Results tagged “Word of God” from Reformation21 Blog

The Necessity of Preaching


Salvation is an expansive term. It essentially means "safety." Salvation includes the application of Christ's work from the new birth, through faith and repentance, to Justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Christians share in Christ's benefits because they are united to him through faith and they enjoy communion in all his benefits. We have been saved (Eph. 2:8), we are being saved (2 Cor. 2:15), and we shall be saved (Rom. 5:9). God uses means such as the Word, the sacraments, and prayer to save sinners (WSC 88). We receive Christ by faith as we use his appointed means to foster and to exercise our faith.

Is reading the Bible in private enough to save us? Not ultimately. Like the Bereans, we must receive the preached Word "with all readiness" and we must search the Scriptures daily "to find out whether these things [are] so" (Acts 17:11). Preaching is necessary for salvation because it is the ordinary means through which we hear Christ and are saved by him. This passage explains why preaching is necessary, who should do it, what it proclaims, its opposition, and its purpose. These truths show us why we need preaching as a means of promoting our salvation through union and communion with Christ.

The necessity of preaching of so clearly highlighted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 10, where he wrote:

"How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!' But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:14-17).

Preaching is necessary because people need to hear Christ in order to believe in him for salvation. Romans 9-11 answers the question why so many Jews did not receive Christ as their Messiah. In chapter 9, Paul answered that not all Jews came to faith because God did not elect all of them to salvation. Chapter 11 concludes that God preserved an elect remnant of ethnic Jews now, such as Paul, and that God would save many more of them in the future. Chapter 10 explains that unbelieving Jews were accountable for their unbelief. Paul explained that God would save both Jews and Gentiles through preaching. He pressed the necessity of preaching in light of the fact that people need to call upon Christ through faith. Circumcised Jews needed to be circumcised in heart (Jer. 9:25-26; Rom. 2:28-29). Uncircumcised Gentiles "were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12). Only Christ's blood could bring both Jews and Gentiles near to God (v. 13-18). Paul added that it was not enough to hear about Christ. People need to hear Christ's voice. The Greek text of Romans 10:14 says literally, "How shall they believe him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear [him] without a preacher?" As Christ spoke in Paul (2 Cor. 13:3), and as Christ pleads with sinners through his ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20), so people hear Christ through preachers in order to believe Christ himself. This does not mean that Christ does not call people through Bible reading and that he does not use the sacraments and prayer as means of salvation. Yet preaching is the ordinary means by which we must learn Christ and hear his voice (Eph. 4:20). How God can save sinners and how he ordinarily chooses to do so are different questions. When we listen to sermons, we should expect to hear Christ in the sermon as he calls us to himself by his Word and Spirit.

Preaching comes through Christ's sent messengers. This implies that preachers are necessary for preaching and that God must equip and send them to preach on Christ's behalf. This point builds upon the previous post, which defined preaching as a public authoritative proclamation of the gospel through Christ's ordained ambassadors. To identify preaching we must identify the preacher properly. We saw that Christ gifts preachers through the Spirit. Christ sends preachers to do their work by calling them to office through the church. He calls men to office through the election of the congregation and the laying on of hands by a group of elders (presbytery, in Greek. Acts 1:23, 6:3-6, 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14). This former act is election and latter is ordination. The church recognizes the gifts of those whom Christ is sending to preach; it does not convey gifts to them. This reinforces the idea that we must define preaching largely in terms of office. We should seek to hear and receive Christ through the preaching of those preachers whom he has sent.

Preaching is necessary because it brings to us glad tidings from God. Paul cited Isaiah 52:7 to show the blessedness of those who bring "the gospel of peace." "Gospel" means "good news" and proclaiming this good news is inherent to preaching. This means that preaching has a positive aim. It is the "sweet savor of Christ" to God" (2 Cor. 2:15) and God intends preaching to be the "savor of life unto life" to those who believe (v. 16). Preaching should have a positive tone because Christ's person and work are its objects. In preaching, we hear the voice of the Christ who saves.

The positive aim of preaching often meets opposition. Paul cited Isaiah 53:1 to show that preaching does not always bring life. The preached Word becomes a "savor of death" to those who reject Christ (2 Cor. 2:16). It was so to unbelieving Israel in Isaiah's day, it was so to unbelieving Jews in Paul's day, and it remains so to all people who refuse Christ's voice through preaching today. Preaching condemns incidentally. Its aim is to save rather than to condemn. Preaching announces God's love in sending his Son to save those who believe (Jn. 3:16). He did not send him to condemn the world, but to save it (v. 17). Preaching condemns only those who do not believe in the only begotten Son of God (v. 18). People bring their own darkness to bear on the gospel, the nature of which is light (v. 19). Those who love darkness hate light and shun its radiance (v. 20). Yet those who love the truth as it is in Jesus (Eph. 4:21) love the light that he is and brings. The darkness in people's hearts leads them to flee the light, but the darkness of the world cannot overcome the light (Jn. 1:5). God will achieve the end of calling people out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9) and he will use preaching as a means of doing so.

