Do You Hear the Spirit?

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, July 2nd 1998
Jul/Aug 1998

Duke historian Grant Wacker tells us that in the winter of 1887, a group calling itself the Evangelical Alliance for the United States met in Washington, DC. It was an appropriate site for a noble assemblage of scholars, pastors, college presidents, and other leaders who were intent on recapturing the moral, spiritual, and political clout which they had once garnered in American society. As Wacker explains,

The first session opened with the hymn, "Come Gracious Spirit, Heavenly Dove." The participants then read the second chapter of the Book of Acts…. At the end of the week, William E. Dodge, president of the Evangelical Alliance, asked the delegates to search their hearts to see if they too were open to the Spirit's guidance. "Christ is waiting for us," he urged. "Are we ready?" (1)

This could have been a common event in contemporary evangelicalism, but it was, in fact, a significant contributing factor in the success of the Social Gospel movement at the turn-of-the-century. Higher critics with Americanized Hegelian bents (identifying God with progress) preached beside Wesleyan-Holiness revivalists and evangelical preachers. When doctrinal differences divide, such movements often turn to the Holy Spirit as the tie that binds. Invoking the "Spirit" hardly proves as controversial as appeals to the Father and the Incarnate Son do. As many modern feminist and radical theologians are also discovering, the "Spirit" rarely embarrasses. Even the Hopi tribe worships the Great Spirit.

But is this "Spirit," the Holy Spirit, as in "the Lord and Giver of Life who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets"? That one? Is he the Spirit who is identified in Scripture as "the Spirit of Christ," that is, the One whose person and work is essentially as well as instrumentally united to that of the Son of Man? Harry Emerson Fosdick, scion of liberalism and champion of modernism against the likes of J. Gresham Machen, wrote a book titled The Secret of the Victorious Christian Life, which was well received by the evangelical masses despite its moralistic optimism (perhaps because of it). And we all know how Norman Vincent Peale, a quite outspoken liberal, was so well received. Billy Graham even counted Peale among his closest allies. The World Council of Churches and similar groups arose out of missionary conferences in which doctrinal differences (i.e., the Word) were set aside in favor of common mission and experience, especially conversion and the New Birth (i.e., the Spirit).

In the past few decades, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), based in Wheaton, Illinois, has reflected the breadth of these older heirs of American Protestantism in a more conservative form. But denominations no longer steer the evangelical ship (or, more accurately, the evangelical regatta). Rather, it is the successive outbursts of revivalism which continually define and redefine the American religious landscape. It is not churches or schools, but movements, which shape American church life. Though Jesus founded a Church, an observer of American evangelicalism might surmise that the Holy Spirit started a revival as competition.

Of course, this state of affairs is tragic for a number of reasons. First, it is deeply dishonoring to God and his Word and Spirit. But second, it is a serious danger for those to whom we wish to bring the good news. In this article, I want to emphasize the important link between Word and Spirit and its consequence for our expectations about extraordinary works of God in our day.

The Historical Problem

As early as the Book of Acts, we see characters like Simon Magus who sought to market their own brand of Christianity by circumventing the Church. It was St. Paul especially who was vexed with these "super-apostles" as he called them: itinerant, self-appointed Christian leaders who made up their theology as they went because they considered themselves "apostles" who received divine revelation of deeper mysteries than those revealed by the ordinary apostles in Jerusalem. They thought that their "ministries" could evangelize, disciple, and perform similar functions to those entrusted to the visible Church. Facing this "sect-spirit" directly in 1 Corinthians, Paul warns, "According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (3:10-11). On that day of God's judgment, the work of so-called "ministries,"which tried to lay another foundation, says Paul, will be burned as hay, wood, and straw (v. 12-15).

Elsewhere, Paul portrays the Church as a divine household, a temple, "having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple of the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Eph. 2:19-22). With both of these passages (1 Cor. and Eph.), the interpretation often goes something like this: Make sure that you build a solid foundation when you build your "house" (i.e., ministry). But that is far from Paul's instruction. In fact, it is closer to the assumption he is trying to refute! His point is that the apostles lay the foundation. This foundation-laying is what he is accomplishing in his ministry (which no one other than an apostle can lay). Not even Timothy is a foundation-layer but is one who "builds on it." In fact, Timothy becomes a leader of the first generation of pastors who are called to the "ordinary ministry." This holy temple's foundation is the ministry of the apostles and prophets-what our theologians call the "extraordinary ministry."

