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Merritt: Preaching without the Spirit is ‘no more than sanctified hot air’

SAN FRANCISCO (BP)–The irony was subtle: In the midst of a preaching lectureship at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention told a chapel full of seminary students, faculty and area pastors, “You can go to seminary to learn how to preach, but you have to go to God to get the message.

“It’s not your education, not your ability to outline the text, not your delivery — though I don’t discount any of that,” said James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville. “But any or all of that put together is worthless apart from the anointing of the Holy Spirit. That is the key ingredient in preaching.”

Merritt was the featured speaker at the seminary’s H.I. Hester Lectureship in Preaching, speaking in the March 20-21 chapel services at the Mill Valley, Calif., campus near San Francisco.

Citing the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, Merritt emphasized a preacher’s dependence on the Holy Spirit during his first lecture.

“If your preaching is to be effective, it must be by the power of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “I will confess to you, when people talk about the anointing, I don’t quite understand exactly what that means, but I want it. Paul had it, and I want it too.”

The apostle Paul, Merritt said, preached with simplicity. “Paul probably never would have been invited to preach at a preacher’s conference, or this seminary, or elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention — he was too wise!” Merritt joked. “There was nothing flashy about Paul, but when he spoke you knew the power of God was on his life. Every time I preach I want something to happen, and I want it to be from God.”

Merritt urged the seminary students to rely solely on the Holy Spirit in their preaching. “Preaching is no more than sanctified hot air without the Spirit of God. Remember, with Paul, preaching wasn’t an explanation of the power of God, it was a demonstration of the power of God. If you are relying on the Spirit of God in your preaching, there will be a demonstration of God’s power. Not your own wisdom, but on God’s power.”

The result, Merritt said, is that people “see, hear, feel and learn about Jesus,” not about the preacher.

“The real test of your ministry is not in numbers, or buildings, or budgets, or even baptisms,” he said. “The real test is: Do the people you have left behind — does their faith rest on what you’ve told them or on God’s power? Do they love and trust and obey and live for Jesus more because of your ministry? If not, nothing else matters.”

In his second lecture, Merritt noted that what matters most about a person’s overall ministry is what God thinks about it. “It really doesn’t matter what the director of missions, or your state executive director, or the president of the Southern Baptist Convention thinks about your ministry. The only thing that matters is what God thinks of it.”

Merritt also emphasized to the students that doing the work of an evangelist will be key to their ministry.

“Whatever else you do, be an evangelist,” he urged. “That is the ministry of every child of God. Nothing, absolutely nothing, will keep your heart hotter for God than winning somebody to Jesus Christ.”

At a luncheon the seminary hosted for San Francisco Bay Area pastors, Merritt shared highlights from his visits to 12 of the 15 regions of the world where the International Mission Board has sent professional workers. One conclusion he told the pastors: “I don’t think there’s a greater thing you can do in your church than get your people to go. If you want your people to be more on fire for the lost, send them on a mission trip. Better yet, if you find a place where you sense God can really use you, go back repeatedly to that place.”

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  • Amanda Phifer