Stephen F. Olford on The Preacher’s Life With God


AEP Olford

Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.… If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit—Galatians 5:16, 25

Study Text: Galatians 5:13–6:5.

The renowned Puritan preacher, John Owen (1616–83), wrote prolifically on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In his discourse On the Holy Spirit (1674) there occurs a remarkable passage in which he states: “The sin of despising [the person of the Holy Spirit] and rejecting His work now is the same nature with idolatry of old, and with the Jews’ rejection of the person of the Son” (emphasis ours). In plain terms, John Owen tells us that if the sin of Old Testament times was the rejection of God the Father, and the sin of New Testament times was the rejection of God the Son, then the sin of our times is the rejection of God the Holy Spirit. This message is both profound and poignant—especially as we think of our contemporary religious scene. Someone might say, “How can you talk about the rejection of the Holy Spirit when His person, work,—and especially His gifts—are the ‘buzz words’ in both Protestant and Catholic circles of discussion and debate?”

There is no simple answer to that question; but there is a serious one. With all the talk about the Holy Spirit, there is a rejection of Him in two respects—and both are sins. There is the sin of “escapism.” Some preachers will not even mention the Holy Spirit for fear of being “labeled.” For this reason their pulpits are silent on the subject. At the other end of the spectrum is the sin of “extremism.” The shallow ministry, subtle manipulations, and senseless manifestations that are so prevalent today do not square with the Word of God or, indeed, the glory of God. Both these sins—escapism and extremism—are, in fact, a rejection of the Holy Spirit in all the glory of His person, work, and gifts. What we need is biblical balance!

One thing is certain: No preacher can fulfill his ministry, in terms of his life and work, without the lordship and leading of the Holy Spirit. This article is about the life of God in the Spirit. While the text we have chosen does not specifically address the preacher/pastor, the truth it reveals concerns both members and leaders in the church of Jesus Christ. The life of the preacher matters! God is far more interested in what we are as preachers, than in what we do. The preacher must exemplify the life of God.

The verses assigned for reading unfold to us the evidences of this “walk” or life in the Spirit. Nothing is more important for the preacher in his personal, relational, and vocational life than to “walk [or live] in the Spirit” (v. 16). The verb walk (Gk. stoicho) is an exhortation to keep step with one another in submission of heart to the Holy Spirit, and therefore keeping step with Christ who is our life. It behooves us to ponder prayerfully the essential lessons that emerge from this passage.

Life In The Spirit Demands Spiritual Freedom

Paul begins chapter 5 of Galatians with a command—a command to keep on doing an action as one’s general habit or lifestyle. He urges us to “stand fast … in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.… For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (vv. 1, 13). The believers in Galatia were threatened by a twofold yoke of bondage. On the one hand, there was the bondage of religious legalities (see vv. 1–15), and on the other, the yoke of rebellious carnalities (see vv. 16–21). With this situation in mind Paul exclaims, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free.” We, as preachers, must follow this command and serve in the liberty of the Spirit.

We Must Know Freedom from Religious Legalities

“Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (v. 1). When Paul wrote these words, Judaizers had invaded the Galatian church and were attempting to bring the believers under the bondage of the law from which Christ had set them free through sovereign grace. Their religious legalities covered a whole range of regulations and limitations.

What was true then is also true now. We all know about personal legalism, denominational legalism, traditional legalism, ecclesiastical legalism, racial legalism, and even theological legalism (“boxing” God into self-serving theological concepts that have no biblical basis or balance).

Yet, we must remember that Christ came to set us free by the power of His cross and by the power of His Spirit. In a similar context, Paul affirms that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). This liberty is not license, nor limitation, but rather the power to do what we ought in the light of God’s Word and the power of God’s Spirit.

Are you free or are you bound? Read again the liberating words of the apostle: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1 NASB).

We Must Know Freedom from Rebellious Carnalities

“Walk [or live] in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.… Now the works of the flesh are evident” (vv. 16, 19), and Paul lists a grim catalog of them! Even though we are born again, we still possess the old nature. Until that old nature is brought under the mortifying power of the cross, through the applied ministry of the Holy Spirit, we can be plagued and fettered by rebellious carnalities. Paul details these carnalities under three categories: sexual sins, spiritual sins, and social sins.

