I’m incurably skinny. I rocked a 6 foot, 145 pound frame in college. One time I broke the 150 mark, but it took lifting till I ached and eating till I wanted to puke. Then I lost all seven pounds during summer break, since I lost my access to a gym.
Ever feel that way in regards to your preaching? You want your sermons to be more effective. You want to help your people more with your preaching. But after all the hard work, you feel like you’re right back where you started?
Fortunately, effective sermons are not about our work – at least not first.
The Holy Spirit is the one who works through our sermons to make them effective.
So the first element we must discuss regarding truly effective sermons – sermons riddled with spiritual life for the dead, spiritual help for the troubled, spiritual strength for the weary – is the necessary role of the Holy Spirit in preaching.
The most important part of your sermon is unction
D. Martin Lloyd-Jones said, “The greatest essential in connection with preaching…is the unction and the anointing of the Holy Spirit” (Preachers and Preaching, 304).
If you are not familiar with this word unction, it’s about time you are. It’s really fun to say. It sounds like it belongs to a different century, but its significance is as up to date as the iPad.
Here is how Lloyd-Jones defines unction. Don’t skim this quote. Let these subordinate clauses marinate in your mind:
“It is the Holy Spirit falling upon the preacher in a special manner. It is an access of power. It is God giving power, and enabling, through the Spirit, to the preacher in order that he may do this work in a manner that lifts it up beyond the efforts and endeavours of man to a position in which the preacher is being used by the Spirit and becomes the channel through whom the Spirit works” (Preachers and Preaching, 305).
Your words are ultimately powerless. But inasmuch as the Holy Spirit comes down upon you while you study and while you preach, they are infused with the power of God.
Paul on the power of the Spirit in preaching
Paul writes about the insufficiency of well-spoken words by themselves:
“And my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
“Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).
Are your sermons “only in word”? Of course we have to use words, and we ought to put them together into coherent, compelling arguments. But it is only when the Spirit works through our words that people are fully convicted of their sin and come to faith in Jesus.
How do you get unction?
You can’t really. The Spirit blows where he wills (John 3:8). We can’t harness or manipulate the Holy Spirit.
But the one thing we can do is pray.
Paul combines wielding the sword of the Spirit with praying in the Spirit in Ephesians 6:17-18a. Then in 6:18b-23, he immediately applies this principle by asking the Ephesians to pray for him, that he may be given words to boldly proclaim the gospel. The Spirit works through the combination of the word and prayer. No wonder that’s what the disciples devoted themselves to (Acts 6:4).
How much time do you spend praying over your sermon?
Don’t devote yourself eloquence or winsomeness to make your sermons more effective. The Holy Spirit determines the effect of your sermon.
So before you preach – even while you preach – pray for unction.