Although ministers have varied jobs to perform, nothing holds greater priority than the call to preach.
Fortunate, indeed, are those churches with shepherds who recognize and accept the importance of the centrality of preaching as a means of saving the lost, nurturing and inspiring the saved, and providing preventive maintenance against apostasy. Well-fed, stable, biblically literate congregations, who are growing in Christ, are ofter the products of preaching which motivates people to become involved in sharing the benefits which they are receiving.
Because preaching holds such primacy in the work of the ministry, it need not surprise us to find many contending demands being made upon pastors to usurp the priority of preaching. These multiple claims upon a minister can so divide his time that he may feel caught on a treadmill, majoring on minors. This is precisely what the enemy seeks to accomplish; namely, to divide and conquer. It is possible that preachers can spend the least amount of time in preparing to reach the greatest amount of people. Only praying is more important than preaching, and the two must be combined for effectivenes.
Preaching that produces results, holds the attention of congregations, edifies churches, and glorifies God, is spirit-anointed preaching. It was this type of preaching which characterized John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, and Jesus. At Nazareth Jesus was invited to read the Scripture and then to preach. He read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach …” (Luke 4:18).
The God who calls us to preach calls us to spirit-anointed preaching. “Unction” is a word reserved to describe the mystical power which accompanies preaching. Sangster says, “One of the things which distinguishes preaching from all other forms of public address is that preaching can have unction. That it has it so rarely is the shame of us preachers and proves the poverty of our prayers.”1 What does this mean? What are the characteristics of spirit-anointed preaching?
Spirit-anointed preaching begins with the preacher. God does not anoint programs, plans, eloquence, or education, but people, individuals who have been prepared in cooperation with God to be entrusted with the power of the spirit. To the shepherds God has admonished, “be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord” (Isaiah 52:11). The power of the spirit will not come upon preachers who are compromising their standards, unkind and unchristian in their homes, critical and negative in their outlook, harboring sensual and sinful desire, or are dilatory and lazy in their ministry.
Ministers who sense their inadequacy, and are crying out to God for help, are worthy candidates to be anointed by God’s spirit. God has said, “I will not give my glory unto another” (Isaiah 48:11). God may have to break us before He can make us. We may have to cry for God to do something to us before He can do great things through us. Spirit-anointed preaching does not come without our being willing to pay a great price — that of being broken by God, molded by prayer, and prostrated in humble dependence upon God for power.
Preaching begins with the man. Denominations, seminaries, and colleges do not make preachers. The Holy Spirit does this. Charles E. Jefferson said, “It is commonplace to say that a preacher must have the Holy Spirit, but it is a commonplace which every preacher will do well to ponder.”2
We can get the best of training and education, and we should; but it is inadequate and unable to supply the power. We may learn the best homiletical practices and know how to develop a sermon, but we can still lack the power. This is because power resides not in the arm of flesh but in the power of the spirit. It is extra-terrestrial. It is rained down, not worked up.
Stalker agreed that the piety of the preacher is foremost when he stated, “… the prime qualification of a minister is that he be himself a religious man — that, before he begins to make God known, he should first himself know God.”3 Robert Horton poignantly stressed this point,
I conceive … the real preacher of the Word as one who is before all other things occupied in keeping clean the vessel which is to deliver and distribute the things of God, ‘purging himself from all defilement of the flesh and of the spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.’ His chief concern is not to prepare sermons, but to prepare himself to deliver sermons.4
Peter, for three years, was given the best training anyone could ever have; but it availed little until he realized his need and fell upon the Rock and was broken. At Pentecost we see a new Peter — no longer self-confident and self-sufficient but dependent, humbled, committed. Although he probably knew little about how to prepare a sermon, he knew a lot about Jesus and had experienced His saving grace; and he preached a spirit-anointed sermon with earth-shaking power. So the first characteristic of spirit-anointed preaching is to be the person to whom God can entrust His spirit.
Another important characteristic of spirit-anointed preaching is to recognize that first and foremost, it is preaching the good news of the gospel. “Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, …” (1 Corinthians 15:1).
The spirit can only anoint preaching which is biblical and in harmony with the good news: “when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). When we abandon or misuse the Word which the spirit inspired to preach our own fanciful ideas, we need not expect the anointing to be present. Anointed preaching is proclaiming a passage over which we have studied, prayed, and agonized until its truth has not only become clear to our minds but has burned its way into our hearts.
Jesus should be central to our preaching, for the spirit was given that “He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (John 16:14).
Another significant characteristic of spirit-anointed preaching is that it will be timely and relevant. Ministers need to speak to the urgent and immediate needs of their congregations. Jesus’ messages spoke to the needs of His listeners; consequently, they were extremely relevant.
When a passage from the Bible crosses the path of human need in one’s congregation, there is potential for a spirit-anointed sermon. When a sermon is speaking to the need of a human heart, that message is relevant and timely, and it contains the factor of attention. Preaching which meets the immediate needs of individuals will serve as a deterrent to those who tend to absent themselves from church.
Anointed preaching will meet the needs of people. Harry Emerson Fosdick once said,
The future, I think, belongs to a type of sermon which can best be described as an adventure in cooperative thinking between the preacher and his congregation … The preacher takes hold of a real problem in our lives, and, stating it better than we could state it, goes on to deal with it fairly, frankly, helpfully.”