Sexual Sins. “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness” (v. 19). It is significant that the first sins to head the list have to do with sexual relations. This is not because sexual sins are intrinsically more evil than others, rather it is because sexual sins reveal more graphically the self-centeredness and rebellion of those who dare to prostitute God’s holy norms for human relationships. Alas, as preachers, we can be involved in these sexual sins—unless we know the liberating power of the Spirit.

Charles Colson in his book The Body observes that “the divorce rate among clergy is increasing faster than in any other profession. Numbers show that one in ten have had an affair with a member of their congregation, and 25 percent have had illicit sexual contact.” These are serious statistics that we need to face without fear or favor, and then fight in the power of the Spirit. God has called us to a life of victory and purity—and we must not relent (1 Pet. 1:15, 16; 1 Cor. 15:33–34, 57).

Spiritual Sins. “Idolatry, sorcery” (v. 20). Idolatry means anything or anyone who comes between God and ourselves, thereby becoming the center of our worship and attention. God has forever condemned idolatry, and the apostle John warns, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (v. 1 John 5:21). How many of us are guilty of worshiping idols! What about TVs, computers, Fl6s, and other inventions of our modern age? Sorcery can refer to the “use of drugs”—as we see all around us today. Indeed, drug taking has invaded the church of Jesus Christ. What Aldous Huxley and others predicted has come to pass. Even some pastors seek religious experiences through the “kicks” of substance abuse. The brainwashing of the New Age movement and other satanic activities has encouraged these subtle forms of addiction.

Social Sins “Envy, … drunkenness, revelries” (v. 21). These sins can be found in our hearts—unless we know what it is to be protected by the blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit. Paul is not talking about the act of sin so much as the habit of sin. While it is true that the believer is not under the law, but under grace, that is no excuse for sin (Rom. 6:15). If anything, it is a challenge to live in victory! Paul states in our text that we have been “called to liberty,” but he also reminds us: “Do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (v. 13, emphasis ours).

So we return to our theme: Walking or living in the Spirit. To do so demands spiritual freedom; and, thank God, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17).

Life In The Spirit Displays Spiritual Fruit

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (vv. 22–23). As we crucify “the flesh with its passions and desires” (24) by the power of the Spirit (Rom. 8:13), and as we yield to the control of the Spirit, spiritual fruit appears in our lives. There is no better portrayal of this spiritual fruitage than what is described in verses 22–23, and it is nothing less than a ninefold configuration of the life of Christ. John Stott describes this cluster of nine Christian graces as “[the believer’s] attitude to God, to other people, and to himself.”

The Believer’s Attitude to God

“Love, joy, peace” (v. 22). Love for God, joy in God, and peace with God are aspects of the God-centered life. In other words, we are describing unconditional love, unbelievable joy, and unperturbable peace. Can others see these characteristics in our lives as we stand behind our pulpits, walk the wards of the hospital, or enter the homes of our parishioners?

The Believer’s Attitude to Other People

“Longsuffering, kindness, goodness” (v. 22). Our social lives will display the longsuffering of courageous endurance without quitting; the kindness of Christian servanthood in a selfish world; and the goodness of agape love fleshed out in generosity and hospitality.

The Believer’s Attitude to Himself

“Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (vv. 22–23). In our personal lives we will manifest the fruit of faithfulness in dependability and in accountability in our service to God and man. We will manifest the fruit of gentleness in Christlike behavior in every situation of life. We will manifest the fruit of self-control in the God-given ability to harness natural passions for redemptive purposes.

Now while it is possible for the old nature to counterfeit some of the fruit of the Spirit, it can never produce the full-orbed character of Christ in us. When the Spirit produces fruit, God gets the glory and the Christian is not conscious of his spirituality. On the other hand, when the flesh is at work, the person is inwardly proud of himself and is pleased when others compliment him. Any preacher who says he does not enjoy a compliment is lying! But to whom do we ascribe the glory? The work of the Spirit is to make us more like Christ for His glory and not for the praise of men (note Luke 6:26a).