When revivalistic enterprises gain followers, their ad copy almost invariably casts the leaders or promoters as new "apostles" for a new "pentecost." If they are not actually identified as such, they are often nevertheless viewed as fulfilling the same function. Campus Crusade's Bill Bright claims to receive divine revelation about many things, from starting a campus ministry to founding a university. His latest venture is a prayer-and-fasting movement that will surely force God to move powerfully in revival fires. (2)

Among enthusiasts there is no sense of redemptive history, no sense of things happening "in the fullness of time." Rather, time is flattened, so that Mr. Bright can invoke the classic text, 2 Chronicles 7:14 ("If my people…."), as though it were a spiritual law as predictable as gravity. The Bible gives us techniques, principles, laws. This "fasting/revival" formula is not a revelation of God's particular saving action in a particular time and place in the history of his people but is rather one of those laws or principles. The same hermeneutic is often used when Pentecost and the apostles are considered. Enthusiasts simply lift these events and their exegetical roots from the soil of their surrounding context. No time, no place, just disembodied, spiritual laws.

But the truth is that we cannot have another Pentecost any more than we can have another Incarnation. These are not abstract, universal principles, but rather historical events which were significant stages in advancing redemption. What Paul is saying is that the foundation has already been laid. No other foundation can be laid than the one which was laid by the apostles who were appointed by-and witnesses to-the Risen Christ. If the "super-apostles" (who were Paul's contemporaries) were not to lay a new foundation, then certainly a new one cannot be laid now. There are then no apostles and there is no extraordinary (i.e., miracle-working) ministry today because that was the foundation, and it has already been laid. It is not a timeless truth that Paul is offering here ("Be sure you don't build a bad foundation"), but a truth about redemptive history: The apostolic foundation is unique and after it is finished, ordained successors of the apostles will build on it in their ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the third century, Montanus claimed to be one of the last prophets. Organized under Maximilla and Priscilla, followers of Montanus, this sect gained numerous converts by promoting itself as a movement of the Spirit rather than of the dead letter (i.e., the official Church). At once "pentecostal" (tongues understood as ecstatic utterances rather than human languages) and chiliastic (millennialist, predicting the date of Christ's return and the end of the world), Montanism enjoyed great popularity. Although the Church found the movement practically irrepressible, the most decisive event was the failed prophecies of Montanus and his prophetesses.

Throughout the Middle Ages, popes (representing the church) and abbots (representing the monasteries) were frequently locked in fierce competition. The official church, centered in Rome, had become too worldly and bureaucratic, while the monastic movements had called men and women out of the world and provided a model for Christian perfection. But eventually these institutions too would fall prey to lethargy and worldliness, and new orders were frequently formed out of attempts to purge old ones.

Neither Rome Nor Fanaticism

The Reformation, however, challenged both the Roman church and these monastic movements. Furthermore, it faced another foe in the radical Protestants, whom the Reformers identified as "enthusiasts," "fanatics," and "swarmers." Martin Luther warned against those in his day who were "swarming everywhere, deranged by the devil, regarding Scripture as a dead letter, extolling nothing but the Spirit and yet keeping neither the Word nor the Spirit."

But Scripture is not pure spirit, as they sputter that the Spirit alone must do it, that Scripture is a dead letter and can give no life. But it is like this: Although the letter does not in and of itself give life, yet it must be there, must be heard and received, and the Holy Spirit must work through it in the heart … for if it were to let the Word go, it would soon entirely lose Christ and the Spirit. Therefore you had better not boast much about the Spirit if you do not have the visible, external Word; for it will surely not be a good spirit but the wretched devil from hell. (3)

John Calvin was just as direct in his insistence on the inseparable link between Word and Spirit:

Two things are connected here, the Word and the Spirit of God, in opposition to the fanatics, who aim at oracles and hidden revelations apart from the Word … "The Word" must not be separated from "the Spirit," as fanatics imagine, who, despising the Word, glory in the name of the Spirit, and swell with vain confidence in their own imaginations. It is the spirit of Satan that is separated from the Word, to which the Spirit of God is always joined. (4)

In his polemics, Calvin frequently equated Rome with the "fanatics," since both boasted of the Spirit even beyond and apart from the Word. The written and preached Word of God was foundational, of course, for such people. But it was viewed as merely ordinary, so both groups sought to establish an ongoing revelational ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Word was necessary, but not sufficient. (5) Central to their confusion, said Calvin, was their identification of "Spirit" and "letter" in Paul's writings with "spiritual" as opposed to "material." Attempts to correct their misunderstanding were carried forward into the confessional writings. For instance, the Second Helvetic Confession interprets "letter" not as the written Scriptures in general, but as "the doctrine of the law which, without the Spirit and faith, works wrath and provokes sin in the minds of those who do not have a living faith. For this reason, the apostle calls it 'the ministry of death'" (Chap. XIII). And it goes on to add that this is diametrically opposed to the spirit-matter dichotomy of the sects. Later, it warns against opposing "the Spirit" to the church's ordinary ministers, "inasmuch as God effects the salvation of men through them," not in their person but in the exercise of their ministry. "Hence we warn men to beware lest we attribute what has to do with our conversion and instruction to the secret power of the Holy Spirit in such a way that we make void the ecclesiastical ministry" (XVIII). Furthermore, ministers are not themselves means of grace, as if they could save people or promote the growth and success of the church by their own cleverness. "The duties of ministers are various; yet for the most part they are restricted to two, in which all the rest are comprehended: to the teaching of the Gospel of Christ, and to the proper administration of the sacraments" (XVIII). A frequently asked question in evangelical gatherings is, "How can I know where and when the Spirit is really at work?" Our response is easy: "where the Word is correctly preached and the Sacraments are correctly administered according to Christ's institution."

