Preaching with authority has a twofold task. On the one hand, it uplifts the gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, and on the other, it assures hearers that the gospel shows the power of God unto salvation.
In order to achieve this twofold objective, the proclamation must have authority. As Paul asserts, “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance, as you know what kind of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5).1 And again, “My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4, NET). This article deals with the authority of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the gospel.
Many pastors and elders may not be well acquainted with the concept of preaching with the authority of the Spirit. When pastors do their internship and elders have their training, they ought to be informed from the outset— in a proper but spiritual manner—that their success as effective preachers depends much on their dependence on God’s promises. Each prospective preacher should understand and live by the reality that God intends for His people to use His power to present the gospel effectively.
However, in our world today, preaching with authority seems to be rare. Preachers are confronted with psychological theories of persuasion. They master all the tricks of the trade, identify themselves with the audience, utilize presumed authority, and coattail on the goodwill of a third party. But these methods continue to leave church members unfed because they lack the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the right source of God’s power.
Consider Hebrews 13:17, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” Here we have instruction on the kind of relationship that should govern church members and their pastors and elders. Times come in a pastor-member relationship where the pastor’s responsibility seems to be to watch over the souls of his or her members so that not one will wander away or perish. At the same time, the relation that should govern the member, with the pastor or elder, should be one of spiritual understanding and submission. The interrelationship between the pastor and the member should be in joy and not in grief; otherwise the relationship stands unprofitable.
Consider also Paul’s counsel in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves.” Here seems to be a call to recognize those who are invited to labor among believers—this call should be in love and appreciation of the work the called ones do in and for the group of believers.
The problem does not rest with members alone. Our attitudes as pastors and elders also say a lot. Preachers, often, are not sure of what they preach. Take the popular “I think” and “I share.” These concepts do not do justice to the vocabulary of preaching in the New Testament, such as “to tell,” “to announce,” or “to proclaim.” Authoritative preaching resides as preaching a message that is not ours but God’s. Both the content and the preacher are rooted in the good news inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). The message cannot be successfully proclaimed if that message seems “wholly anecdotal, popular, topical, philosophical, or psychological.”2 Paul’s advice is timely: “Preach the Word!” (2 Tim. 4:2a).
Calling as a source of authority
The preacher’s authority as God’s representative comes directly from his or her relationship with God and from the call of God in the life and the message God gives the herald to preach. If someone asks, “What gives you the right to say what you say?” Naturally, the response must be, “God’s call and commission to preach His will to you.” Preachers are chosen and anointed to proclaim the Holy Scriptures and present the will of God. Anyone who chooses to speak his or her word rather than God’s Word undermines that call and makes it void. No matter how sensibly articulated, propositional truth is, at best, a cold, unexciting teaching without the quickening of the Holy Spirit.
The herald comes directed by the Spirit to speak the King’s message, not his or her own. If he or she listens to the voice of the Spirit given through the Scriptures, the preacher can be assured of his or her faithfulness as a steward of God’s Word and, consequently, could be sure of the result. This is why preaching and serving as God’s vessel and mouthpiece becomes tremendously humbling.3 Authoritative preaching has the power to burn the heart and open the mind (cf. Luke 24:32, 45).
The authority of Christ
Speaking of his speech and preaching, Paul said they were “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). The word for “demonstration” (apodeixis) can be found only here in the New Testament. Precisely, this word means “a showing forth,” hence “proof,” “evidence,” and having the force of that which is proved by the possession of the Spirit.
When Jesus taught the people, the leaders could identify that He preached with powerful authority, and they asked, “ ‘Who gave You this authority?’ ” (Matt. 21:23). The preaching of Jesus was not like that of Jewish rabbis, for the people would not be satisfied with the trivial teachings of the leaders because their teaching would lack the commanding power and authority in their doctrines. But about the preaching of Jesus, we read, “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:28, 29). Scribes were experts, skilled in Jewish law and theology. They mastered legal matters as legal scholars (Matt. 2:4; 7:29; 13:52; Mark 1:22; 1 Cor. 1:20). This was not so with Jesus. He not only taught the truth but also lived a life that demonstrated His truth. This is why preaching has been described as “truth through personality.”4 In the words of John’s preamble, preaching is the incarnate Word that “became flesh.”5
Ellen White says, “Our work is to win men to belief of the truth, win by preaching and by example also, by living godly lives. The truth in all its bearings is to be acted, showing the consistency of faith with practice. The value of our faith will be shown by its fruit. . . . Thus the truth is to be made impressive as a great whole and command the intellect. Truth, Bible truth, is to become the authority for the conscience and the love and life of the soul.”6
She points out that “on the church has been conferred the power to act in Christ’s stead”7 and further states that “Christ’s ministers upon the earth . . . are appointed to act in Christ’s stead.”8 Thus, this authority, derived from Jesus, is given also to individual preachers and shall not be exercised apart from Christ and His word. As Paul says, “For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you” (1 Cor. 11:23a).
