Foundations: No.71 Autumn 2016

Some Thoughts on the Relationship Between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit

Taking published material by Ralph Cunnington and Professor Robert Letham as a point of departure, this article considers the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Word of God and focuses upon certain particular aspects of this relationship. A historical survey analyses the teaching of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones with respect to the relationship of Word and Spirit in the areas of preaching and regeneration, before considering the concept of “immediate regeneration” in the context of the Pajonist controversy and in the teaching of Herman Bavinck. This historical survey of the doctrine of an immediate work of the Holy Spirit concludes with brief references to the teachings of the following: Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Abraham Kuyper, Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray. Certain theological “axioms” concerning the ontological nature and status of the Holy Spirit and of Scripture undergird an analysis of the relationship of Word and Spirit, and this leads to the conclusion that while the Word and Spirit are distinct but related, in certain respects the Spirit is greater than, and separate from, the Word.


Two published pieces have been the catalyst for this article, and they will provide a convenient peg upon which to hang a consideration of certain aspects of the relationship of the person and work of the Holy Spirit to God’s Word, especially as that Word is preached and heard.[1]

Theological discussion and controversy have sometimes taken place in what Francis L. Patton once described as “a condition of low visibility”[2]. This being so, it is necessary to specify at the outset the precise issues which I shall seek to address. Does the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of the hearers of God’s Word always in the same way and to the same degree? In the actual transition of a sinner from a state and condition of nature into a state and condition of grace, does the Holy Spirit at any point work directly and immediately on and within the soul or is his work accomplished always by, and through the Word of God? The same question may be expressed slightly differently as follows: does the Holy Spirit work only in, by, and through the Word, or, in the area of giving new life, does he also work with the Word and accompany it? If we answer this affirmatively, it inevitably prompts us to consider the following question: does this mean, therefore, that sometimes the Spirit works with the Word in a manner in which, on other occasions, he does not so work?


The questions which I shall seek to answer arise from the two publications which I have referenced in the opening paragraph. Chronologically, the first to be published was an article by Professor Robert Letham of Union (formerly WEST), which sets out the position that although Word and Spirit must be distinguished, they must never be separated. In arguing that the Reformed confessions uniformly witnessed to the inseparability of Word and Spirit in all the means of grace, preaching included, Professor Letham takes issue with some of the emphases of the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, claiming that he separated Word and Spirit, placed too much emphasis upon historical anecdote when dealing with the work of the Spirit in preaching, and – albeit unwittingly and unintentionally – undermined the regular use of the means of grace. Letham also expressed a measure of unease with the critique of the concept of “mediate regeneration” made by Stuart Olyott,[3] and with the observation made by Professor Hywel Jones that “the Holy Spirit is ‘greater’ than the Word and must not be imprisoned in it”.[4]

The second publication is a book by Ralph Cunnington, the editor of this journal, which examines Calvin’s teaching on the relationship of Word and Spirit. Cunnington’s conclusions are that in Calvin’s teaching Word and Spirit are indeed distinguished but are not separate. The author is critical, to a greater or lesser degree, of published material by Philip Eveson,[5] by Robert Strivens,[6] by Hywel Jones,[7] and by Stuart Olyott[8] on the relationship of Word and Spirit. He is especially critical of the exegesis offered by Olyott of James 1:18 and of 1 Peter 1:23 in support of “immediate regeneration”, and further claims that Olyott’s criticism of mediate regeneration is, in fact, something of a red herring. Cunnington clearly identifies Lloyd-Jones with other contemporary writers who believe that the Spirit sometimes accompanies the preached Word and sometimes does not. “The conclusion he [this is, Lloyd-Jones] draws is that the Spirit sometimes accompanies the preached Word by filling the preacher and sometimes he does not”.[9] While, therefore, Cunnington’s book addresses a fairly narrow issue of historical theology, namely Calvin’s understanding of Word and Spirit in preaching, it is clear that he makes some fairly broad criticisms of the understanding of the relationship of Word and Spirit adopted by some contemporary writers who, it would be fair to say, are saying something similar to, if not entirely identical with, the teaching of Lloyd-Jones. Interestingly, in his foreword to Cunnington’s book, Professor Letham writes the following:

It is well known that Calvin held that the Word and the Holy Spirit are inseparably related. This conviction has subsequently been a hallmark of the Reformed churches. The Westminster Assembly (1643-47), in its Confession of Faith, spelled this out in connection with revelation, calling, the ministry, sanctification, good works and so on.[10]

Purpose, and method of treatment

That something of a “controversy” exists with respect to this matter is clear from the title of chapter 1 of Cunnington’s book: “The Current Controversy”. Sinclair Ferguson, however, in a commendatory “blurb” on the book’s back cover, refers to “an important issue that has been simmering just under the surface of British Evangelicalism for a number of years” and goes on to express the hope that the book “will not lead to a full-blown controversy, but to a closer examination of the Scriptures”. “Controversy”, issue… simmering just under the surface”, “not lead to full-blown controversy”: these words indicate, therefore, that a measure of disagreement exists.

