There are countless ways to not preach but there is only one way to preach. That one way to preach is to die in the pulpit; to be weak and crucified; to depend entirely on God’s grace and the active preaching of the Holy Spirit. Paul captures this idea when he writes to the Corinthians:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Paul was not a moralist preacher, a show and tell preacher, or a psychologist preacher. Paul was a Christ-centred preacher. He did not speak with lofty speech or human wisdom. He was weak and fearful and he spoke with much trembling. What then made Paul a powerful preacher? He decided to know nothing among his audience but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The result was a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, proof that God had spoke through Paul in spite of Paul.
So much of today’s sermon depends upon lofty speech and worldly wisdom. Those who speak well are preferred over those who speak truth. And often those who speak about the newest fads and psychological trends are preferred over those who direct the congregation to biblical answers. Of course it is possible to speak well and to speak truth. However, if we had to choose between the two we ought to choose truth every time. And yet, how many congregations choose truth over delivery? How many congregations would be satisfied if the preacher decided to know and to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified? How many would be willing to see that the Bible is about Christ and not about them? How many would be willing to get to know God through preaching rather than receive three moral slogans for the week?
As we have noted, Paul himself admits that he was not much of a public speaker. Dying to himself, Paul presented the truth and left the rest in the Hands of the Holy Spirit. The conversion of the Corinthians had nothing to do with Paul’s proficiency as a public speaker and everything to do with the Holy Spirit’s preaching through him. Paul was an obedient servant, used by God for the glory of God. Now that is preaching.
John Stott (“The Power of Preaching,” In The Folly of Preaching, 136-37) provides an important qualifier at this point to help us more accurately discern what it means to die to ourselves in our preaching:
This is not an invitation for us to suppress our personality. It is not an invitation to pretend that we feel weak when we don’t. It is not an invitation to cultivate a fake frailty. Nor is it a renunciation of rational arguments since, as Luke tells us in Acts 18, Paul continued to argue the gospel when he came to Corinth. No, it is rather an honest acknowledgment that we cannot save souls by ourselves, whether by our own personality, our own persuasion, or our own rhetoric. Only the power of God can give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and life to the dead, and he does it through the gospel of Christ crucified, proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit. So the power in every power encounter is not in us; it is in the cross and in the Spirit.
The key to dying to ourselves in our preaching is to earnestly recognize and embrace that, as Stott says, “We cannot save souls by ourselves, whether by our own personality, our own persuasion, or our own rhetoric.” Of course, it is God alone who saves souls. To complicate the matter, however, God uses our personalities, our persuasions, and our rhetoric as means in His hands to save the lost. We need not “suppress our personality” or “pretend that we feel weak when we don’t” or renounce rational arguments. We can, in short, acknowledge our God given abilities and give all glory to God for them.