If the question be asked, “How can I know the fruit of the Spirit in my life?” the answer is clear. We must “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). This calls for a moment-by-moment openness to the Lord. We must “walk in the light as He is in the light” (1 John 1:7). We must not “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30) by any known sin or “quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19) by giving place to self. This openness is an essential condition for a Spirit-filled life.

Along with the daily openness there must also be a daily obedience to the Lord. We are told that God has given the Holy Spirit “to those who obey him” (Acts 5:32). There is no substitute for total obedience to the Word of God. In practical terms, this means a disciplined quiet time on a regular basis (see chap. 2). It also calls for prayer that asks. Jesus promised, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13).

Our Lord confirmed these conditions for fruitful Christian living in that exquisite allegory in John 15 where He speaks of the vine and the branches. He taught: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me” (4). The whole concept of abiding is that of openness and obedience to the Lord. Indeed, Jesus said, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love” (John 15:10). Then He added, “If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper [the Holy Spirit], that He may abide with you forever” (John 14:15–16; 15:10).

It is also important to understand that when Paul issued his command to be filled with the Spirit he employed the passive voice. His words were: “Let the Spirit fill you.” Quite clearly, he implied yieldedness and submission to the control of the Holy Spirit in dependence and obedience.

Life In The Spirit Directs Spiritual Focus

“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (6:1). If we know the freedom of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, then there is a focus of the Spirit that emerges in our daily ministry. Paul expounds this spiritual focus in these opening verses of the sixth chapter of Galatians. The more we examine these words, the more comprehensive becomes our ministry.

We Are to Restore the Fallen

“Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (6:1). Two of the ugliest sins of the church today are judgmentalism and unforgivingness. This is why there is so much bitterness in the Body. This is “why revival tarries.” If we walk in the Spirit there is a focus of ministry to be performed in and through us. In the first instance, it is to restore the fallen. Paul gives us an example of a man who had been overtaken in a sin. What are we to do if we are truly filled with the Spirit? The answer is precisely given: we are to restore such a person in the spirit of meekness, realizing that we also could be tempted to fall.

The verb restore is in the present active imperative. The term is used in Matthew 4:21 for mending nets and comes from a Greek root for “equipping thoroughly.” This does not mean that sin is to be compromised in any shape or form. Indeed, our pastoral duty is to rebuke sin (especially when committed by leaders) “in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). But having applied the principles of discipline, the purpose of restoration is to bring a person back into fellowship and wholeness.

We Are to Release the Fettered

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). The legalist is not interested in lifting burdens. Instead, he adds to the burdens of others (Acts 15:10). This was one of the sins that the Master severely condemned: “They [the Pharisees] bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:4).

Paul uses the word burdens to show the subtlety and cruelty of legalism. In fact, legalists exacerbate the problems of those who are already weighed down.

By way of contrast, he who is Spirit-filled has a releasing ministry. In love he wants to see his brother set free for service (5:13)!

All around us are people who are fettered. They may not have fallen, but they are fettered. What a ministry to set such people free with the word of liberating authority through Jesus Christ our Lord! Jesus declared, “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

We Are to Rebuke the Foolish

Not only are we to restore the fallen and release the fettered, we also are to rebuke the foolish. “If anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load” (6:3–5). In this passage there are three corrective principles we must face if we would focus on the Spirit’s ministry in and through us.

We Must Get Right with Ourselves. “If anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Pride issues in self-deception (Jer. 49:16) and leads to divine resistance (James 4:6).

Sure, we must accept who and what we are, as redeemed people in Christ, and rejoice in what grace has done; but to think ourselves to be something when actually we are nothing is to deceive ourselves in arrogant overevaluation. Jesus warned, “Without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, emphasis ours). To get right and stay right with ourselves we must constantly live in a spirit of repentance. And the first step in repentance is the correct appraisal of ourselves in the sight of God.

