The modern age sees Martin Luther as a hero for standing up to the might of both pope and emperor with his famous trial at Worms: "Here I stand." Yet such admirers often forget that the German reformer was not inaugurating a new era of the enlightened and autonomous individual. We recognize that simply by noticing the basis for his lonely stand. After allowing that he could be refuted by Scripture, Luther declared, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God…. Here I stand. God help me." It was because he stood under the Word that Luther felt compelled to stand against the church of his day.
One of the critical insights of the Reformation was that the church is the creatura verbi: the creation of the Word. Whereas Rome held that the church was the mother of the Word, bearing the twin offspring of Scripture and tradition, the reformers reasserted the priority of the Word over the church. Like the word that called into being a world that did not exist, the word of the gospel calls into being an elect, redeemed, justified, and renewed people drawn from every people and place in the world. However, the reformers' notion of the church as the creatura verbi was asserted not only against Rome but against Anabaptism, which (especially in its more radical versions) sharply distinguished the "outer word" of Scripture and preaching from the "inner word" of the Spirit's supposedly direct and immediate speaking. This movement the reformers dubbed "enthusiasm," from the Greek compound en (in) theos (God), because it gave the impression that its members were so filled with God (particularly, the Spirit) that they did not need an external authority, text, or even an official ministry of preaching and sacrament.
Today, we have a remarkably similar situation. On the one hand, we have had three centuries of "enthusiasm." Against the claims of either pope or Scripture, the Enlightenment lodged sovereign authority in the self. Historians have often noted the parallels between the "inner light" of the medieval mystic, radical enthusiast, and Quaker and the "enlightenment" of the Age of Reason. Whereas God's Word calls us out of ourselves to hear the divine summons, the search for enlightenment calls us deeper into ourselves, to see the vision of light and glory that we can determine and possess for ourselves. Some people think they can read the Bible not only for themselves but by themselves, as if they could have a purely private relationship with God. But preaching is social; it creates a covenant community.
In reaction against autonomous individualism, many Protestants increasingly advocate today a recovery of something like Rome's position. Not only do we hear God's Word together as Christ's body (as the reformers certainly emphasized); the Bible is the church's book, we often hear it said. God's Word does not only stand over the church creating and sustaining, but also critiquing and disciplining its speech and practice.
So much of contemporary reflection and practice is to some degree a replay of these options: on one side, the clamor for a sovereign church and on the other side, an appeal to the sovereign individual and the "felt needs" of the consumer.
Confronted with the usurpation of the "speaker of the house" position by the church and the individual, we need to reassert the sovereignty of God's speaking through his Word. The alternative is not autonomy, but captivity to other lords who cannot liberate.
However, this means that we will also have to recover the Reformation view that the Word of God is not only a canon that regulates our beliefs and practices (a topic that I cannot treat here), but that it is actually alive, accomplishing everything God intends. While upholding the reliability and authority of Scripture, conservative Evangelicalism has tended to reduce God's Word to a sourcebook for timeless doctrinal and ethical laws, missing the crucial point that the Bible itself underscores from Genesis to Revelation: namely, that God's speaking is acting, and this acting is not only descriptive but creative. God's Word is authoritative not only because of what it is (God's utterance), but because of what it does (God's utterance).
The Word of God written and preached is not simply legally authoritative and binding, but is the primary means of grace, through which the Spirit ordinarily creates communion with Christ and therefore the communion of saints: ekklesia. In other words, in this conception, the Word is not merely something that stands over us. It is also "the implanted word" (James 1:21) that "abides in you" (1 John 2:14), and is to "dwell in you richly" (Col. 3:16). "So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ" (Rom. 10:16).
Thus the Word is not only the church's norm for faith and practice, but the primary means of grace, often referred to as the "sacramental Word." Although there can be no saving, personal, covenantal encounter apart from information and assertions of fact, the Word in this sense is much more "living and active" than that. It not only tells us what God has done; it does what God tells.