The purpose of the current article is not to take sides in this debate but, rather, to seek to get behind it and to clarify some of the points at issue. In doing so, I hope that it will be seen that although there are areas of disagreement, these should not be exaggerated. Indeed, I shall seek to demonstrate that a measure of misunderstanding of positions has existed and that this may, at points, have led to certain positions having been misrepresented. While I hope, at a future stage, to publish material of an exegetical nature, in which the biblical teaching will be considered and controverted texts and passages be explored in some depth and detail, the present article is more modest in scope and purpose. The first part is historical in nature and consists of the following: a brief examination of some published material by Lloyd-Jones, which should demonstrate that his teaching on the relationship of Word and Spirit in preaching sits clearly within a “Reformed” understanding; and a consideration of the term and concept of “immediate regeneration” in the Pajonist controversy, and in the writing of Herman Bavinck, as well as in the writings of a range of other Reformed theologians of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The purpose of examining the historical treatment of the concept of immediate regeneration will be to demonstrate that, far from being a “red herring”, it is extremely relevant to the whole question of the relationship of Word and Spirit, and was recognised as such by leading Reformed theologians. The second part of this article will seek to clarify the definition of certain terms in order to elucidate the precise points which are at issue. It might be thought that definition of terms should come at the beginning of Part 1 rather than in Part 2. The reason for deferring the defining of terms is that Part 1 is exclusively historical in nature, whereas the defining of terms in Part 2 prepares the way for the exclusively theological discussion in Part 3. Finally, in Part 3, I shall seek to explore certain theological realities before, in the final section, setting out certain conclusions of this study.

I. Historical

1. Lloyd-Jones’s views on Word and Spirit

Both Letham and Cunnington appear to say that Lloyd-Jones held a particular belief concerning the relationship of Word and Spirit, a belief which, apparently, is at variance with what Cunnington considers to have been Calvin’s view and what Letham considers to have been both Calvin’s position and that which is represented in the Reformed confessions. In a review article of Cunnington’s book in an earlier issue of this journal, Tim Ward appeared to say that there was a “Lloyd-Jones view” of the matter.[11] Both Cunnington and Letham refer to material in the final chapter of Lloyd-Jones’s Preaching and Preachers.[12] The material in this chapter needs to be carefully considered and placed within the context of the whole book and the wider context of Lloyd-Jones’s teaching.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a preacher par excellence; like any good preacher he took account of the congregation to which he was speaking and applied the truth to the people before him, rather than to an imaginary congregation in a different context.[13] Moreover, remarks made by him in the final lecture of a series clearly need to be read in conjunction with what was said in earlier lectures in the same series. By failing to do so, Letham inevitably misrepresents Lloyd-Jones’s views, and, to a lesser extent, so does Cunnington. Preaching and Preachers consists of a series of lectures which Lloyd-Jones delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in the spring of 1969.[14] The final chapter is the typescript of the last lecture. It was entitled “Demonstration of the Spirit and of the Power”.[15] The preacher indicated that he had left this subject until last because, “I believe that if we do, or attempt to do, all I have been saying first, then the unction will come upon it” – “it” here referring to the message preached.[16] This, of course, raises the question as to what he had been saying in earlier lectures. A few examples will demonstrate – hopefully conclusively – that he did not separate the Word and Spirit.