Preaching is necessary as the primary means that Christ uses to bring people to salvation because it is his primary means of promoting saving faith. "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). Some manuscripts read, "the word of Christ," instead of, "the word of God." In either case, Paul teaches us that preaching is the primary means of converting sinners and of building up the saints to salvation because we hear Christ through preaching. Christ must, therefore, be the primary object of preaching. Though preaching is defined largely in terms of office, Christ's work in sending preachers defines preaching in terms of its content as well. Christ commissions preachers, they speak on Christ's behalf, and Christ speaks through them, in order to unfold the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:8). Failing to preach Christ in a sermon denies the definition and nature of preaching. Christian sermons must be distinctively Christian. Do we listen to sermons expecting to hear and receive Christ through them?

The Missing Message

While preparing talks for a forthcoming Reformation Conference, I happened across Heiko Oberman's outstanding 1961 Theology Today lecture, "Preaching and the Word in the Reformation," in which he set down what he believed to have been the three most important aspects of the preaching among the Reformers: (1) the sermon as apocalyptic event; (2) the sermon as corporate act of worship; and (3) the relation of the written and the spoken Word of God. It is the first of these to which I wish to give further consideration. 

After dispelling the myth that preaching had disappeared prior to the Reformation, Oberman suggested that one of the things that was unique about the preaching of the Reformers was that it was an apocalyptic event, in which "the sermon...absorbed the medieval sacrament of penance." What the Roman Catholic Church had taken out of the preaching of the Gospel and put into the hands of the priests, the Reformers took out of the hands of the priests and put it back into the preaching of the Word and Gospel. The Reformers believed that in the true preaching of the Gospel the eternal realties of Heaven and Hell come breaking into time and space, by which the hearers are confronted by God. As sinners are confronted with their sin and the holiness of God, they are brought before the Divine tribunal in order to show them the need they have for redemption and forgiveness.  

Moving on from the confrontation of the word, Oberman insisted that "the function of the sermon is to provide proper doctrinal information especially as regards the first and second advent of Jesus Christ." The preaching of Christ is central to the preaching of the Reformation because, as the Reformers understood, "the sermon does not inspire good inclinations, but moves the doors of Heaven and Hell." Oberman summed up this aspect of Reformation preaching when he acquiesced with the essence of pietistic preaching: "Where the Word is preached and man encounters Christ, he is forced to answer 'Yes' or 'No.'" Since all of these things are so, we must understand that true preaching is, "God's last word, to which no syllable will be added." Oberman brought his thoughts on the apocalyptic nature of preaching to a close by explaining how the true preaching of the word brings assurance to believers. He wrote:

For this reason the Reformation could preach the certitudo salutisthe certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law. In the words of Calvin: "When a Christian looks into himself he finds cause to be afraid or even to despair...[But] he will win a sure hope of eternal perseverance when he considers that he belongs to Him who cannot fall or fail." It gives pause to realize that this message which proved to lend the Reformation movement its reconciling and liberating power has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit.

Here, two things stand out to me as being of prime importance. First, only the preaching of the Reformation can hold forth the assurance of salvation. The greatest of all differences between the preaching of Rome and the preaching of the Reformation lies in this: "the Reformation could preach the...certainty of salvation, because he who will judge us is the same who fulfilled the law." If that aspect of preaching is missing from our churches then we will never hold out to despairing sinners the peace for which their souls so desperately long. 

Second, Oberman made the sobering observation that "this message...has virtually disappeared from the Protestant pulpit." While recognizing that he was referring to the mainline Protestant churches of his day (which were, incidentally, at their heyday in the 1960's), we must also recognize that the same can be said of so many churches in our own day. Rome continues to be void of this all-important aspect of preaching. Liberal Protestant churches maintain the strongest possible distaste for it. Most concerning of all, however, is the realization that the better part of self-professed evangelical churches have abandoned the preaching of the Reformation. From the pulpit, churches that claim affinity with the Reformation are proving themselves to be virtually antithetical to the Reformers. In so many churches in our day, the psychological and social are trumpeted instead of Heaven and Hell, the court of public opinion rather than the Divine tribunal and a sophisticated call to self-atonement through humanitarianism rather than forgiveness of sins through the atoning death of Jesus. We should be appalled at the paltry nature of what flies under the name of preaching today. We should long for preaching that brings men and women before the eternal tribunal, that sets out Jesus Christ in His saving fulness and that calls sinners to respond to Him in faith and repentance. It is then, and only then, that we will know the same "reconciling and liberating power" that was heard and felt in the days of the Reformers. 

John Calvin on the True Church

When is a "church" not a church? How do we recognize the true church of Jesus Christ? And how do we discern the false? Calvin's answer, in the Institutes 4.2.1 - 4.2.12, to what was in his day--and remains--an important question, is, essentially: the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper are the hallmarks of the true church. Where these are lacking, "surely the death of the church follows." 

Why should this be so? Because the church is built on the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). They have a primacy of role in person in the course of redemptive history; but their teaching is the foundation for every generation of Christian faith. Substitute another foundation for the church and the whole building will crumble. 

But in Calvin's eyes Roman Catholic theology failed to grasp this, and effectively transferred the authority of the once-for-all written apostolic word to the questionable strength of a chain of bishops of varying degrees of orthodoxy and reliability. 

Physical succession may be attractive, but it guarantees nothing. That is precisely why we have the written Scriptures, so that the truth of God may be carefully preserved and passed on intact from believing generation to believing generation. Neither biblically instructed Christians of the 16th century nor the Fathers of the church in the early centuries believed that a mere succession of bishops guaranteed that the gospel message would be maintained in its pristine purity. 

