Having experienced many of the sorrows that Brian talks about in this sermon, I can’t commend his wisdom enough. Aspiring pastors would do well to note what he says about the initial two-year period.
I once heard about a young preacher who had so much to say one Lord’s Day that he virtually ran up the pulpit stairs with anticipation. He made such a mess of the message that he walked down those same steps with his head bowed and tears in his eyes. He made his way slowly into the vestry. A wise old elder came to him and said, “If you’d gone up the way you came down, you’d have come down the way you’d gone up.”
Sometimes our expectation of power in preaching is our very undoing. Our presumption squelches the passion, and the congregation is no better after leaving.
Last time, we considered a definition of preaching with unction. In this post, I want to think about how we should pursue the Spirit’s blessing on our preaching. We must be sagacious at this point. While I believe the Bible gives us ordinary grounds for the Spirit’s blessing, it gives us no formulaic guarantee of spiritual power. The Spirit moves whenever and however on whomever He pleases. You will go wrong if you treat what I’m about to say as a guarantee.
What I am saying is that unless the following things are present, you have no reason to expect the Spirit to visit your preaching with peculiar power.
4 Things You Must Do If You’re to Preach with Power
You must preach Christ crucified. The Spirit loves to amplify Jesus Christ. He comes to glorify Christ’s name in all nations. When the sermon is in haste to preach Jesus Christ, you can expect that Spirit is eager to attend that service.
Let’s revisit The Upper Room. Jesus says in John 16:13–14, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” J. I Packer spoke of the Spirit’s ministry as a spotlight ministry: he delights in putting Christ in the highest light. When preachers follow the apostolic agenda for preaching Christ, they continue a Spirit-approved plan for building the church.
You must preach in dependence. Phillips Brooks said, “Never allow yourself to feel equal to your work. If you ever find that spirit growing on you, be afraid.” The sin of self-sufficiency is to unction as baking soda is to a stove fire. No man can depend on himself and burn with the spirit.
This is the essence of what Paul’s after in 1 Corinthians 2 when he says, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Logical speech and lofty rhetoric were tools in the apostle’s bag of tricks, but he knew they had no place in the preaching of Christ. Such human ability robs Christ of His glory and signals the Spirit is not needed. Such a preacher may blow hard, but he’ll prove to be just that: a blowhard. Piper cries, “How utterly dependent we are on the Holy Spirit in the work of preaching! All genuine preaching is rooted in a feeling of desperation.”
Until you learn the lesson of total dependence on the Spirit, you’ll struggle for familiarity with the Spirit’s movement. If you are genuinely called to the ministry, you will learn the lesson of dependence one way or another. God tends to make his preacher’s through heartbreak and suffering. It’s only when selfish dreams are dashed, refashioned after Christ’s kingdom, and release by the Spirit that a man will truly preach. Elijah had his depression. Jeremiah had the pit. Peter had his denial. And Paul had his thorn. A march through church history uncovers profound sorrow behind and underneath those preachers that God has used.
You must keep in step with the Spirit. Paul told the Thessalonians to not quench the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19). He exhorted the Ephesians, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by which you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30; see also Psa. 78:40; Isa. 63:10). Of course, unrepentant sin is a barrier to spirit-filled preaching. Sincere spirituality means the channel through which the Spirit flows is clean and unimpeded by the rot of impurity. For the Great Apostle, purity was a necessity in pastoral holiness—see 1 Tim. 1:5, 5:22; 2 Tim. 2:20–22.
Return with me to The Upper Room. Jesus says something about the primacy of holiness in ministry. It’s a truth that’s all too often neglect, and probably explains our weak efforts in preaching. In John 14:21, Jesus says, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” Christ delights to visit—manifest Himself—the obedient servants. Unction is not identical to ardent piety, but ardent piety is the air in which unction can live and thrive.
Brothers, let me give you a warning on this point. You cannot relax your watch against Satan’s schemes to get you to fall into sexual sin. No snare entraps more pastors than impurity. Paul warns against this in 1 Thessalonians 4:7–8, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” To disregard the need for purity is to say you don’t need the Spirit in preaching.
You must pray for the Spirit. Jesus said in Luke 11:13, “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!” Too many preachers do not have because they do not ask. Our small prayers for the Spirit reveal our great trust in our own gifts. Too many preachers today spend hours in sermon preparation and only a few minutes in prayer. I understand the need for maintaining a spirit of prayer throughout the entire process of preparation. I don’t understand, however, why so many preachers think multiple, long periods of sustained prayer for the sermon aren’t necessary each week. Spurgeon said, “The best and holiest men have ever made prayer the most important part of pulpit preparation.” Or, in another place, “The fact is, the secret to all ministerial success lies in prevalence at the mercy seat.”
