The Word Proclaimed

Michael S. Horton
Monday, July 16th 2007
Nov/Dec 1999

Proposed: God has promised to save and keep his people through the means he has appointed and through no others; the ordinary means of grace are limited to the preached Word and the administered Sacraments; God's rationale for these means is made explicit in Scripture.

This thesis, which was so widely accepted as to be almost taken for granted by many Protestants in the past, somehow looks remarkably controversial in our day. Remarkably, some professing evangelicals apparently believe that God can be found apart from any means, if only people will look deep enough inside themselves. Others think that, of course, the Bible is important, but preaching is not essential, and staged dramas might well be more effective. Few would defend the efficacy of the Sacraments. Many assert that emotional music is a "medium" to connect us to God (see this article's sidebar). And perhaps most evangelicals believe that Scripture really does not speak about methods or means; it is concerned only with message.

In reality, though, there is a great deal of biblical support for the old view that God not only accomplished our redemption by grace, he also applies this redemption by grace. When you read Romans 10 (actually beginning at 9:30), for instance, it provides a single line of thought that has much to do with the questions at hand. First, there is Paul's well-known lament concerning the offense of the cross-a lament because so many of his flesh and blood stumble over the Rock. But the Rock cannot be moved. It cannot be softened, broken into pieces, or absorbed into the environment. It's just there-in the way. God demands a perfect righteousness, which Paul says the Jews seek by their own works rather than by faith in Christ alone. He has been working out the logic of grace quite clearly throughout this epistle to the Romans, but especially beginning in chapter 8, it becomes a tight logical argument: "Those whom he foreknew he predestined, those whom he predestined he called, those whom he called he justified, and those whom he justified he glorified. What shall we therefore say? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (8:29-31). And then here in our passage, at the start of chapter 10, Paul further adds that the "righteousness which is of the law" leads to conclusions which are antithetical to those reached by the "righteousness which is by faith." He will then restate the point more succinctly in chapter 11: "If then it is by grace, it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace" (11:6). That's the logic of the Gospel.

The Logic of the Message Controls the Logic of the Method

This summary is familiar to many of us. To be sure, there are two ways of salvation: our way, which leads to death, and God's way, which leads to life everlasting. Each road has its own destiny and its own method of redemption (works or grace).

But what may not be so familiar is Paul's argument in Romans 10; namely, that each road not only has its own destiny and method of redemption, but also has its own means of attaining or receiving that redemption. In other words, it is possible to accept the logic of the message ("salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone"), while missing the logic of the method (receiving this by grace alone). Note Paul's argument closely:

Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: "The man who does these things will live by them." But the righteousness that is by faith says: "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "'Who will descend into the deep?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," (that is, the word of faith which we preach):…for "Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?…Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Rom. 10:5-17).

Do you see the logic of the method which Paul outlines here? Certain methods just go with certain messages, and that is true in the case of the Gospel. Paul is saying that grace has its own method. The spirit of works-righteousness says, "How can I climb up to God and bring Christ down to me, where I am, in my own experience?" Like Ulysses crossing the expansive seas to conquer dragons and finally to arrive at his reward, the logic of works-righteousness conceives of salvation by personal conquest. Martin Luther would talk about ladders that people climb to reach God's presence: mysticism, merit, and speculation were the ladders he had in mind. These same ladders are plentiful today. Scores of methods abound for pulling God down out of heaven, to manipulate him into doing what we want him to do when we want him to do it. This, of course, is what the Israelites attempted in the wilderness. While God was giving his redeemed people a written and preached Word through his servant Moses at the top of the mountain, they were busy fashioning a golden calf which they could see and touch-and control.

Today people still want to see, touch, and control God. They will do almost anything to be where the "action" is, where God has been conjured down out of heaven, whether it is flying to Toronto, Pensacola, or even Lourdes. Not content with hearing God's Word, they want to see God's glory. But God warned Moses, "No man can see me and live" (Ex. 33:20). In fact, it was in this episode, just after God agreed not to destroy his idolatrous people, that Moses too pleaded to see God's glory. Informing Moses that this would spell the prophet's doom rather than delight, God agreed to allow his goodness rather than his glory to pass by. And he did this by preaching a little sermon: "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" was the introduction, body, and conclusion.

Seeing vs. Hearing

Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry was the Big One. It was not adultery or fornication, greed or theft, even murder or being disobedient to one's parents. These were all important, each with its own sanction under the Mosaic civil code. Nevertheless, idolatry was the sin from which all else was understood to flow. The Canaanites and other nations in the region were much more culturally sophisticated and technologically advanced than the children of Israel, and they credited their prosperity to both their own efforts and the gods' approval. They could see these gods: there were visible manifestations or points of contact with these deities in the form of huge statues and altars raised up on the horizon's highest points.