This is why Calvin's departure from the community of physical succession was not schism. For how could agreement in the word of God be regarded as schism from the church of God? 

The episcopacy that holds the church together in unity is not man's but Christ's. The unity of the church, therefore, is not a formal, historical reality made concrete in an institution (the college of bishops or the pope). Rather it is a dynamic reality, born out of living union and communion with the one true bishop of our souls, the Lord Jesus Christ. Rome's fault was not only its boast in the historic episcopacy but in its failure to make confession of biblical truth and in its anathematizing of those who did. 

If the truth be told, not Geneva but Rome is schismatic. More than that, Rome harbors idolatry within its bosom in the celebration of "the Mass, which we abominate as the greatest sacrilege" (4.2.9). 

Yet, it remains true, Calvin acknowledges, that there are believers--however confused--within the pale of Rome. Correspondingly there are "traces of churches," but Rome itself cannot be considered a true church or part of the one true church. In fact, Rome gives expression to the spirit of antichrist. 

Here again is Calvin's ability to see with both eyes. In some Roman communities he was sure there were true believers; in that sense they are churches. Even major distortions of truth and failures with respect to grace do not necessarily mean there are no believers in the community. 

The truth is that the heart may be regenerated while the head is not finally cleansed. Calvin appears to have thought that some of them were in fact true believers, however inconsistent theologically and perhaps intimidated personally they were. He understood, and while he disapproved he struggled to exercise wisdom and patience. But in the end Christ was being obscured. And if Christ is obscured for long, man-centered, self industriousness, and ritualism always seems to follow in its train. That is always an explanation for the (ongoing) necessity of reformation. 

*This was first published on Ref21 in September of 2009. You can find the original postings here and here

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"One thing," Martin Luther writes in the Freedom of a Christian (1520), "and only one thing, is necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom. That one thing is _______." Knowing Luther to be the author, we're quick to assume that "faith" belongs in the blank. And not without reason. Luther is keen to emphasize in this work and others the instrumental role that faith plays in laying hold of Christ and his perfect righteousness as the basis of our own perfect standing before God. But that's not where Luther starts. "That one thing," he writes, "is the most holy Word of God, the gospel of Christ."

Luther's doctrine of justification by faith alone is prefaced and contextualized by a doctrine of justification by God's Word alone; or more precisely, a doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone. It's well worth tracing his own train of thought on this score, because it helps us understand why faith, in Luther's (and hence Protestant) thought, ultimately plays the pivotal role that it does in apprehending salvation.

"The soul [that] has the Word of God," Luther begins, "is rich and lacks nothing since [that Word] is the Word of life, truth, light, peace, righteousness, salvation, joy, liberty, wisdom, power, grace, glory, and of every incalculable blessing." Yet even this requires qualification since God's Word, in Luther's estimation, "is divided into two parts," and it's properly the latter "part" that proffers the benefits just named. God's word consists of "commandments and promises." The former "show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it. They are intended to teach man to know himself, that through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own ability." Once man has despaired, then God addresses him with His word of promise, that word that properly justifies. "Here the second part of Scripture comes to our aid, namely the promises of God." God's word of promise is the word "concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified" on behalf of sinners in need of rescue. This, again, is properly the word that justifies: "To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it."

And thus we arrive at faith. For faith, and only faith, is the appropriate response to this word of promise. "Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the [promissory] Word of God.... Therefore it is clear that, as the soul needs only the [promissory] Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works."

As Luther goes on to explain, good works -- that is, any human striving after righteousness -- are really a blasphemous response to God's word of promise (if done in the hopes of securing salvation). After all, it is the height of ingratitude and unbelief (not to mention futility, given our sinful condition) to try to earn that which one offers to us as free gift. By way of analogy, the appropriate response to an invitation to my family's house for dinner is not to show up on our doorstep with a crock-pot and accoutrements in hand, but just to show up, hungry and confident that you will be fed. Efforts to merit that which God freely gives voice refusal to believe that God is as generous and liberal as he declares himself to be when he bids us to "come [and] buy wine and milk without money and without price" (Isa. 55.1).

Luther's doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone provides critical context to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. It reminds us that there is in fact a (divine) logic to the instrumental role that faith plays in appropriating Christ and his righteousness as the ground of God's judicial declaration of our perfect standing before Him. Too often, I think, our Protestant talk about justification by faith alone fails to reflect that logic. Too often, that is, we fail to meaningfully consider the (promissory) nature of the divine word that faith answers to, and spring too quickly to a discussion of faith vis-a-vis love, hope, works, etc. We thus stand in danger of treating faith as some arbitrary thing that God has seized upon, a hoop to jump through (as it were) before he grants us entrance to eternal joy in his presence -- as if, indeed, he might have chosen some other thing (whether love, hope, or a daily diet of cheeseburgers).

Luther's doctrine of justification by God's word of promise alone also helpfully reminds why a doctrine of justification by faith plus works (however conceived) is so heinous. A doctrine of justification by faith plus works is not merely dangerous to our souls (though it is that). A doctrine of justification by faith plus works twists God's word of free promise into a word of conditional promise, a word that dangles life in front of us if we will only meet some demand. As such, a doctrine of justification by faith plus works constitutes a perverse theological claim, representing God as someone or something different than he reveals himself to be in his own accomplishment of our salvation and application of the same to us.

