10 Things You Should Know about Quenching the Spirit when You Preach
Last week I wrote an article that identified ten things we should all know about quenching the Spirit, or perhaps I should say ten ways to quench the Spirit that we must studiously avoid. Today I want to turn our attention to ten ways we tend to quench the Spirit in the act of preaching God’s Word.
(1) The first thing to remember is that nowhere in Scripture do we find the sin of quenching the Spirit explicitly linked to teaching or preaching God’s Word. The only text in which this language appears is 1 Thessalonians 5:19ff. However, insofar as it is with respect to the gift of prophecy that Paul warns us not to quench the Spirit, it seems entirely legitimate to me that we might extend the warning to any and all other spiritual gifts as well. Teaching is no less a gift of the Spirit than is prophecy.
(2) One of the primary goals in teaching/preaching is to awaken in the hearts of people a sense for the surpassing beauty and all-satisfying glory of God as revealed in Jesus. To the extent that you fail to make clear his beauty and to the extent that you fail to elevate his glory you make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for people to savor and treasure Jesus above all else. And insofar as one of the Spirit’s primary purposes is to magnify Jesus, you are guilty of quenching him.
(3) Likewise, our goal in preaching is to elevate the affections of our people to the highest possible degree. Here is how Jonathan Edwards put it in his sermon on the Song of Solomon:
“Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites. . . . [Rather they ought to] be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. . . . Endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement” (Sermon on Canticles 5:1)
Do you endeavor in your preaching to “inflame” the “desires” of your people? Or does speaking in such terms frighten you? Do you preach in a way that invariably suppresses their desires and affections for God or makes people fearful and ashamed of their affections?
Edwards would go on to argue that “there is no such thing as excess in our taking of this spiritual food. There is no such virtue as temperance in spiritual feasting” (“The Spiritual Blessings of the Gospel Represented by a Feast”). There is no such thing as “excess” in the intensity and fervency with which your people go after God and hunger for him. Listen again: “there is no such virtue as temperance in spiritual feasting.” Therefore, your aim in preaching should be to intensify heart-felt affections for Jesus, not inhibit them. Some think that to make the awakening and heightening of affections a goal in preaching is inherently manipulative and dangerous. If in your preaching you are fearful of elevating the affections of your people too high, perhaps because you are leery of excessive emotion or are worried that people will get out of control, you should remember once again something Edwards said during the First Great Awakening:
“I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance, or worthiness of affection. I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with” (Yale 4:387).
Edwards emphasizes two points. First, we should aim in our preaching to articulate biblical truth so clearly and passionately that the affections aroused and sustained in the hearts of men and women are the immediate and inevitable fruit or product of it. Affections for their own sake are worthless. Emotions in the heart that do not arise from enlightenment of the mind accomplish nothing but fanaticism. Our duty, says Edwards, and I completely agree with him, is to elevate and intensify and increase the affections of the heart through or by means of the passionate articulation of theological truth.
Edwards also makes it clear that these “affections” must not be disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. In other words, my aim, through the power of the Spirit, is not to stir up joy in joy, but joy in Jesus. My aim is to fan the flames of zeal and love and hope and gratitude in all that God is for us in Jesus.
To whatever degree I fail to do this I am guilty of quenching the fire of what the Holy Spirit longs to accomplish in the lives of God’s people. Likewise, as already stated, to the degree that I make people feel guilty for their affections or to the degree that I make them suspicious of the legitimacy of their affections or to the degree that I make them ashamed or embarrassed by their affections, I quench the Spirit.
Before I leave this point let me make something crystal clear. Neither Edwards nor I are suggesting that this is an excuse to whip up the emotions of our audience by using a fog machine or strobe lights or through the accompaniment of a sermon by background music on an organ or by any other of a dozen or more artistic or pyrotechnic devices. Remember that Edwards qualifies our efforts at awakening the emotions of men and women by insisting, “that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.”