Life is found only in God, located in Christ, mediated by his Word. Specifically, the gospel is that part of God's Word that gives life. Not everything that God says is saving. Sometimes God's speech brings judgment, disaster, fear, warning, and dread, Calvin reminds us. God's majesty is so terrifying that we would either be overwhelmed with despair or driven to idolatry and self-justification in an attempt to avoid the God who actually exists. The only safe route, therefore, is to receive the Father through the incarnate Son. Christ is the saving content of Scripture, the substance of its canonical unity. Calvin notes, "This is the true knowledge of Christ: if we take him as he is offered by the Father, namely, clothed with his gospel. For as he himself has been designated the goal of our faith, so we shall not run straight to him unless the gospel leads the way."
As Christ gives himself to us through creaturely elements of water, bread, and wine, so too he gives through the words of Scripture and the proclamation that is derived from it. As with baptism and the Supper, the Spirit creates a bond between the sign (proclamation of the gospel) and the reality signified (Christ and all his benefits). That is why the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 65) answers the question, "Where does this true faith come from?" by saying, "The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments." Through such preaching, sinners are actually reconciled to God.
Summarizing the classic Reformed consensus, Herman Bavinck observed that the Word of God preceded the canon. In other words, preaching came before the completed text.
The phrase "word of God" has various meanings in Scripture and can refer to the power of God whereby He creates and upholds, or His revelation to the prophets, or the content of revelation, or the Gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Nevertheless, it is always a word of God which means: never simply a sound, but a power, no mere information but also an accomplishment of His will (Isa. 55:11, Rom. 4:17, 2 Cor. 4:6; Heb. 1:3, 11:3), Jesus quiets the sea (Mk. 4:38), heals the sick (Mt. 8:16), casts out demons (9:6), and raised the dead (Luke 7:14, 8:54, John 5:25, 28; 11:43).
In the Scriptures, the Word is not simply a product, effect, or trace of original divine utterances, now belonging to the past along with all other historical documents.
First and foremost, the Word is the second person of the Holy Trinity: the eternal Son, by whom all things were created and in whom they hold together (John 1:1-16; Col. 1:17). Yet Scripture also refers to specific instances of the Father's speaking in the Son by the power of the Spirit who brings about its intended effect. In this sense, God's Word is God's working. Like our own acts of speaking, God's Word in this sense is not an extension of his essence, but the effect of his presence and lively activity. Borrowing on J. L. Austin's speech-act theory, we may say that God does things with words. Although the divine essence does not emanate, God's words do in fact "go forth" and are "sent" on their missions. The Word is that living and active energy that creates and recreates. It is never inert because it is the Word of the Father, spoken in the Son, made effectual by the Spirit.
A merely intellectual view of the Word as something to which one must give assent is communicatively deficient, reducing speech to the descriptive and propositional mode, which can easily reduce the Logos to logic rather than living and active speech. However, even in general revelation, "the heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). We and all other creatures exist because God's told us to!
While God's Word certainly includes assertions and propositions about the way things are, it is more basically the means by which things become what they are and that which does not yet exist comes into being. "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth" (Ps. 33:6). God's Word not only warns and promises, but brings about in history that which is threatened and assured: "The Lord sent a word against Jacob, and it fell on Israel" (Isa. 9:8). How often do we encounter in the prophets that familiar formula, "The word of the Lord came to me, saying …." Far from being a dead letter, the Word of God "gets around." Leading Israel from exodus to conquest, the Name is the purposeful, restless, unrelenting God on the move, refusing to have anyone build him a house since it is God who is the architect and builder (2 Sam. 7, with Heb. 11:10, 13-16).
The Word not only explains, describes, asserts, and proposes, but arrives. J. A. Motyer asks, "How did the prophet receive the message which he was commissioned to convey to his fellows? The answer in the vast majority of the cases is perfectly clear and yet tantalizingly vague: 'The Lord came… '" Indeed, "the word of the Lord came to me, saying … " is also a common expression in the prophets. The Lord came in the energy of his Word, delivered through the prophets and now consummately in the One who is the Word of God not only in energy but in essence (Heb. 1:1-3). What is the difference between the prophets and apostles on one hand and the rest of us on the other? In both cases, it is an advent, God's arrival to act in our midst, but in revelation for them and illumination for us. The Spirit comes to us both with the same Word, but in two different ways.
