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Spirit Empowered Preaching

September 08, 2015Filed under Theology#book reviews#m. div.#papers#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Jim Shaddix's Biblical Exposition I class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Arturo G. Azurdia III spent several decades preaching and pastoring. He was thus well-experienced in the week-to-week work of preparing sermons and the burden of caring for a congregation. During his years of pastoral work, however, he also studied at Westminster Theological Seminary; he was at the time of the book’s publication a professor at Western Seminary. Thus, he also brought to the table academic knowledge helpful for situating his developing understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in a preaching ministry. Accordingly, Azurdia brings both Scripture and experience to bear in Spirit Empowered Preaching: the lessons he learned in seminary, he then applied in the context of his ongoing ministry, and was able to filter his experience through careful reflection on the Scriptures. Spirit Empowered Preaching was published not at the beginning of that career, but after considerable time behind the pulpit of an ordinary church, after he had moved into a teaching role.

Azurdia’s aim in Spirit Empowered Preaching is twofold: to demonstrate the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work in the preacher for effective preaching, and to describe how the preacher should go about seeking the Spirit’s work in his preaching. He argues in his introduction that “the greatest deficiency in contemporary expositional ministry is powerlessness; in other words, preaching that is devoid of the vitality of the Holy Spirit” (12). That is, although right preaching necessarily entails careful exegesis and attention to the “literal, grammatical, historical, contextual, redemptive” details of a text (11), no amount of mere intellectual study on its own will accomplish God’s purposes for preaching. If the church is to be encouraged, challenged, and built up; and if outsiders are to be convicted, the Holy Spirit must be present and working efficaciously through the preacher. Only the Spirit can change human hearts. This was true for the early church, and it is true today.

Azurdia lays out his thesis in a brief introduction. Following that, he does not simply repeat the thesis chapter by chapter, however. Instead, he builds a broader theology of preaching and connects the different elements of the preaching ministry back to the central theme of the text. Thus, in Chapter 1, he starts by arguing that the “greater works” the disciples would do were the advancement of the gospel through the nations, and notes how Christ explicitly tied this to the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. The advance of the gospel was for the disciples, and is for modern preachers, utterly dependent on the work of God. Chapter 2 describes who the Spirit is and what he does in the life of the minister—and what goes wrong in the ministry when the Spirit is neglected. In Chapter 3, Azurdia argues for Christocentric preaching, since the Spirit is Christ’s Spirit and glorifies him. Chapter 4 carries this theme further: the priority of every preacher must be glorifying Christ, not merely meeting the felt needs of the people. Every topic must be heard in light of the finished work of the Savior, not standing on its own as abstract ethical instruction. In Chapter 5, he argues that the first responsibility of both the minister and the church is preaching—and that, as such, the church should understand when the pastor spends most of his time preparing for sermon delivery, rather than on other concerns. Here he also takes time to critique ministry methodologies which do not align with the gospel, especially those in many seeker-sensitive churches which have run to extremes of entertainment.

In Chapter 6, Azurdia comes to the core of his message: the preacher must be both generally filled with the Spirit (i.e. regenerate) and specifically filled time and again by the Spirit for preaching. Here he draws upon the frequent language of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” in Acts as well as the affirmations of preachers like Martyn Lloyd Jones. Chapter 7 is an examination of the flip-side of the necessity of the Spirit’s filling: the frustration of the pastor’s own inability. If the work of the Spirit is utterly essential for preaching to have any effect whatsoever, then all the pastor’s efforts may be for naught. This may lead to either despair (for the self-dependent man) or greater faith (for the man who trusts Christ).

In Chapter 8, Azurdia turns to the nature and life of a man called to this ministry: he “must devote himself to a consistent pattern of fervent intercession” (135, emphasis original). That the Spirit must be present for preaching to be effective is not grounds for pastors to abdicate their own responsibility. Rather, it increases their responsibility to pray for the Spirit to work through their preaching. Chapter 9 continues this focus on the life of the preacher. He must be prayerful, diligent in study, and prayerful in his study. He must remember in all this prayer that the Spirit is not a tool but a person, someone who can be grieved. The preacher must keep himself holy, and so must his congregation—because either may drive away the Spirit by their unrepentance. Chapter 10 illustrates and emphasizes this necessity of prayer in the life of both preacher and congregation. Finally, Azurdia briefly summarizes his argument: “Spirit empowered preaching is the principle means of advancing the kingdom of God…. will be evangelical in emphasis…. is the responsibility of the church” (179–181, emphasis original).