Revivalists bristle at such statements. What a simplistic view of the ministry! How could Finney's "new measures" be regarded as means of grace if this were true? We would have no justification for the mass movements which we attribute to the Spirit if this were true. Indeed, and we would be better off for it. The Canons of the Synod of Dort reminds us that (a) the Holy Spirit does not ordinarily save apart from means and (b) those means are limited to Word and Sacraments:

Just as the almighty work of God by which he brings forth and sustains our natural life does not rule out but requires the use of means … so also the aforementioned supernatural work of God by which he regenerates us in no way rules out or cancels the use of the gospel, which God in his great wisdom has appointed to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul … So even today it is out of the question that the teachers or those taught in the church should presume to test God by separating what he in his good pleasure has wished to be so closely joined together (Article 17).

The Holy Spirit does not save us directly or in an unmediated manner, but uses the preaching of the Gospel as his instrument. The sufficiency of Scripture in revelation is clearly upheld, and yet this does not cancel out the work of the Spirit:

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word … (Westminster Confession, I, 6).

Ask the average conservative Protestant today (including pastors) what they regard as the most effective tools employed by the Holy Spirit in evangelism, personal discipleship, and church growth. Most likely "the Word preached and Sacraments administered" would be crowded out by scores of "new measures." Even in many of our Reformed churches, the spirit of revivalism and fanaticism has undermined confidence in the ordinary means of grace which were instituted by our Savior as sufficient for every blessing under heaven. As theologian Louis Berkhof expresses it,

Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace … They are in themselves, and not in virtue of their connection with things not included in them, means of grace … The Word and the sacraments are in themselves means of grace; their spiritual efficacy is dependent only on the operation of the Holy Spirit … This means that they are not associated with the operation of God's grace merely occasionally or in a more or less accidental way, but are the regularly ordained means for the communication of the saving grace of God and are as such of perpetual value … The preaching of the Word (or, the Word preached) and the administration of the sacraments (or, the sacraments administered) are the means officially instituted in the Church, by which the Holy Spirit works and confirms faith in the hearts of men [emphasis in original]. (6)

Both great Reformation traditions, the Lutheran and the Reformed, concur with the ancient Church in resisting the slightest breach between Word and Spirit. But as Protestant Orthodoxy and Pietism came into increasing conflict, defining themselves in antithesis to each other, a fissure grew into a chasm. The caricature was that the Protestant Orthodox took the Word without the Spirit, while the Pietists took the Spirit without the Word. Our purpose here is to argue-as indeed the better Orthodox and Pietist representatives did-against the very possibility of such a separation. If we were ever to meet a "word" that was not accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit, effecting faith and repentance, it would surely not be God's Word. And a spirit who is active apart from this Word is surely not God's.

With the rise of the "awakenings" in the early and mid-eighteenth century, New England Congrega-tionalists and Presbyterians throughout the colonies were embroiled in debates over "Old Light" and "New Light" doctrine and practice. These groups represented two distinct (and often antithetical) expressions of religion which remain, despite their differences, significant for contemporary debates. Settled ministers (generally "Old Lights") were publicly rebuked by revivalists ("New Lights") as unregenerate. In fact, itinerant (i.e., traveling) ministry was beginning to make celebrities out of a handful of preachers who often mocked the established ministry, including its high educational requirements. Regardless of their commitment to missions and evangelism, established ministers who did not support the revivals were often denounced in the press as obstacles to the work of the Spirit. Similarly, the Dutch Reformed divided until the 1770s into two groups: the pietistic-revivalistic (called the "Coetus") and the "Conferentie," which as Calvin College historian James Bratt explains, was "New York-based, holding more to the Amsterdam connection and confessional-liturgical traditions." (7)

In the nineteenth century, and in Charles G. Finney's wake especially, revivalism ate away at the confessional base of various Protestant bodies. Finney's "new measures" were not merely neutral church growth and evangelism techniques but grew (as all methods do) out of a theological framework. In Finney's case, that framework was Pelagian. In the nineteenth century, innumerable sects proliferated, sharing an orientation quite similar to those radical Protestants who had been identified as "fanatics" and "enthusiasts." The warfare between the entrepreneurial movement (and its "spirit-filled" caste) and the institutional church (and its often bureaucratic and worldly leadership) continues unabated in our day. (See other articles in this issue which review the parallels with contemporary movements, the pedigree of revivalism in our day.) For our purposes in this article, I want to emphasize the importance of this doctrinal point. In other words, we are not engaged in a debate merely over "how-to" methods, but face a serious doctrinal crisis in the face of revivalism.

