“To me there is nothing more terrible for a preacher, than to be in the pulpit alone, without the conscious smile of God.” – Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
For Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the act of preaching provides an opportunity for the Spirit of God to divinely anoint a preacher to declare the word of God with power. This emphasis on the necessity of the Spirit’s anointing sets Lloyd-Jones apart from most other preachers in the Reformed tradition. Though he is not charismatic enough for most in the charismatic movement – he rejected charismatic excesses and specifically warned against ‘directional prophecy’ that involved the delivery of detailed instructions for an individual on a specific matter – he is too charismatic for many in the Reformed tradition.
Lloyd-Jones took preaching very seriously. Because of this, he often felt woefully inadequate to the task. He found solace in the words of another preacher, James Thornwell, “I have never made, much less preached, a sermon in my life, and I am beginning to despair of ever being able to do it” (17). The glorious subject matter of the gospel was the ultimate cause of his sense of inadequacy: “Any man who has had some glimpse of what it is to preach will inevitably feel that he has never preached. But he will go on trying, hoping that by the grace of God one day he may truly preach” (18).
Because of the great responsibility of preaching and the unique hardships that accompany preaching, Lloyd-Jones believed that preachers must possess a clear divine call from God. He argued that the call had to be powerful because “sooner or later, the preacher will have to cope with depression and a temptation to despair” (23). A perceived need is not the basis for a call, nor does the church issue the call. The call to preach comes from God. The church simply validates the call.
Lloyd-Jones firmly believed that there is more to a sermon than the words of a sermon. Words, though important, are inherently limited without the Spirit’s anointing. Preaching must be “more than words.” A gospel delivered in “word only” has no power to transform. Therefore, as important as words are to the preaching task, the preacher must never place his or her confidence in words alone.
Words are the preacher’s tools. But woe to the man who has confidence in them alone. They could get in the way of the message – an obstacle to its free flow. The congregation then could be more fittingly described as an audience. They would have assembled not to experience theophany – the awareness of God – but rather to be spectators at an event, at best a rhetorician using his art, at worst, a man drawing attention to himself… The goal of true preaching is to leave a congregation with a sense of God. Agility with words, exactness of expression, tidiness of composition, are not its necessary components… Paul [frequently] broke the rules of grammar and syntax. (27)
In order for a sermon to bear fruit, the Spirit of God must accompany the words with divine power. Only the Spirit’s anointing – which Lloyd-Jones also refers to as afflatus, unction, accession, or effusion of power – enables the preacher to transcend his or her own natural abilities and act with divine power.
Lloyd-Jones describes the experience of the sacred anointing in the following manner:
The one thing needed above all else is the accompanying power of the Spirit… It is ‘power from on high’. It is the preacher gliding on eagles’ wings, soaring high, swooping low, carrying and being carried along by a dynamic other than his own. His consciousness of what is happening is not obliterated. He is not in a trance. He is being worked on but is aware that he is still working. He is being spoken through but he knows he is still speaking. (28-29)
The preacher cannot force “the anointing” – it is an act of God alone. “[T]his effusion hinges entirely upon the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit. He may grant it, he may not. It is utterly at his discretion. Receiving it once does not mean you can bank on it the next time” (59).
What is the preacher to do if the anointing does not come? Lloyd-Jones offers the following helpful advice in this regard:
But the preacher will always be hoping, praying, expecting to be lifted up beyond himself, given a passion, a train of thought, spiritual insights beyond his usual abilities. If it comes, he will thank God. If it does not, he will still thank the Lord. He is called to do his best, to work within the parameters of his responsibility – diligence in study, godliness in life, faithfulness in prayer. After this he can do no more. He needs to do no more. (98)
For Lloyd-Jones, the Spirit’s anointing is ultimately a community experience. This is due to Lloyd-Jones’ perspective on the nature of the preaching event. In his view, preaching is an event that only occurs when there is both a preacher and a congregation.
‘The very presence of a body of people in itself is a part of the preaching . . . It is not a mere gathering of people; Christ is present. This is the great mystery of the Church. There is something in the very atmosphere of Christian people meeting together to worship God and to listen to the preaching of the Gospel.’ The fact that the Bible is used and exposition is attempted does not qualify it to be rated as preaching. The presence of a congregation is vital. There is an interaction between the pulpit and pew. The preacher needs his hearers’ empathy and prayers. (63)
This conviction is even more important in our modern age of media communication. Since preaching is a dynamic exchange between the preacher and his or her congregation, it does not occur when someone simply sits in front of a camera or behind a microphone. The role of the congregation in the preaching event should never be undermined. “The preacher should receive something from the congregation. There is an interplay, action and response, and this often makes a very vital difference… the responsiveness and eagerness of his congregation lifts him up and enlivens him” (64).
The sacred anointing is not limited to the preaching event, but extends to the Spirit empowering the preacher in his or her preparation and delivery of sermons. “To approach preaching as a science or a craft and to risk distancing oneself from the charisma, romance and total dependence on the Spirit of God was anathema” (28). For this reason, “The preacher’s first, and most important, task is to prepare himself, not his sermon” (126).
The preacher must speak as a witness and not simply as an advocate. The preacher is someone who is vitally caught up in the subject matter he or she preaches:
It is therefore the power of the Spirit that transforms a man who seems to have a clinical detachment from his subject matter. The endowment causes him to become passionately involved in declaring his burden. The distinction, Lloyd-Jones argued, is illustrated in the character of an advocate in contrast to a witness. The latter gives testimony to what he has personally experienced. He is involved in his subject matter. The advocate reflects what he has been told. It is second-hand. He is at a disadvantage. The person who is able to say what he saw, and thus relate the experience graphically, is better qualified to speak than the person who relates on behalf of another what he has been told. The preacher must see himself as a witness. (85)
The gospel message should not be external to the preacher. The delivery of God’s message must come from the inner part of the preacher’s being. It is this passion that the Spirit anoints with power.
It is thus a godly life that provides the fire that receives the anointing of God. Therefore, the preacher’s greatest task is not to preach, but to live for God’s glory. “To aim solely to be an orator or an essayist is to fail as a preacher… To live to preach may seem a worthy object. Actually, it is myopic. Preachers are to live and die for the honour of God, ideally to pour out their lives as a living sacrifice.” (127)
Lloyd-Jones’ teaching and example challenges preachers to consider how seriously they approach their task. All the techniques in the world cannot substitute for the Spirit’s anointing. This does not negate the importance of careful preparation and godly living. Instead, it affirms and embraces these things, and lifts them and the preacher to preach with the divine power of God’s sacred anointing.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2005