What's the function of unction?

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One of my favourite philosophers, Inigo Montoya, said to Vizzini ''You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means''

I expect with the upcoming release of the Lloyd Jones documentary there will again be discussions of 'unction' in Preaching. Trying to define unction is akin to grabbing hold of a wet bar of soap. Those who argue for unction in preaching will want to say that is the whole point, there's an element of mystery, but you know it when you feel it. In all honesty, having grown up listening to preachers who often claimed to have it but in hearing them you would never have guessed it, I am tired of the discussion and there is a mysticism to it all which is based, I would argue, on experience more than exegesis. The verse that is used most often in discussions of unction is 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5

'For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia'.

People cite this verse to describe a sermon they heard which was powerful. A preacher may preach regularly but there are times when they preach 'in power and the Holy Spirit and with full conviction'.  Now experientially I think we can all relate to that.  There are times when God  does powerfully bless a particular sermon to us and on the surface this verse would seem to support that. So the argument goes, some sermons come in 'word' only and then there are those occasions when the preacher comes in 'word and Spirit and much conviction'. However the verse in its context is obviously not saying that.

What Paul is talking about is his visit to Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9.  As he preached his message (reasoning, explaining, proving, proclaiming, persuading)  the Thessalonians were transformed by the gospel. They were brought to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was not that Paul preached a series of sermons but one that was 'anointed and came with power, the Holy Spirit and conviction and unction'. The result of that great sermon or sermons was that a brilliant work was done in Thessalonica.

The question you've got to ask is 'What does it mean to preach in word only?' One of the problems is that the minister who has preached and not felt that his sermon has gone well, seen no immediate effect, thinks to himself 'I've preached in word only'.  The issue in this text,  however, is not so much that there are normal sermons and then Spirit inspired sermons but that Thessalonica was full of words, full of messages that did not transform. However, the gospel Paul preached was not just empty words; it was full of life. It led to the Thessalonians coming to saving faith in the gospel and a church being planted.

What had happened in Thessalonica is that people heard the powerful life giving message that Jesus saves. It was this message that changed the them; it was this message that brought the church there to birth as opposed to the messages and words that the Thessalonians were used to.

I do believe that God uses some sermons more than others, I don't really understand that and I suspect neither do you.  We pray, don't we, as preachers that we would faithfully preach God's Word and God's Spirit would take his Word and make it fruitful, to fall on good soil in our hearers hearts. I think that in trying to create a theology of  'unction',  in looking for an immediate effect in preaching it has led us to read 1 Thessalonians 1 through the lens of our experience rather than what Paul is actually saying. So 1 Thessalonians should have the opposite effect of what it often does, it should encourage us that the message we have 'turns the world upside down'. The gospel we preach changes lives and churches. It's not that it does that occasionally when we preach in the power of the Spirit.

So how should we pray for our preaching?  Paul would seem to me to model this though it's not half so 'spiritual' is it.......

'Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel' Eph 6:19 (NIV)

'Pray also for us, that God may open a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison - that I may make It clear, which is how I ought to speak'  Col 4:3,4

'Pray for us, that the Word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured' 2 Thessalonians 3:1
Posted April 21, 2015 @ 9:52 AM by Paul Levy
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