We Must Get Right with Our Service. “Let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another” (v. 4). God has given each of us a special task to perform. The apostle reminds us that “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Our responsibility is not to be concerned with our brother’s business, but rather to find, follow, and finish what each of us has been called to do. You will remember that after his restoration Peter wanted to know what John was going to do. Jesus told him that it was none of his business; his task was to follow Jesus to the very end (John 21:21–23). The temptation to compare ourselves with others is another roadblock in our ministry, and it often leads to jealousy, strife, and division in the church of Jesus Christ.

We Must Get Right with Our Savior. “For each one shall bear his own load [or his ‘own pack’]” (v. 5). The reference here is to the final day of reckoning. Paul offers here what he expresses a little differently in Romans 14:12: “Each of us shall give account of himself to God.” Ultimately, it is what the Savior thinks or says that matters. No one can answer for his brother. Each one of us has to bear his own load of responsibility and accountability and answer for it at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:9–15).

So this is the sequence: we must get right with ourselves; we must get right with our service; and we must get right with our Savior. Very simply, the focus of the Holy Spirit in a yielded preacher is to restore the fallen, release the fettered, and rebuke the foolish—and that includes ourselves as preachers!

We must ask ourselves: Are we living in the Spirit? If we are, the clear evidence will be spiritual freedom, spiritual fruit, and spiritual focus in our lives, hour by hour and day by day.

One more thing needs to be added, and it is crucial. If we live in the Spirit, we must be led by the Spirit (vv. 16, 18). This leadership implies lordship, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). It is the Spirit who makes the lordship of Christ a reality in our lives. What God the Father has planned, and God the Son has purchased, can never be experiential until God the Holy Spirit personalizes that redemptive work in us as we yield “moment by moment” to His lordship.

Holy Spirit, reign in me,

With your own authority—

That my life, with constancy,

May “flesh out” your liberty.

—Stephen F. Olford article adapted from Chapter 3 of Anointed Expository Preaching. Nashvile, B&H Academic, 2003.


A Tribute to Stephen F. Olford
by Roger D. WillmoreHis was no ordinary life. In fact the extraordinary happenings that seemed to characterize his life and ministry began when he was still in his mother’s womb. Stephen Olford was born to missionary parents, Fredrick and Bessie Olford, on March 29, 1918. Fredrick Olford’s basic knowledge of medicine and the experience he had gained on the mission field caused him to anticipate that the birth of their first baby might be accompanied by complications. Rather than take a chance, he and Bessie made up their minds to make the thousand-mile trek from Angola to the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. Fred walked every step of the way while Bessie was carried in a hammock by A-Chokwe men.

The first seventeen years of his life were spent in the heart of Africa where he witnessed the marvelous power of God working through the lives of his godly parents. His experiences in Africa flavored his preaching. I can remember when I first heard Stephen Olford’s voice on the old reel to reel tape player in 1969; I was a senior in high school. His accounts of miracles from God among the A-Chokwe people captured my youthful imagination. I learned later how those experiences forged his character.

Stephen Olford left the home he had known and loved in Angola to live in England where he would pursue a career in engineering. In college his thesis project was carburetion. He developed a special carburetion system and took up motorcycle racing to demonstrate the efficiency of his invention. On his way home from a race on a cold rainy night he crashed his motorcycle and lay injured on the road in the rain for several hours. Pneumonia quickly set in. Doctors announced, “Two weeks to live.”

Laying on his death bed, Stephen Olford received a letter from his father in Africa. Fredrick Olford knew nothing of his son’s condition. It took three months for a letter to travel from Africa to England. But in God’s sovereignty the letter contained words that would forever change the life of Stephen F. Olford. His father wrote, Only one Life, ‘Twill soon be past, Only what is done for Christ will last. Stephen Olford fell under deep conviction. He slipped out of bed, dropped to his knees, and cried out to God. He prayed, Lord, You have won and I own You as King of Kings and Lord of lords…and Lord if you will heal my body, I will serve You anywhere, anytime, and at any cost. God answered his prayer and from that day until August 29, 2004, when he went to be with the Lord, Stephen Olford’s life was ablaze to the glory of God.

