Preaching, Persuasion, and the Power of Words

pastor sitting on the steps of a church stage

Our words have significant meaning. We use them to build up and to tear down. We use them to encourage and rebuke. The tongue is so powerful that even the Bible uses strong language to describe the nature of our words.

“The tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:6-10 ESV)

We serve a God who uses words as the primary mode through which to relate to His people-from the first words in Genesis to the last statement in Revelation. In the Old Testament God spoke directly to Israel through the Law and Prophets but the writer of Hebrews makes a much greater pronouncement;

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2 ESV)

If Christ is the heir of all things, and He that created the world, the preacher should have a tremendous boldness stepping into the pulpit every week. As you take that position of unpacking the biblical texts for your congregation remember that God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

How does this relate to our words as fallible human beings? When the Gospel is preached, the very Word of God goes out to your audience. This sharp, active, and effectual Word of God accomplishes what it is sent out for, namely to call the sinner to repentance and to begin to transform his/her entire worldview. In the Scriptures we see two things begin to happen as the Word goes forth from the lips of preachers;

The Word begins to transform minds

The Book of Acts gives us a clear picture of the implications of having a mind set on the things of this world. More than once Paul preached in hostile crowds where minds were unsettled, poisoned, and set upon worldly ideals. Paul, upon seeing this, stood up in the city of Athens and made an appeal to the minds of those present;

Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:22-25 ESV)

Some mocked Paul upon hearing of the resurrection from the dead. This is not difficult to understand once we know the culture in which he lived. Some however, were intrigued enough to continue to listen to Paul. It will be the same for you, pastor. When the Word goes out from your pulpit it will challenge the long-held beliefs of your congregation. Some will mock, some will leave, and some will seek to slander your church but some will continue to listen. Their consciences will be pricked and it is the Word that produces that effect in your hearers.

When the lights begin to come on for your hearers you can be sure the questions are going to come rolling in. Many in our pews wrestle with unbelief, even those who have been Christians most of their lives. The Word is the most powerful tool in your arsenal to combat this unbelief.

By preaching to the doubt, disbelief, and confusion, we are constantly calling God’s people back to him and his truth.”

Along with that calling, we must do something Voddie Baucham calls “reading the text like a skeptic.”

Try to put yourself in the place of a person who does not assume the truth of what you are saying. How would they hear this text? What objections would they raise? What would they misunderstand? What would offend them? Confuse them? You will be surprised how helpful this simple practice can be in terms of changing your perspective on a text and how to teach it.” 1

The Word begins to transform hearts

The transformation of the mind begins with the hearing of the Word through the lips of the preacher. Therefore, it is largely the task of the preacher to persuade the audience of the truth of the Bible. This second transformation, that of the heart, is wholly a work of the Holy Spirit.

One of the most striking examples of this is found in the book of Luke. On the very day of the resurrection, when Jesus had risen from the dead, we read of him walking along the road with two disciples whose eyes were kept from recognizing Him.

And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad.” (Luke 24:17)

Can you imagine this scene? The hearts of two disciples of Jesus were utterly broken at the death of their Messiah. Their hopes hung on this one man who claimed to come from the Father and to do His will. How, then, in a matter of a few hours, could this man be dead? Their hopes for the redemption of Israel lay dead, buried, and now missing from the grave. Jesus, being gracious with them uses the Scriptures to show them that their hope was alive and seated at the right hand of the Father.

And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27 ESV)

Jesus uses the words which God inspired the writers of the Old Testament to write down to begin to transform the hearts of these two despondent disciples. What these two needed was not an intellectual persuasion that the Christ was risen, they needed their stony hearts transformed into hearts of flesh. They themselves recall the events that happened on that day revealing that they understood with their minds all that had just taken place. What they needed was exactly what Jesus provided for them.

And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’” (Luke 24:31-35)

The Word of God will accomplish what it intends to accomplish. It doesn’t return void but does exactly what God wants it to. Our primary call as pastors is to proclaim boldly this Word. As we stand in our churches every week let us not be afraid to wrestle with the doubts, fears, and insecurities of our congregations. The Word is the only antidote for what ails human beings. The transformation of the mind is largely your task. The transformation of the heart that follows, is all of Christ. Let us be thankful that we have been called to such a task but let us remember that as the words flow from our mouths, the Holy Spirit is working.

1. Baucham, Voddie. (2015). Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word. (pp. 163) Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

© 2018 Focus on the Family. 

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