The Unction of the Holy Spirit

          What is faithful preaching of God’s word? How does one know whether one has heard, or is hearing on a regular basis faithful preaching of God’s word? The central importance of these questions and their answers hits us when we recognize that the Second Person of the Trinity is identified by the apostle John as the Word made flesh (John 1:1-5). To preach God’s word is not only to preach Jesus, but also for Jesus to preach. By definition this means that faithful preaching of God’s word does not merely alert us to the content of what the preacher preaches and whether his claims accurately represent what actually is in the written text of Scripture from which he claimed to get them, but whether this content is truly believed by and controlling the man who preaches it. You see, God’s word was and still is brought by God’s Spirit. God’s Word and Spirit are inseparably united. This is why all faithful preaching of God’s word is accompanied by what has been called the unction of God’s Spirit.

            The ancient Greeks believed that in order for a verbal proclamation to have the greatest force or influence it had to be marked by three basic characteristics—logos, ethos and pathos. These three formed one inseparable whole. In this analysis, logos referred to the intellectual and rational content of what was spoken. Did it make rational sense? Was it true? Did it correspond to reality? Could the speaker rationally explain how what he said actually fit with the experience of his hearers? Ethos you might well imagine addressed in some way the ethical element within the spoken word. Did the speaker affirm that which was morally good or right, and thereby beautiful. Ethics was recognized as joined to aesthetics. And so the union of logos to ethos invariably resulted in pathos—the passion with which the speaker spoke. If indeed what the speaker said was true or correct, good and beautiful, worthy of the hearers belief, it thereby was worthy of their life. If it was worthy of their lives, well surely it must be worthy of the life of the speaker. Did this show in the speaker? Even the ancient Greeks, those whom the biblical writers deemed “the Gentiles,” even they had a doctrine of unction.

            We might legitimately ask where these ancient Greek philosophers acquired their doctrine of unction. Where they thought they acquired it and where they actually acquired it might yield different answers, but one thing is for sure—their doctrine of unction, as expressed in this union of logos, ethos and pathos, is expressed on a much higher “level,” or in a fuller way, in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. We see this not merely in that Jesus is the Word made flesh, but also in the Old Testament view of God’s torah, or law. The Old Covenant Scriptures reveal God’s torah as not merely rules to be obeyed, but as the very expression of God’s being or character. The final and fullest expression of this is seen in Jesus, the God-Man, who incarnated or embodied God’s torah/law.

            There are multiple ways in which the Old Testament reveals the God’s law or torah is not merely his commands for life, but the very expression of God’s being. Three in particular stand out: 1) God’s Word and Spirit work together to produce life (Gen. 1:1-2:24); 2) When God speaks he reveals who he is and therefore what he does (Exod. 3:14; 6:1-8); 3) Knowledge of God is equated with a way of human living that, yes, is the personal, social embodiment of God’s torah or law (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:1-21). Thus, when the prophet Hosea (4:1-3) confronts God’s covenant people with their sin he equates their lack of faithfulness, and mercy, or steadfast love with not only lacking knowledge of God, but also with their cursing, lying, murdering, stealing and committing adultery, that is, their violation of Yahweh’s commandments or torah. Knowledge of God is not, therefore, according to the Old Testament, merely about a particular set of intellectual, rational beliefs that can be expressed in verbal and literary affirmations (logos), but experienced in and by what we do in the totality of who we are as humans created in God’s image for particular social relations (ethos). Furthermore, all this is inextricably joined to our desires, because murder, stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness are joined to: “You shall not covet.” God reserved an entire command for addressing our desires. Jesus, of course, made it crystal clear that breaking any of God’s torah was a matter of not merely physical actions, but the internal life of desires (Mt. 5:21-48).

Among the myriad of application points that one might cover in response to these truths surely one is this: Preachers who rightly discern the truth of God’s word will be gripped, arrested at the core of their being, transformed by the renewal of their mind (Rom. 12:1-2) and deliver God’s preached word with authority and conviction. In short, they will preach with unction. They will know that compulsion of which Paul wrote: “Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1Cor. 9:16). But we must be careful. This is not simply about strong or flamboyant emotions. Be careful not to equate personality characteristics with unction. Unction looks a little different in every preacher. Unction is the product of God’s Spirit, not man. Furthermore, as we have already covered, a man’s preaching is not disconnected from his whole life; preaching God’s word is not only about what happens in the pulpit before God’s people on Sunday, but also what happens with the preacher throughout the week in his whole life.

Precisely because God’s living and active word is able to equip us for every good work because it is accompanied by the power of God’s Spirit for life, the faithful preacher of God’s word will have his disordered sinful thoughts, actions and desires set straight by God’s word so that in his preaching he will communicate with vibrancy and power, authority and conviction the eternally majestic glory of God’s gospel. He will preach with unction because God’s Spirit is speaking through him as he preaches God’s word. 

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.