How to Rely on the Holy Spirit in Your Preaching
Dr. Jeffrey Arthurs
This blog originally appeared in Ministry Magazine.
If you created a checklist for sermon preparation, it might look like this: study the biblical passage—check; frame a big idea—check; outline the talk—check; expand the outline with textual data, illustrations, and applications—check. But what about prayer? What about the Holy Spirit? You might respond: “Well, yes. Of course. Without the Holy Spirit, our words are wood, hay, and stubble. But the Holy Spirit cannot be turned into a homiletical technique. The Spirit blows where He wills.”
You are right. Relying on the Holy Spirit is more of an attitude of dependence than a method or homiletical art. But the question this article poses is not How can we package and dispense the Holy Spirit? but How can we pray and depend on the Spirit? If we are not careful, the weekly grind of sermon preparation can turn preaching into a mechanical art, dependent more on human effort than God’s sovereign Spirit.
The best tool I have found to help me rely on God in my preaching is from preacher John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching. I have adapted his advice to create this acronym: APCAT. I use APCAT while preparing sermons and often pray it while standing in the congregation just before walking to the platform.
A stands for acknowledge. State to God in plain terms something like, “Without You, my sermon will fall flat and never rise higher than the ceiling. This is true, and I confess it.” When we acknowledge our need early in the sermon preparation (and, indeed, at the end of our preparation), we remember that God is the Potter, and we are just clay in His hands.
P stands for plead. Considering the acknowledgment just made, we petition God: “Please move powerfully. Please convict, comfort, remind, teach, persuade, enlighten, or do whatever each heart requires.” We must plead with Him to unleash the power of His Word.
C stands for claim. Boldly latch on to God’s promise to use His Word and the preaching of His Word to save and sanctify. I have found that my preaching text often contains a promise or an implication that I can claim for the upcoming sermon, but if not, we have plenty of promises to draw from. I also frequently claim Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing,” and Hebrews 4:12, where the Word penetrates the conscience. Step out in faith, trusting in the confidence of the Holy Spirit.
A stands for act. This component of APCAT does not contradict the previous points. No, we do our part because He has told us to act. We study the text, analyze the audience, arrange the outline, gather the illustrations, and so forth, not in self-reliance as if the success of the sermon depends on us alone but because God has commanded us to act. We preach because we have faith in Him, not ourselves.
T stands for thank. When the sermon is over, rather than rehearsing your mistakes (How did I do? Did they like me? Oh no, I forgot that illustration!), praise God for using you. To use a phrase from Peter Scazerro, an “emotionally healthy” preacher remembers that God can use even a crooked stick to perform miracles. Pastor Scazerro advises, “If I’m too concerned about what people think of me and how the sermon is going to come off, I don’t think I’m ready to preach.” A prayer of thanks while doing sermon preparation and then immediately after preaching reminds us that God saves and sanctifies through the foolishness of preaching.
For your next sermon, give APCAT a try. In fact, why not pray through APCAT right now, as you finish this article? You may find, as I have found, that it helps align your heart with the truth of who God is and what He accomplishes through the mystery of preaching. He saves and sanctifies: “You have been born again . . . through the living and abiding word of God. . . . This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:23–25).
Peter Scazzero, “The Importance of Being an Emotionally Healthy Preacher,” in Sermon Preparation, ed. Craig Brian Larson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub., 2012), 35.
Dr. Jeffrey Arthurs is the Haddon W. Robinson Chair of Preaching and Communication. His books reflect his love of preaching and communication: Preaching with Variety, Devote Yourself to Public Reading of Scripture, and Preaching As Reminding, which was honored with a 2019 Book of the Year Award from Christianity Today.