The book is persuasive and thorough, but neither as effective or as persuasive as it might have been. Azurdia’s comments on the “greater ministry” the disciples were to have are perhaps the most helpful material in the book. In general, his attention to the roles the Spirit plays in the life of the church is a helpful corrective both to the neglect the Spirit often receives from non-charismatic churches and the misinterpretations proffered by many in the charismatic movement. Likewise, his call to prayerful as well as well-studied preaching is a helpful reminder especially for preachers tempted to rely on their own intellectual merits. Gladly, and unlike E. M. Bounds’ work on prayer, he does so without ever denigrating the value of intellectual engagement and deep study. Azurdia’s counsel to study hard, pray hard, and pray during the time of study is well-taken. Those who preach should devote meaningful parts of their preparation time not only to exegesis but to fellowship with God by prayerful interaction with the text.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Azurdia’s emphasis on the nature and person of the Spirit. As noted above, he refuses to indulge in the mistaken charismatic emphases on the miraculous gifts over the more central work of the Spirit: revealing Christ. All the focus on sign gifts can quickly lead people to forget that the Spirit was sent to make Christ known and glorify him. His diagnostic question is extremely helpful (and not only for evaluating charismatics, but for evaluating anyone claiming God’s hand on his ministry): “Does this ministry reveal and glorify Jesus Christ?” (50, emphasis original). Again, the Spirit is the spirit of truth, sent by the Father to empower the church to know and make known the Son. As such, no ministry which claims the Spirit’s power but focuses on anything other than knowing and proclaiming Christ is legitimate. At the same time, this does not mean the church should shun the Spirit to avoid those missteps—rather, the church should point to a better understanding of the Spirit’s mission, and respond in faith. A church that understands the Spirit’s proclamatory and instructing role will follow Azurdia’s counsel and dedicate itself to prayer, cognizant that apart from the Spirit the church and her pastor can do nothing. Congregations should also learn to ask that same question of all sermons and preachers and experiences: does it reveal and glorify Jesus Christ?

However, weaknesses emerge in a number of areas which substantially lessen the book’s impact. First, Azurdia makes the same move many Reformed and evangelical preachers do, elevating the preaching of the word to the primary (and nearly the sole) responsibility of the preacher. This move seems unwarranted in light of the distinction between ordinary pastors and the apostles on whose actions (in Acts 6) the view is grounded. As such, Azurdia simply passed over the many other responsibilities enjoined of shepherds in the pastoral epistles. To be sure, preaching is a necessity in the life of the church. However, it is only one of the pastor’s responsibilities, and he will find it difficult to carry it out effectively if he is not sharing life with his sheep. Thus, pastors ought to dedicate much of their time to shepherding: to caring for the ordinary soulish needs of their people and not only for the times of preaching. This is doctrinally necessary, and practically helpful.

More problematic was Azurdia’s conflation of the Spirit’s filling with an experience or sense of that filling. Like Lloyd-Jones and others he cites, Azurdia describes the anointing or unction of the Spirit as a particular sense the preacher and congregation have of the Spirit’s working through him in a unique way. Curiously, Azurdia also affirms that there may be times the Spirit is moving powerfully but the preacher is unaware of it, as in the common case of a man who preached and felt it accomplished nothing but heard later from members of his congregation how the Spirit used it in their lives. Too often in evangelicalism, feeling is mistaken for reality. Nowhere in the New Testament is the Spirit’s presence described in terms of a feeling in the preacher. Rather, it is born out by the effects of the preaching. To be sure, the Spirit may graciously grant the pastor a clear sense of his presence and power on some days, and that sense is a blessing. However, the absence of such a sense does not indicate the Spirit’s absence; neither does a strong feeling necessarily indicate his presence in power. In encouraging pastors to think in these terms, Azurdia ultimately plants seeds of discouragement in the lives of those who may preach diligently and prayerfully—and effectively—for many years without that particular experience, which is promised no one. As he notes of many experiences in charismatic circles, “we need to be concerned that the spiritual development of well-meaning Christians can become vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns… Often, the inevitable consequence is spiritual emptiness” (49). This is no less a danger for the preacher expecting a strong internal sense of anointing than for the believer wanting a fresh anointing for speaking in tongues. Preachers should indeed dedicate themselves to prayer and come with an expectation that they can accomplish nothing on their own, but they should reject as unbiblical and unhelpful the idea that their internal sense of the Spirit’s presence is accurate or indicative of his work.

Still, on the whole, Azurdia’s point is well-taken. The church desperately needs the Holy Spirit for her efficacy in ministry. Lives will not change unless God works: sermons will fall on deaf ears, and congregations’ ministries may produce physically helpful outcomes while leaving sinners damned. Preachers and their people must recover prayerful dependence on the third person of the Trinity. They must ask constantly of their ministries, “Does this show Christ clearly and make him look glorious?” They must plead for the Spirit to come and work. But (contra Azurdia) they must never mistake their perceived experience of the Spirit for the actual work of the Spirit.