There is a divine element in true, biblical preaching of which most of us know very little. True preaching is not primarily an academic exercise, it is a spiritual one. If any preacher doesn't recognize this supernatural element in preaching, he’s not a real preacher. If he doesn't know what it is to preach with the unction of the Holy Spirit of God, he doesn't know what it is to preach. Academia doesn't make a preacher, seminaries don’t make a preacher, and book learning doesn't make a preacher. Only the supernatural gifting of a sovereign and gracious God can make a preacher.
This can’t be more evident than in the case of the Apostles themselves. They had been with Jesus for nearly three years, heard his teachings, learned from the best of Rabbi’s, and had even seen His miracles and been eyewitnesses of His resurrection. They understood the Scriptures and were filled with glorious truth to share with the world. If anyone was prepared to preach, it was them. Yet they still weren't ready. The Gospel of Luke records what happened when the Lord gave them the Great Commission: “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high."” (Luke 24:45-49) The Lord instructed them to not to preach until they had received this supernatural power to carry out their mission (cf. Acts 1:8). It is this power that was the secret to how they shook the nations with the Gospel and turned the world upside down for Christ.
This is also evident in the ministry of the apostle Paul. He said to the Thessalonians, “…our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Th. 1:5) His preaching wasn't just a matter of speaking words and stringing together fine-sounding arguments of exegetical precision; it was a supernatural event of the powerful proclamation of divine truth in the power of the Holy Spirit. He said to the Corinthians, “…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.” (1 Cor. 2:4-5) If the faith of those who hear us is to be placed in God, then it is vital that we preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. Human wisdom begets faith in human capacity, but supernatural power begets faith in Him who is the source of all such supernatural blessing. Oh, if only this lesson would be learned by the evangelical seminaries of our day! A seminary can make a theologian, but only God can make a preacher.
In Corinth, some of the congregants were questioning Paul’s calling as an Apostle and a preacher, and slandering his character in many ways. Apparently, there were false apostles in the church claiming to be true preachers and undermining Paul’s authority in the church. In response, Paul says, “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.” (1 Cor. 4:19-20) According to Paul, a man is not a true man of God merely because he is able to talk, or even preach, well. The true test is whether the power of the Spirit of God rests on his ministry. Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments on this verse: “There is no text, perhaps, of which we need to be reminded so much at the present time as just that. There is certainly no lack of words; but is there much evidence of power in our preaching? ‘The Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power’. ‘That’, says the Apostle, ‘is the test’; and it is still the test of true preaching”.
How do we know if the power of God is on our preaching? Lloyd-Jones continues: “It is…the power of the Holy Ghost that ultimately makes preaching effective. This is what produces converts and creates Churches, and builds up Churches.” Spirit-empowered preaching produces genuine Spirit-born converts, it is known to establish churches, and it edifies the Body of Christ so as to greatly strengthen and bless churches. In other words, we can know that a man is anointed by the Holy Spirit of God to preach because his preaching is effective in the true biblical sense of the term. When he preaches, men are moved, hearts are pricked, consciences are stirred, hopes are raised, faith is ignited, Christ is exalted, souls are converted, saints are edified, and the church is established in the faith.
This holy unction is something entirely supernatural. It can’t be imitated, mimicked, or counterfeited. Yet when it is present there will always be blessing. Spurgeon said, “Unction is a thing which you cannot manufacture, and its counterfeits are worse than worthless; yet it is in itself priceless, and beyond measure needful if you would edify believers and bring sinners to Jesus.” If we are to see true conversions and the saints built up and established in the faith under our preaching, we desperately need this unction. There is no substitute on earth, and no amount of learning, persuasion, or book-learning can take its place.
This divine unction is the breath of God on the words of a man; it is the kiss of heaven on the lips of the messenger of God. Without it, we are dead scribes who merely recite biblical information. We have far too many pulpiteers whose sermons could more precisely be categorized as audio encyclopedias than as biblical proclamations of divine truth. Such preaching is book-learning that is directed to the intellect; it puffs up the head and fills the brain with information. Yet biblical preaching is both light and fire; it illuminates the understanding with the careful exposition of biblical truth but it also inflames the heart with Spirit-birthed passion and burden and fills the soul with a weighty sense of the divine. It is the communication of deep conviction from the heart of the preacher that produces deep conviction in the hearts of the hearers.
