Before we begin, let’s build a foundation to work from.
The gospel is power. However, this power is largely absent today.
This absence of power is not a new phenomenon, it has happened before in church history
These past absences of power have not lasted forever. Power has returned to the Church.
However, we sit again in a time of the absence of power, and therefore we must ask the question, “What do we do when there is no power?”
Now because of the steep task at hand, this letter will require more time and focus on your part. I pray you would give me this attention. You may agree or disagree, but this is a message I believe to be crucial, and so I do ask for you to read to the end.
Whether in times of plenty or poverty, abundance or abating, the word of God is our guide, so let us look first at several Scriptures before we turn to the experiences in church history.
The gospel is power, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” Romans 1:16
The Holy Spirit was given to us that we may receive power, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:8
The Holy Spirit comes upon us by baptism, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11
And we are told to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), and given examples of men and women who were both baptized by the Spirit and then filled with the Spirit (Acts 4:31).
Many will wrangle with the order of these events, the number of them, the proof of them, the continuance of them, but regardless, we are to be people, as Paul, who can say confidently, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” 1 Corinthians 2:4
Can we say such a thing about our own preaching? As we wrote about a few months ago:
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethen, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37)
This was no reasoned decision, no debating of the facts, no persuading through human measure, no filling out of a card or a simple raising of a hand to acknowledge a choice. No, this was a question of desperation. Men and women under conviction, realizing the state of their souls, their crimes against God, and the complete and total uncleanness of their condition.
Have we known this response to the words we speak and the lives we live?
As I reflect upon these verses and the reality of my own preaching, I can no longer deny the fact that I lack a demonstration of the Spirit and power. While I have fine-tuned my theology, better defined my doctrine, and spoken more accurately about the things of God than I ever have before, still, the absence of power exists. I refuse to accept a reality that is so contrary to the words of Scripture that I read and so I’m writing this letter as both an exhortation and a confession.
Let us wait expectantly for this filling, rather than to fill the house with alternatives and excuses.
Let us, “feeling sore need, be forced to cry out with special urgency for fresh outpourings and baptisms of the Holy Ghost, to raise up holy ministers, than that substitutes should be furnished.” (W. Arthur, The Tongue of Fire)
In church history
Iain Murray helps us along with the history and biblical understanding of such matters in his book, “Pentecost - Today?” He has covered the topic in wonderful detail and so I’ll share a few excerpts rather than attempting to write my own.
In his chapter titled, ‘The Holy Spirit and Preaching,’ Murray recounts the story of D. L. Moody, as documented in W. R. Moody’s book, Life of Dwight L. Moody:
I was crying all the time that God would fill me with His Spirit. Well, one day, in the city of New York - Oh, what a day - I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name. Paul had an experience of which he never spoke for fourteen years. I can only say that God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask Him to say His hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different: I did not present any new truths; and yet hundreds were converted.
When the Spirit comes, it is not to change the methods, for Moody still went about his faithful business of preaching the word, in and out of season, with all boldness. Nor does He come to bring new truths, for as Moody says, “The sermons were not different: I did not present any new truths.” The Spirit comes not to contradict the Scriptures nor to bestow secret truths to certain individuals in order that they might attract believers to their ministry (and this is the mistake so many make today).
No, rather, when the Spirit comes, He comes with power, with conviction, with unction, with a fire. A fire that burns first in love and devotion to Christ, and then in love towards his fellow man, including the sinner, and finally in the purity of preaching and walking out a message that cannot be compromised.
As Moses instructed twice in Deuteronomy, “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it.” (4:2, 12:32)
There can be no half-heartedness in this message, nothing lukewarm. All hypocrisy must be cast off, done away with once and for all. This is the passion, purity, fire, and power of the Holy Spirit.
Murray goes on to tell another story, this time of John Macdonald, an old Scottish reverend in the 19th century. Told through the eyes of an observer:
There have been instances of persons becoming ‘other men’ who were never new creatures in Christ Jesus; but there have been also instances of renewed men becoming other men under a fresh baptism of the Spirit. This was the change which Mr. Macdonald underwent in Edinburgh. It was soon apparent in his preaching. Always clear and sound in his statements of objective truth, his preaching now became instinct with life. It was now searching and fervent, as well as sound and lucid…His statements of gospel truth were now the warm utterance of one who deeply felt its power…So marked was the change which then passed over his preaching that many were led to judge that he had never preached the gospel til then. This is entirely a mistake. He preached the gospel in Berriedale as surely as in Edinburgh, though with far less unction, discrimination, and power. (J. Kennedy, The Apostle of the North, The Life and Labours of the Rev. John M’Donald)
Here we have a similar account - always clear and sound in his statements of truth, this did not change. There were no new revelations or mysteries to unlock, instead, it was the same truth, only now with fire! Searching and fervent as well as sound and lucid.