(4) Yet another way we might be guilty of quenching the Holy Spirit, a way that is directly connected with the previous point, is when we preach in a boring, disinterested, lifeless and mechanical way. If the goal of preaching is to awaken godly affections for God that display his immeasurable beauty and the all-satisfying power of his person, then one cannot truly preach without passion.
You, pastor, preacher, teacher, as an individual believer, must be deeply affected by the truth of God’s Word before your people can be genuinely and sincerely affected by it. If you are not moved by the gospel, your explanation and application of its benefits to others will not be moving.
Stiff, lifeless, monotone delivery does not reflect the glorious and multifaceted beauty of Christ. Dullness in preaching is the very antithesis of the majesty of our Savior. Can you imagine a tour guide in the Louvre in Paris speaking to the audience in the presence of the Mona Lisa: “Uh, well, here’s another picture. As you can see, uh, it’s a woman. Uh, she has a slight smile on her face. Hmm. Nothing special about this. Let’s move on to something else.”
Our manner and delivery and energy in the pulpit should be a reflection of the glory and magnitude of the one about whom we speak. The delight and passion with which we preach must correspond to and adequately reflect the grandeur and splendor of the One we proclaim. Anything less will inevitably quench what the Holy Spirit is seeking to do through our preaching.
As John Piper has said, Paul’s exhortation that we ‘preach the Word’ means that we are to “show the glory of God as supremely valuable so that people can behold it, treasure it, and be transformed. Which means that the preacher must aim at worship and act worship. He must exhibit and experience the worth of Christ. He must explain and extol. He must take up the happy burden of expository exultation.”
(5) Another way we might quench the Spirit is seen in what Paul says in Galatians 3:5. There he asks this question: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5). God is the one who continually and generously supplies or provides or increases our experience of the Spirit’s presence and power. But in response to what does he do this? Well, it isn’t our works of obedience. It is when we hear the Word and respond in faith to who God who is and what he has promised.
Do you need more of the Spirit and his supernatural and miraculous power? This passage in Galatians 3 reminds us that it is faith, not works, that pleases the Spirit and provides an avenue for him to work miracles in our midst. Therefore, to the degree that you direct people to rely on their own efforts or in any way suggest that works are the foundation or ground upon which they should draw near to God, you quench the Spirit.
The question Paul is answering here is how to have a greater and more effusive supply of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And Paul says it only happens when we hear God’s promises and respond in faith to them. The God who supplies the Spirit to us and works miracles in us and through us (and through our preaching) does so “by hearing with faith.” That is, the supply of the Spirit flows through faith in the blood-bought promises of God. Do we want to preach in the power of the Holy Spirit? Then we should hone in on the promises of God and trust them hour by hour in our preparation, and as we step into the pulpit. To the degree that you do not preach in a way that increases and intensifies faith in who God is and what he has promised, you quench the work of the Spirit. You effectively shut off the supply of the Spirit to God’s people.
(6) Consider how Paul described his own ministry in Corinth. When Paul visited Corinth he declared that it was “in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). His eloquence wasn’t nearly up to the standards of his opponents. “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom.” No, my entire presence and ministry among you came “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
Far from proving to be a hindrance to supernatural and divine power, Paul’s weakness was the platform on which it was gloriously displayed. So don’t ever think that your weakness or trembling is a hindrance to the Spirit’s work. It may well be precisely what is needed to put on display the power and majesty of the Spirit.
Paul very clearly contrasts reliance upon human eloquence with dependence upon the Holy Spirit. You cannot have both. To the extent that your confidence in preaching is in your own cleverness or ingenuity or homiletical skill, that is the extent to which you are not reliant upon the Spirit and thus are guilty of quenching his fire.
This does not mean that you should deliberately strive to be ordinary or obtuse in your preaching. The “eloquence” and “wisdom” that Paul denounces is the sort that is derived from the ways of the world. The “wisdom” that is from above, the wisdom that is an attempt to articulate in the clearest possible way the glories of who God is and what he has done for us in Jesus is essential for preaching. The ultimate question, then, is one of motivation: Do we aim at impressing our congregation with how intelligent we are or how immeasurably majestic Jesus is? Do we make use of expressive and image-laden language so that people will marvel at our eloquence or so that they might be stunned with the beauty and grandeur of God?