Brothers, the Worm named Satan will tempt you to fill your schedule with counseling, discipling, and sermon preparing, so that there is no time for prayer. Good things can sqaush the greatest thing.
A pastor who doesn’t pray is a pastor who doesn’t believe he needs the Spirit.
I’ll let the Prince have the final word this morning. Spurgeon said, “The gospel is preached in the ears of all; it only comes with power to some. The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher; otherwise men would be converters of souls. Nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning; otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach till our tongues rotted, till we should exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless there were a mysterious power going with it the Holy Ghost changing the will of man. Oh Sirs! We might as well preach to stone walls as preach to humanity unless the Holy Ghost be with the Word to give it power to convert the soul.”
I remember hearing an interview with Carl Trueman about Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book Preaching and Preachers.
In it, he said, “Half of the book is brilliant, and half of it is completely bonkers. . . . Lloyd-Jones has these sections where he talks about ‘unction.’ And these things have gripped a variety of people who have read this book. Lloyd-Jones talks about going into the pulpit on some days, and he’s flying. He’s got unction. Other days he goes into the pulpit and the unction just isn’t there. My experience has been that I can go into the pulpit and think that I am flying, and a lot of people think I’ve preached a complete clunker. . . . I’ve become aware that how I respond to the sermon is no guide for how the congregation responds. I have a feeling that Lloyd-Jones is confusing—dare I say it—‘carnal response’ to his sermons with the action of the Holy Spirit.”
I understand what Truman is saying. Preachers are not infallible interpreters of how their sermon goes. In my ministry, it’s common to think I preached an excellent sermon only to discover the majority found it ho-hum. It’s also frequent to believe my sermon was a disaster only to find out it helped an enormous swath of the congregation. Dr. Trueman is right on this point.
But we should not throw out the notion of unction altogether. It’s in the Scriptures. Church history testifies to its reality.
Defining the Indescribable
Part of the problem in discussion unction relates to how we define it. Its nature makes it almost ineffable. As Alexandre Vinet, the French preacher, said, “Unction is felt, and known by experience; it cannot be analyzed. It produces its impression secretly, and without the aid of reflection. It is communicated in simplicity, and received in the same manner by the heart, into which the warmth of the preacher passes. Ordinarily, it produces its effect without awakening our consciousness of its presence, and without our being able to render a reason to ourselves of the impression which it has produced upon us. We feel,—we experience,—we are moved,—we can hardly assign a reason, why.”
To say the experience of spiritual power in preaching is hard to describe is different than saying it’s impossible to describe. There are multiple places in Scripture where we discover what happens when the Spirit falls on a preacher.
5 Marks of Unction
As I read the Bible, there are at least five things that can be true when the Spirit arrives with unusual force in the preaching. Unction doesn’t mean all five happen at once. More often than not, it may be more like a momentary combination of a couple of these points.
Unction enflames the preacher. The Spirit falls on the apostles in Acts 2 and tongues of fire fly over them. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus’ teaching strangely warmed the hearts of the disciples (Luke 24:32). YHWH commissions Jeremiah and says, “Behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire” (Jer. 5:14). No doubt, this enflaming passion came to mark Jeremiah’s ministry, as he said, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jer. 20:9).
Unction gives the preacher a sense of unworthiness. God’s spirit is the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 1:4). When the Spirit falls, there is inevitably a sense of one’s unworthiness. The preacher’s disposition is that of Isaiah, who cried, “Woe is me!” (Isa. 6:5). To preach about Christ’s salvation and man’s sin without any pathos, without any sense of an affected heart, is to preach the Good News without the Spirit.
Unction stamps the preacher with the seal of God’s authority. John Owen, in a sermon titled, “The Duty of a Pastor,” said authority is required of God’s preachers. He asks, “What is authority in a preaching ministry? It is a consequent of unction, and not of office. The scribes had an outward call to teach in the church; but they had no unction, no anointing, that could evidence they had the Holy Ghost in his gifts and graces. Christ had no outward call; but he had an unction.” Remember the times when Jesus’ preaching left the crows and religious leaders marveling, for he spoke “as one who had authority” (e.g., Matt. 7:28–29).
Unction provides unprepared-for clarity. Sermon preparation is often little more than working for clarity in exposition and application. But there are times in preaching when unexpected clarity comes. You say something better than you thought you would. An unanticipated logic flies from your lips. That’s the Spirit’s work! Jesus told his disciples that times would come when persecution would require extemporaneous preaching. He comforted them by saying, “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” (Luke 12:11–12).
