Is there such a thing as divine unction or a special anointing of the Spirit when it comes to preaching? Not according to Richard Bargas in his carefully researched paper “The Holy Spirit in the Pulpit,” delivered at the 2013 annual meeting of the Evangelical Homiletics Society.

Bargas neither denies the Holy Spirit gives the message of the cross its power, nor does he dispute the anointing and sealing of all believers with the Spirit to set them apart as God’s own to carry out His work in the world and enable them to understand the Bible (1 Cor. 12:13; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 1 John 2:20).

Setting the filling of the Spirit aside as a separate matter, Bargas simply sees no exegetical basis for the existence of a New Testament gift of unction. Says Bargas, “The idea of anointing as a special empowerment by God is not directly connected (in Scripture) with the word anoint.” Later, “Nowhere does the Bible command ministers to seek God’s unction for empowering the preaching of the Word.” Finally, he observes, “When Christ is exalted and the message of the cross is declared from the pulpit with prayer, passion and precision, there is power.”

As much as it pains me to admit it, and contrary to what I’ve written, argued and taught elsewhere, I find Bargas’ argument compelling. Yet…

Experiencing Unction
There is the fascinating story of Welsh pastor David Morgan, as related by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Preaching and Preachers. For two years Morgan purportedly preached under an unusual anointing, sensing the Spirit’s powerful presence during his sermons and enjoying extraordinary results. Before and after those two brief years, it was a ministry Lloyd-Jones characterized as “most ordinary.”

In Morgan’s own words: “I went to bed one night still feeling like a lion, filled with this strange power I had enjoyed for the two years. I woke up the next morning and found that I had become David Morgan once more.”

John Bunyan in his spiritual autobiography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners testified to feeling in his preaching ministry sometimes “as if an angel of God had stood by at my back to encourage me.” At other times, though, after starting out well enough, such a stifling spirit set upon him that by his sermon’s end he admitted to feeling “as if my head had been in a bag all the time.”

Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, recently described a similar experience of his own. He was scheduled to preach six back-to-back Christmas Eve services. Prior to the first, he sensed the Lord warning him He wouldn’t be present in the first three services due to Hamilton’s failure to depend upon Him while preparing that particular message. Sure enough, the preacher subsequently felt that each of those services went OK at best, but during the fourth service while preaching the same sermon, he felt God telling him to watch what would happen next as he preached in the Spirit’s power.

Hamilton reported, “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 his sermon’s impact that his wife later asked him when he found the time between the third and fourth services to change his message.

Hamilton’s experience seems to substantiate Lloyd-Jones’ conclusion that a special anointing of the Holy Spirit can be recognized by its dual effect on the preacher’s consciousness and congregation’s response. The preacher, for his part, experiences clarity of thought and speech, ease of utterance, a great sense of authority and confidence, an awareness of an outside power filling the moment and indescribable joy.

Lloyd-Jones claimed, “When this happens, you have a feeling that you are not actually doing the preaching, you are looking on…It is not your effort; you are just the instrument, the channel, the vehicle: the Spirit is using you, and you are looking on in great enjoyment and astonishment.” Simultaneously, the listening congregation, for its part, feels gripped, convicted, moved and humbled.

Understanding Flow
Now compare the foregoing testimonials with that from a composer describing those moments when his work is at its best, as quoted first in Journal of Humanistic Psychology and later by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ: “You yourself are in an ecstatic state to such a point that you feel as though you almost don’t exist. I’ve experienced this time and again. My hand seems devoid of myself, and I have nothing to do with what is happening. I just sit there in a state of awe and wonderment. And it just flows out by itself.”

The similarities are unmistakable—a feeling of personal detachment, the sense of a power working outside and beyond one’s own exertion, and an extremely positive perception of the quality of the work under production. Preachers credit all of this when it happens during the delivery of a sermon to an unusual working of the Holy Spirit. Psychologists consider it a result of getting into the flow when it happens to composers. Athletes refer to it as being in the zone. Everyone—rock climbers, chess champions, surgeons, athletes, engineers, managers, filing clerks—has experienced it to a greater or lesser degree at one time or another, according to Goleman.

It’s a glorious state marked by spontaneous joy and self-forgetfulness. People experiencing flow are feeling the effects of having harnessed their emotions in the service of performing the task at hand—often a task they’ve mastered to some extent through much practice but one which in the moment has thoroughly absorbed their attention and is slightly taxing their natural abilities.

In theological terms, we might credit flow to God’s general grace—a grace He bestows upon us all as bearers of His image no matter how marred that image in our current fallen state. Traces of our infinitely creative God whose heart took pleasure in His handiwork “in the beginning” remain in us all. Thanks to His great grace, not all of our work is toil and labor amid thorns and sweaty brows. Sometimes it just flows out of us.

However, is this particular manifestation of general grace all that David Morgan, John Bunyan, Adam Hamilton and a multitude of other preachers have experienced on occasion and credited to a special working of the Holy Spirit, which they termed unction? Is there no special grace at work on these blessed occasions in the experience of the preacher and listening congregation?

Where General Grace and Special Grace Converge
I propose we view those preachers’ experiences cited above and others as resulting from a special convergence of general and special grace similar to what transpires when a person experiences spiritual conviction. In her article “Convicted by the Holy Spirit” (American Ethnologist, 1987), Susan Harding tries to make sense of the rhetoric of fundamental Baptist conversion. More precisely, hers is a record and subsequent analysis of what she experienced during an evangelistic encounter with a fundamentalist pastor.