In dealing with “the form of the sermon”, he had this to say:

So you must be expository;… my whole argument is that it should be clear to people that what we are saying is something that comes out of the Bible. We are presenting the Bible and its message. That is why I am one of those who like to have a pulpit Bible… So you start with exposition…[17] …you must always be expository. Always expository.[18] We must be honest with our texts; and we must take them always in their context. That is an absolute rule.[19]

Lloyd-Jones clearly believed that getting at the meaning of the text in the original languages was important in promoting accuracy,[20] and many of his sermons demonstrate that he had sought to understand the original, as well as seeking to work from the best manuscript evidence available.[21] The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture “as originally given” was no mere theory to him! One has only to consider the following to realise how specious is the charge that his approach to preaching bears affinities with the separation of Word and Spirit which characterised some of the sixteenth century Anabaptists and some of the “pneumatic” groups of the eighteenth century: here was a preacher who really led the way in recovering expository preaching in England in the twentieth century; a preacher who spent thirteen years expounding Romans and eight years expounding Ephesians; a preacher who wrote an introduction to the Tyndale Press’s collection of essays by B. B. Warfield, two of which concerned the doctrine of Scripture;[22] and, at a time when a theological understanding of the Christian faith in England was far more anaemic than it is today, could say:

It is not right, therefore, to speak of the Spirit or the Word, but rather of the Spirit and the Word, and especially the Spirit through the Word. This antithesis which tends to be perpetuated in some quarters even today, is one which we must refuse to entertain.[23]

Could anything be clearer? Indeed, the volume from which the last quotation is taken devotes a chapter to the authority of the Scriptures before dealing with the authority of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, prior to the words quoted the preacher is at pains to stress that since the Spirit inspired the Scriptures, we honour the Spirit by honouring the Word.[24]

Lloyd-Jones’s commitment to a “Reformed” understanding of the relationship of the Word to the Spirit in preaching is very clear from his sermons on Romans 10:17. The clarity and importance of his words – as well as his quoting of Calvin and a Reformed confession of faith – are such that I shall let him speak for himself:

Let us look at the comment by John Calvin, of all men. He says, “But if any man shall hereby contend to prove that God could not otherwise by the means of preaching, [sic] infuse or pour His knowledge into men, we deny that to be the meaning of the Apostle, who had respect only to the ordinary dispensation of God, and would not prescribe any law or limitation to His grace.” What that means is this: all the Apostle is saying here is that normally God does save through the preaching of the Word, but he does not go on to say that is the only way. He does not say that God cannot, if He chooses, do it in some mysterious manner, which Calvin calls here, “by infusing or pouring His knowledge into men”.

Then let me give you another quotation from the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith…  Having said that the normal way is by preaching, they go on, “We at the same time admit that God can, even without an outward ministry, illuminate men whom and when He pleases, it lies in His power. But we are speaking of the means and manner which He ordinarily uses in teaching men, and of the commandment and example which is given us by God.” And that is what I profoundly believe, and have indeed always believed and taught.[25]

This passage occurs in part of a message where Lloyd-Jones is considering the case of infants, “lunatics” and “the heathen”. We shall see later that what he says here is in line with the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith and with that of the leading Dutch Reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck.

Later in his treatment of Romans 10, he says this:

Now what we draw from that is that faith is always related to that message. It is that message applied by the Spirit to the mind and the heart that produces faith. There are two elements in the production of faith. There is the operation of the Spirit, and there is the “word of Christ”, the message of salvation. You will never have faith without these two factors… So we have the Apostle James telling us what we are as the result of the operation of the Word. “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas 1:8). Yes, but it is the Word applied by the Spirit. The seed is in the Word, and then the Spirit plants it and applies it. He opens our heart and the result is new birth.[26]

It would be difficult to find a clearer exposition of the truth that the Word and the Spirit, though distinct, work together. This is hardly the position of the radicals of the sixteenth century.

How is it, then, that as erudite a theologian as Professor Letham can so misrepresent Lloyd-Jones’s position? The answer is surely that he is selective in the material that he cites and quotes. This, of course, is a danger when dealing with the work of any prolific writer. Indeed, it is a danger when dealing with the Scriptures themselves. What heresies have arisen as a result of such a practice! Moreover, context is all-important. The lectures which were published as Preaching and Preachers were given to theological students, and it is clear from numerous remarks in this volume that Lloyd-Jones was concerned about an academic and detached approach to the Scriptures and preaching, an approach which did not take seriously the need for conscious dependence upon God the Holy Spirit, a danger to which theological students might be especially prone. The fact that in practice some might study the Word as they would study any other text; and that in preparing to preach on a passage, they might approach it with the kind of confidence with which a well-prepared lecturer might hold forth on some academic subject; these facts could lead to a tendency in people’s minds to separate Word and Spirit, and it was against this which Lloyd-Jones wished to guard people. It was precisely because some were in danger of seeking to separate the Spirit from the Word, that Lloyd-Jones put such emphasis in his final lecture upon the Holy Spirit. The words which I have quoted, and which are referenced in notes 22-25, demonstrate that Lloyd-Jones did not believe that the Word and the Spirit could be separated; his remarks in the final chapter of Preaching and Preachers reveal something of his concern that the men before him might be in danger of preaching as if they were separate. Indeed, in other contexts, where people separated the Spirit from the Word and put their emphasis on the Spirit, he again asserted that this could not be done, and that Word and Spirit belong together.[27]

