Westminster & Preaching: Unction

Joel Wood

From Toastmasters to TED Talks, America has a history of enjoying and practicing oratory. Social Media has only confirmed that people love to hear themselves talk. Without end. Amen. Living near our nation’s capital, I’m regularly reminded of some of the great oratory of the past, from JFK’s “Ask Not” to FDR’s “Having Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself”! In fact, one of my favorite places to stand and take in the National Mall is the very spot, marked by a bronze plaque, where MLK declared his “Dream”! There is something so very powerful about the human spirit connecting with its fellow man on some point of culture, policy, or morality. So memorable. So life-changing, yet so not. Ironically, as much as we can remember those speeches, they are locked in time, in an outer world in which those words may never be as significant again. In the end, the words become more about the man speaking and how the movement of the moment rested solely on him. He made them flutter! He made them soar! He made them cry!


There are moments, though, that are eternally more powerful, more lasting, more life-changing than the great historic speeches of the past. These moments happen, have happened, and will happen in urban cathedrals and prairie chapels. In these moments, the one speaking fades into the distance and with words often forgettable, hearts are made new, marriages are restored, children are warmed to parents, indeed, the dead are made to live. How? What is happening when public speaking on spiritual subjects moves beyond human oratory?


Preaching. Preaching, with Unction, to be exact. That preaching which is NOT with “superiority of speech or wisdom” but goes about simply “declaring…the testimony of God” (1 Cor. 2). And what makes that work? The Holy Spirit. Now, to be clear, human effort in preaching and the Spirit’s working at not diametrically opposed.  They go hand in glove. The human preacher is to put for the time and effort to be schooled in preaching, to study and prepare and exegete for preaching, to hone and craft his sermon for preaching, but, in the end, “success is God’s work.”[1] As humbling as that is for preachers, it is absolutely true. Take, for instance, those who saw themselves in a competition with Paul and for all the wrong reasons.


Some indeed are preaching Christ out of envy and strife, and some also from good will. The former preach Christ out of contention, not sincerely, intending to add trouble to my circumstance. But the latter preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached. And in this I rejoice. Indeed, I will rejoice (Philippians 1:15-18).


Paul was able to rejoice, knowing that Christ was being preached, knowing that the promise of the Word’s fruitfulness in Isaiah 55 would be fulfilled, knowing that, even with impure, contentious motives on the part of the preacher, the Spirit can still work in power through the preached Word.


Now, knowing our human hearts grasp at any and every excuse, we should clarify that this is no reason to preach for wrong motives or even to not study and prepare, because, after all, it’s up to the Spirit! I have a number of friends who are excellent in construction and woodworking. They can produce anything you could ask of them. However, their skill doesn’t mean they can do the work with any tool or no tool. In fact, because of their skill, they invest heavily in all the right (best, most accurate, and sharpest) tools! Because of what they are able to do, they make sure they have the most fit instrument for the job. The Spirit of God does this, but not in the way we always think he would or should. For Him, the best tool might be a humble man with little or no earthly prowess, no perceivable desirability in the world’s terms. But when that simple man, “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” steps into the pulpit with a simple heart, “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom,” and a simple message, powerful things happen, “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” In that moment, when a sinner stands before other sinners and declares the free grace of God, “the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual,” moving the Word from that outer, fleshy ear, to the inner spiritual one, so that the sinner might be saved.[2]


As you head to the meetinghouse this Lord’s Day to hear the Word preached, ask yourself these two questions:


  1. Am I wanting, even expecting, human eloquence and wisdom, or the simple preaching of Christ, in demonstration of the Spirit and power?
  2. Am I desiring that Spiritual, powerful Word of Christ to be brought from my fleshy outer ear to the ear of my heart, that I might be saved and sanctified?


Burgess said that there “must necessarily be the Spirit of God, besides learning, First, to lead us into all truth. And then secondly, to sanctify it to our own hearts in an experimental and powerful manner.” This Sunday, seek to not be one who is “very Orthodox, and yet know[s] nothing of the work of grace upon [your] own soul.”[3] But anticipate a simple message, with unction, that alters your heart. You may soon forget the words spoken by the preacher in the pulpit, but you will never forget the Spirit’s powerful working in your soul.

Joel Enoch Wood is the pastor of Trinity RPC in Burtonsville, MD, between DC and Baltimore. He holds M.Div. and D.Min. degrees from the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is 1/4 of The Jerusalem Chamber podcast, a roundtable discussion among four friends who are pastors about the doctrine, worship, and piety of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

[1] Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, or, a Treatise of Grace and Assurance Part I (London, 1659): 502, quoted in Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors (Grand Rapids, 2017), 167. Spelling updated.

[2] All quotes in the paragraph are from 1 Corinthians 2.

[3] Anthony Burgess, An Expository Comment, Doctrinal Controversal and Practical upon the Whole First Chapter of the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (London, 1661): 9, quoted in Chad Van Dixhoorn, God’s Ambassadors (Grand Rapids, 2017), 167. Spelling updated.



Joel Wood