Biblical authority and purposeful preaching
Biblical preaching comes with its own authority. Albert Mohler’s argument on biblical authority in preaching is worth noting: “Teaching assumes authority. After all, we have to know what it is we are to teach. Far too many preachers think this is an authority that is personal. . . . But there is only one authority that is the preachers’ authority, and there is only one authority that undergirds and justifies his teaching ministry, and that is the authority of the Word of God. This Word is inerrant, infallible, authoritative, and trustworthy. It is that Word, and that Word alone, that is our authority; and it is not only the foundation, but the substance, the content of our teaching and preaching.”9
The Bible is the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). The sword is an offensive weapon, and, as such, the Scriptures stand as the weapon to fight in Christian warfare to its ultimate triumph. Just as Jesus used the Scriptures to win His battle against Satan in the wilderness, so should Christians be enabled with the power of God’s Word to fight their daily battle. To that extent, the preacher must assert the Bible’s inner authority and power and let the biblical proclamation be fully biblical, fully assertive, and never speculative or entertaining. Ben Awbrey cautions preachers against using the Bible as just an advice manual: “They preach as though the Bible is not authoritative! They refuse to assert biblical truth! They traffic in speculation and suggestion and relativism! They will fog that which is clear! They will question that which is certain! They will suspend that which must be enforced—an immediate and complete compliance to the truth of God’s Word!”10 Ellen White adds: “It is the efficiency of the Holy Spirit that makes the ministry of the Word effective. When Christ speaks through the minister, the Holy Spirit prepares the hearts of the listeners to receive the word. The Holy Spirit is not a servant, but a controlling power.”11
Authority in preaching
Paul urges us to “preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Christians are watchmen, and as such we have to proclaim God’s Word and assume that the instructions we give in exhorting and teaching are from the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of Godhead: there lies the divine authority in the ministry of preaching.
Anyone who preaches the gospel with a full commitment to its claims and power is assured of God’s authority, so that when the preacher stands before the people, the words he or she utters will not be his or her own but from the throne room of God. The preacher who preaches the inspired Word (2 Tim. 3:16) thus delivers a message God has for that moment, for that people. This Source and delivery of the message makes the people responsible for their acceptance or rejection of the content of the message. When people reject the preaching from the Spirit, they are accountable to God for turning away from the divine Word. A. W. Tozer says, “A preacher under God’s unction should reign from his pulpit as a king from his throne. He should not reign by law or by regulation or by man’s authority. He ought to reign by moral ascendancy! The divine authority is missing from many pulpits. We have ‘tabby cats’ with their claws carefully trimmed in the seminary, so they can paw over the congregations and never scratch them at all! The Holy Spirit will sharpen the arrows of the man of God who preaches the whole counsel of God!”12
In addition to the support of the content that is inspired by the Holy Spirit, preachers should preach Christologically, as Paul did: “Him we preach” (Col. 1:28). The book of Acts further shows how a message focused on the priority of Christ made a huge difference in its proclamation and results (Acts 3:20; 5:42; 8:5, 12; 9:20). Hence, Christ should be the core of the message of every preacher. Every sermon has to expound Christ as the sole concern of ministry. Stephen Olford and David Olford maintain, “The gospel message must center on Jesus Christ, and our preaching to edify the saints must draw people closer to Christ. . . . The preeminence of Christ in our lives, ministries, and messages should be evident.”13
Preaching with power comes as a continuation of Christ’s saving work. No one who serves Jesus would be sent without being equipped (cf. Luke 9:1). The Holy Spirit, given to God’s servants, offers the illumination to understand the Scriptures, the protection against demonic forces working against God’s servants, and the power to preach with full authority (Luke 9:1; 24:48ff; Acts 1:8).
Preaching becomes effective when it is Christ-centered, Spirit-controlled, and Scripture-based. W. Grundmann argues, “The goal of preaching is the exhibition of Christ’s presence by the Spirit and therefore the exhibition of God’s saving power in Christ.”14 Preachers ought to seek to win people to Christ as His servants for His sake. Christ was proclaimed because He is the head of the church and the Lord of its ministries (1Cor. 12:5; 2 Cor. 4:5; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18).
In summary, the authority of Christ should be exercised in preaching and teaching, while admonishing members and the world in Christ’s name. The gospel messengers should abide and walk in Christ. They should not spend time preaching concepts, reflections, or even applications but focus on every word that would lead the hearer to the person and mission of Christ.
Only when a person wields “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17) does preaching become authoritative. When Jesus spoke, people had to make a decision: they either believed on Him or got ready to stone Him; He never counteracted either individuals or congregations. His utterances were both incisive and decisive, revealing that His words held evidence of heavenly authority. Preachers must make use of the full possession of God’s power at their disposal to conquer the rebellious planet for Christ. Submission to the power of God’s Spirit and a commitment to preaching “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), are the main tenets of preaching with authority.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.
2 H. W. Lowe, “Power in Preaching,” Ministry (July 1961): 4.
3 Greg Heisler, Spirit-Led Preaching: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Sermon Preparation and Delivery (Nashville, TN: B&H Pub. Group, 2007), 72, 73.
4 Phillip Brooks, Lectures on Preaching (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1907), 5-26.
5 Stephen F. Olford and David L. Olford, Anointed Expository Preaching (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Pub., 1998), 341, 342.
6 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 542.
7 Ellen G. White, Counsels for the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1991), 258.
8 Ibid., 242.
9 R. Albert Mohler, “The Primacy of Preaching,” in R. Albert Mohler, James Montgomery Boice, and Derek W. H. Thomas, Feed My Sheep: A Passionate Plea for Preaching (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002), 28.
10 Ben Awbrey, How Effective Sermons Begin (Geanies House, Scotland: Mentor, 2008), 221, 222.
11 Ellen G. White, Gospel Workers (Battle Creek, MI: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1915), 155.
12 A. W. Tozer and Gerald B. Smith, Mornings with Tozer: Daily Devotional Readings (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1991), November 16.
13 Olford and Olford, Anointed Expository Preaching, 211.
14 W. Grundmann, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 310