The Link in Scripture

The unity of Word and Spirit is so well-attested in Scripture that we should hardly have to prove it. I will, however, focus on two passages which make this point-Ezekiel 37 and Romans 10. Along with much of Jerusalem's population, the prophet Ezekiel was carried off into Babylonian captivity in 597 BC. While false prophets promised peace and prosperity, Ezekiel (like Jeremiah) told the truth. And yet, that truth included good news as well as bad:

The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" So I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." Again He said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: "Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD"'" (Ezek. 37:1-8).

Especially in the prophets, God's Word comes as a two-edged sword: Law and Gospel. As Louis Berkhof explains,

The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as the means of grace … The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God's will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or in the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus. (8)

By means of this Word, both death and life proceed. The Law does not come to reform the sinner, or to improve the self-confident, but to condemn and to kill (Rom. 3:19-20). But this is not the only "Word" which God speaks by his Spirit, for God has made his officers "sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:4-6). In fact, Paul refers to the Law as "the ministry of death" and "the ministry of condemnation" as opposed to "the ministry of righteousness" (v. 7-10). As a mirror, the Law shows us our true selves and pronounces our condemnation.

Think of the substitutes we have devised for the ordinary preaching of the Law: every gimmick, slogan, or event that can possibly shift the focus from the sinner's peril to some behavioral change. Personal testimonies of changed lives, while not in themselves wrong, constitute neither Law nor Gospel, for they are neither a serious word of condemnation (not merely for particular sins, but for our sinful condition) or of redemption (not merely from sinful patterns of behavior, but from the wrath of God).

But in Ezekiel 37, that word of judgment has already been pronounced upon Israel. That is why they are in exile. Now God has his Word of grace to pronounce through his prophet in the vision of death valley. There could hardly be a starker image of spiritual death: a valley floor littered with the skeletal remains of a vast army. The Holy Spirit inquires of Ezekiel, "Can these bones live?", to which the prophet wisely replies, "O Sovereign LORD, only you know." So the Spirit commands Ezekiel to preach to the dry bones. But notice the kind of preaching occurring here. No one needs to be slain: death is already taken for granted. It is "Gospel" that is now required. But notice what Ezekiel is told to say to the bones-or rather, what he is not told to say. He is not told to exhort the bones, to encourage them, to manage them, or to identify himself with them in sympathetic feeling. He is not told to share his personal testimony or to hire a praise band. He is told, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!'" (v. 4).

This is what, in speech-action theory, is called a perlocutionary speech-act. The late Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin suggested that all locutionary acts (i.e., meaningful speech) are of two types: illocutionary and perlocutionary. Examples of the former include, "I assert that…," "I command you to…," "I asked…," and so forth. By saying or writing something (locutionary act), I am certainly doing something (asserting, commanding, asking: illocutionary act). But in perlocutionary speech-acts, I actually bring about a certain state of affairs precisely by saying or writing something: "such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even, say, surprising or misleading." (9) So in an illocutionary speech-act, one might say, "He commanded me to jump into the water," while in a perlocutionary speech-act, one might say, "He persuaded me to jump into the water." In the former case, the speaker merely says something to me; in the latter case, the speaker actually does something to me, producing some effect simply by saying or writing a particular sentence. To command or assert, to promise or to warn, is not to bring something about, but to persuade or mislead, to surprise or offend, does just that. The most obvious example of a perlocutionary utterance is, "I do," in the context of a wedding ceremony. Simply by saying this, in its appropriate setting, it creates a certain state of affairs. In its appropriate utterance, "I do" actually weds me to my bride.

I think that Austin offers us a helpful distinction for thinking about how we approach the task of preaching, and Ezekiel 37 provides the ideal example for this distinction's validity here. The Holy Spirit does not tell Ezekiel to command these bones to come to life in the way in which commands are generally issued. After all, they are hardly capable of reviving themselves, much less of reconstructing entire bodies. There is no hope from the side of the bones. Now if there were, we might expect Ezekiel to be told to exhort or encourage the bones, to inspire them to enter into the Spirit-filled life. And certainly there is exhortation in Scripture, since we have been raised with Christ from the grave of spiritual death. But that will not do for those who are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). Ezekiel is told to preach to the bones, to perform an operation upon them, to actually accomplish their revivification. And yet, it is not he himself who accomplishes this, but the Spirit working through the performative utterance.