In 1959 Stephen Olford came to the United States to pastor the Calvary Baptist Church in New York City. He embarked upon this new chapter in his life with wife Heather and sons Jonathan and David at his side. It was from the famed Calvary pulpit that Dr. Olford’s anointed expository preaching began to impact people around the world. His days at Calvary made the world his parish.

It is appropriate that we as Southern Baptists pay tribute to Stephen Olford. His passionate and powerful expository preaching, along with his evangelistic zeal, made him a favorite on Southern Baptist Convention platforms across the country. He spoke at the SBC Pastors’ Conference numerous times and he was a frequent speaker at state conventions and conferences. One of my fondest memories will be of the 2001 Alabama Baptist Convention Pastors’ Conference. I had the privilege of serving as conference president, and Stephen Olford was our keynote speaker for two of the sessions. Our conference theme was Preach the Word.

It is the testimony of countless pastors and evangelists and missionaries in our Southern Baptist Convention that they really came into the blessings of the Lord under Dr. Olford’s ministry.

I am writing this article on behalf of my fellow Southern Baptists to honor the life and ministry of God’s faithful servant, Dr. Stephen F. Olford, and to express gratitude to God for giving such a wonderful gift to His Church. I also want to express our appreciation to his wife, Heather and to their two sons, Jonathan and David for sharing Dr. Olford with us.

In 1988 the Stephen Olford Center for Biblical preaching was founded in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember with clarity Dr. Olford casting the vision for a ministry of promoting biblical exposition and practical training for pastors, evangelists, and lay leaders. From the beginning Dr. Olford’s motto was, “Ministry to Ministers is Ministry to Multitudes.”

There are three beautiful banners prominently displayed in the Olford Center chapel which contain three foundation truths that guide the Olford ministry. The three banners contain these words: Jesus is LordBe Ye Holy; and Preach the Word. The life of Stephen Olford epitomized the truth of each of these banner statements. The powerful anointed preaching that characterized his preaching ministry emerged from a holy life lived under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The passion of his life was to preach the Word. He often said, “The only thing that will ever replace preaching is greater preaching.”

Southern Baptists owe a debt of gratitude to God for the life of Stephen F. Olford. He has ministered effectively on our convention and conference platforms, in our churches, and in our seminaries. His friendship, his counsel, his godly life, and his anointed preaching have made an indelible impression on all of us. It is true that the world was his parish and he ministered to the masses, but who can forget that beaming smile, that radiant personality, and that loving hug. He never lost sight of the value of the individual. I will always remember the many times I have been with him after a conference when everyone else would be gone and Dr. Olford could be found sitting with a hurting pastor in need of counsel. He would embrace the crowd and then he would embrace the individual.

Lord, thank you for the faithful, selfless, and sacrificial service of your servant, Stephen F. Olford. Amen.

He being dead yet speaketh and the admonition is clear: PREACH THE WORD, PREACH THE WORD, PREACH THE WORD.

Roger D. Willmore is senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Boaz, Alabama, and vice chairman of the Trustee Board of LifeWay Christian Resources. He also serves as minister at large of Stephen Olford Ministries International, Memphis, Tennessee.


Author: lifecoach4God

I am the Lead Pastor of Marin Bible Church (Bay Area), born and raised in Huntington Beach, Ca., and currently living in Novato, California. I am married to my best friend of 30 years - Dana - and have five adult children; and seven grand children. I have been a Teaching Pastor for over thirty years. I was privileged to study at Multnomah University (B.S. - 1988); Talbot School of Theology (M.Div. - 1991); Westminster Theological Seminary & Northwest Graduate School (D. Min. - 2003). I founded Vertical Living Ministries in 2008 with the goal of encouraging Christian Disciples and Leaders to be more intentionally Christ-Centered in how they live by bringing glory to God in nine key areas of life: (1) Intimacy with God, (2) marriage, (3) family, (4) friendship, (5) vocationally/ministry , (6) emotional and physical health, (7) stewardship of resources, (8) discipleship, and (9) mentoring.

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