Israel was tired of hearing, which corresponds to patiently waiting for God's timetable in hope. Instead, Israel wanted to see, which corresponds to the reality itself. When someone tells me I've been offered the job of my dreams after it has been intimated and then even promised to me before, I might say, "Seeing is believing." And that really is true for us as fallen creatures, born untrusting and cynical. But as Paul reminds us, "For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no 'hope' at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently" (Rom. 8:24-25).

Therefore, there is a correlation in biblical faith between faith/hope and a promise announced (hearing) on the one hand, and vision/sight and a reality fully experienced on the other. Those who demand the eschaton (i.e., the Vision of God) here and now will be particularly susceptible to idolatry. And they would not be as inclined toward idolatry if they were patiently waiting for the salvation which they have in Christ as it is mediated through the broken and not so spectacular vessels of human messengers, and the common elements of water, bread, and wine. Why are these effective means of grace? Not because of either the minister or the elements themselves, but because of God's promise. God has promised to deliver his grace at these humble venues. It is not that we get one sort of grace in the preaching, another in baptism, and another in the Supper, but that in these divinely instituted means God offers and gives the same grace: namely, forgiveness and new life. The revival down the street may promise the Vision, but God's Spirit calms us down and says, "Give ear to my words." The logic of the righteousness which is by works may attract us to a forty-day fast as a method of gaining victory over all known sin, but the logic of the righteousness which is by faith says that we don't have to cross the seas to find God and "appropriate" his power. Rather, he is as near as the means of grace; in this passage specifically, the preaching of the Gospel.

This is great news! For God has not only saved us by grace in sending his Son two thousand years ago, but he has also applied this grace by grace alone in sending his Spirit down to us here and now to make his preached Gospel and his administered Sacraments the means of grace, creating faith and confirming it until the end.

Distinguishing God's Action and Our Action in the Service

But if God has spoken on methods/means-on the ways by which he comes to us-then why do we continue to neglect his provisions and fashion our own ladders into heaven? Sadly, many believe these are merely matters of preference. As one writer in Worship Leader, a magazine of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry, puts it: "Those that champion the cognitive suggest that worship should center upon the proclamation of the Word." (1) But the "preference" for the cognitive is emphatically not why the proclamation of the Word should be central! It is not as if "intellectual people" are free to choose their intellectual worship (centered on preaching), while "emotional people" can choose emotional worship (centered on singing). Instead, what Paul is directing us toward is not distinctions among human preferences, but a distinction between God's action and our action, between when we are active and when we are passive.

Hearing the Word read and preached (and receiving the "visible Word"-i.e., the Sacraments) is not about preference. It is about the action of God. Preaching is not merely the minister's talk about God, but actually God's talk. It is the law-Gospel encounter through which God himself takes the judge's bench, arraigns us as sinners by the standard of perfect justice and then finds a way to be both just and the justifier of the ungodly in Jesus Christ. All of this happens to us, before our very eyes. It is worked upon us and in us by the Holy Spirit as the Word is preached.

Despite the fact that many conservative preachers, including Calvinists, often confuse the ministry of the Word with teaching, the argument Paul makes here in Romans 10 (and the Scriptures make elsewhere, especially in Ezekiel 37 with the valley of the dry bones) is really quite different. For the biblical writers, "the preached Word of God is the Word of God" (Second Helvetic Confession). It is not an event chiefly of instruction, motivation, encouragement, inspiration, or exhortation. All of these may be involved, depending on the passage, but the preached Word is primarily a means of grace. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it: "The Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts by the preaching of the holy Gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy Sacraments" (Q/A 65). That is what Paul argues especially here, but elsewhere in various forms: viz., that the Gospel is "the power of God unto salvation…" (Rom. 1:16; also 1 Cor. 1:22-25).

God makes sure not only that the good news is preserved, but that it remains good news in the way in which it is delivered. Just as faith is the sole instrument of justification, so too "faith comes by hearing (2) …. the Word of God." The ears are organs of reception, not of attainment. There is too much talk of God "manifesting" or "revealing" himself to us. It is not that these are bad things, nor that God has not manifested or revealed himself in some ways. Rather, manifesting and revealing are already heavily weighted toward vision and sight rather than hearing and hoping.

Of course, this visual dominance is not new-even if television in particular and our image-obsessed culture in general may make the addiction to things of the eye seem more normal. Actually, though, the history of idolatry is largely the history of visual consumerism. We may easily observe the Hebraic suspicions-not of art, but of imagining God or the sacred in art; not of ritual, but of creating our own rituals, our own method of worship; not of music, but of a captivity to music which undermines the liturgy, preaching, and Sacrament.