Unction brings boldness related to the matters of eternity. Courage in preaching Christ might be the most common facet of unction. Trace out the theme of boldness in Acts 4 and see what this meant for the apostles’ ministry. In Acts 4:13, the religious leaders “saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” In 4:29, the believers pray in the face of opposition, “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” The prayer is answered through the Spirit, as Acts 4:31 says, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” Sinclair Ferguson says,
“The hallmark of the preaching which the Spirit effects is ‘boldness’. . . As in the Old Testament, when the Spirit fills the servant of God he ‘clothes himself’ with that person, and aspects of the Spirit’s authority are illustrated in the courageous declaration of the word of God. This boldness appears to involve exactly what it denotes: there is freedom of speech. We catch occasional glimpses of this in the Acts of the Apostles. What was said of the early New England preacher Thomas Hooker becomes a visible reality: when he preached, those who heard him felt that he could pick up a king and put him in his pocket!”
How Do We Get It
The five points above give shape to how we understand unction. But how do we pursue it? That’s what we’ll think about in Part 2.
John Angell James (1785–1859) was the pastor of Carrs Lane Congregational Church in Birmingham, England for fifty-five years. In 1847, he published An Earnest Ministry: The Want of The Times. Oh, how I wish I could require every pastor to read it.
James’ heart burns for passion in the pulpit. He’s on point with what’s necessary for heralding Christ. He knows that it’s not until the preacher’s heart is right that his sermon will cut straight. Listen to what he says is “the essential qualification” for earnestness in the ministry:
I trust our churches will ever consider piety as the first and most essential qualification in their pastors, for which talents, genius, learning, and eloquence, would and could be no substitutes. It will be a dark and evil day when personal godliness shall be considered as secondary to any other quality in those who serve at the altar of God.
But still there is something else needed in addition to natural talent, to academic training, and even to the most fervent evangelical piety, and that is, intense devotedness. This is the one thing, more than any or all other things, that is lacking in the modern pulpit, and that has been lacking in most ages of the Christian church. The following sentence occurs in a valuable article in a late number of the British Quarterly Review—“No ministry will be really effective, whatever may be its education, which is not a ministry of strong faith, true spirituality, and deep earnestness.” I wish this golden sentence could be inscribed in characters of light over every professor’s chair, over every student’s desk, and over every preacher’s pulpit.
Let us pray for and pursue such devotion.
I’ve been meditating on the various word pictures used of preachers in the Bible. One of my favorites is probably the most-neglected portrait: the preacher as a parent. We know from Paul’s writings that gospel ministers function in a fatherly and motherly way to the congregation. Consider what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:14–21:
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
A text that has often encouraged me through the trials of pastoring has been Galatians 4:19, which says, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” The pains of spiritual childbirth plague the ministry—at least they should. Our aim is to present every member mature in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:28). Spiritual grow is a marathon, not a sprint. And so, we agonize (see Col. 1:29) as a mother bears children.
Another text we should often remember is Paul’s word in 1 Thessalonians 2:5–12:
For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Preachers are spiritual parents to the flock. We are to bring up God’s children in the Lord’s discipline and instruction. Christ has delegated authority to us that we might mold His people into His image.
As with the other word pictures for preaching, there are many sound implications we can make from this reality of the preacher as a parent. Let us focus on the one Paul emphasized: because the preacher is a parent, he must be gentle. Tenderness is the sanctified tone of a gospel ministry.
George Bethune, a preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church in New York, wrote in 1839, “Perhaps no grace is less prayed for, or cultivated less than gentleness. Indeed it is considered rather as belonging to natural disposition or external matters, than as a Christian virtue; and seldom; do we reflect that not to be gentle is sin.” Bethune’s words still ring true one hundred and eighty years later. Let us yearn for God to give us more gentleness in the ministry!
We should also consider Christ on this point (2 Tim. 2:8; Heb. 3:1); . We find Jesus occasionally burst out in rebuke or cry out in correction. His harshest words were always for professing believers full of pride and self-righteousness. But the air in which his ministry moved was that of gentleness. A bruised reed he did not break, a flickering flame he did not quench. It’s why Paul can command in the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 10:1 Paul exhorts them by “the meekness and gentleness of Christ.” This is even what Jesus said of Himself in Matthew 11:29, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.”
Paul is telling us it matters not only that the Lord’s servant proclaims the truth, but also how he preaches the the True One. Will anyone profit long-term from a ministry that tends to be angry and hard? It’s doubtful. We at least have no biblical reason to expect such a ministry will sustain spiritual fruit. But a ministry of gentleness and tenderness has great reason for hope.
The kind leaders at Reformed Theological Seminary—Dallas have asked me to teach Communication 1 this fall. It’s my first run at a practical theology class, and I can’t wait. The homiletical festivities begin tomorrow morning.
The class covers the bare necessities of Christ-exalting preaching. If you’d like a sense of where the course goes, check out the syllabus below.
Here’s a little clip of how we’ll start:
“It is, perhaps, an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preaching Christianity stands or falls.” So began P.T. Forsyth when he delivered the Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale University in 1907. Trepidation may have constrained Forsyth as he stood in the throes of New England modernity, but we can confidently acquit the Scottish theologian from being “overbold.” He simply read his Bible well.