Proper acknowledgement of the promissory nature of God's justifying word to us, by way of contrast, helps us appreciate why exactly "true faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison," a treasure "which brings with it complete salvation."

The primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word is obvious: the gospel is the power of God to save everyone who believes and the instrument the Spirit ordinarily uses to bring people to faith and keep and grow them in it. The implication for apologetic method is just as obvious: preach Christ, clearing out whatever bramble obscures a fuller and richer view of of him as you can.

I suppose if it is possible to "preach Christ from envy and rivalry" (Phil 1:15), it is also possible to do so without empathy. But, we are called to preach Christ "out of love," and love takes the questions people raise seriously, even when offered in the form of objections. And, as we have no doubt learned through wrestling with many of these same issues ourselves, the gospel constantly proves itself to be the best answer we have to each question we face. So, every question of this kind, properly considered in a spiritually realistic, empathetic, and intellectually serious way, is an occasion--invitation, really--to further preach Christ.

I say the gospel is the "best answer" because we do not always have the answer we or our neighbors may at first demand. Sometimes we even ask questions impossible for anyone to answer. But, in the gospel, we always have an answer sufficient for faith and life--an answer able to humble, silent, quiet, convert, correct, comfort, encourage, edify, and keep us. All of this belongs to the power of the gospel and is the primary apologetic value of the efficacy of God's word.

The power of God's word to accomplish these things, especially to bring people to faith and keep them in it, is also apologetically valuable in at least two secondary ways. This is an ancient point and here's how Origen, arguing "that the Scriptures are divinely inspired," makes it in De Principiis (written sometime prior to 225):
We may see . . . how that religion itself grew up in a short time, making progress by the punishment and death of its worshippers, by the plundering of their goods, and by the tortures of every kind which they endured; and this result is the more surprising, that even the teachers of it themselves neither were men of skill, nor very numerous; and yet these words are preached throughout the whole world, so that Greeks and Barbarians, wise and foolish, adopt the doctrines of the Christian religion (4.1.2).

The power of the gospel demonstrated in its fruitful advance among all kinds of people throughout the world, not just in the face of but through the means of the sometimes intense suffering of those who believe and the unskilled labors of a relatively few teachers, is astonishing. To Origen's mind, this is a very compelling apology for the faith.
It is no doubtful inference, that it is not by human power or might that the words of Jesus Christ come to prevail with all faith and power over the understandings and souls of all men. For, that these results were both predicted by Him, and established by divine answers proceeding from Him, is clear from His own words (4.1.2).

He then visits several places where Jesus taught that the gospel would go out and bear fruit throughout the world and that his disciples would suffer for their faith, before concluding that,
If these sayings, indeed, had been so uttered by Him, and yet if these predictions had not been fulfilled, they might perhaps appear to be untrue, and not to possess any authority. But now, when His declarations do pass into fulfillment, seeing they were predicted with such power and authority, it is most clearly shown to be true that He, when He was made man, delivered to men the precepts of salvation (4.1.2).

Origen's argument from the observed efficacy of the word of God, evident in the astonishing results of its preaching, argues to two entangled but distinct conclusions: (1) that the gospel is true and (2) that it possesses divine authority.

First, he argues that those results strongly support the truth of what Jesus taught since he predicted precisely what has come to pass. This can be understood somewhat narrowly, along the lines of prophet verification laid out in Deut 17:15-22, where a supposed spokesman for God would be tested by whether predictive words came to pass. Jesus passes this test; now we must pay close attention to everything he says.

It can also be understood in a broader sense, however. Those predictions speak more generally to the power of God's word to produce various kinds of effects. Predictions can be understood as singling out specific results to fix our attention not just on those specific outcomes but on the general efficacy of God's word which is evident all around us in the astonishing results it consistently produces. This is what Luther had in view when he spoke of drinking beer while God's word accomplished the Reformation.

I think if I could ask Origen whether he meant us to take his argument in the narrow or broad sense he would simply answer "Yes," meaning in both senses while implying the distinction was not an issue for him. Fair enough. But those who want to avoid the appearance of playing the dispensational parlor game of matching every cable news alert with some supposed predictive prophecy can still make good apologetic use out of the broader expectations Scripture clearly establishes. Besides, we have an even longer history of the global spread and saving power of the gospel to observe with perhaps even more astonishing results than Origen did. Here, the history of evangelical missions becomes a potent apology by way of the clear biblical expectation that the gospel is powerful to save and will ordinarily bear fruit everywhere it is preached.

According to Origen, however, if Jesus' message is not true then it could not possibly possess any authority, much less divine authority. And just because a word is true does not mean it has divine authority. So, the second conclusion he draws from the evident power of the word is that these astonishing results also demonstrate the divine authority of that word. Thus we have a second apology from the evident efficacy of God's word: not only is it true, but it has the ability to bring to pass or establish whatever it declares and foretells, up to everything God has appointed it to achieve in the world. Only a word spoken with divine authority has that kind of power over reality.
It seems as though some version of speech act theory--the rather simple but significant observation that we use words to do things--pokes out from under every stone in evangelical discussions of Scripture these days. This has been the case at least since Nicholas Wolterstorff's 1993 Wilde Lectures at Oxford, later developed into Divine Discourse (Oxford, 1995), and perhaps especially since Kevin Vanhoozer's big splash, Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Zondervan, 1998). The application of speech act theory to topics in the doctrine of Scripture has generally made for stimulating but not always helpful reading. The impression occasionally cast is that scholars working in this field are plowing up fertile ground only discovered since the philosophical explorations of Austin and Searle in the 1960s.

