While I was a seminary student, I was pastor of a small rural church. I struggled each week to prepare and deliver sermons that would provide spiritual nourishment for that little congregation. At the time, I attributed this struggle to a number of factors: lack of experience, the 75 mile commute that began early each Sunday morning, lack of time – I was a pastor, a student, and also worked another job to make ends meet. Since that time, while serving for over eighteen years, as a pastor, a missionary, and a professor, I have come to recognize that the source of this struggle is spiritual rather than circumstantial. In this article, I would like to present four guiding principles that can help us deal with this spiritual struggle that we find ourselves involved in during the process of preparing and preaching the gospel.
First, we are to proclaim the Word of God in the power of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul contrasts eloquence and superior wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1) of human teaching which shows itself in wise and persuasive words (1 Corinthians 2:4) with his own preaching which is a demonstration of the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:5). The issue here is, “Which is more important in preaching, form or content?” There are those in Corinth who believe that the form of the message, “eloquence and persuasive words,” reflect the endowment of God’s wisdom on the speaker through the work of the Spirit (Davis 1984, 78-81). In Paul’s preaching, however, the power of the Spirit comes through the contents of the message, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The real contrast here is between two kinds of power.
Paul refrains from any technique of communication that, on its own merit, might elicit a response from his listeners. The implication is obvious: a response drawn out by anything other than the Gospel simply proclaimed will more often than not prove to be something less than a saving response. . . . Where the affections of people are at stake, there must be no competitors allowed. The Gospel must capture their hearts, not the genius of those who communicate it (Azurdia 1998, 198).
One Sunday just after I finished preaching, a young woman in my church in Tokyo said to me, “There was power in your message.” I thanked her for her compliment. It occurred to me however, that a message’s immediate impression is not nearly as important as its power to incite change in the lives of those who hear it.
When the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, it does “not come by itself,” that is “simply with words.” Rather, when God’s Word is preached it is accompanied by work of the Holy Spirit. According to John Stott, it is through the work of the Spirit that the power of the Word “penetrates” the “mind, heart, conscience and will” of both the speaker and the listener, bringing with it “deep conviction” of the “truth and relevance of the message” (1991, 33-35). The Holy Spirit teaches people that the Word of God is true and calls for their response. Without this inner-working of God’s Spirit, no amount of clarity or persuasion on the part of the speaker is adequate to call men and women to repentance and eternal life. So we must always keep in mind that the sword we bear is the Spirit’s sword. As Bernard Ramm writes,
There are two hands on the sword: for we take the sword, and yet, since it is the Sword of the Spirit, his hand is also on the hilt. We are not to use this sword by ourselves, on our own authority, and by our own sovereignty. We are to be completely sensitive to the pressure of the Spirit’s hand in ours. Unless the Spirit wields the sword, we shall use it to no avail (1959, 58-59).
Second, we are to proclaim God’s Word purely, without adulterating or defiling it. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:2, “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly, we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” The implication here is that we must put aside behavior that is shameful because it distorts and falsifies the Word of God. This means, above all else, getting ourselves out of the way so that the good news of Jesus Christ and the Spirit of God are free to do their work. Jesus is the light of the world. We are, at best, only a reflection of that light. The light of Christ only shines clearly through those who not only preach but also live the gospel. So often the message of the gospel is clouded for our hearers by what we do as much as by what we say. They hear us speak about the power of the gospel to bring personal transformation, but then see us live totally untransformed lives. If what we say about the power of the gospel is true, that truth must be enfleshed in us.
The third principle of sword-bearing is that we are to have the purpose of bringing men and women under the authority of Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul writes that the spiritual battle that we are engaged in is something very different from the warfare that human beings wage against one another (2 Corinthians 10:3). For one thing, “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:4). When we think of warfare our immediate thought is that of a conflict waged with guns, missiles, and bombs. Yet we also realize that in our modern world a conflict between nations is just as likely to be political and economic as military. On both a national and a personal level the primary weapons are not those that shoot bullets. They are, rather, “human ingenuity, rhetoric, showmanship, a certain splashiness and forwardness in spiritual pretensions, charm, powerful personal charisma” (Carson 1984, 46).
