Unction and Preaching

24 July 2022 by Wes Bredenhof

clear glass bottle with liquid
clear glass bottle with liquid

Unction is a topic not often discussed in books on preaching and even less often in Reformed books.  Where you may find unction sometimes discussed is in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles, but then more often it’s applied to the ability to heal and not so much to preaching.  If a man or woman is “anointed,” then they have the God-given ability to heal miraculously.  This unction or anointing then becomes a shield against all criticism – because, after all, Ps. 105:15 says, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”

‘Unction’ isn’t a well-known term.  It’s related to the English word ‘unctuous,’ which means greasy or oily.  Both words derive from the Latin unguo, meaning ‘I smear, I anoint with oil.’  The Roman Catholic Church has a sacrament of extreme unction.  This involves a priest anointing a seriously ill person with oil, particularly if that person is in danger of dying.  In Roman Catholicism, unction is something done through the instrument of a human being.  However, in Protestantism (broadly speaking) it’s usually considered to be anointing done directly through the Holy Spirit.

One Protestant author who did write about unction was D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  I have much appreciation for the good Doctor (as he’s known).  In most instances, he was a faithful preacher and writer.  In his book on preaching, Lloyd-Jones famously defined preaching as “logic on fire.”  He said, “Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.”[1]  That fire, according to Lloyd-Jones, comes from the Holy Spirit’s anointing.  This is unction.

E.M. Bounds described unction as “the indefinable in preaching which makes it preaching.”[2]  It’s something that comes to the preacher not as he studies, but as he prays.  It creates a “heavenly disposition” in the preacher.  Says Bounds:

Unction is simply putting God in His own Word and on His own preacher.  By mighty and great prayerfulness and by continual prayerfulness, it is all potential and personal to the preacher; it inspires and clarifies his intellect, gives insight and grasp and projecting power; it gives to the preacher heart power, which is greater than head power; and tenderness, purity, force flow from the heart by it.  Enlargement, freedom, fullness of thought, directness and simplicity of utterance are the fruits of this unction.[3]

According to Bounds, there can be no true preaching without unction.  If it’s so vitally important, one has to wonder why so many books on preaching have neglected it.

Both Lloyd-Jones and Bounds understand unction as something special worked in the preacher by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit empowers and equips the preacher to be God’s voice and when this happens, believers in the congregation will surely discern it.  True Christians can detect when a preacher has unction – they’ll feel their souls directly addressed by God.

However, we ought to ask whether this is biblical.  In the chapter of Power Through Prayer where he discusses unction, Bounds only mentions one Scripture passage.  He mentions Heb. 4:12 and asserts that it is unction which makes the Word of God “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…”[4]  Yet that’s not what Heb. 4:12 says.  It’s not a passage speaking of how the anointing of the preacher makes the Word of God something.  Instead, it’s speaking of what the Word of God is objectively.  The Word of God is objectively living and active, regardless of what happens within the soul of the preacher.  No preacher, anointed or not, makes the Word of God powerful.  It is always that of itself.          

So, what does Scripture say about preachers and unction?  In the Old Testament, prophets were anointed with oil.  That marked them for their office.  That office involved being a means of revelation for God.  However, it didn’t guarantee that what a prophet spoke was, in fact, the Word of God.  In the Old Testament there were false prophets like Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah (1 Ki. 22:11).  Zedekiah invented a prophecy about King Jehoshaphat and King Ahab destroying the Syrians.

When Christ commenced his ministry in Nazareth, he mentioned how he had been anointed.  Christ was anointed, not with oil, but with the Holy Spirit.  He referenced the words of Isa. 61:1, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” This happened when Christ was baptized.  The Bible describes him as a Spirit-anointed preacher. 

But are there any other references linking unction and preaching in the New Testament?  While it doesn’t explicitly mention unction or anointing, Acts 1 describes Pentecost as a moment when the apostles would receive power through the Holy Spirit so they could be Christ’s witnesses everywhere (Acts 1:8).  In 1 Cor. 2:4, the apostle Paul reflects this reality when he writes that his speech and message “were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power…”  As weak as preaching may appear, the Holy Spirit gives it power so that faith rests in the power of God and not in the wisdom of human beings.

This is where we need to draw a distinction.  On the one hand, it’s vitally important that a preacher be a godly man filled with the Holy Spirit.  When examining a man for the ministry and when extending a call to a man, the church ought to seek whether this man bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  We can’t discern anything beyond that external fruit.  No one can see inside another’s soul to determine whether the Spirit is present or not.  But if he is present, he gives gifts to one as well as to another.  To preachers, he gives the gift of being able to bring God’s Word clearly and faithfully.  We could call that gift of the Spirit anointing or unction.  But what’s important to see is that the gift is either there or it isn’t.  It doesn’t come and go.  It’s not as if on one Sunday the preacher might have unction and then the next not.  The gift is a given. It’s an objective reality granted by the Holy Spirit, not a subjective experience to be sought. 

We need to distinguish the preacher from what he preaches.  As I’ve already mentioned, Heb. 4:12 teaches us that the Word of God is objectively living and active.  This is important because the Word in itself carries the power of the Holy Spirit who inspired it.  In Num. 22-24 we read of Balaam, a wicked pagan sorcerer.  Yet the Holy Spirit gave revelation through him.  Similarly the unbelieving high priest Caiaphas prophesied that Jesus would die for the salvation of his people (John 11:51).  The words he spoke came from the Holy Spirit.  So today also, there could be an evil and hypocritical preacher.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t dwell in him as he does with believers.  Yet if he preaches the Word of God, the Holy Spirit can still use that preaching for his purposes.  This is because of what the Word of God is in itself.  The Word has power regardless of the preacher, also regardless of whether the Holy Spirit resides with him.

So, let’s get to the bottom line:  should I as a preacher pray for unction as I anticipate another Sunday on the pulpit?  Should you as a parishioner pray for unction for your pastor?  Certainly we should pray for the Holy Spirit to help the pastor be faithful to the Word of God and clear in his proclamation of it.  Faithfulness and clarity are what really matters.  When those are present (to whatever degree), the Holy Spirit will work amongst the congregation. 

As a preacher, I do pray for the Holy Spirit to work powerfully through my preaching to bless people with the gospel.  That isn’t something that can be manufactured or engineered.  It has to come from above.  However, before I preach, there is something else that I can and must do.  In 2 Tim. 1:6, the Apostle Paul commanded Timothy, “For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands…”  The gift is there, but it must be “fanned into flame.”  There’s a command for Timothy (and all preachers) to work at developing the gift they’ve received from the Holy Spirit.  This tells us that the idea of unction can never be used as an excuse for sloppy, lazy, or exegetically irresponsible preaching.  No one should ever think that careful preparation for preaching is unnecessary because we can only pray and then passively wait for the Holy Spirit to bring unction.            

Finally, we need to remember that people in the pew can experience the same preaching quite differently.  One person might experience a great deal of blessing from the sermon – and then maybe even be tempted to exclaim that the preacher had a special unction that day.  But another person might, for whatever reason, experience a minimal or even non-existent amount of blessing from the same sermon.  Our reception of preaching is invariably subjective and so to make that the norm by which we judge a preacher to be “anointed” is problematic.  It’s far better to focus on faithfulness and clarity.                                                                             

[1] Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 97.

[2] E.M. Bounds, Power Through Prayer (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 97.

[3] Bounds, Power Through Prayer, 95.

[4] Bounds, Power Through Prayer, 94.