Not so. Though there was no such thing as speech act theory, per se, prior to Austin's How to Do Things with Words (Clarendon, 1962; from the 1955 William James Lectures at Harvard), not even Austin claimed his ideas were new. Here is how he opens his first lecture:

What I shall have to say here is neither difficult nor contentious; the only merit I should like to claim for it is that of being true, at least in parts. The phenomenon to be discussed is very widespread and obvious, and it cannot fail to have been already noticed, at least here and there, by others. Yet I have not found attention paid to it specifically.

Austin is right, and one place this phenomenon has been noticed is in Christian reflection on language, Scripture, and the power of God's word to accomplish things beyond just telling and describing.

Take Bavinck's argument under his discussion of the Spirit's means of grace. In Austin's words, Bavinck argues from what he clearly believes to be an obvious phenomenon--the power of human words to do things--to the perfection of this power in the God's word:

The word is not an empty set of vibrations in the air, nor an empty sign, or a cold symbol, but every word, also every human word, is a power greater and more durable than the power of the sword. Encapsulated within it is thought, mind, soul, and life. If this applies to words in general, how much more is it true of the word that proceeds from the mouth of God and is spoken by him? That is a word that creates and maintains, judges and kills, re-creates and renews, and always accomplishes what it is meant to accomplish and never returns empty (RD, 4.458).

He draws out one line of support:

The power of the human word . . . depends [to some degree] on the extent to which a person puts one's heart and soul into it, on the distance existing between the person and one's speech. But in the case of God that is different. It is always his word; he is always present in it; he consistently sustains it by his almighty and omnipresent power. It is always God himself who, in whatever form and by whatever means, brings it to people and calls them by it. Therefore, even though the word of God that is freely proclaimed by ministers or conveyed to people by way of personal admonition, public address, a book or other writing, is indeed taken from Scripture but not identical with Scripture, it is still a word from God, a word that comes to human beings but is originally from God, is spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit and therefore always effective.

This is true of the word as both law and gospel, written and proclaimed, he argues:

The word of God is never separate from God, from Christ, from the Holy Spirit; . . . Just as Scripture was not just inspired at one time by the holy Spirit, but is continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by the Spirit, so it is with the word of God that, taken from Scripture, is preached in some fashion to people. . . . In that respect, the Lutherans are completely correct: always and everywhere the word of God is a power of God, a sword of the Spirit. . . . It is always efficacious; it is never powerless. If it does not raise people up, it strikes them down (RD, 4.459).

It is no stretch to recast Bavinck's point in the jargon of speech act theory: even human discourse is not just the product of a locutionary act (uttering intelligible sounds); neither is it just an illocutionary act (an instance of asserting, commanding, promising, and so on); it is also a power to do things--to achieve the perlocutionary acts (the intended effects) in the speaker's sights. Now, if even human discourse has this power, we ought to believe that God's word is perfect in this power, able to accomplish all he intends.

Lutheran and Reformed theologians disagree over just what those divinely intended perlocutionary effects are. Lutherans argue God is always aiming to save but his saving power is resistible since he is exerting it through means; the Reformed argue God aims at a variety of particular effects and that he always achieves his perlocutionary intentions--"if it does not raise people up, it strikes them down," as Bavinck puts it. Both, however, have reflected at length on how God does things with words and agree that his word is more than just locution and illocution--it is "always and everywhere" living, active, and able.

"I can drive no man to heaven or beat him into it with a club." So observed Luther on March 11th, 1522, in a sermon to Wittenberg parishioners. Though his point was rather obvious, Luther felt compelled to make it because in his absence from Wittenberg during the preceding ten months, certain persons had grown impatient with the progress of reformation in the city and had resorted to means of legal compulsion and/or violence to bring about the changes in doctrine and worship they desired.

Luther had, in fact, made the same point in a sermon to the same audience the preceding day. Having insisted in no uncertain terms upon the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, from which faith love for God and others as well as pure worship necessarily springs, Luther emphasized in that earlier sermon that such faith itself properly springs from the proclamation of God's promises, not from the use of force: "I cannot, nor should I, force anyone to have faith." Indeed, the use of force is ultimately, in Luther's estimation, unnecessary and unfruitful for the successful expansion of God's kingdom, because the divine word of promise -- first as it is encountered in Scripture and then as it is proclaimed by God's ordained ministers -- accomplishes that very task. "The Word created heaven and earth and all things; the Word must do this thing [i.e., achieve the conversion of men], and not we poor sinners." For our part "we should give free course to the Word and not add our works" -- that is, our means of coercion -- "to it." "We should," that is, "preach the Word, but the results must be left solely to God's good pleasure."

Luther discovered a perfect example of the Word's ability to grow God's kingdom sans a baton or baseball bat in his own experience of the preceding years. "I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends..., the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything."