There is a contrast here between Hebraic and pagan attitudes. While the pagan could be as eclectic and innovative as possible within his or her range of creativity, the Israelite had to turn away from the impersonal "sacredness of everything," which was represented by the idols as visual aids, to embrace the infinite-personal God who spoke through the patriarchs and prophets. God's people recounted the stories of God's redemptive acts in history, while the typical pagan would (and still does) find such a restriction (this God, this elect people, in this time and place, etc.) on sacred manifestation offensive.

Some will reply, yes, that was true of Israel, but isn't Jesus Christ the icon (eikon) of the invisible God? And doesn't that mean that our worship should now be "incarnational" (a term under whose skirt all sorts of idolatry hide)? To use the Incarnation as a cipher for smuggling "sacredness" and idolatry into the Christian community is especially pernicious. To be sure, God has become flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God was preserving a people from idolatry precisely for that event. But here we are 2,000 years later. We cannot see Christ, but we can see the bread and the wine which in the sacramental union become sacred because of the reality which the Holy Spirit gives through the Sacrament. And as Christ is preached each week, through the whole service as well as the sermon, he is as truly present and active by the Holy Spirit as if he were present bodily.

So Paul can speak as if his preaching is a visual drama: "Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed [literally, "placarded" or "posted up on a billboard"] before you as crucified" (Gal. 3:1). Here also, as in Romans, he contrasts works-righteousness with whether "…you believe what you heard" (3:5). Even the Sacraments have their efficacy through the Spirit only by the Word. God has given us visual means of grace alongside his Word, but he has promised to bless, comfort, forgive, and cleanse only through these means, as the same Gospel promised in the preaching is sealed to us in the Sacraments.

It is not a message of salvation by grace alone which is then discovered, attained, appropriated, or experienced by some way other than grace-by climbing into heaven or by crossing the seas. God has made the trip across the great expanse and has come all the way. But that was still not enough. In order to unite us "here and now" (late 1999) to that "then and there" event (Jesus' life, death, and resurrection), he sent a minister. God is active through the minister's voice now, as he announces what Christ has done and will yet do. Paul thus concludes his argument: "How shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:14-15).

But this focus, of course, is not a popular idea today. While salvation may be by grace, receiving salvation (especially sanctification) supposedly comes by grasping, by traveling to this or that "spiritual" place, or by experimenting with each new evangelical fad. Many evangelicals thus believe that nearly anybody can qualify as a "minister" and anything as a "ministry." One need not be "sent," as Romans says here, but may send oneself. But Paul is clearly using "sent" here to mean sent by the Church through its appointed officers, as his insistence on the laying on of hands reminds us.

Paul is arguing that if salvation is by grace alone, then it must be delivered by a medium in which the sinner is passive rather than active. That medium is preaching-as well as Sacrament. A service in which the congregation is almost exclusively active (for instance, in singing, especially in singing about what they are doing and will do) abruptly interrupts this Pauline logic. For the action here is moving in the other direction, from God to us. He comes to us; he gives us the gift of forgiveness and new life in Christ. There are, of course, many parts of the worship service where the faithful are active-but these times (confession, singing, prayer, etc.) are not "means of grace." Rather, they are means of responding to the grace which has been delivered by God alone.

See that Paul singles out preaching as the way that salvation comes to us, as the way that the Spirit effects salvation. And this is not just any preaching, but a certain kind of preaching: "that is, the word of faith which we preach" (10:8), "the word of Christ" (10:17). It is the preaching of God's commands that brings conviction, and the proclamation of Christ in the Gospel that creates and keeps on creating faith and its fruit. This is not to divorce God's Word from other elements (singing, prayers, the blessing), but it is to say that preaching is singled out as God's chief means of grace.

A methodology that regards God's chief activity in terms of the extraordinary and spectacular will not settle for the wisdom and power of God in the Word. Salvation by grace alone may be solidly affirmed, but Paul argues here that methodology cannot be divorced from the message. It is by a deputized ambassador (and not a self-appointed mediator) so that it may be through the preaching of the Gospel outside of us (and not through the clever inventions of our idol-making imagination), so that it may be by faith alone. And it is by faith alone so that it might be of grace alone, so that it might be of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. That's the logic Paul is unfolding.