Ezekiel is to have a blind confidence in the power of Word and Spirit to perform what is promised. He is not told merely to talk about God, Christ, salvation, the cross, faith, and so forth, but is told to preach God, Christ, salvation, the cross, and faith into the sea of skeletons. Of course, he cannot himself impart saving faith to others any more than he could impart it to himself, but in his ministry of the Word, that life-giving Gospel, Ezekiel's preaching actually performs what it promises. It does not merely promise (an illocutionary act), but effectually calls and vivifies. God's Word is not merely a divine artifact (i.e., something created by God), but belongs to God's very being. So to say that the Word saves, whether the preached Word or the "visible Word" (viz., the Sacraments), is simply shorthand for saying that God saves. Thus, "This is my comfort in my affliction, for Your word has given me life" (Ps. 119:50). What a difference such a thought could make in our ministries!

Instead of viewing preaching as discourse on a religious topic or even a scriptural exposition, we would once again see it as the act of God, through his fallible vessel, calling the dead to life, creating faith where there is only unbelief. "So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it" (Is. 55:11). God's Word is the good seed that produces a good crop, far beyond expectations (Luke 8:4-15). Crushing all their hopes for saving themselves, Jesus told the multitude that they could not even come to him unless the Father drew them. "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing." But he was hardly pitting the Spirit against the Word and the ordinary means, adding, "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). Do you see the inseparable connection between Word and Spirit, as well as the link between the sign and the thing signified? The words spoken are themselves life-giving, not because there is some magical power inherent in a string of utterances, but because of the Holy Spirit's efficacy working through the Word. By this Word he actually performs what is threatened in the Law and what is promised in the Gospel.

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. Also He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, 'Thus says the LORD GOD: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live."'" So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army (Ezek. 37:7-10).

Ezekiel here is not told to talk to the breathless skeletons about wind, lecturing them about the nature of spiritual life. To be sure, such content is necessary, but Ezekiel's sermon is surely more than that. He is told to preach breath into the slain. Ezekiel did as he was commanded, and the Holy Spirit raised up a vast army from the dereliction of spiritual death. This is just one more re-creation scene in which the Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep, a formless void which possesses no inherent creative power, now hovers over the preached Word and creates a new world with Jesus Christ as its sun. This prophecy, the Lord tells Ezekiel, will be fulfilled when the people's hopes are entirely lost. When that happens, they are to be given the preached Gospel:

Then he said to me, "…Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says the LORD GOD: "Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it," says the LORD'" (v. 11-14) [emphasis added].

Like a new Exodus, this day will bring God's elect out through the waters of destruction and lead them finally and forever into the land of Sabbath rest. "David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd" (v. 24).

Faith By Hearing, and Hearing By the Word

We find the same emphasis in Romans 10. The New Testament claims to be a fulfillment of all these Old Testament promises, but if that is so, where is Israel in God's plan? Paul has labored the point already in chapter nine that "it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham … That is, those who are the children according to ancestry are not the children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as the seed" (v. 6-9). While, by God's grace, some of his fellow-Jews were indeed being saved (as it has always been "a remnant according to election," 11:5), the great majority sought to be justified by their own obedience to God's law rather than by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. So, like the gentiles, they too are climbing stairways to heaven, trying to pull God down, or searching for him in the depths. "Seekers" frantically striving to "find God" fail to realize, says Paul, that "the word of faith which we preach" is at hand, ready to be embraced. God has already come down to us and continues to condescend in the person of his Holy Spirit whenever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered.

But a "righteousness of faith," as opposed to a "righteousness of the law," is something to be believed, not something to be done. It is not waiting to be achieved but is there to be received. This is why it is called "Gospel," meaning "good news." If we were saved by works, we might expect any number of techniques to scale Zion's heights. But if we are saved by grace alone, our Savior having fulfilled all righteousness in our place, the form which this reconciliation takes is news. Think of the difference in everyday experience between good directions and good news. When communication reaches the level of news, that which is communicated is already a completed event. The World War II headline, "Victory in Europe!", does not elicit our cooperation. It comes as news, an accomplished success that is announced. It is because salvation is by grace alone and according to "the righteousness which is by faith" that the preached Word is so central.

News is announced, proclaimed, declared. Skits could substitute for the preached Word if the object is to teach a moral lesson. Miracle-crusades could replace preaching if the goal is to fascinate. Lectures could suffice if the purpose is merely to inform. But it is preaching that is effectual to actually reconcile sinners to God. The preaching of the Word, like the Incarnation itself, is an instance of divine condescension, a moment when power takes the form of weakness and wisdom takes the form of foolishness. The result is clear. While fanatics and wisdom-seekers of every age will find it all too ordinary, says Paul, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation, for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16).

So, Paul inquires, "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?" (Rom. 10:14-15). The Apostle reasons from the necessity of preaching to the necessity of a regular, established, authorized ministry. Preachers are not self-appointed but are "sent." It is this ministry, and not a self-sent imitation, that brings life, for it is "the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18), a ministry which Paul is willing to defend to his dying breath. By this Word, God kills and makes alive, wounds and heals, causes us to despair and then makes us rejoice. "So then," Paul concludes, "faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). Salvation comes from heaven, by grace, through faith, because of Christ. This reaches us by means of the "good news" being preached. Therefore, there is a need for a regular, established, "sent" (i.e., authorized) ministry of Word and Sacrament. This is Paul's argument, the logic of grace.