God’s word tells us the Christian life is, this side of heaven, is lived “by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). In other places, we are told, “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17) and “anything that does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Because faith is central, we can declare preaching lies at the center.
Preaching is the ordinary means by which God awakens cold, crusty, and callous hearts to breathe in the grace of faith (Ezek. 37:1–10). Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ to sinners’ bosoms and breasts (Col. 1:28). It is the spiritual sword God uses to assault hell’s gates and ruin Satan’s strongholds (Matt. 16:18). The Sun of Righteousness dawns upon the earth in His heralded word to harden clay hearts and melt icy souls (Mal. 4:2). Preaching convicts, illuminates, rebukes, encourages, and enlivens the soul.
We are thus engaged, over this semester, with the greatest of the great things, the deepest of the deeps, and the highest of the heights: preaching Jesus Christ.
This semester, I’m teaching a course on preaching at RTS-Dallas. One of the required textbooks is James Garretson’s Princeton and Preaching: Archibald Alexander and The Christian Ministry. The original Princeton men didn’t get everything right, but they got most things right—especially the accent on “vital piety” in ministry. The mandate for personal holiness is all but absent from popular, pastoral discourse these days. If the trend goes unchecked, a ministry of power will be hard to find. I pray the Lord would revive us in ministerial godliness being a chief delight and ambition. It’s why my class begins with a few hours worth of attention to the need for Christ’s preacher to be “a man of God.”
A Nursey of Vital Piety
Samuel Miller famously declared that Princeton Seminary must be “a nursery of vital piety as well as of sound theological learning, and to train up persons for the ministry who shall be lovers as well as defenders of truth as it is in Jesus, friends of revivals of religion, and a blessing to the Church of God.” It was not enough to train students in original languages. Yes, they needed to know Francis Turretin’s definitive and distinctive work. And it surely wasn’t a bad thing that your average student knew how to exegete Scripture in any season. But the founders knew that the Presbyterian church would suffer if her students didn’t expand their hearts’ love for Christ.
So, they pled for personal holiness.
14 Reasons Why It’s Needed
You need only scan the essential writing from the Princeton professors to see how universal was this concern. In one of his pastoral lectures, Archibald Alexander gave fourteen reasons why students should train themselves for godliness.
- Some degree of eminence is requisite for our own satisfaction.
- The work is so great and sacred, and the consequences so awful, that none will duly feel and act under the responsibilities of the office, but one whose heart is warmed with fervent love to Christ and the souls of men.
- The duties of the ministry will never be faithfully performed by any one but he who is deeply under the influence of divine truth. He will become indolent and careless or will sink into discouragement—or will become entangled with worldly engagements.
- He will not be able to converse with edification to the people without this.
- It is necessary to preserve the minister from ambition and vain glory.
- Necessary to make him to speak with confidence of the excellency and comforts of true piety.
- Eminent piety is requisite to enable a minister to compose sermons induced with the right spirit. To feed the devotions of the people, etc.
- Without a good degree of eminence in piety, the minister’s example will not be savory and consistent. It is necessary to preserve him from sin. He should be higher than all the people in spiritual attainments.
- It will greatly increase his influenc.e
- Will enable him to bear with patience the persecution of enemies.
- It will be better than all rules of rhetoric in the delivery of sermons.
- It will make the work of ministry delightful.
- Will prepare for sickness and death.
- Eminent piety will diffuse a solemn seriousness, over the manners. Gravity, composure of countenance—dignity of demeanor—propriety in every word, look and gesture.
Essential for Faithfulness
As Garretson comments, “Christian graces were essential if men were to prove to be faithful servants of Christ. Fidelity, humility, self-denial, diligence, temperance, and a ‘habitual concern for the welfare of the Church’—these were among the marks of ministerial godliness that would result in a ministry owned and blessed by God.”
At last year’s Shepherds’ Conference, Mark Jones preached from Isaiah 50 on the third Servant Song. It’s a model of Christ-exalting exposition. It also throws several (appropriate) punches at pastors. Case in point: “Woe to that man who knows his theological books, but is ignorant of the word of God.”
The Spirit stirred my mind and convicted my heart through Jones’ preaching. May He do the same to yours.
“A sustaining ministry, a gospel ministry, requires more thought more study, more insight than a condemning ministry. A finger-pointing ministry is easy. Moralism is the default setting of our minds. But it takes divine wisdom to understand God’s grace in a new way, so we can sustain weary people. Jesus gave himself fully to that ministry.”
— Ray Ortlund, Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, 355.
Dr. Sinclair Ferguson recently gave the John Reed Miller Lectures on Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. His theme was “Preaching Like Paul?”
I listened to every minute last week while I lay sick in bed. There’s a lifetime of homiletical wisdom for everyone who has ears to hear.