So many people hear the good news when it comes to Jesus' saving work: it's by grace, not by works. But then trouble comes, for they are led to all of the gimmicks, techniques, methods, and means that are out there for climbing up to God and experiencing a vision of his glory, a touch of his power, a glimpse of his majesty. When they get burned out on this sort of religion, they will be ready either for atheism or for the theology of the cross. This theology of the cross is weakness, not power-and yet, it is "the power of God unto salvation." It is foolishness, not wisdom-and yet, "the foolishness of God is wiser than men's wisdom." The weak things of God have become not so much despised as ignored in much of contemporary Christianity. Instead, we look for the powerful things of the world. And then we wonder why we get worldly results: consumers rather than disciples.

The Wonder of the Divine Drama

But traditionalism shouldn't get off easily either. If believers are looking for an exciting encounter with God apart from the Word, we must ask why this is. Is it just because our age is like the Middle Ages, visual rather than verbal? Or could it also be that many of us have turned the service into a dry, purely rational and yet unreflective routine? Do we think of the Lord's Day as exclusively didactic?

If Christ is not preached as good news to believers who are still sinful and weak in faith, then it is no wonder that preaching has lost its power. The power is in the preaching of Christ, not simply in the medium of a man talking from up front. And if people are hankering after drama, perhaps it is because we are not demonstrating to them the wonder of the divine drama. As Dorothy Sayers reminded us, "The doctrine is the drama."

A famous English fiction writer herself, Sayers, in Creed or Chaos, is astonished that a story so full of dramatic interest as this narrative of redemption could be rendered benign and flat by the clergy. The Reformation spirit-more importantly, the apostolic spirit-is not one of conservatism any more than progressivism. It strives to faithfully bring God's means of grace to each new generation. And if many of our folks want to turn our church into an aerobics class or a situation comedy, instead of merely resisting and retrenching, perhaps we should ask ourselves some tough questions. Are we really ministering God's means of grace? If the preaching of Christ and the place of the Sacraments are unclear, it should be no surprise that people will set up golden calves-their own means of grace, whether through musical extravagance, emotional hype, visual drama, or other methods which we think will help us climb into the presence of One who instead seeks and finds us.

Furthermore, God has provided baptism and the Holy Supper as means of strengthening our faith in Christ, assuring us, and delivering his blessings. They are not merely illustrations, as stage dramas in church are, but actually convey the promised deliverance. God has accommodated to our capacity already: in Word and Sacrament. He has taken our weakness into consideration already. First, he accommodated in the form which his self-revelation took throughout the history of Israel. Then he accommodated to our weakness in the Incarnation. He came down all the way to us, saved us by the death and resurrection of his Son, and continues to provide for our temporal and eternal welfare. But that's not all. After this he still accommodates, coming all the way down to us again here and now as he uses the most everyday and common elements that are familiar to both the uneducated and the academic: water, bread, and wine. Here God even accommodates to our weakness by allowing us to "taste and see that the Lord is good," to catch a glimpse of his goodness as he passes by. The writer to the Hebrews calls it "tasting of the powers of the age to come." It is simply arrogant, therefore, for us to respond to God's gracious condescension by asking, "But what about the teenagers?"

When Hope Will Dissolve Into Sight

Biblical faith is hyper-sensitive to idolatry-and not just of the First Commandment type, but of the Second as well (viz., the prohibition of worshiping even the true God according to our own imagination). Idolatry is, at least in part, the result of an over-realized eschatology-not being able to wait. Instead of patiently hoping, as that hope is propped up and strengthened each Lord's Day, we want to experience it all here and now. Instead of the cross, we want to see God's glory. Idolatry is what we get when we don't want to hear promises anymore, but want to see the goods. But God sought to preserve his people from idolatry because he was saving his self-revelation for the Incarnation. There in Palestine men and women saw God in the flesh, "and we beheld his glory" (John 1:14), not the blinding majesty which no mortal can see and live, but the goodness of God as he passed by, hiding us in the cleft of the rock.

In this wilderness epoch between the two comings of our Savior, God is savingly present among us through Word and Sacrament. We need props to strengthen our faith, but we dare not invent our own, as Israel did at Mount Sinai. Only in glory will we no longer need faith, since hope will dissolve into sight. There will be no more promises, no more anticipation. But for now God has given us his means of grace to ensure that the method of delivery as well as the method of redemption itself is his alone. Here in the wilderness, God has given us both the preached Word and the visible Word, baptism and the Supper. Here is God's drama, the liturgy of the Tree of Life, a drama in which God not only illustrates but acts in saving grace, and we respond in faith and repentance.

1 [ Back ] Worship Leader, May/June 1999, 22.
2 [ Back ] In Latin, this "by hearing" reads "ex auditu." Hence, this is where the preaching column in MR finds its name.
Photo of Michael S. Horton
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.
Monday, July 16th 2007

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology