Illuminated Preaching 

  • Jeff Crotts
Open Bible on a table

When I was seven my family attended a small Baptist church, and my first memory of understanding illumination comes from the close of one particular service there. The congregation was singing, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” (Helen H. Lemmel) and these words from the chorus touched my tender young heart: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus/ Look full in his wonderful face/ And the things of earth will grow strangely dim/ In the light of his glory and grace.” I was moved, but I also understood that this “seeing” of Jesus meant something other than physically seeing him in front of me- it was a spiritual seeing. I understood this to be believing and seeing Jesus by faith, the essence of spiritual illumination.  

Nearly a decade later, as a newly converted teenager, I remember thinking through this concept again from a different vantage point. My family is now attending a different Baptist church, and I was challenged, in a way very similar to when I was seven, to think at the close of a service. We were ending our annual evangelistic concert and I remember being stunned by something my worship pastor said. As was his custom, he concluded the event by making an appeal to those in attendance to believe in Jesus as their personal Savior. On this particular evening, instead of quoting a classic gospel passage like John 3:16 or Acts 16:31, he chose to paraphrase the French philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal said, “Belief is a wise wager…. faith cannot be proved, [so] what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth, and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.” 1 

I was very young in the Lord, and hearing this from one of my pastors made me feel weak and kind of sick inside. What kind of Christianity was this man promoting? It appeared to me that he was presenting coming to Christ as some kind of gamble and that he had no settled assurance. This approach seemed ridiculous to me, probably due to the fact that I was such a new believer, had just been snatched out of a rebellious lifestyle, and was so keenly aware of the transformation that had taken place in my life. I was certain that I stood on a significantly more solid foundation than a mere philosophical gamble. I was not yet schooled in the doctrine of the Spirit, but I remember sitting in that service with a fundamental clarity over this issue and a deep assurance that God had made me his own and I was going to heaven. I knew that my conversion had been a work of God, not some kind of wager. 

Twenty years later I found myself face to face once again with the reality of illumination. As a pastor to a group of young adults, I was sitting in my office with a young couple having an informal visit to get to know one another better. I wanted to hear from them about how their dating relationship was going. I did not have an easy, natural way to break into the conversation, so since I did not know how these two were doing spiritually – or, to be honest, whether or not they were genuine believers- I decided to simply ask them to share their personal testimonies. What they began to share both surprised and humbled me, as they each in their own words, connected their conversions to our young adults’ Bible study of the previous summer when I had taught a topical series on the theme of “godliness.”  

 I was stunned. All I could think of while they were telling me of their conversions was how weak I thought my presentations of the Word had been that summer. Of course, I understood that God saves people by his grace, but my sermons had been so bland! My content was biblical, and I was convinced of the truth of what I was saying, but I knew that at the time I had felt that my teaching had not come off particularly well. As they spoke of their new growing relationships in the Lord, I listened gratefully with a lump in my throat and concluded one thing: The power that saved them was not from me. The apostle Paul summarized my experience perfectly when he wrote to the Corinthian believers, saying….” my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (I Cor. 2:4-5). Paul knew that the power of God never came through slick communication skills, but rather by the Spirit of God. God is the one who saves, and the Spirit of God did his work through the Word of God. 

A growing understanding of the significance of illumination has compelled me to search the Scriptures to better clarify and understand this biblical doctrine, and this study has been nothing less than amazing. Grasping this truth as it is laid out in the Bible has crystallized for me what occurred during my salvation, as well as what my role is now as a pastor who communicates God’s truth. In this aspect, my study has been quite liberating.  

Understanding the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching has in some ways taken the pressure off, and in other ways put more on. In terms of the act of preaching, I sense less pressure as I have come to recognize that it is up to the Holy Spirit to open people’s spiritual eyes to the truths presented in a sermon. At the same time, this doctrine increased pressure on me as I began to understand how crucial it is to accurately interpret and present the Scriptures with the recognition that the instrument that Spirit uses to illumine people is his Word. Instead of placing the emphasis on great communication, my goal is to remove any obstacles that muddy the clarity of the truth I present so as to promote the Spirit’s role of illumination.  

Accountability has increased for me, not just as a preacher, but also as a Christian. I understand my need to have personal integrity to first seek God before seeking to be illumined in study. As a communicator, it is no longer sufficient for me to focus simply on right interpretation and preparation of a passage. I should never settle for mere accuracy- I must have the Holy Spirit’s illumination. I need the Spirit first to illumine to my own heart the text I am planning to preach, so that my own life may be transformed by my preaching preparation. This is a call for authenticity and personal integrity in the pastor’s study. The words of my homiletics mentor, from college, still ring in my ears: “It is not how many times you go through the Word, but how many times the Word goes through you.” My focus in sermonic preparation has become more God-centered. 

 I do not believe that this emphasis now gives me the excuse to be passive and say, “Well, since it is not up to my speaking ability, I will just coast through a sermon.” Nor do I think I should remove all personality from my delivery, that a mark of being really deep or spiritual is to be really boring in the pulpit. This emphasis, this call for illumination actually raises the bar and sets a higher standard for the preparation process and delivery of the sermon. The challenge to be first illumined by the Spirit of God is the challenge to work more diligently, not only in aspects of critical study and communication but also in spending time in spiritual meditation on the text. I must engage with the particular passage on a heart level. A true understanding of illumination does not allow for sermon preparation to be solely academic, a merely perfunctory exercise. Instead, I must come to my study as a matter of personal sanctification, begging God and saying, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” 

(Psalm 119:18)  

Make no mistake- this adds pressure to the preparation. But isn’t it worth it? Being illumined by the text before preaching is truly the essence of being an authentic communicator. More often than not, those listening  

can sense when I have been affected by the text I am preaching. This not only makes for powerful preaching, but it also models the very thing that I desire to happen in the hearts of those who are hearing.