More than an event, to be sure, the sacramental Word nevertheless is surely not less. Nor is it ever lost to the ebb and flow of history: "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isa. 40:8; cf. Matt. 24:35). "Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: 'To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'" (Isa. 45:22-23). The prophet's role can be reduced neither to that of mere witness nor to a mere recorder of divine utterances, but is the ambassador who is authorized and commissioned to speak the living and active Word that brings about a new state of affairs in history: "I have put my words in your mouth…" (Isa. 51:16). Although Isaiah himself is "undone" in the presence of the holy King, recognizing that he as well as the people have "unclean lips," the burning coal is pressed to his lips so that he will be able to speak God's Word faithfully to God's covenant people (Isa. 6:5-9).
There is a distinction, but there is no contrast drawn here between divine and human action: the human signs are sanctified as divine signs that communicate the reality signified. YAHWEH's Word in human words is compared to the rain that descends and brings forth fruit: "[S]o shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it" (Isa. 55:11). Although it brings him nothing by reproach, the Word is like a burning fire in Jeremiah's bones compelling him to bring it to the covenant people day and night (Jer. 20:9). "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" (Jer. 23:29). God's words are event-generating discourse: "Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God: None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be fulfilled, says the Lord God" (Ezek. 12:28). In fact, the scene of the prophet preaching to the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 vividly portrays this living and active Word that creates the reality of which it speaks.
God's words "do good" to his people (Mic. 2:7), and Jesus was "mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" (Luke 24:19). Not only did Jesus bring and fulfill the Word as a prophet but he is also the Word incarnate (John 1:14), the unique archetype from whom the prophetic and canonical Word is constructed. While the earthly tabernacle and temple participated in the heavenly sanctuary sacramentally, the incarnation is the unique advent of the heavenly temple itself among us. The same is true of the relationship between the energetic and hypostatic Word. Not only because the words of the prophets and apostles share in the light of the Word himself, but also precisely because they do, they are the very Word of God.
Enthusiasts through the ages have appealed to John 6:63 in order to distinguish the Spirit from the "dead letter": "It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless." And yet, Jesus immediately adds, "The words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and life." Christ is the Word who upholds all of creation for the good of his church (Col. 1:15-20) and gives us his Word to dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). Paul acknowledges the Thessalonians as fellow-saints, chosen in Christ, "because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…" (1 Thess. 1:5).
So the Word of God written and proclaimed is not an impersonal body of timeless doctrine or ethics, but is grounded ultimately in the Son as the climax of the Father's revealing and redeeming speech in a gradually unfolding history (Heb. 1:1-3) and the Spirit as its perfecting power.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. (Heb. 4:12-13)
According to James 1:21, the Word is an implanted seed "that has the power to save your souls." 1 Peter 1:23-25 adds,
You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God. For "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower fails, but the word of the Lord endures forever." That word is the good news that was announced to you.
The Word of God is the source not only of creation, but of the events of judgment and redemption of history leading to the last day (2 Pet. 3:1-7). Hence, the rider on the white horse in the Apocalypse "is called The Word of God" (Rev. 19:13).
Throughout the prophets, scrolls are eaten and burn in bellies; they fly around like a giant parchment with razor-sharp edges bringing judgment to the ends of the earth. All of this imagery is meant to underscore the point that God's Word as covenant canon not only speaks of but actually brings blessings and curses. Its sanctions are always effectively realized, and no mortal can add to or subtract from the canon without falling under divine judgment (Deut. 4:2; Deut. 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19). Therefore, not only as word-events, but also as an enduring canon, God's Word is living and active.