(7) Here I would appeal to something I heard John Piper say several years ago. He referred to the habit of some who in preaching will endorse and encourage the exercise of spiritual gifts and then unconsciously quench the Spirit with what he called “the public verbalized institutionalization of caution.” He had in mind those long, impassioned warnings, caveats, exceptions, and qualifications concerning the work of the Spirit. He had in mind the ten-minute exhortation regarding spiritual gifts followed by the thirty-minute heavy-handed and somber warning about their potential errors and excess. Nothing will quench the Spirit more readily than that.
(8) We can easily quench the Spirit while preaching when we feel so inextricably tied or wedded to our manuscript that we ignore or suppress the prompting of the Spirit in the middle of a sermon. Last year, during the first of our two Sunday services, I was telling the story of the brutal beating and eventual death of a young Christian boy in Pakistan. While telling the same story in the second service, I suddenly felt led to explain that not all Muslims are given toward that sort of cruelty and violence. Many, perhaps most, are law-abiding and peaceable people. After the service one of our pastors approached me and said: “Sam, I’m so glad you said what you did because we had several Muslims in attendance today who are students at the University of Central Oklahoma!” That is only one example of why it is important to be open to the spontaneous prompting of the Spirit when we preach.
(9) We can easily quench the Spirit by the excessive and manipulative use of humor in our preaching. Notice what I said. I did not say it is always inappropriate to make use of humor. Sometimes you can drive home a serious point with well-timed use of humor. I’m talking about the excessive use of humor that is designed to draw more attention to how funny you are than to the grandeur of grace and the glory of the cross and the beauty of Christ.
(10) This point will probably offend a few of you, but so be it. I fear that one way we quench the Spirit when we preach is by addressing topics and not texts. Am I saying that topical preaching has the potential to quench the Spirit? Yes. Notice I said it has the “potential” to do so. But if your topic is rooted in the exposition of a text, it need not.
The Holy Spirit speaks to God’s people through the words, sentences, and paragraphs of the letters and books that he inspired. To the extent that you neglect to focus on the particulars of biblical texts and speak only in generalities or on broad topics, you quench the Spirit. Consider Jesus’ statement to the disciples in John 15, that “these things” he “spoke” to them that they might have their joy made complete. The “things” are the words that he uttered. Words are the instrument through which the Spirit awakens us to the beauty of Christ. But not just any words. The words of Scripture. Unpacking their meaning, their interrelationships, their implications for life and godliness, is essential to aligning your preaching with the purposes of the Spirit.
But it is not enough merely to explain or define what the words of Scripture mean. It is the aim of the Spirit in our preaching that by means of the meaning of the words to awaken the appropriate affections of the heart and bring about genuine transformation in how we live. To fail to explain or exposit for the sake of stirring heartfelt affections for God is to quench the Spirit, for it is the Spirit’s goal to produce love, joy, peace, hope, gratitude, holy reverence, hatred for sin, zeal, etc.
I typically pray the same text before every sermon. Psalm 119:18, “Open our eyes that we might behold wonderful things out of your law.” Any person can use their eyes to read a text, or employ their ears to hear a text. But if we are to see beauty and truth and life-changing power in a text we need the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and give us a taste for what is revealed, such that we prize and treasure it as of immeasurable and incomparable worth. To fall short of this is therefore to quench the Spirit. In his book, Expository Exultation, Piper puts it this way:
“I am pleading against a widespread kind of preaching that is Bible based but not Bible saturated. I am pleading against the reading of a text followed by preaching that makes its points—sometimes very good points actually found in the text—without showing people the very words and phrases from which the points are taken. I am pleading against preaching that fails to help people see how the text actually takes us to the reality that is all important.”