Preaching and the Unction of the Holy Spirit

The responsibility to faithfully and effectively share God’s Word is a daunting task. On any given Sunday, in addition to being mindful of peoples’ eternal destiny, the survival of a marriage, the possibility of suicide, choices about employment, how someone will deal with bitterness, unforgiveness, financial ruin or an unwanted pregnancy, all may hang in the balance based upon what we say from the pulpit. It is normal and appropriate for those of us who preach to feel inadequate in the face of such a daunting responsibility. In order to speak in a helpful, redemptive, bold, truthful, powerful, and relevant manner we MUST have God’s help and blessing. The old timers called this the “unction” (anointing/blessing) of the Holy Spirit.

Our calling as preachers is not to work for God, but to work with Him. If He isn’t in our ministry, our best efforts amount to nothing. As the Psalmist once declared, “Unless the Lord builds the house” all of our efforts on His behalf are in vain.  On one occasion God threatened to withdraw His presence from the Jewish people but Moses, mindful of how critically important it was to have God with them, said “I’m not moving, until you promise to go with us!” (Elliott paraphrase). I sometimes wonder if those of us who preach are as desperate for the empowering and enlivening presence of God in our midst.

Dr. Dennis Kinlaw, former President of Asbury College, once said “We must preach in the power of His Spirit, if we are to preach with eternal results.” During my first year as a preacher, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Ira Taylor say “Preachers are like the little boy with the bag lunch in John 6. What we have to offer is totally insufficient to feed those who gather to hear us, UNLESS God takes it and miraculously multiples it.”  There is no doubt in my mind, he was exactly right. Jesus was so mindful of the importance of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to the future well-being of the church, He told the disciples to NOT begin their ministries until they experienced a special endowment of power from on high.

Countless generations of preachers before us have universally declared the importance of preachers having the unction of the Spirit upon their preaching.  A.B. Simpson said, “We are empty possibilities until He gets us.”  J. Oswald Sanders stated “It stands clear in the book of Acts that the leaders who significantly influenced the  Christian movement were men who were filled with the Holy Spirit … without this filling of the Holy Spirit, how could the apostles have faced the superhuman task ahead:  They needed superhuman power for the truceless warfare against the devil and hell.” Spurgeon declared, “If we have not the Spirit which Jesus promised, we cannot perform the commission which Jesus gave …Our hope of success, and our strength for continuing in service, lie in our belief that the Spirit of the Lord resteth upon us…Except the Lord endow us with power from on high, our labor must be in vain, and our hopes must end in disappointment.”

Yet today, we rarely hear the older generation of preachers pleading with the next generation to take seriously the need for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment upon their lives and public ministries.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones vividly described the consequence of the Holy Spirit unction upon preaching.  When the Holy Spirit anoints the preacher “you have the feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on. You are looking at yourself in amazement as this is happening. It is not your effort; you are just the instrument, the channel, the vehicle and the Spirit is using you, and you are looking on in great enjoyment and astonishment.”   Historically, great preacher after great preacher described the same thing. D. L. Moody clearly stated the underlying reason for the sudden effectiveness of his sermons was directly related to his powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit. “The sermons were not different; I did not preach any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world.”

Adman Hamilton (Sr. pastor at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City) had an interesting experience a few years ago.  He tells the story of preaching at six, back-to-back Christmas eve services. Prior to preaching the first service, he felt God’s rebuke at his lack of dependence upon God in his sermon preparation. Adam sensed God was saying He would not be present for the first three services.  In each case, the services were at best, just “okay.” But during the fourth service, he felt God say “I let you do the first three on your own power. Now I will show you what happens when you preach with the power of my Spirit.”   Hamilton describes the remarkable and powerful difference, beginning with that fourth service. “I felt the heaviness on my heart dissipate. I felt a power in my preaching. In the midst of the sermon something palpable happened to the congregation. You could hear a pin drop. The service was almost overwhelming.” So different was the impact of his sermon that his wife asked Adam when he had time to change his sermon!

There are two aspects to the Holy Spirit’s anointing which need to be recognized.

  1. The Holy Spirit empowers the preacher’s life, sermon preparation, and delivery.
  2. The Holy Spirit enlivens those who hear and the place where the proclamation takes place.

Charles Finney once stated, “If even for a day or an hour I lost the spirit of grace and supplication, I found myself unable to preach with power and efficiency, or to win souls by personal conversation.”

When the Holy Spirit anoints the preacher and the preaching, it results in:

  1. God speaking through the preacher, more so than the preacher speaking on behalf of God. Preachers declare insights they know they have not previously thought, nor were prepared to say.  The preacher preaches with greater boldness, passion and confidence.
  2. Non-believers become eager to hear God’s word proclaimed and sense, to a greater degree, their lostness and hopelessness apart from Christ. The result is greater numbers of conversions
  3. Believers finding themselves more deeply challenged, convicted, inspired, encouraged and convinced by the truths they are hearing.

For those preachers who have grown tired of seeing little fruit as a result of their preaching efforts:  for those who long to see their community transformed by the gospel: may I recommend we take seriously the need for a fresh outpouring of God’s anointing upon our preaching! As much as I love the topics of church growth, church health, leadership, creativity, etc., these all pale in comparison to the importance of God’s presence as the primary attracting and transforming influence in our midst.

Oswald Sanders correctly noted that “the Holy Spirit does not take control of anyone against his or her will.” Thus, those who want to experience His anointing must purposefully and willingly seek His empowerment. Repentance is needed for our pride, thinking we can do this great task in our own strength.  Submit to His Lordship over all areas of our lives. Ask for His purifying influence deep within. Unashamedly declare your dependence upon Him. Individually and corporately persist in asking for His presence and blessing. Believe His empowerment is available for you and your people. Pattern yourself after the Master who regularly took time for solitude with the Heavenly Father to seek His revelation, guidance, and empowerment.  The God who called you to preach will not abandon you to your own wisdom, abilities, and strength, but will provide His enablement, wisdom, and power IF we regularly and seriously seek His help.

Dr. Elliott joined the faculty of Kingswood University (formerly Bethany Bible College) in 2007 and presently serves as the Program Director of Pastoral Ministries & Church Planting. Before that, Steve planted and pastored a local church for 22 years in Ottawa, Ontario that grew to 1400 worshipers. Following his ministry in Ottawa, Steve served as senior pastor of a local Wesleyan Church in Buffalo, New York.

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2 thoughts on “Preaching and the Unction of the Holy Spirit

  1. Excellent article! It reaffirms the leadership macro principle: The essential ingredient of effective leadership is the powerful presence of God in the life of the leader. That is true in every facet of ministry, all the more so in preaching.

  2. This article reminded me of a song that an old preacher once told me that I should pray every time I sat down to prepare a sermon and before I get up to preach.

    Touch my hands my mouth
    And my heart
    Fill my life Lord
    Every part
    Let the power
    Of the Holy Ghost
    Fall on me
    Anointing fall on me

    Donn Thomas 1992 Paragon Music Corporation.

    Thanks for the reminder that we need his power to do what we have been called to do.