Cunnington, drawing on the work of Skinner, rightly warns of the danger of “the priority of paradigms”,[28] of “the acute danger of reading the heroes of the faith through the lens of our own theological and cultural convictions. We anachronistically treat them as if they were addressing and contributing to debates which post-date them by many centuries and which they show little if any awareness of”.[29] There is a sense in which Letham has made this kind of mistake: by no stretch of the imagination can Lloyd-Jones’s warnings against an approach to the Word which belittled reliance upon the Holy Spirit be likened to the radical Anabaptists and other groups whose emphasis upon the Spirit was at the expense of, or in place of, an emphasis upon the Word. What Lloyd-Jones was concerned with was precisely the same thing to which Tony Lane drew attention in a lecture on Calvin’s doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit. Lane is no mean teacher of historical theology, and the theology of the Reformation is one of his areas of expertise. Having warned of the dangers of those who expect the Spirit to work without reference to God’s Word, he went on to say the following:[30]

There are others who need to learn the opposite lesson: those who are deadly sound and soundly dead, those who pride themselves on the orthodoxy of their teaching but show no evidence of the power of the Spirit. Preaching without the Holy Spirit is a “dead letter and an empty sound”.[31] “Ministers do not accomplish anything by speaking, unless the inward calling of God is added at the same time”.[32] The word preached to the ungodly without the Spirit is like the sun shining upon the blind, who see nothing.[33] “Without the illumination of the Spirit the word has no effect”.[34] Calvin’s position is well summarised by a more recent epigram: “the Spirit without the word: dangerous; the word without the Spirit: deadly; the word with the Spirit: dynamite”. Or again, more succinctly, “too much word – dry up; too much Spirit – blow up; word and Spirit – grow up”.[35]

The point to emphasise here is that although Lane clearly regards the Word and the Spirit as belonging together and Calvin to be saying as much, it is just as apparent that Lane believes that there are people who seek to separate these and who wish to have only the Word or only the Spirit and that there are some who, in practice, appear to have the Word without the Spirit. Since, as with Calvin, Lloyd-Jones believed that Word and Spirit belong together, he was concerned in the final lecture which is published in Preaching and Preachers to warn against this. And, as the quotation from Lane demonstrates, Lane was as aware as Lloyd-Jones of an emphasis upon the Word without the Spirit.

Similarly, Letham’s criticism that Lloyd-Jones was making too much of incidents and anecdotes drawn from the history of revivals, especially from the experiences of David Morgan in the 1859 revival,[36] quite misses the point. To begin with, this was the last in a series of lectures on preaching, not the last in a series of expositions of Scripture, nor yet the last in a series of lectures on the Holy Spirit. Lloyd-Jones was rarely anecdotal in the pulpit and was fairly critical of preachers introducing anecdotes concerning themselves into sermons. In these lectures his approach was quite different and he was anecdotal throughout. He was, after all, sharing with trainee ministers a lifetime of over forty years of preaching. Those who have heard the recordings of the lectures will know that the humour in them was greatly appreciated, judging by the amount of laughter one can hear from the audience. This, again, was something which was quite rare in his preaching. The anecdotes which he introduced from revivals of the past were brought in to illustrate what he was arguing for: he had already spent ten pages giving an overview of Old Testament and New Testament teaching on the matter[37] before saying, “Thank God, the history of the Church proves the rightness of this contention.”[38]

Undergirding his reference to incidents in church history was his belief that God is the living God and that he is able to act as powerfully in a saving manner today through the preaching of his Word as he was in biblical times. Lest it be thought that Lloyd-Jones was drawing on a particularly Welsh tradition with respect to his view on the relationship of Word and Spirit in preaching, it should be noted that, far from confining himself to Welsh preachers, he refers to Luther, Calvin, Latimer, John Bradford, Robert Bruce and John Livingstone, before going on to consider Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, and Wesley and Whitefield, before he ever gets to two great eighteenth century Welshmen, Daniel Rowland and Howel Harris[39]. He concludes this historical overview with a reference to David Morgan. Significantly, however, he refers to the effect of Morgan’s preaching upon T. C. Edwards, who was converted under this powerful ministry. Edwards – whatever defects there were in his theology (and there were!) – went on to write a scholarly commentary on the Greek text of 1 Corinthians,[40] a point upon which Lloyd-Jones remarked, a commentary which is quoted fairly extensively in two of the best modern commentaries on this particular epistle.[41] If one applies the maxim that by their fruits they shall be known, evidently Morgan’s ministry, far from emphasising the Spirit at the expense of the Word, led to a very high view of the Word indeed in the heart of at least one of his hearers.[42]

