“You need to become a Pentecostal preacher!” That’s essentially how she challenged me. I was in my first church in St. Louis with three whole years of preaching under my belt when Joanne confronted me. She had been raised a Jehovah’s Witness, but she had recently come to Christ and joined Trinity Christian Reformed Church, where I preached. She loved Reformed theology and she liked me as her pastor. But she had attended a local charismatic church a few times and received “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” And she wanted that for me too. “I hope that someday you decide to step deeper into the water and experience all the Spirit has for you,” she said. “You need to become a Pentecostal preacher.”
I was miffed. Who did she think she was? I don’t have to become Pentecostal; I’m Reformed, and that’s more than enough. But I was also cut to the heart, because I knew that something was indeed missing in my preaching. The local charismatic church and the brand-new Baptist church up the hill were growing like weeds. Trinity had a few green shoots, but it certainly wasn’t a bumper crop. What was the problem? Did I have to become a Pentecostal preacher? Do you?
What kind of preacher do you think of when you hear that question? Perhaps you picture someone like T.D. Jakes, the African-American TV preacher who ignites the Potter’s House Church in Dallas every Sunday with his fiery preaching. He is dramatic, emotional, flamboyant, physically exuberant, and obviously effective. Well, as much as I enjoy Jakes, that’s not what I mean by “Pentecostal.” I’m thinking about the apostle Peter at Pentecost.
Several weeks before Ascension Day and Pentecost, Jesus prepared his disciples for his departure with these words: “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7, NIV 1984). That is the promise on which all effective Christian preaching is based. In his succeeding words, Jesus was very specific about what the Spirit would do for preachers.
“When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment . . .” (John 16:8-11, NIV 1984). Every preacher has experienced the frustration of trying to talk someone into repentance and faith. That’s something we simply cannot do. Only the power of the Spirit can convict and convince.
All we can do is preach the truth about Christ in a compelling way. But we can’t do that, either, without the Spirit’s light. So, Jesus continued: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. . . . He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you” (John 16:13-14). How can we know what to say? We really can’t know, unless the Spirit guides us.
That’s why, just before his ascension, Jesus told his disciples to wait (Acts 1:4): Don’t do anything. Don’t say anything. You can’t accomplish anything for my kingdom on your own. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Then he ascended back to his throne, and the disciples waited just as he had commanded. They didn’t say a word out in the world. They didn’t know what to say, and preaching wouldn’t have done any good anyway. Ten days later the Spirit came, the church was filled with Pentecostal preachers, and the world was changed, beginning with three thousand convicted and convinced converts.
Back in the 1970s there was a dynamic Episcopal church near my childhood home in Denver. It was a burgeoning body of on-fire believers that called itself “The Holy Spirit Light and Power Company.” That name accurately captures what the Holy Spirit does for a church and its preachers. The Spirit provides the light and power that can transform us into Pentecostal preachers.
Notice how the Spirit did that for Peter. He was always bold, even in those ten days of waiting between Ascension Day and Pentecost, when he guided the church in the selection of the new twelfth apostle. But, though he quoted Scripture in that setting, he didn’t preach a Christian sermon. Even though he knew both the Scripture and the Christ, he had to wait for the Spirit to come with light and power.
Then, with a mighty roar and dancing flames and miraculous tongues, the Spirit came upon the gathered church, and Peter broke out into a marvelous message about Jesus. Even a cursory review of it (Acts 2) reveals that it is a masterpiece of Christian preaching: it connects with the congregation; it is scripturally based; it is Christ-centered; it proclaims the truth so dramatically that the hearers are moved to action.
How on earth could a fledgling preacher deliver such a masterpiece in his first pulpit appearance? Was this as extemporaneous as it seems to be from Luke’s reporting? Is that what it means to be a Pentecostal preacher, that you just get up there and trust the Holy Spirit to give you light in the pulpit without preparation?
I don’t think so. Consider this. Peter had spent three years in school—the school of following Christ—a far more demanding educational experience than any contemporary seminarian could ever have. For three years he walked and talked with Jesus, engaging in mentored ministry. He had been thoroughly trained by the Master Teacher.
Further, consider that Peter had just spent ten days in isolation with the church. What had they done in that time? Luke says they prayed a lot. But I think they also talked together, and studied Scripture together, and compared notes together. They had spent ten days getting ready for Pentecost and their first preaching assignment. To be Pentecostal preachers, we need to go to school and pray and study and discuss and think, trusting the Spirit to give light to our study.
And we need to trust the Spirit to give power in the pulpit. When Peter finished his Spirit-illuminated sermon, his listeners “were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” When Peter gave them a hard answer, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ,” they were ready to do it on the spot. And “about three thousand of them were added to their number that day.”
What had cut to their hearts? Well, of course, it was the sword of the Spirit wielded by a well-trained preacher. But even the most biblical sermon preached by the most expertly trained preacher won’t touch the human heart apart from the power of the Spirit. The Spirit came and “convicted the world of guilt,” opening closed minds, cutting open hard hearts, bending strong wills, and moving sinners to repentance and faith. The result of the Spirit’s power was a harvest most of us don’t even dare to dream about.
In fact, here’s a question for all of us Reformed preachers as we celebrate Ascension Day and Pentecost: When was the last time you saw three thousand people converted after one of your sermons? Or even three? If we’re not getting results like Peter, could it be that we aren’t really Pentecostal preachers like Peter? Do we rely on good research and careful thinking more than the Spirit’s light? Do we rely on our own personality and delivery more than the Spirit’s power? That’s something to ponder as we celebrate those momentous times when Christian preaching began with a bang.