Leonard Ravenhill said, “The tragedy of this late hour is that we have too many dead men in the pulpits giving out too many dead sermons to too many dead people. Oh! The horror of it. There is a strange thing that I have seen under the sun, even in the fundamentalist circles; it is preaching without unction. What is unction? I hardly know. But I know what it is not (or at least I know when it is not upon my own soul.)… Brethren, we could well manage to be half as intellectual (of the modern pseudo kind) if we were twice as spiritual. Preaching is a spiritual business. A sermon born in the head reaches the head; a sermon born in the heart reaches the heart. Under God, a spiritual preacher will produce spiritually minded people…Unction is God’s knighthood for the soldier-preacher who has wrestled in prayer and gained the victory. Victory is not won in the pulpit by firing intellectual battles or wisecracks, but in the prayer closet; it is won or lost before the preacher’s foot enters the pulpit. Unction is like dynamite.”
The crying need of the hour is Spirit-anointed proclaimers of truth who powerfully preach Christ personally and experimentally in holy unction! We need men who stand up with divine authority and speak with shocking boldness and prophetic burden. It is this prophetic element in preaching that distinguishes true biblical proclamation from mere scribal learning and teaching. It is this that makes the difference from a pupil explaining what he learned in a classroom as opposed to a witness testifying to what he himself has seen, heard, felt and experienced.
What is it like when this holy unction is upon the preacher? Again, Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains, “How does one know it? It gives clarity of thought, clarity of speech, ease of utterance, a great sense of authority and confidence as you are preaching, an awareness of a power not your own thrilling through the whole of your being, and an indescribable sense of joy. You are a man ‘possessed’, you are taken hold of, and taken up…What about the people? They sense it at once; they can tell the difference immediately. They are gripped, they become serious, they are convicted, they are moved, they are humbled. Some are convicted of sin, others are lifted up to the heavens, anything may happen to any one of them. They know at once that something quite unusual and exceptional is happening. As a result they begin to delight in the things of God and they want more and more teaching.”
E.M. Bounds, that mighty man of prayer, said, “This divine unction is the one distinguishing feature that separates true gospel preaching from all other methods of presenting truth. It backs and interpenetrates the revealed truth with all the force of God. It illumines the Word and broadens and enrichens [sic] the intellect and empowers it to grasp and apprehend the Word. It qualifies the preacher’s heart, and brings it to that condition of tenderness, of purity, of force and light that are necessary to secure the highest results. This unction gives to the preacher liberty and enlargement of thought and soul—a freedom, fullness, and directness of utterance that can be secured by no other process.”
In times of revival, this reality of Spirit-empowered preaching becomes apparent as the power of the Spirit of God accompanies the preaching of the Word with extraordinary blessing and grace. It powerfully enlightens minds with biblical truth, it moves hearts with deep conviction, and it liberates the wills of sinners from the bondage of sin and transforms them to delight in God’s presence which is so manifestly present at such times. It results in mass amounts of conversions and explosions of growth in the sanctification process of believers.
We desperately need such revival preaching in our day. We urgently need God-sent preachers who are endowed with unction to preach the Gospel with the Holy Spirit sent down from Heaven. The greatest need of the world today is to hear the Gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. The greatest need of the church today is to hear the Gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. I plead with my dear brethren in Christ who are called into the ministry to seek this unction with all their might, all their heart, all their soul and all their strength. How are we to seek it? –Prayer! Urgent pray, desperate prayer, believing prayer, and persevering prayer is the only God-ordained means of being clothed with this power from on high! There are no shortcuts! We are strangers to true unction because we are lazy and full of unbelief! Oh Lord, have mercy on our souls!
Let us conclude with another quote. May this pierce our hearts and humble our faces to the dust that we may seek God until He comes and pours out a blessing from on high upon our destitute preaching! E.M. Bounds said, “This unction comes to the preacher not in the study but in the closet. It is heaven’s distillation in answer to prayer… This unction is not the gift of genius. It is not found in the halls of learning. No eloquence can woo it. No industry can win it. No prelatical hands can confer it. It is the gift of God—the signet set to his own messengers. It is heaven’s knighthood given to the chosen true and brave ones who have sought this anointed honor through many an hour of tearful, wrestling prayer.”