It's questionable whether Luther retained his position on the exclusive prerogative of the Word to accomplish the growth of Christ's kingdom in later years. Increasingly alarmed over time by the extreme efforts of Anabaptists to implement their own version of a spiritual/civil kingdom by force (which means, thankfully, they never possessed in sufficient measure), Luther grew ever more tolerant of the use of reciprocal force to keep the Anabaptists in line, civilly and (perhaps) religiously. One could, maybe, argue that his position remained consistent, and that the force against the Anabaptists he eventually endorsed was purely towards the end of political restraint rather than religious uniformity.

Regardless, the willingness Luther showed even in the 1520s to see civil offenders repressed by military/legal means reminds us that his doctrine of the Word's power was specifically a theological point about how Christ's kingdom is sustained and increased, not a generic endorsement of persuasion vis-à-vis coercion in every conceivable context.  A strong hand is sometimes required to keep wayward citizens -- or, for that matter, wayward children -- in line. Only the Word, however, can produce genuine faith, hope, and love directed towards God within a man, woman, or child.

Luther found a biblical example of the Word's exclusive power to bring about renewal and reform in the Acts 17 account of Paul's missionary work in Athens. "When Paul came to Athens, a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord."

Luther might, had he wished, have found a further illustration of his point in church history, from a consideration of how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries. The first three centuries of Christians spread the gospel exclusively by means of proclamation. Indeed, they had little choice. Because their newfound religion was deemed illegal, they were consistently marginalized from positions of political, social, or military influence, and were at least occasionally made the victims of intense persecution. They witnessed to the reality that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself with their lips and, on occasion, with their lives. By the very nature of their situation, they were prevented from promoting Christ's kingdom by establishing "Christian" nations or by commandeering the legislative or judicial machinery of existing states. Significantly, it was the greatest period of growth the Christian church has ever experienced, even in the absence of the factor of Wittenberg beer.

The early expansion of Christianity stands in marked contrast to the early expansion of Islam in this regard. From early on, Mohammed and his followers employed whatever military means they could muster to further the spread of their religion. Within a decade of Mohammed's death, Muslims had spread from their base in the Arabian Peninsula to conquer Palestine. Within little more than a century of Mohammed's death, Islam had conquered Syria, Persia, Northern Africa, and much of the Iberian Peninsula. All of this, of course, was by force, even if forced "conversions" as such grew thinner (being less politically expedient) the farther Islam stretched from its geographical home base. Such military accomplishments were remarkable, but not unprecedented (think, for example, of Alexander the Great), and thus no sure sign of divine favor. The rapid expansion of Christianity without means of force (indeed, in the presence of much persecution), by way of contrast, is remarkable, and arguably points to a providential kindness towards the doctrine championed by the earliest Christians.

Christians have rather often been a bit slow to learn the lesson that Luther, Scripture, and church history jointly teach us in this regard. The temptation to trust in force -- whether personal, financial, or political in kind -- for the expansion of Christ's kingdom, even when force is not actually employed, is constant. It is the flip-side of the temptation not to believe that God's Word can actually, in God's perfect timing, bring sinners into his Kingdom, or bring that Kingdom to its eschatological realization. One gauge of where our confidence for the success of the gospel actually lies might be the optimism/pessimism we feel over the outcome of political elections or particular pieces of government legislation. There is, of course, every reason to participate in political processes to bring about the best conceivable civil state for ourselves and our neighbors, believing and unbelieving alike. There is, equally, every reason not to get too worked up over either our successes or failures in such efforts; we are, after all, heirs of a kingdom which will not be achieved by political process, but will flourish through the proclamation of God's promise and the power of that proclamation to generate true (that is, justified, sanctified, and eventually glorified) citizens of the same.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

The Visible Word

Jason Helopoulos
Christward Collective

I was visiting a church once and heard an exchange between a pastor and one of his congregants that has stayed with me ever since. A woman asked the pastor before the service, "Is the video this morning going to make me laugh or cry? It always does one or the other." The pastor was quick to respond that he thought this one would make her cry. Apparently, immediately following the sermon in their worship services, this church showed a video every week. It set the tone for the closing song and the end of the service. It wasn't shown for mere entertainment, but was used to press home the truth the pastor had just preached from the Scriptures. Now, I want to be clear. This man was and is a brother in Christ and this particular church loved the Lord. It was my honor to worship with them. They were seeking to serve God, were obviously delighting in Him, and were desiring to give Him praise. Furthermore, I have no doubt that the pastor's heart was in the right place as he sought to show a video each week to his congregation. I am not doubting his love for God or his people, though I do doubt the wisdom of his approach.

Continue to Christward Collective.

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Finders and keepers

I have just seen two profoundly moving videos at Justin Taylor's blog. The second I have seen before: the Kimyal tribe of West Papua, Indonesia, receiving New Testaments in their own language for the first time. The first, equally telling, is much briefer, showing believers in China rushing to receive Bibles in their language for the first time. They hug them, weep over them, and then the sudden hubbub subsides as they open them reverently and lovingly, and begin to drink in the truth.

I don't know how many Bibles you have in your home, or how many translations you have one tap of your finger away, or how many Bible study tools are at your disposal. I would imagine that almost none of us struggle to obtain the Word of God.

The Word of the living God.

The out-breathed truth of the Creator and Saviour of mankind.

Has familiarity bred contempt? Do we value the truth as we should? With what eagerness or languor will you go to church tomorrow to hear the Word of God read and preached? Will once be enough? How often do you turn to it during the week?

