In the course of my life, I have heard thousands of sermons, and I myself have preached a considerable amount. Some of these sermons–mine and others–have been excellent. Some of them have been unmemorable. And some of them–to be quite frank–deserve to be forgotten. Yet each week, I go to church to listen (on rarer occasions, now, to speak) and expect that God will say something to me through the preaching of his word.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5, Paul, Silas, and Timothy provide an answer: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.” We need to read these words in context. In Greek, they are part of a single sentence that begins in verse 2: “We always thank God for all of you…” The missionaries express their gratitude by continually mentioning the believers in their prayers (v. 2b); by remembering faithful works, loving labor, and hopeful endurance; and now by acknowledging God’s election of them for salvation.
How did the missionaries know that God had elected the Thessalonians for salvation? Because of the work of the Holy Spirit, which provided both external and internal evidence. The missionaries say their preaching was “not simply with words but also with power.” Most likely, power refers to miraculous works that the Holy Spirit performed through the missionaries. These miracles are external evidence that the gospel is true.
The internal evidence is “deep conviction” in the minds of believers, an assurance that the gospel is true for me. Theologians refer to this deep conviction as the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 2:20, Paul depicts it this way: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Wouldn’t you love to experience both power and deep conviction each time you go to church? Wouldn’t you love to have an encounter with the Holy Spirit when you hear the word of God preached each Sunday? Is this even possible?
Yes, of course it is! For it to happen, preachers must humbly invite the Spirit to guide them as they prepare for and deliver the sermon. And listeners must expect to hear something from God, not just from their preacher.
This doesn’t mean that miracles will attend every sermon or that we will feel deeply assured every Sunday. Some years ago, when my dad retired from his church, the chairman of the board said that he had forgotten most of my dad’s sermons. But, he went on to say, he had forgotten most of his meals too. But they nourished him anyway.
That’s a good lesson. When we come to church, we should come expecting the Holy Spirit to nourish us through the sermon. That’s what ordinarily happens. But sometimes, we come to a feast, and then we know for sure that God is present and at work in our lives.