Propositional Truth Meets Personal Encounter

CalvinHere are two categories that Christians tend to pit against one another. Michael Horton makes the case in his chapter on “How God Delivers His Grace” from Calvin on the Christian Life that this is a false choice. I’m always edified by the way Horton teaches about the preached Word. Here is an excerpt: In evangelical circles we typically think of preaching as teaching and exhorting. Of course, Scripture informs, instructs, explains, asserts, and commands. Yet for the Reformers, the preaching of the Word is more than a preacher’s thoughts, encouragements, advice, and impassioned pleas. Through the lips of a sinful preacher, the triune God is actually judging, justifying, reconciling, renewing and conforming sinners to Christ’s image. God created the world by the words of his mouth and by his speech also brings a new creation into being. In other words, through the proclamation of his Word, God is not just speaking about what might happen if we bring it about but is actually speaking it into being. Hence Calvin calls preaching the sacramental word: the word as a means of grace. Faith comes by hearing the Word—specifically the gospel (Rom. 10:17). Thus, the church is the creation of the Word (creatura verbi). (121) After this, Horton explains this false choice so many have set up between doctrine and experience, quoting B. A. Gerrish, “God’s word, for Calvin, is not simply a dogmatic norm; it has in it a vital efficacy, and it is the appointed instrument by which the Spirit imparts illumination, faith, awakening, regeneration, purification, and so on…” (121). Horton continues, “In the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, ‘The preached Word is the Word of God.’ The biblical canon is the completed foundation, but the preached Word is the primary means of the Spirit’s ongoing building project” (122). This section of the book got marked up pretty good. And it stuck with me as I was sitting in my Sunday school seat, studying John 16:4-15. After Jesus warns his disciples of his and their upcoming persecution and rejection, he then tells them how he must depart so that the Spirit can come to them. And Jesus says,
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (vv. 13-15)
Immediately I noticed the words, truth, He will speak, He will tell, declare, and declare again. This Helper that we have as believers ministers to us by the Word. In Reformed circles, we love to say that Christ accomplishes and the Spirit applies. But how does he do this? Through the Word! And the apostles were inspired by the Spirit to complete the biblical canon, the living and active Word of God that we now have. Our pastors are commissioned to proclaim this Word, and by it we will be blessed in Christ. So often, Christians are longing for a special word from God. We want to feel a private experience of meeting Christ. But in this passage, Christ is physically with his disciples, and they do not yet have a real understanding of the gospel, of Christ! And he assures them that it will actually be better for them when he leaves. We can understand why they wouldn’t be persuaded of this. And yet here we are over 2,000 years later, tisk tisking the apostles for not getting it at the time, and yet we often long for some kind of personal encounter with Christ over sitting under his Word. And we miss the blessing that we have as the covenant community of the church. Sure we look forward to that day when we really can behold our Savior, but as Horton continued to explain how God conveys his means of grace in the sacraments as well, he begins his next chapter elucidating, “Just as we could not have expected to find God in a feeding trough of a barn in an obscure village, much less hanging, bloody, on a Roman cross, we do not expect to find him delivering his gifts in such humble ways as human speech, a bath, and a meal. Think cross, not glory” (143).