One of Letham’s most serious criticisms is that Lloyd-Jones “unwittingly and certainly unintentionally [undermined] the regular use of the means of grace”.[43] If this were indeed the case, one can only wonder what was going on week by week at Westminster Chapel, where over a thousand people gathered each Sunday, and many hundreds on a Friday night to hear consecutive, expository preaching of God’s Word. Surely this testified powerfully to Lloyd-Jones’s belief in the importance of the regular use of the means of grace. And, of course, the Lord’s Supper was also regularly celebrated. It really is something of a canard to allege that Lloyd-Jones belittled “the ordinary” means of grace. In the very volume which Letham criticises, Lloyd-Jones warns against expecting as the norm what may have been the case in a time of exceptional spiritual blessing: he stresses the importance of getting on with the hard work of sermon preparation to feed the people week by week.[44] Furthermore, in one of his sermons on Ephesians 6:10-13, he identifies as an attack of the devil the discouragement which a preacher might experience because he has not known the kind of blessing which rested upon a man such as Whitefield.[45] This is hardly belittling the regular use of the means of grace!

This being so, Cunnington’s words, “The conclusion he draws is that the Spirit sometimes accompanies the preached Word by filling the preacher and sometimes does not”[46], do not take account of important nuances in Lloyd-Jones’s teaching. Cunnington references page 324 of Preaching and Preachers. What Lloyd-Jones actually said was this:

The power came, and the power was withdrawn. Such is the lordship of the Spirit! You cannot command this blessing, you cannot order it; it is entirely the gift of God. The examples I have given from the Scriptures indicate this. “Peter, filled with the Spirit”. The Spirit filled him. He did the same to David Morgan; and then in His own inscrutable wisdom and sovereignty He took it from him. Revivals are not meant to be permanent. But at the same time I maintain that all of us who are preachers should be seeking this power every time we preach.[47]

I make the following observations. First, Lloyd-Jones was not addressing the question as to whether Word and Spirit are to be separated; rather, he was dealing with the specific issue of “the power”, and it is clear from the whole context of what he says that he is referring to the power of the Spirit in regenerating people, bringing people to faith in Christ, and doing so on a wide scale. It is one thing to say – as he said elsewhere and has already been referenced – that Word and Spirit are not to be separated and that the Spirit works through the Word; this does not mean, however, and cannot mean – nor, I am sure, would Letham or Cunnington claim that it means – that the Spirit therefore always works to the same extent and degree in regenerating people who hear the Word. That would be manifestly false.

If, therefore, one is speaking of the power of the Spirit in bringing people to new life, then clearly the divine sovereignty is involved in this and there are certain people at certain periods of time and in certain places who are undoubtedly, in their preaching, used as instruments of God in the calling of many into the kingdom of God. That Lloyd-Jones was not suggesting that anything apart from this does not count and is sub-standard should be obvious from the references I have given to his published material in an earlier paragraph, where he stresses the importance of getting on with the work of sermon preparation and of feeding the people, and where he identifies as an attack of the devil the dejection which a preacher might know because he is not seeing the numbers brought to faith through his preaching as were converted through the preaching of Whitefield. Indeed, the words, “revivals are not meant to be permanent” gives the lie to any suggestion that Lloyd-Jones regarded this as the norm and everything outside of it as sub-standard.

I shall not, in this article, comment on Lloyd-Jones’s urging his hearers and readers to seek the Spirit: I shall, God willing, address this in a later piece which will be of an exegetical nature.

What emerges from the foregoing is the fact that Lloyd-Jones was remarkably nuanced in the way he expounded and applied the truth of God’s Word. In other contexts – especially those where theology was put at a premium and where people might emphasise the Spirit at the expense of the Word – he would put the emphasis elsewhere. He was, after all, lecturing to a living audience in a specific situation, not producing a systematic theology: context, therefore, was all-important.[48] This is not to deny that systematic theology needs to be contextualised. It is simply to acknowledge that speaking to living people in one context and then to different people in another context will inevitably require a somewhat different approach from that of someone who is writing a theological treatise which is to be read in all the world.

