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How Does Unction Function?

Probing the mystery of "the anointing" in a sermon.

Average Rating:  [see ratings/reviews]How Does Unction Function?

In his novel Paul, Walter Wangerin, Jr., has Barnabas describing the great Apostle's preaching: "He had such a thing to tell them, and such a need to say it soon, to say it fast, that the reasonable tone of his voice would change to urgency. So then his sentences got longer, and the words burst from his mouth like flocks of birds, and the faith of the man was a high wind at the hearts of the people, and some of them gasped in delight, and these are the ones who rose up and flew; but others were insulted, and others afraid of the sacred passions."

I imagine unction like that.

It is only when the Holy Spirit is added to the equation that we have unction.

Unction means the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon a sermon so that something holy and powerful is added to the message that no preacher can generate, no matter how great his skills. At the center of Pittsburgh two rivers, the Monongahela and the Allegheny, come together at The Point to form a new river, the mighty Ohio. That, I think, is how we envision unction working—the sermon and the Spirit meeting to form a spiritual torrent, Jesus' voice "like the sound of rushing waters."

I have occasionally been asked to evaluate sermon tapes, using a simple set of questions. One question—"Would you describe this sermon as having unction?"—often stumped me. What does unction sound like? What would I hear, exactly? Can unction even be discerned on a tape or do you have to be there in person to sense the Spirit's unction?

Generally we regard unction as the Holy Spirit's anointing of the preacher as the sermon pours from his lips. Surely God does wonderfully and mysteriously anoint preachers, but I've been intrigued with two other "targets" of the Spirit's unction—the very process of baptized rhetoric, and the inherent anointing upon God's Word itself.

Baptized Rhetoric

We equate unction with a power that lifts words and sends them a-soaring, but there is power something like that in simply good rhetoric. Consider the Gettysburg Address, for example, or the speeches of Winston Churchill. Edward R. Murrow said of him, "He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." Surely those speeches had something unction-like about them. Or when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., cried out across the mall in Washington, "I have a dream," was that unction? He was a preacher, after all. But that is also great rhetoric.

Aristotle's classical rhetoric identified three essential ingredients of a great speech: logos (what we say), ethos (who we are) and pathos (the passion we bring to the task). But it is only when the Holy Spirit is added to the equation that we have unction. When those qualities are combined in a godly and passionate preacher, steeped in a text of Holy Scripture, great rhetoric is kissed with unction. Kent Hughes, in the preface to his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, says these three in a holy combination are in fact what make for "the Holy Spirit filling one's sails, the sense of his pleasure, and the awareness that something is happening among one's hearers."

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Lee Eclov:

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Becky Tirabassi

August 14, 2017  9:39am

Every word rang true.

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Warren Charlton

August 01, 2017  10:13am

An encouraging but convicting article that has the Spirit's stamp upon it.

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Pastor Sandie

July 31, 2017  7:14pm

So that's what it is - unction. Sometimes I would think I am just too serious pleading with God to anoint me with His Word and not mine. I thought it was spiritual immaturity or maybe it was God gave more to one gender over another. I never wanted to preach until I felt what I called "God's stamp of approval", but now I know it is called unction. Thank you for this comprehensive article. It is excellent teaching.

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July 31, 2017  12:46pm

I don't always know when I have unction in the pulpit, but I have a much better sense of when the Spirit is at work refining the spoken and written Word in the hearts of my flock when members tell me afterwards what spoke to them. Sometimes it is a thought, image or a circumstance connected to their lives that my preaching provokes that has less of a correlation to my main message, but is that which the Lord has for them that particular morning. This reality at first was a bit disturbing because I assumed people were not listening, but I found through asking people that they did indeed hear the main message and thrust, but it was not that main message that always connected but instead led them to another insight. This reality has diminished my all-too-frequent aim to be clever or "relevant" for the renewed purpose of now aiming to being clear, Christ-centered and letting the Scripture speak more often on its own terms.

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Phil McLain

July 31, 2017  11:02am

I hope I want this enough that I'm willing to take the time to prepare for it!

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