The most recent war in Iraq is a case in point. While battle in Baghdad was waged with guns, tanks, airplanes and missiles, a warfare of words was waged on the airwaves, in the newspapers, and in the hearts of people around the world in cities as diverse as Atlanta, Cairo, and Tokyo. In Tokyo we have often found the perception of the struggle in Iraq hinders reception to the gospel among the Japanese.
The weapons that we use in spiritual warfare have “divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4). Since the warfare that we are engaged in is spiritual, we must think about the strongholds that we are equipped to demolish spiritually as well. According to 2 Corinthians 10:5, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” The primary location of spiritual warfare is not external, but internal, in the hearts and minds of individuals. According to D. A. Carson, our spiritual “weapons destroy the way people think, demolish their sinful thought patterns, the mental structures by which they live their lives in rebellion against God” (1984, 47). There is a fierce hand-to-hand conflict being waged for belief and adherence. People will either kneel before King Jesus in obedience and call him Lord, or they will continue to let Satan have carte blanche in their lives as he leads them down the way that ends in their destruction.
The substitutes for God’s truth that Satan uses to hold people in spiritual bondage will vary from people to people and from person to person. In Japan, for example, religion, family, national identity, personal ambition, and self-indulgent immorality are all sources of spiritual bondage. The only way that we can “demolish” these spiritual strongholds is to speak the truth of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. Men and women reject God and his Word because they, like Satan before them, want to exalt themselves. What actually holds a given Japanese person in bondage will vary with the individual. In order to deal with this situation, I must know those that I am trying to share the gospel with. I must know their personal issues and concerns, their questions, and their needs. Only then can I adequately explain how Jesus is more than adequate to meet all of their needs. Only then can I communicate clearly that Jesus has the power to transform their lives.
The fourth and final principle for bearing the Spirit’s sword is that we should have confidence because victory is certain. This does not mean that those who bear the gospel will always live without any suffering or difficulty. In fact, the opposite is true. Since we are involved in a spiritual conflict, hardship and persecution are necessary bi-products of the proclamation of the gospel. What I am saying is that no matter how much we must struggle to live in a fallen world and to get the gospel out, the final victory of the Word of God is certain.
Consider, for example, the first chapter of Paul’s letter from prison to the church at Philippi. Paul writes that although he is “in chains for Christ” (Philippians 1:13), this “has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Paul contends that the gospel has actually advanced because he is in prison. First, the “whole palace guard” has been exposed to the gospel (Philippians 1:13). If Paul is to be taken literally, there are 9,000 soldiers in the Roman praetorian guard who all “know the circumstances of Paul’s imprisonment” (O’Brien 1991, 93). Paul can actually celebrate being behind locked doors because it has provided an open door for 9,000 men to be exposed to the gospel.
Paul also says that the short-comings of the person who is preaching the gospel do not affect its advance. Whether a person preaches out of “envy and rivalry” or “good will” (Philippians 1:15), whether out of “love” (Philippians 1:16) or “selfish ambition” (Philippians 1:17), “whether from false motives or true,” it does not matter as long as “Christ is preached” (Philippians 1:17). I find here incredible reassurance of the power of the gospel. Although we would like to say that we always preach Christ from the purest of motives, if we are completely honest with ourselves we must admit that it is not so. But, when “Christ is preached” his message is stronger than any frailty or insufficiency on the part of the preacher. Although we bear the sword, it is still the Spirit’s sword. When the Word is proclaimed, God’s Spirit is the one who brings about its effect in the heart of the listener. The Spirit’s effectiveness more than overshadows any limitation or ineffectiveness on our part.
Kelly Malone is a missionary with the International Mission Board (SBC), Academic Dean of the Christian Leadership Training Center, and Editor of Japan Evangelism in Tokyo, Japan.
Azurdia, Arturo G., III. 1998. “Preaching: The Decisive Function,” in The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong. Wheaton: Crossway.
Barrett, C. K. 1973. A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Carson, D. A. 1984. From Triumphalism to Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Davis, James A. 1984. Wisdom and Spirit: An Investigation of 1 Corinthians 1.18-3.20 against the Background of Jewish Sapiential Traditions in the Greco-Roman Period. New York: University Press of America.
O’Brien, Peter T. 1991. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Ramm, Bernard. 1959. The Witness of the Spirit: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of the Internal Witness of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Stott, John. 1991. The Gospel and the End of Time. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.