Harding describes conversion as a process that begins when “an unregenerate listener begins to appropriate in his or her inner speech the regenerate speaker’s language and its attendant view of the world.” This acquisition “converts the listener’s mind into a contested terrain, a divided self,” which Harding later terms a divided mind. The unregenerate person, having been made to look at him or herself from a different viewpoint, must decide whether to accept the new frame of reference as a guide for understanding self and ordering his or her life.

It is this state of indecision and the anxiety generated by it until a decision is reached (i.e., the divided mind that Harding identifies as what Christians term conviction). The language that provokes this divided state by embedding itself in the unregenerate person’s psyche Harding equates to the Holy Spirit.

Such an understanding of conversion is thoroughly naturalistic. According to this view, conviction is what we feel naturally as a result of entertaining the language of the redeemed. “If you are willing to be witnessed to, if you are seriously willing to listen to the gospel, you have begun to convert.” It’s a work of general grace—the transformative power of speech, the ability to be reshaped through what we hear.

An objective Christian who reads Harding’s article will find it insightful on many levels, but will disagree with how she impersonalizes the Holy Spirit. In her view, the Spirit is not a divine Person apart from the spoken Word, but words themselves, the language and attendant worldview of the regenerate person who shares the gospel with an unregenerate audience. Harding’s error here is not distinguishing the person of the Spirit from His work in using the words of the redeemed—an act of special grace.

Jesus described the Spirit’s work as that of convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). He does His work in conjunction with the Word of God—the written Word that He inspired and which Jesus Himself incarnated. More than merely work as an outside influence on the production of Scripture, the Spirit imbued the process so He is now embodied in the finished product.

The Word not only comes to us from God, but it comes out of Him. The written Word is His respired Word, His breathed-out Word. This is not to say the Spirit and the written Word are indistinct. The Spirit exists apart from the Bible; and that same Spirit, God’s very breath, works through the preaching and hearing of the Word to produce conviction and generate faith (Rom. 10:14-17).

Where the Bible is heard, God is heard; yet God somehow works mysteriously with and beyond that Word to produce conviction which may or may not result in conversion. Likewise, whenever a preacher rightly divides the Word, the Spirit of God is present. Sometimes His presence is specially felt in the process.

As a preacher uses his creative abilities in the proclamation of Scripture, he is operating in the realm of general grace. In that realm also exists the joyous, self-forgetful state known as flow. It is a gift of God not to be confused with the special work of grace the Spirit may be doing with and beyond the Word in the hearts of listeners. When the preacher finds himself preaching in the flow and his congregation listening attentively, sensitive to the Spirit’s conviction, general grace has converged with special grace. Unction is as useful a term for describing this blessed phenomenon as any.

Perhaps Richard Bargas is correct. Perhaps no solid exegetical case can be made for a doctrine of special anointing for the preacher, but that doesn’t negate the experiences and testimonials of preachers and their listening congregations from across the centuries. Something happened. I believe that something was an experience (or in David Morgan’s case, two years’ experience) of preaching in the flow.

Bargas helpfully cites David Doran’s study comparing different views on how one attains this blessed state of preaching under the Spirit’s anointing. Doran found one common thread running through them all—the necessity of prayer. Goleman similarly points to the literature of contemplative traditions describing how the devout achieved states of pure bliss through nothing more than intense concentration. “A highly concentrated state is the essence of flow,” writes Goleman.

Sports psychologists, aware of the importance of focused concentration, counsel athletes of all skill levels to spend time quietly visualizing the successes they wish to achieve before stepping onto the field of competition. Perhaps we ministers would enjoy the pleasure of preaching in the flow more often if we, too, made a more concentrated effort at getting ourselves into a proper frame of mind. Rather than rushing from task to task before arriving breathless in the pulpit, we should make a point of quieting our hearts, focusing our thoughts, and sincerely committing the sermon to God.

Another contributor to the achievement of flow in any field of endeavor is acquiring a level of mastery in it through constant practice. When patterns of speech and behavior become second nature, the brain has to spend less time thinking about what it is doing. In this cool state, it’s better able to attune itself to the demands of the moment, forget about itself and enjoy spontaneous creativity.

Contrary to the old adage “Practice makes perfect,” practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice results in perfect performance. None of us ever will be perfect when it comes to preaching; but by applying ourselves, critically assessing our strengths and weaknesses, constantly striving to improve and gain a modest level of mastery, we can begin to develop positive patterns in our preaching that will free us up to respond more naturally and appropriately to the diverse settings in which we speak.

Ironically, another contributor to flow is an appropriate level of anxiety. World class athletes thrive when challenged, achieving their greatest results when facing real competition. Many who fare poorly on the practice field perform astonishingly well on game day. They need a bit of anxiety to bring out their best.

If all we’re doing as preachers is going through the motions, our personal boredom will inevitably echo back at us from our listeners. We need to keep ourselves challenged. Tackling a new book in Scripture to exegete, learning how to interpret and effectively communicate a different literary genre, and following an alternative model when constructing a sermon are just a few of the ways to stave off lethargy.

Whatever we choose to call it—unction, flow or something else—may the Lord in His grace see fit to make a greater number of us feel ourselves to be spiritual lions, to feel in our preaching as if an angel stands at our backs encouraging us, and to leave our hearers wondering what has made our preaching so different. If He grants us this gift, may we never fail to praise Him and continue seeking after more of the Giver.

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