Let this be a correction to us on both sides - first for those of us who have preached the objective truth but with far less unction, discrimination, and power and have been content to do so. And second for those of us who have so pursued power that we no longer hold to objective truth and instead have become authors of confusion, believing the truth is what we feel or sense it to be, and even that we cannot control ourselves when in the Spirit.
Make no mistake, we need power, we need fire, but never at the expense of objective, sound, and lucid truth.
Murray continues, “Men ‘filled with the Spirit’ speak in a new way. They have clear vision of the truth. The gospel is a felt reality in a way which is was not before. They have entered more fully into the words of the apostle John, ‘That which we have seen and heard we declare to you.’” (Iain Murray, Pentecost Today, p.101)
George Whitfield, in his journals, reflected on this lack of power in his day, “I am persuaded the generality of preachers talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been dead is, because they had dead men preaching to them. O that the Lord may quicken and revive them!” (Journals, p. 470)
Therefore, Murray declares, “It is the duty of all preachers of the word to seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to believe that God is willing to hear that petition for the sake of his Son.”
In our day
Finally, Murray wraps up with a commentary on how he felt things to be as he wrote this in 1998, 23 years ago to the date of this writing,
“Living as we do in a day when conditions in the church are a great deal closer to those once existing in the church of Sardis than they are to biblical normality, there is every reason to believe that we must turn in penitence to Him who ‘has the seven Spirits of God.’ Many times before has the work of preaching fallen into such ineffectiveness as is to be seen at present. Today there is a widespread nominal Christianity bereft of power…There is a near famine for the word of God as far as its power and freshness is concerned and everything points to the inability of man to redress the situation.
The words of William Arthur are a fitting conclusion to this whole theme, ‘Religion has never, in any period, sustained itself except by the instrumentality of the tongue of fire. Only where some men, more or less imbued with the primitive power, have spoken the words of the Lord, not with ‘the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth’, have sinners been converted and saints prompted to a saintlier life.
In many periods of the history of the Church, as this gift has waned, every natural advantage has come to replace it - more learning, more system, more calmness, more profoundness of reflection, everything...which would insure the Christian Church a greater command over the intellect of mankind.
Better let the Church wait ever so long…than that substitutes should be furnished. O for men instinct with the Spirit! O for men on whom the silent verdict of the observer would be, ‘He is a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost!’”
A lengthy passage, but at the heart is a reflection that in the periods where, instead of dependence on the power of the Spirit, we have turned to the methods and machinery of man, the church has declined. Not necessarily in the number of attendees, but in a decline in the effectiveness of preaching, the number of lasting and true conversions and the power to stand against the forces of darkness.
How much more so could this be said of the day and age in which we live. A Church bereft of power, absent of fire, and forced, in the absence of these things, to adopt the practices of the culture in order to sustain their numbers.
Sadly, things are still as I described back in March of last year:
The sad reality is this: We have lost sight of the difference between that which is sacred and that which is profane.
We have turned love into acceptance and tolerance. We have allowed the world to back us into an uncomfortable place. "Make room, make room!" is the world's cry, and so we accommodate their requests. Anything to get ourselves out of a tight place.
This is not a new response, in fact, it's been the unfortunate response of God's people for quite some time, "They strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns back from his wickedness." Jeremiah 23:14
And even in using the word 'evildoers' some of us will cringe. Can we say that anymore? Who really does evil, aren't most people good? They're not evil, they're simply lost. Who are we to judge someone so harshly?
Ah, instead, let us rewrite the moral code to accommodate, accept and tolerate. This is a much easier way. It removes us from the possibility of having to suffer reproach, persecution or hate. When we make room for them, then surely they will speak well of us.
But woe are we when everyone speaks well of us, for this "is how their ancestors treated the false prophets." As Art Katz put it, "We are so like the world that we cannot be distinguished from it."
These are sad and sobering words, but words that are not without hope. As D. L. Moody said, the solution is simple, “The best way to revive a church, is to build a fire in the pulpit.”
The questions for us then: will we seek the fire, do we notice its absence and will we resolve once and for all that we cannot live, nor preach, without it?