Just as faith is the only instrument of justification precisely because it is a receiving instrument, hearing is the ordinary organ of reception for the same reason. Idolatry demands sight, which is why those who cannot wait for the Beatific Vision in the future create images of it here and now. This can take the form of statues, but it can also take the form of well-staged theatrical productions. Hearing corresponds to faith, while seeing corresponds to the consummation. Influenced by Augustine's Platonizing tendencies, medieval theology stressed vision (the Beatific Vision, the sight of God in his majesty, etc.). But the Reformers recovered the Pauline insistence on faith coming ex auditu-by hearing. (10) Faith comes by hearing Christ preached, Paul says. Just as God created ex nihilo by his performative utterance, "Let there be light!", so his preached Word is to be regarded as identical to God speaking in person.

This is why our confessions and dogmatics say that the preached Word is a means of grace, emphasizing the fact that it is this form that is especially suited to conveying the Gospel. Like the Gospel itself, this comes to us from the outside. It is not an echo of our own sinful hearts, a reflection of our own subjective projections or religious consciousness, but is a Word from another place, something that we cannot really say to ourselves. It comes to us, rather than originating within us. As it is God's grace and righteousness, it is God's Word, not ours, which saves us. There is nothing magical about this: a deaf person may read God's Word and be just as confident in Christ. But, exceptions notwithstanding, we have to take the logic of Paul's arguments seriously here: A Gospel of grace requires means that do not obscure the fact that we bring nothing of ourselves in this transaction but sin and resistance. It is precisely because they are means of grace that the preached Word and administered Sacraments, weak and foolish in the eyes of the world (including the worldly church), are Gospel-giving. In preaching, we hear the good news and in the Sacraments we taste the good news. It is true that we taste and see that the Lord is good in this meal, but it is sight linked eschatologically to bread and wine and it is still by faith that we feed on Christ whom we do not see.

Dividing That Which God Has United

For revivalism, though, such an ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament is not good enough. We need to hear, feel, and see more. But this is tantamount to saying that we need more than Christ. Revivalism seems intent on dissolving some important marriages. First, the union of Word and Spirit. Without the Word, the Spirit will be reduced to a power source at the disposal of enthusiastic and clever spiritual technicians. Gnosticism has been the perennial result. Without the Spirit, the Word can only be regarded as a "dead letter" indeed, but the promise is that the Spirit who inspired Scripture will always accomplish his purposes through its proclamation.

Second, the union of the human personality is at stake. Merely "Bible-centered" faith and piety tend to cut people off from the neck down, while so-called "Spirit-centered" religion tends to decapitate. Christ-centered preaching, teaching, and liturgy will always warm the heart as it stokes the mind with redemptive-historical proclamation. Neither the Word nor the Spirit (nor even both together) imparts saving life except as they have for their content the promises of God, as they are "yes" and "amen" in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20; John 5:39). Such an ordinary ministry is concerned with the whole person lying on the floor of death valley and wants to speak life into whole people, not just minds, hearts, or wills.

Third, the union of our understanding of the Trinity is put into question by the assumptions of "revivalism." The Trinitarian economy in salvation is underscored in the New Testament's glad announcement that God's redemption had arrived in the person and work of Christ and that the Holy Spirit is sent not to initiate a higher salvation, a "second blessing," or a supplement to Christ. Rather, he is called "the Spirit of Christ" precisely to emphasize that he is sent by the Father and the Son in order to call sinners from death to life by uniting them to Christ. As Jesus Christ is the center and substance of the entire Word, to say that the Spirit is inseparable from the Word is to say that the Spirit is inseparable from Christ. To divide the Spirit from the written and preached Word, in other words, is an implicit denial of the perichoretic unity of the Trinity.

Fourth, "revivalism" divorces spiritual from material reality. Need we be reminded again of the affinities with the Gnostic heresy, which spawned repeated manifestations of super-spirituality? In this heresy, not only is the spiritual distinct from the physical or material; it is positively superior and, in fact, striving toward emancipation from the material. The Word, in such a formulation, inasmuch as it is ink and paper, human language, and entrusted to the ministry of sinful men, is inferior to the Spirit-identified as superior not necessarily because he is God, but because he is spiritual. While the biblical categories are Creator-creature, the Gnostic reads the universe in terms of spirit-matter, so the Holy Spirit simply becomes a cipher for "the spiritual" in general. "Letter" includes the "bare Word," humble preaching, Sacraments and an official, educated, and properly organized ministry. "Spirit" refers to the exciting movements which normally occur outside of the precincts of the Church, or at least beyond its normal ministry. Related to this, as we have seen, is the division between "super-saints" who are pulling God down from heaven or bringing Christ up from the dead (Rom. 10:6-7), and the normal Christians who belong to "dead" churches where the ordinary means of grace are offered and people are actually nurtured and cared for in a community of sanity. All the while, such sectarian divisiveness and breaking of the bond of unity is praised as actually tearing down the walls. Every new "move of the spirit" leaves in its wake more disillusionment, more strife, more confusion among believers and pastors.