Being relevant in one’s preaching is dependent upon a thorough knowledge of the biblical passage and a thorough knowledge of people. Fosdick observed that
A minister … should know his gospel goes without saying, but he may know it ever so well and yet fail to get it within reaching distance of anybody unless the intimately understands people and cares more than he cares for anything else what is happening inside of them.6
At Pentecost Peter was timely when he addressed the people on the subject of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Only forty days had transpired since these momentous events had occurred. People from throughout the Roman Empire were present for this feast, and the events of the preceding days were being much discussed when Peter stood up and biblically approached the subject which occupied their attention. Their immediate need was to understand who this Jesus was who had been slain and raised and how to account for the phenomena of languages which was occurring. The sermon was relevant, and the preacher and his message were anointed with power.
Sermons are made powerless when the hearers see little connection between the message and its importance to them. Early in the sermon — perhaps in the introduction — the reason why the message is important must be clarified and stated to the audience. Sermons will always be more vital if the listener can be made to understand why this message is important to him.
A fourth characteristic of spirit-anointed preaching is that it will contain material that is constructive and encouraging. People are hurting to the point of despair. They do not need to be beaten but to be fed. The spirit is given not to be an enemy but to be our friend: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever” (John 14:16).
The spirit is an encourager, not a discourager. Consequently, preaching which carries with it the anointing power of God will bring solace, not wounds. Spurgeon admonished his students to “Take into account, affectionately, the trials of your people, and seek for a balm for their wounds.”7
Ministers who dislike themselves, who are easily irritated by others, who are chafing under some piercing experience will more than likely unconsciously reflect this tainted attitude in their preaching.
In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, he was seeking to build a constructive future for those who comprised his audience. Although some had been guilty of nailing Him to a cross, God raised Him from the dead, seated Him at the right hand of God, and sent forth His spirit as a powerful witness. The emphasis was not of condemnation but of hope and encouragement.
The spirit is sent — as was Jesus — not to destroy men’s lives but to save them. Therefore, the more redemptive our sermons may be, the more power they will have. People need not be told how bad they are, for most are discouraged enough over their failures and shortcomings. What they need to comprehend is the gracious mercy, the accepting love, and re-creating power of an infinite God who receives them and assists in their rehabilitation. Anointed preaching will proclaim, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 45:22).
A fifth characteristic of spirit-anointed preaching is clarity. Luther said, “A preacher ought so to preach, that when the sermon is ended, the congregation shall disperse saying, ‘the preacher said this’.”8 Sermons that are muffled, obscure, and cluttered with ambiguity will lack the dynamic force which commands attention and demands action.
Although Luke provides only a summary of Peter’s Pentecostal sermon, it becomes evident that it was clear. He had the needs of his audience plainly in mind and his purpose was transparent: he used the occasion to present the meaning of the death, resurrection, and reigning of Jesus in heaven. His subject and the clarity with which it was given had a dynamic effect upon the audience.
A sixth and final characteristic of anointed preaching will manifest itself in a freedom of delivery, where words and thoughts flow freely. According to Samuel W. Shoemaker, we need to pray to “get loose” under the Holy Spirit, in order that God may “say fresh, vivid, exciting, moving, and convincing things through us, … so that there is fire in it … that leaps from His to us and from us to them.”9
The tempo of delivery may vary with the speaker and will depend to some degree upon the personality of the minister. But one thing is essential: the delivery, whether it be given in a lively, dynamic manner or a more calm conversational way, must reveal that the message has not just passed over the lips but has passed through the speaker’s life. The preacher is not a cassette tape, but a fountain that overflows. Energized speaking is a combination of concreteness, sensorial vividness, a balanced use of figures of speech, an excitement about the truths in the sermon, an earnest acceptance and an application of the message to the speaker’s heart, and, most importantly, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the speaker and upon all of the tools he employs in preparing and delivering his message.
The challenges we face today are formidable and threatening, but the gospel has no less power than that which marked it first days. God still lives, and the promise is still for us. “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
With a promise like this, we can confidently expect that the best and most powerful days of preaching are before us.
A century ago William Arthur wrote, “If the preaching of the gospel is to exercise a great power over mankind, it must be either by enlisting extraordinary men or by the endowing of ordinary men with extraordinary power.”10 Since there will never be enough unusually gifted individuals to go around, the only hope is for God to endow ordinary men with extraordinary power.
With courage born of heaven, let us face our congregations with spirit-anointed preaching, claiming the promise “I myself will give you power of utterance and wisdom” (Luke 21:15, NEB).
1. J. Daniel Baumann, An Introduction to Contemporary Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1972) p. 286.
2. Charles E. Jefferson, The Minister as Prophet (New York: Thomas Crowell, co-publisher, 1905) p. 62
3. Batsell Barrett Baxter, The Heart of the Yale Lectures (New York: The MacMillian Company, 1947) p. 31.
4. Baxter, p. 34.
5. Don B. Aycock, ed., Preaching with Purpose and Power (Bacon: Mercer University Press, 1982) p. 176.
6. Aycock, p. 177.
7. Spurgeon’s Lectures to His Students (Zondervan, 1945) p. 76.
8. C. Campbell Morgan, Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974) p. 33.
9. Baumann, p. 285.
10. George E. Sweazey, Preaching the Good News (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1976) p. 44.
Although ministers have varied jobs to perform, nothing holds greater priority than the call to preach.