanding propositions.  The corresponding evangelical estimate of the charismatic is that he or she is living in a world of make-believe, making too much of relatively unimportant experiences. (Woodhouse, 1995, 46).

Woodhouse states that the solution to the standoff is not balancing the two extremes, but rather understanding the relationship between the two theological realities.  Woodhouse describes the relationship between Word and Spirit as one of complementary interdependence:

A biblical doctrine of the Word of God must necessarily be integrated with the doctrine of the Spirit of God, and, conversely, a biblical understanding of the Spirit of God is inseparable from the concept of God’s Word.  The Word is the Spirit’s implement, and the Spirit is the breath by which God speaks (Woodhouse, 1995, 46).

David Wells continues the discussion of interdependence of the Word and Spirit in greater detail:

In the New Testament, then, the biblical Word and the work of the Spirit are correlated. It is not possible, in biblical terms, to believe in the Holy Spirit’s work without believing in the Bible’s inspiration, for the biblical revelation is the Holy Spirit’s written witness. Nor is it possible to understand the full truth of Scripture and to receive what God wants us to receive unless the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word also leads us in our understanding of it. This relationship between the objective and the subjective needs to be carefully preserved.  Word and Spirit must be held together and experienced together; if they are not, our retention of biblical Christianity will be jeopardized. (Wells, 1987, 30)

Evangelical preachers cannot divorce their understanding of the Word from their understanding of the Spirit.  In Spirit-driven expository preaching, the preacher thrives on the codependent and symbiotic relationship of the Word and Spirit as the genuine source of all powerful preaching.    The preacher following the Spirit-driven methodology does not desire to simply balance the Word with the Spirit or the Spirit with the Word, but rather to be filled with the Spirit and to be immersed in the Word simultaneously and abundantly!  The Spirit leads us down the path of His inspired Word, and the written Word leads us to the Living Word, Christ Jesus. 

The proper theological understanding of Word and Spirit outlined above must set us free from the false notion that if we allow the Holy Spirit into our preaching, then the biblical text flies out the window and everything becomes subjective!  Why do we wrongly assume that the entrance of the Spirit into the medium of preaching automatically means the “loss of control?”  Whose control are we talking about?  Ours or the Spirit’s?  What we tend to forget is that the Spirit’s witness, empowerment, and movement is tied to the Word He inspired!  That is why I argue for Spirit-empowered expository preaching – the unfolding of the Spirit’s words necessitates the Spirit’s witness (testimonium), and where the Spirit gives witness, there is power!       


The implication of the Spirit’s biblically defined ministry as well as the theological relationship between the Word and the Spirit demands Christ-centered preaching.  Azurdia questions, “How does the Spirit intend for this inscripturated word of Christ to be made known?  Answer:  through preachers who, with the message of Christ on their lips, will be given divine power by this same Holy Spirit.” (Azurdia, 1998, 62).  Hence, the preacher’s number one obligation is to demonstrate how his biblical text gives witness to Jesus Christ.  As the Word and the Spirit and the preacher all in sweet unison witness to Christ, powerful preaching occurs.  The Spirit-driven methodology of expository preaching posits that the Spirit, the Word, and the preacher must all testify to Jesus Christ in unison during the actual preparation and proclamation of the sermon if the preacher is ever going to preach with power.  Azurdia points out that when the preacher is linked with the Spirit’s purpose of revealing Jesus Christ, the result will be power in the pulpit:

I have become convinced that preachers can rightly anticipate the Holy Spirit’s power only when they are resolutely wedded to the Holy Spirit’s purpose.  What is His purpose?  To glorify Jesus Christ through the instrumentality of the Old and New Testament scriptures, both of which point to Him. (Azurdia, 1998, 61).

In Luke 24, Jesus himself proved that he was at the heart of the Old Testament and the fulfillment of the promise and God’s redemptive plan.  Furthermore, Jesus says in John 5: 39-40, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The combination of biblical testimony (“Sciptures that testify about me”) with the Spirit’s witness (“He will testify about me” (John 15:26) through the preacher’s proclamation results in powerful preaching that lifts up Christ and changes lives.  Whatever the biblical text may be, the preacher following the Spirit-driven method of expository preaching is obligated to present the Spirit-inspired Christological witness of the text. 

God doesn’t need a Superman to deliver super sermons!  God needs Spirit-called, Spirit-filled, and Spirit-dependent “Clark Kents” to open the Spirit- inspired Word of God and preach!  In order for our preaching to be a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, we need to seek the Spirit’s empowerment along with the Scripture’s authorial intent!  We need to seek the Spirit’s illumination and the commentator’s information!  We need to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in our hearts as well as in our texts!  We must surrender to the Spirit’s power as well as surrender to the authorial intent.  We must yield to the living Spirit as we preach the living Word!  May God’s preachers everywhere bring Him more glory than ever by preaching Spirit-empowered, Christ-exalting messages!


Greg W. Heisler is Assistant Professor of Preaching, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.


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Woodhouse, John.  “The Preacher and the Living Word.”  In When God’s Voice Is Heard: Essays in Honor of Dick Lucas.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

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