Such questions put me in mind of the story of John "Roaring" Rogers, preacher at Dedham in Essex at the beginning of the seventeenth century, where he had a reputation as "one of the most awakening preachers of the age." His gift lay in his distinctive delivery of the sound and careful sermons which he prepared, and so well-known did Rogers and his preaching become that godly people used to say to one another, "Let us go to Dedham to fetch fire."

Several well-known anecdotes capture something of the fervency and intensity of Rogers the preacher and his self-forgetful earnestness in the pulpit. Thomas Goodwin, himself to become a renowned preacher and scholar, tells of how he went to hear Rogers preach before he was converted, not imagining that anyone would be able to touch his conscience. Goodwin reported his experience to John Howe, who recorded it in this way:
He told me that being himself, in the time of his youth, a student at Cambridge, and having heard much of Mr. Rogers of Dedham, in Essex, purposely he took a journey from Cambridge to Dedham to hear him preach on his lecture day. And in that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible [I am afraid it is more neglected in our days]; he personates God to the people, telling them, "Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it; it lies in such and such houses all covered with dust and cobwebs. You care not to look into it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer." And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it, and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, "Lord, whatsoever thou cost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible." And then he personates God again to the people: "Say you so? Well, I will try you a little longer; and here is my Bible for you, I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more, and live more according to it." But by these actions [as the Doctor told me] he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that he never saw any congregation in his life. The place was a mere Bochim, the people generally [as it were] deluged with their own tears; and he told me that he himself when he got out, and was to take horse again to be gone, was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse weeping, before he had power to mount, so strange an impression was there upon him, and generally upon the people, upon having been thus expostulated with for the neglect of the Bible.
Neglect of the Bible. Careless disregard for the Word of the Most High and Most Holy. You are not entitled to it, and God is not obliged to provide it. Does your neglect and the prospect of God's response bother you? What if the Lord is saying, even now, "I will try you a little longer; and here is my Bible for you, I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practice it more, and live more according to it."

Count your copies. Peruse your programmes. Appraise your apps. Do not imagine that he cannot yet take it away.

"Come, merciful and mighty God"

C.M. (Brent)
Come, merciful and mighty God,
And break these hearts of stone:
Your word the heavenly instrument,
The power yours alone.

These stubborn wills conform to yours;
To feeble minds give light;
Put fire into these empty hearts;
Exert your gracious might.

Give life where death is ruling now:
Prove Jesus Satan's bane!
Break every chain, throw wide the door,
Let glorious freedom reign.

May Christ be Lord of every life,
And King of every heart;
Break sin's dominion; cleanse, renew,
And righteousness impart.

Come, merciful and mighty God,
We look to you alone;
Exert your power: give hearts of flesh
In place of hearts of stone.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

Fire in the dry sticks

It is usually after I have thought through or more formally prepared the introduction to a sermon that I again sit back and remember to pray. I do not mean that I should not or do not pray until that point (at least in theory), but it is often then that I am forced to consider my desperate need of God's help.

Will anyone still be listening? I hope I will have the ears and hearts of the people to whom I speak at this point, but will my words - designed to catch their attention and arrest their often-troubled and easily-distracted minds - have any effect, or will those troubles and distractions already have won the battle?

I am about to plunge into the substance of the sermon, the careful explanation and pointed application of God's holy truth, but will it have any effect? Even if people are still listening, will these words penetrate into the depths of the soul? There are men and women and children in front of me who are walking in darkness, and who need to see the light of the gospel of Christ. There are those who are downcast who need to be lifted up, those who are weary who need to be strengthened, those who are careless who need to be warned, those who are proud who need to be humbled, those who are presumptuous who need to be checked, those who are ignorant who need to be instructed, those who are hungry who need to be fed, those who are lazy who need to be stirred, those who are wandering who need to be drawn back. So many needs, such feeble words. Will these words, this sermon, have any lasting impact on the people who will be in front of me on the Lord's day, morning and evening?

So there I am, on the cusp of the thing, teetering between those words which are intended to open the door to people's arrested understanding and those words which are intended to carry truth through the door. Are they still hearing? Will they from this point hear - really hear?

And therefore I sit back and remember to pray, because neither what I have prepared nor what I am about to prepare will accomplish anything without the present, powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. Apart from his operations upon my heart and the hearts of those who will gather, there is a sense in which all will be wasted. It is the abiding Word of God that I will teach; the Spirit does not make it the Word of God in the act of its being preached and received. But if that Word is to reach its intended target it must be carried in on the wings of the divine Paraclete. If it is to accomplish its intended ends, then it must be applied - driven home and made effective - not just naturally by the labouring carer for souls but supernaturally by the all-powerful Spirit of God.

We cannot afford to go through the motions when we preach. We must reach the point at which we look at the words on the page or the screen, or review the things that are stirring in our minds and hearts, consider whatever notes that we have made to enable us to communicate the truth as it is in Jesus, and acknowledge that they will be as dry as a stick without heavenly influence. And that should drive us to our knees before God crying out to make his words effective in the hearts and lives of men, to do that thing which beggars human expectation and to make his word to prosper in the thing for which he sent it (Is 55.11), to bring the holy hammer of truth down with divine might on the stones of human hearts (Jer 23.29), and to glorify his name in salvation in its most complete sense.