Finally, we have seen all too often in history how this separation of Word and Spirit has led to a division between the Church and parachurch "ministries." Nothing could be more foreign to the catholic and evangelical spirit than the modern evangelical arrogance of parachurch "ministries." As a member of the council for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, I do not deny the importance of occasional "working groups" being formed across denominational lines. Intent on not interfering with the ordinary ministry, we are nevertheless providing resources for better-informed general discussion. Our purpose is not to secure a union of our churches or to eventually create a common statement of faith: only church bodies have authority in these areas. We are an ad hoc group whose goal is to promote a wider understanding of the great truths which once defined genuinely "evangelical" (i.e., Reformational) Christianity. But we must not think for one moment that this Alliance is engaged in the ministry which Christ instituted. If we allow ourselves to form one more unaccountable body of "super-apostles" who extend their bounds of legitimate calling, then we are traitors to our own cause. Modern evangelicalism frequently demeans and sometimes even mocks the ordinary ministry, as if the real work of evangelism, missions, youth "ministry," worship, and just about everything else relevant to faith and life, is being done by mailing list revivals rather than by the simple, quiet, cruciform ministry which, like its message, is weakness and foolishness in the eyes of the world.

Even where such blatant departures are resisted, one may still detect a tendency to speak as if the ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament is inferior to the immediacy of the Holy Spirit's direct activity. The Vineyard movement, the Toronto "Blessing," and the Pensacola "revival," did not appear ex nihilo, but are links in a long chain throughout church history which has sought direct experience with God apart from his ordained means. There is nothing apart from the Word because there is nothing apart from Christ which the Holy Spirit wishes to give us (Eph. 1:3). When Bill Bright says that "Those who fast with pure motives will be drawn closer to the great heart of God and experience a quality of life in the Spirit that is not possible apart from fasting," he is implying that there is a higher "quality of life in the Spirit" than the ordinary life which is born of Word and Spirit. (11) Subjecting extraordinary means to the ordinary (or even substituting the former for the latter) inevitably divides "first-class" Christians and churches (i.e., Spirit-filled) from "second-class" Christians and churches (i.e., Word-centered). Thus, ironically, the separation of Word and Spirit which so dominates American super-spirituality has contributed to more division within the body of Christ than have traditional churches.

While we're discussing the spiritual elitism which is often engendered by a celebration of extraordinary over ordinary means of grace and ministry, recall that the Gnostics were called the gnostikoi-those who were "in the know." Pat Robertson reflects this tendency when he writes, "There are wonderful times when [God] shares a bit of His knowledge-a 'word of knowledge' as the Apostle Paul called it-with His people. This is intelligence that comes from God without reliance on sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell." (12) "Wonderful times" correspond to those moments when the Spirit works directly and apart from means, when he circumvents the ordinary human senses. While many would resist Robertson's language, this kind of thinking is rife within our churches. Furthermore, it is characteristic of our age. Madonna instructs us, for instance, in such antipathies: "Today is the last day that I am using words. They've gone out, lost their meaning, don't function anymore. Traveling, leaving logic and reason. Traveling, to the arms of unconsciousness. Let's get unconscious honey, let's get unconscious. Words are useless, especially sentences. They don't stand for anything. How could they explain how I feel?" (13)

Do We Need Another Revival?

I am convinced that the low ebb of spiritual vitality in the church is always due to a failure to faithfully execute the ordinary ministry. However it occurs-by being sidetracked by other interests or bored by truth-ministers lose their own sight of Christ and his benefits. This may happen even in perfectly sound churches, as when lecturing about God and his saving will in Christ takes the place of actually proclaiming Christ and redemption. Preaching is not teaching, although both are important for a balanced ministry. If the preaching of Christ is obscured by turning the sermon into a lecture, it is no wonder that people begin to think that there must be something more. It is not because they want something more than Christ, but because they are not receiving Christ, the Bread of Life. This is not withheld intentionally, but because we fail to recognize the preached Word as an eschatological moment in which the Kingdom of Heaven and the Age to Come breaks in on this world and "this present evil age." In many Reformed churches, we have to ask ourselves whether we have lost this sense that when we mount the pulpit, we are engaging in "power encounters." Here we are involved in the cosmic battle, armed with the Word and Spirit: the Gospel, faith, truth (Eph. 6). In these events, we "taste of the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5) and the borders of Jerusalem are enlarged. With the Word and the Sacraments together, God's own promise attached irrevocably to them, we are the ones who are engaged in a genuine "signs and wonders ministry." So we do not need another Pentecost or another apostolic (i.e., extraordinary) ministry. We belong to the age prophesied by Ezekiel. We and our hearers once belonged to the valley of dry bones, but have been raised with Christ on the third day. How could we settle for less-or crave more-than this ordinary ministry in this extraordinary age of redemptive history?

