Issue No 69
In the previous editorial we considered sacramentology and the way in which the Christological maxim “distinct but inseparable” can help us navigate the relationship between sign and reality in the sacraments. We saw that, while Martin Luther fell into error by conflating the sign and the thing signified, Huldrych Zwingli fell into the opposite error of separating the sign from its corresponding reality. John Calvin sought to steer a middle course, teaching that, while the sign and reality must be distinguished, they must never be separated: “If God cannot deceive or lie, it follows that he performs all that it signifies.”
Each of the Reformers acknowledged the close connection between the Word and the Sacraments. Luther spoke of the preached Word as being the “means of God’s sacramental message to man”. Likewise, Calvin described the preached Word as fulfilling the same office as the sacraments: they both “offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasure of heavenly grace”. It is therefore unsurprising to find that the same distinct yet inseparable relationship operates in the realm of Word and Spirit in preaching.
Scripture undoubtedly has a high view of what God’s Word will achieve. It accomplishes the purpose for which it was given: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:10-11). The Word of God is effective, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tell us: it “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). God’s Word works; it is powerful and always achieves its purpose.
Nevertheless, some Christians are nervous about the exalted language that is sometimes used by conservative evangelicals to describe the Bible and the effect of preaching. They flinch at the title of the recent collection of essays in honour of Phillip Jensen: “Let the Word do the Work”. God’s power resides in the Holy Spirit, they insist, not directly in the Word. In Acts 16:14, Lydia only received the Word preached by Paul because the Lord first opened her heart. In 2 Cor 4:6, we are told that we are helpless and spiritually blind until God shines his light into our hearts. According to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who brings spiritual regeneration and new birth (John 3), not the Word. But at the same time James can write that God “brought us forth [gave us birth] by the word of truth” (Jam 1:18), and Peter insisted that we are “born again… through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23).
How do we hold together these seemingly conflicting texts? Does God work by his preached Word or by the Holy Spirit? Which is the agent of re-generation and sanctification? The answer must of course be both, operating distinctly but inseparably. Listen to John Calvin again: “[W]e maintain that when God speaks, the efficacy of his Spirit is added at the same time, for otherwise the Word would be fruitless. Nevertheless, the Word does not lack effectiveness, because the instrument must be joined with the author of the action”, (John Calvin, Commentary on Ezekiel 1 (Chapters 1-12) (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), 59). Word and Spirit are not in conflict; they work together. The Spirit is the efficacious means of regeneration and Christian growth while the Word is the instrumental means that the Spirit uses. No one has put it better than Sinclair Ferguson: “For the New Testament writers… there is no hint of a threat to divine sovereignty in the fact that the word is the instrumental cause of regeneration, while the Spirit is the efficient cause. This is signalled in the New Testament by the use of the preposition ek to indicate the divine originating cause (e.g. Jn 3:5; 1 Jn 3:9; 5:1) and dia to express the instrumental cause (e.g. Jn 15:3; 1 Cor 4:15; 1 Pet 1:23)” (Sinclair B Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Leicester: IVP, 1996), 125).
The distinct yet inseparable relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching has important implications. It means that, just as we approach the administration of the sacraments with eager expectation knowing that the reality is always present to be received with the sign, so we approach the preaching of the Word with expectation knowing that it is God’s means of sustaining and growing his church. It is a “perennial fountain that will never fail us” (John Calvin, The Gospel According to John: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959), 93). This, however, should not lead to complacency in listeners since the Word is a double-edged sword. It is “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Cor 2:15-16). The preaching of God’s Word is always effective but it has a twofold effect: it blesses those who come with faith but judges those who come with unbelief.
This understanding of the distinct yet inseparable relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching will mean that we are committed to expository preaching – letting the main message of the text be the main message of our sermon – because we know that the Bible (not our own flair or eloquence) is God’s chosen means of blessing his people. But it will also drive us to our knees in prayer because we know that we are dependent upon God the Holy Spirit to soften hearts and illumine minds so that we can drink from God’s “perennial fountain” by faith. There is no dichotomy between prayer and rigorous exegetical preparation. It is “both… and…” because the Holy Spirit works through the means of the faithful teaching of his Word.
