It is one thing to assert and affirm the reality that we are powerless to preach unless God provides His Spirit to breathe life into our words. But, it is quite another thing to practice these essential truths. How will we know if we are preaching in weakness and humility, prayerfully trusting in the power and movement of God? Clowney (Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, 55) shares the response he received from Martyn Lloyd-Jones when he asked this same question:
On one occasion I had tea with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Ealing, London, and decided to ask him a question that concerned me. “Dr. Lloyd-Jones,” I said, “How can I tell whether I am preaching in the energy of the flesh or in the power of the Spirit?”
“That’s very easy,” Lloyd-Jones replied, as I shriveled. “If you are preaching in the energy of the flesh, you will feel exalted and lifted up. If you are preaching in the power of the Spirit, you will feel awe and humility.”
What preacher has not from time to time felt exalted and lifted up by his own preaching? When this ancient pride begins to spring up in the heart of a preacher it is imperative that the preacher fall prostrate before the Lord with contrite confession in order to seek the grace of God, for there is no saving power in the works of the flesh.
Unfortunately, rather than dying in the pulpit – rather than falling before the Lord in confession that our flesh is seeking a selfish exaltation – a good many preachers shamelessly seek to glorify themselves by their preaching. Part of the reason for this, as asserted by Stott (“Power through Weakness,” In Follow of Preaching, 136), is that preachers are not trained to be weak. On the contrary, we are trained to be proficient orators:
Weakness is not an obvious characteristic of [many evangelical preachers today]. Homiletics classes aim to inculcate self-confidence in nervous students. If Paul had enrolled as a student in one of our seminaries, we would have regarded him as exceedingly unpromising material… Weakness is not an obvious characteristic of [many evangelical preachers today]. Homiletics classes aim to inculcate self-confidence in nervous students. If Paul had enrolled as a student in one of our seminaries, we would have regarded him as exceedingly unpromising material.
Unless we are trained to understand the act of preaching theologically, then our goal will be greatness. No one aspires to lack proficiency, and rightly so. However, our proficiency must recognize real limitations. We are limited in that we cannot add to our preaching – even the most proficient preaching – the power of God.
There are many expressions of self-aggrandizing preachers. Perhaps the most destructive is the moralist who browbeats his congregation with the Bible, coercing his flock into submission and obedience. This kind of preacher feeds off the power and authority the pulpit provides all the while forgetting that he, like his flock, is a sheep in need of the Great Shepherd. A more benign example is the show and tell preacher who preaches ten percent from the Bible and ninety percent from anecdotes of his own life. This kind of preacher wrongly preaches himself in place of Christ. Though his intentions may be good, too much about the preacher shifts the focus of preaching away from its proper subject, who is Christ. A third example is the psychologist who preaches secular humanism more than biblical truth. This kind of preacher glorifies himself by sharing the vast volumes of human wisdom that he has accumulated for himself. However, his proficiency is his shame since he has neglected what really counts, that is, the unchanging wisdom of God. This list could go on indefinitely.