And so we should gather up those dry sticks of our intended discourse, and pile them before God, and ask for fire from heaven.

Hidden in the heart

We are repeatedly warned that the interweb, not least Google (other search engines are available), is changing the way we think, the way we remember. Tech gurus tell us that no longer do we remember information, we remember where to find it. So, for example, rather than remembering the kings and queens of England, we remember the webpage (or kind of webpage, or way of finding the [kind of] webpage) that supplies us with that information. As a result, no doubt the bit of our brains that deals with such stuff is atrophying at a fair rate of knots, shrinking to some withered non-functionality and waiting to be replaced by smartphones with memories more capacious, better stocked and more readily searched than our own. Alongside such brain-wastage goes an inability to concentrate, an attention span that is degenerating to a point which might make a goldfish wince. Indeed, it is at the end of a paragraph like this that I wonder how many people have already given up because - despite the scintillating prose! - I haven't got to the point yet.

So, let us crack on: I imagine that some readers who have made it this far are - like me - shaking their heads and confessing that, yes, our capacities are shifting if not altogether shrivelling. We no longer remember phone numbers - they are in our contact listings. We no longer remember names of children - we look them up when we go to visit. We no longer remember directions - we switch on our satnav and GPS systems. We may struggle more than we used to in following a train of thought over pages of text, tracing a theme developed over the course of a book, recollecting that data that our lazy brains tell us we can find more easily with a quick text-search than by storing it in our own memory banks for easy retrieval.

And there is one crucial area in which this particularly bites on the believer. It has to do with the Word of God, and it is eminently practical.

In Psalm 119 the psalmist cries out, "Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against you" (Ps 119.11). It comes in a stanza in which he is expressing a heartfelt desire for holiness, a determination to seek and serve the Lord and to walk in humble and joyful obedience to his commands.

My point is this: one of the consequences of the internet-trained brain seems to be an inability to hide very much - not much of the Word of God, to be sure - in our hearts. That results in a crippling weakness in the battle for godliness.

If you want to, test yourself. What do you do, where do you look, when you want to find "that verse," you know, the one on the tip of your tongue? Do you flick to BibleWorks or Logos, pull up some Scripture text on your e-platform and do a quick search? Was it ever stored in your heart? Are you looking merely for a reminder, or have you become so accustomed to ready accessibility and easy search that you no longer bother storing it in your heart, unconsciously succumbing to the suggestion that since it's right at your fingertips you don't need to worry? Have you forgotten how to remember?

How long was Christ in the wilderness? Forty days and forty nights. (You know the batteries on pretty much any device have died by then.) What state was he in? Desperately hungry and thirsty. Who came to him? The arch-enemy, the Adversary. What were flung at him? A series of pointed and powerful temptations striking at his very identity and destiny. And what did the Lord do, without the help of any electronic aids or ready-references? He dug into the depths of Deuteronomy to bring forth three perfectly-forged weapons with which to smite the foe, three mighty "Thus says the Lord" declarations which shattered Satan's assault and sent him from the field a beaten foe. The word was hidden in the Saviour's heart, and he did not sin against God.

Look more closely, and you understand what that means. Satan takes and twists Scripture to make his perverted case. The Lord Christ not only knows enough to see through those corrupting quotations, but he has upon his holy lips the fruit of a heart in which the Word of God is thoroughly hidden, the truth stored up in order to be brought forth as occasion demands in order to keep him from sin and in the path of righteousness.

What of you? You have one primary offensive weapon with which to do battle against sin: "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Eph 6.17). Can you afford to have that potent blade wrapped up in the electronic cobwebs of some computer programme when you need it for the fight? Do you not know from bitter experience that you do not have time to draw the sword from the depths of your electronic device when Satan comes roaring in against you? You need it sitting in your hand, you need it stored up in your heart ready for immediate deployment when the enemy comes upon you unawares. To use a more modern metaphor, you cannot afford to wander this battlefield with all your ammunition stored at the bottom of your backpack; you need your weapon locked and loaded at all times.

If we are to be holy we need to hide the word in our hearts, and that means a deliberate commitment to memorisation and meditation. It means a refusal to allow our brains to be trained by the world, a resistance to the laziness that the interweb can breed in our all-too-susceptible minds; it means a commitment to holiness that is willing to re-train and develop the faculties of our hearts contrary to the trend and tendency of the age in which we live, and to make sure that we pack into the armoury that array of weaponry necessary for the constant fight against ungodliness, temptations within and without. We must love that truth, know that truth in its sense and substance, in its particular words and phrases, understand it as a treasure and as a weapon, and learn how to use it in the combat with sin.

I am not saying that the interweb can only be a tool of the devil. I am saying that he knows how to use the tools available, to trick us into taking off our armour and to train us to put down our weapons. We cannot afford to be ignorant of his devices.

So, if we care about holiness, we will not allow our memories to atrophy and not permit our concentration to wither. We will focus our eyes on the text and fill our hearts with its store of good things, ready to be brought forth as occasion demands. Temptations will rush upon us. As so often, they might come with a "Has God really said . . .?" or a "Hasn't God said . . .?" We, like our Saviour before us, must be ready to bring forth the fruit of those labours of love, and draw out of the armoury of the heart a telling "Thus says the Lord, . . ." and so keep from sinning.