Consequently, the Word is not made alive, active, or effective by human decision or effort. Its proclamation is not merely an occasion for God to do something if we can somehow make God's Word "present" and "relevant" to its audience, but is God's presence-in-action and therefore establishes its own relevance. Although the hearer of the Word still requires the Spirit's regeneration and illumination to understand and embrace it as the address of the Covenant Lord, the sphere of this activity is the recipient rather than that revelation itself. Therefore, regardless of whether anyone receives and acknowledges it as such, the Word remains the working of God. It binds and frees, hardens and softens, wounds and heals.
The place that God creates for communion with his people is generated by his Word. This was already true in creation itself, when the Spirit of God swept over the waters covering the earth and prepared dry land (Gen. 1:2-10), and in the exodus, when the Spirit led Israel through the waters of judgment (Exod. 13-14). And now at Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out and the first public evidence is Peter's proclamation of the gospel (Acts 2:14-36). Repeatedly in Acts, the growth of the church is attributed to the fact that "the Word of God spread" and "prevailed" (Acts 6:7; 13:49; 19:20) and "proclaiming the good news" is the central activity described this history of the early church.
By his Word and Spirit, the ascended Lord prepares a place of communion with his body. Word and Spirit are not opposites to be negotiated, but inseparable aspects of one effective speech. The Father is the source; the Son is the content (the external Word), and the Spirit brings about within us the "amen" (internal response) to his utterance. By the Word we are legally adopted and by the Spirit we receive the inner witness that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:12-17).
Luther's doctrine of the Word was elaborated in the Lutheran confessions, as Oswald Bayer summarizes: "Another person, speaking in the name and on the commission of God, speaks this promise to me, but this is in fact the speaking and acting of God himself." Article V of the Augsburg Confession reads, "To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, when and where he wills, in those who hear the gospel." Bayer asks,
Is the Word to be rated that highly? Should we not inquire into its credibility and authority? Must not a material and tangible history stand behind it? Is it not just a witness to an event, from which it must be differentiated? Do we not have to agree with Goethe's Faust that we should "not value the Word so highly"? Should we not correct the first verse of John's Gospel, as Faust did, and say: "In the beginning was the-deed"?
Yet the Word is deed and the deed is Word. Bayer adds,
"Our Western philosophical tradition has given the intellect prominence among our human faculties. Luther, however, says that 'there is no mightier or nobler work of man than speech.' We are not rational beings first of all; we are primarily speaking beings…For Luther every-thing depends upon the Bible; hearing, using, and preaching it as the living voice of the gospel (viva vox evangelii)." Thus, Bayer concludes "…the preached Word that comes to us by word of mouth is Jesus Christ himself now present with us …"
The gospel is the kingdom. It does not simply proclaim it or point to it; it brings and causes all the hearers, including myself, to enter it. As Jesus Christ, as God himself, the gospel, when preached by word of mouth, does more than simply offer us the possibility that I can actualize and make it real by my own decision of faith. The Word itself is the power of God, God's kingdom.
The choice of preaching as a medium is not incidental. Not only is it calibrated to sola gratia (since hearing is receiving), but also to soli Deo gloria (since the medium is always secondary to the message). The fact that some of the most significant witnesses in the history of redemption are characterized as inferior speakers is surely of some consequence. Upon receiving his commission from God in the burning bush, Moses complains that he is a poor speaker (Exod. 4:10), and we have already encountered Isaiah's sense of his own unworthiness as "a man of unclean lips…" (Isa. 6:5). Not only aware of his own moral unworthiness, Paul concedes his rhetorical weakness repeatedly in responding to the charges of the gilded-tongued "super-apostles" who are leading people astray. Yet all of this is "so that the power would not rest in us but in God" (1 Cor. 2:5).
The power of the Word lies in the ministry of the Spirit, not in the ministers themselves. God does in fact effectively mediate his Word through the mouth of Moses; he touches a burning coal to Isaiah's lips, and brings about the faith of the Gentiles through his gospel as Paul proclaims it. Who dares to speak not only of God but for God? Only one who has been called, since revelation and redemption are God's work. The power always lies with the message, not the messenger; the commission, not the one who is sent; the Word, not the witness; the treasure, not the clay vessel. According to the Second Helvetic Confession,
The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
With the radical sects in its sights, with their contrast between the Word that "merely beats the air" and the "inner Word" resident within the individual, the same confession declares, "Neither do we think that therefore the outward preaching is to be thought as fruitless because the instruction in true religion depends on the inward illumination of the Spirit, or because it is written, 'And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor . . . , for they shall all know me' (Jer. 31:34)."
That God can illumine inwardly apart from the external preaching is not denied, but this work of the Spirit within is always in Scripture connected to the outward preaching of mere mortals (the confession cites Mark 16:15; Acts 16:14, and Rom. 10:17). The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 155) adds,
The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners, of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ, of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation (emphasis added).
As important as the reformers thought the reading, study, and prayerful contemplation of the Scriptures to be, the preaching of the Word was always regarded as the primary means of grace.
Many evangelical churches today exhibit a high theory of the script, while the actual performance here and now-that is, the Word conveyed through preaching, liturgy, song, and sacrament-is often barely discernable except as moralistic or therapeutic sound bytes. In this situation, one may discern two extremes. One is to treat the script as a formal document simply to be exegeted, giving the service the feeling of a lecture with a few songs. It is no wonder that many raised in this environment swing to the opposite pole, concluding that the Bible and expository preaching cannot generate the relevance and drama that might make a difference in people's lives. So instead of proclaiming the Word as a "living and active" work of God here and now, rescripting new characters in the drama of redemption, the script is used rather than followed. To be sure, the script is still regarded as legally binding and authoritative-even inerrant, but in actual practice it is not actually the "main event" in the performance of the local community theater. Excerpts are taken to illustrate various things that we already believe or find relevant and interesting, but they are finally footnotes for the dull soap operas of this passing age.
Somehow, we must reverse modernity's presumption that our life is the drama that the biblical drama illumines, serves, fits, or for which it proves useful. On the contrary, the biblical drama is the plot that makes sense of our otherwise vacuous and dead-end characters. No formal theory concerning the text's inherent value, however exalted, can save a church from becoming something else. It is only in performing the script that the church stages the right play; it is only in performing the script that the covenantal canon generates, in the power of the Spirit, a covenant community in the present. When our public speech in the church loses touch with its place in God's unfolding drama of redemption, it becomes easily reduced simply to instruction, exhortation, or moral uplift. It's no wonder, then, that people go looking for means to bring Christ down from heaven or up from the dead-a living presence of God among us-when all the while he is "as near as the Word that we preach" (Rom. 10:8).
Just as creation is the result of a conversation between these persons, the church is the offspring rather than the origin of the gospel. It is no wonder then that Paul compares the work of the gospel to God's Word in creation (Rom. 4:16-17). And, putting this passage together with Romans 10, we can see Paul's logic: Salvation comes to us through the proclamation of Christ. "For this reason [the promise] depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants . . ." (Rom. 4:16). We are saved by the preaching of Christ, so that it may be through faith, so that it may be by grace, so that finally, God alone may be glorified.
1 [ Back ] In this article, Dr. Horton has referred extensively to Calvin's Petit tracté de la sancta Cene (1541), OS 1:504-505; and Institutes 3.2.7; 3.2.29; 1.13.7; 3.2.6. The quotation from Herman Bavinck is taken from chapter 10 (section 56) of Bavinck's Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 3rd unaltered ed., vol. 4 (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1918), this excerpt was translated by Nelson D. Kloosterman as "Law-Gospel Distinction and Preaching," http://auxesis.net/bavinck/law gospel distinction and preaching.php, p. 2. Dr. Horton has also taken a quotation from J. A. Motyer's, "Prophecy," The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Eerdmans, 1962), p. 1039. Various selections from Oswald Bayer are taken from Living by Grace: Justification and Sanctification, tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 2003), pp. 43, 45, 47, 49, 50.