All of this also has important implications for the Word / Spirit debate in the sphere of sung worship too. Recently I was speaking at a conference for Music Ministry (www.music-ministry.org), where we were looking at the relationship between Word and Spirit in sung corporate worship. In more charismatic circles, sung worship is often viewed as being either a means of preparing to encounter God or a way of ushering in God’s presence. The spiritual experience is judged to be proportionate to the emotional experience of the music. However, Col 3:16 teaches us that sung worship is, in fact, Word ministry. By singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to each other, we “let the word of Christ dwell in us richly”. In this respect, sung corporate worship is a lot like the sacraments. As Augustine showed us, the sacraments are “visible words”; good Christian hymns and songs are “memorable words”. They impart vividness and memorability to God’s words which, in turn, “drive the word into our hearts, so that it becomes precious to us and motivates us to praise and obedience”. (John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1996), 112-113).
This means that, far from believing that the Spirit only occasionally accompanies our sung worship, we should recognise that he always accompanies it, either in blessing or judgment, whenever his Word is sung. This of course elevates the importance of singing in our corporate worship services (a song should never be used as a filler or for the children to leave for their groups!) and it also underlines the importance of ensuring that our hymns and songs are Word saturated. It is never simply a question of what people like or what “works musically” (although both those questions are important). Word and Spirit are distinct yet inseparable in the preaching of the Word and the singing of the Word. Therefore we must approach both of these ministries with faith and expectation.
Turning to the current issue, we have three articles and two reviews for you. Nathan Weston has written an excellent piece providing an evangelical response to postmodern scepticism of textual interpretation. After a brief historical introduction, Weston works through the various objections to the stable meaning of languages. He persuasively argues that, since God is the origin of language, he is the only stable guarantor of its meaning. Thus, the only secure criterion for religious knowledge is an objective, revealed word from the Father applied by his Spirit to the hearts of sinners redeemed by God the Son.
In the second article, I examine the significance of the Lord’s Supper in the life and ministry of Adolphe Monod, a nineteenth-century French Reformed minister. The Supper held a high place in Monod’s theological and pastoral thinking and played a crucial role in ecclesiastical disputes in both Lyons and Paris. Unlike his North American contemporaries, Monod remained committed to Calvin’s doctrine of the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Supper. He cherished the spiritual nourishment that the Supper provides and spent his final months of life expounding and celebrating it with his family and co-workers in Christ.
In the third article, Robert Strivens provides a response to John Stevens’ contribution to Issue 68 in which he argued that the New Testament views the Lord’s Supper as a new covenant community celebration meal. Strivens argues that the Lord’s Supper does not require a full meal and suggests that Stevens over-emphasises the horizontal aspects of the Supper at the expense of the vertical element of the believers’ communion with Christ himself. Also included are book reviews of Preaching with Spiritual Power and The Plausibility Problem.
I hope you enjoy reading Issue 69 of Foundations and, as always, welcome correspondence and the submission of articles.
Assistant Pastor, Moorlands Evangelical Church, Lancaster, UK
Pastor, City Church Manchester, UK
Response to John Stevens, “Not Reformed Enough: Critiquing Contemporary Practice of the Lord’s Supper
Principal, London Theological Seminary
Acting Director, Proclamation Trust Cornhill Training Course
City Church Manchester, UK
Foundations is an international journal of evangelical theology published by Affinity.
Its aim is to cover contemporary theological issues by articles and reviews, taking in exegesis, biblical theology, church history and apologetics, and to indicate their relevance to pastoral ministry. Its particular focus is the theology of evangelical churches which are committed to biblical truth and evangelical ecumenism. It has been published by Affinity (formerly The British Evangelical Council) from its inception as a print journal. It became a digital journal in May 2011.
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Iain D Campbell
Free Church of Scotland, Point, and Westminster Seminary
Cornhill Training Course (Scotland)
Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland
Oak Hill College, London
Anglo-American University, Prague & Wales Evangelical School of Theology
The John Owen Centre, London Theological Seminary
Tyndale House, Cambridge
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