Lack of vitality cannot be solved by trying to balance "dead orthodoxy" with charismatic emphases or slick marketing. In fact, "dead orthodoxy" is actually an oxymoron. It is not a result of having the Word without the Spirit, for that is impossible. As Calvin reminds us, "Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence." (14) "Wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered": that oft-repeated confessional refrain expresses the clear teaching of Scripture as to the location of the Spirit's presence among his people. God is committed to dwelling among his people-this is one of the central themes of Scripture, especially in the prophetic literature-but he will do so only through an incarnate Mediator and through ordinary, physical means. The demand for a direct experience with God in our midst apart from these means is an overly realized eschatology. That is, it demands in the present that which God promises us in the future. Not content with faith (which waits upon God's faithfulness), it is an erotic craving, a demand. No matter how desperately we long to have our faith exchanged for sight, we must never turn from the Living God to idols because we couldn't wait for the Age to Come. "For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?" (Rom. 8:24).

Paul said, "Faith comes by hearing," not by seeing, experiencing, praising, singing, loving, serving, deciding, feeling or striving. God has selected the Word as his means of implanting faith and the ear as the human organ of reception. Faith comes by hearing because in the preached Word the sinner is made aware of his or her lost estate and, just when all hope is lost, the Redeemer's voice is heard, bestowing his forgiveness, justification, and sanctification by union with himself. Through that preaching, the Holy Spirit grants faith in the life-giving Son, and this union with Christ supplies every single gift which God has for every single adopted heir. There are no first-class churches and Christians who have been able to go beyond the ordinary ministry of Word, Sacrament, and discipline, and live a fuller, deeper, more "victorious" life in the Spirit by extraordinary means. By virtue of their union with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, all believers share in common "the riches of God's grace which he lavished on us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7), since the Father "has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:3).

If every spiritual blessing is given through the ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament, what is left for ostensibly "extraordinary" works of the Spirit? To be sure, it would seem that God works more remarkably through his ordinary ministry in some times and places than in others, but this belongs to his secret working. The reason is to be found not in any alleged distinction between ordinary ministry and times of revival, as if the Holy Spirit was more active or present in the latter, but resides in the private chambers of his own sovereign freedom. Meanwhile, we attend to the promise, which assures us that as long as the Word is proclaimed properly and the Sacraments are administered correctly according to Christ's institution, there will most surely be a signs-and-wonders ministry, as those who are spiritually dead are raised, the sick are healed, those who mourn are comforted, the poor are made rich, and the weak are made strong. The world will demand the extraordinary: either in terms of what we can feel, or see, or experience, or know. But the believer, relying on a promise rather than on a beatific vision, will know that the place "where the action is," the locus of the Spirit's activity in resurrection power, is the proclamation of Christ in Word and Sacrament. Faith comes by hearing the preached Word. "He who has ears, let him hear."

1 [ Back ] Grant Wacker, "The Holy Spirit and the Spirit of the Age in American Protestantism, 1880-1910," in D. G. Hart, Reckoning with the Past (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 268.
2 [ Back ] Bright's exact words are, according to his promotional literature, that "[f]asting unleashes God's supernatural power through our prayers, and I believe it is the key to meeting the requirements of 2 Chronicles 7:14." (See the "Quotes" page in this issue of MR for a more extensive excerpt.) Is he not claiming to be an apostle? If he sends people letters telling them that God commanded him to perform these great works, with not a little pressure placed on the reader to respond obediently, what is the difference?
3 [ Back ] Martin Luther, sermon on 1 Corinthians 15 (1533).
4 [ Back ] Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah (30:1; 59:21).
5 [ Back ] See Calvin's tract, "Against the Fanatics." Calvin also briefly treats the subject in various places in the Institutes, such as in 4.8.13.
6 [ Back ] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 605.
7 [ Back ] James Bratt, "Dutch Calvinism," in Reformed Theology in America, ed. David Wells (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 117.
8 [ Back ] Berkhof, op. cit., 612.
9 [ Back ] J. L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, second edition, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisa (Boston: Harvard, 1975), 109.
10 [ Back ] See T. F. Torrrance, Theology in Reconstruction (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 76-98, reprinted from the author's lecture read to a colloquy held in Strasbourg, May 1964 titled, "The Knowledge of God According to Calvin."
11 [ Back ] Bill Bright, The Coming Revival (Summerlin, NV: New Life Publications, 1995).
12 [ Back ] Pat Robertson, Beyond Reason (1985).
13 [ Back ] Madonna, "Bedtime Story," Bedtime Stories (Sire Records, 1994).
14 [ Back ] John Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.9.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, July 2nd 1998

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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