I am not denying that certain emphases came through with Lloyd-Jones more prominently than may have been the case with the Reformers and Puritans. Indeed, Lloyd-Jones regarded the emphases of the eighteenth century awakening with great affection and maintained that a new element came in during that century, a “pneumatic” element.[49] In saying this, of course, he was not referring to people like the French prophets, but to preachers such as Edwards and Whitefield, to Rowland and Harris. Moreover, he was not suggesting that something entirely new came in: the fact that in the final chapter of his book on preaching he can refer to sixteenth and seventeenth century preachers in support of his emphasis upon the demonstration of the Spirit and power gives the lie to any such interpretation of his words. The point surely relates to the degree of emphasis which there was in the eighteenth century upon the need of the work of the Spirit to go hand in hand with the Word.

Cunnington is surely right to warn against the tendency to expect to find the same coherence in the writings of men which one finds in Scripture.[50] This having been said, it is surely right not to find contradictions where they do not exist; equally, a nuanced or complex approach is to be distinguished from one which is self-contradictory. He would be a singularly inept preacher who, in a published series of lectures, contradicts in the final lecture what he has said earlier, especially when the final lecture emphasises the importance of what has gone before. I trust that this is enough to lay to rest the idea that Lloyd-Jones separated Word from Spirit.[51]

2. Immediate and mediate regeneration

Both Cunnington and Letham express a measure of unease with the phrase “immediate regeneration”. Letham says that Olyott’s use of the term can be misleading, while Cunnington claims that Olyott’s exegesis is “based upon Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology” and “is strained in places”.[52] He goes on to say that “Olyott”s treatment of James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23 is ingenious but ultimately unconvincing”.[53] It is not my purpose to defend all that Olyott wrote on this; indeed, I would disagree with some things said by all the contemporary writers whom Cunnington critiques in his opening chapter, while agreeing with quite a lot that both Letham and Cunnington say. The point which I wish to establish at this stage is that the language of immediate regeneration is something which one finds in seventeenth-century French Huguenot writings, in nineteenth-century Dutch works, and, in particular, in the writings of one of the men whose teaching on Word and Spirit was, Cunnington believes, very similar to that of Calvin, Herman Bavinck. Furthermore, even where writers do not use the language of immediate regeneration, it is clear that they have a concept of immediate regeneration as being biblical. Later in this study I shall seek to demonstrate why the distinction between immediate and mediate regeneration is crucial to the whole question of the relationship of the Word to the Spirit in the hearing of the Word of God, as well as to the preaching of the Word of God. I shall then broaden matters to demonstrate that what may be denoted as an immediate work of the Spirit within the heart of the believer is also vital to the hearing and preaching of the Word of God. But first I shall seek to make good the claim with respect to the Huguenots and Bavinck, as well as with respect to other writers. This, of course, does not settle the issue as to what the Scriptures teach; it will, however, help to show that the position which Cunnington – and, to a lesser extent, Letham – critiques has fairly good historical precedent.

3. Seventeenth century French writings

Pajonism and the disagreements concerning it were very much related to the whole question of immediate regeneration. The constraints of space and my concern to focus upon theological matters rather than historical issues are such that I shall not paint in the background to this matter, which really goes back to John Cameron and the Academy of Saumur, and especially to the question as to whether the Spirit acted immediately only on the intellect or, as the Leiden theologians maintained, on the intellect and the will.[54] The Leiden theologians, of course, were those who sought to uphold the teaching of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), where “they had insisted… against the Remonstrants on the necessity of divine action to renew both intellect and will”.[55]

Cameron died in 1625; it was to be another forty years before the first Pajonist controversy broke out. “Although Pajon wrote most of his works on the operation of grace during the latter half of the 1660s, his writings from the following decade suggest that he radicalised his denial of immediate grace to comprehend the concursus of providence as well”.[56] The following quotation from Jean Claude’s Provincial Synod of Ile–de-France in August 1677 demonstrates conclusively that, in chronicling the Pajonist controversy, Gootjes has not fallen prey to the danger of “the priority of paradigms”:

The ministers and all believers are exhorted to flee all kinds of new opinions contrary to the Word of God, to our Confession of Faith, and to the doctrine commonly received in our churches, and especially those opinions which deny the present and immediate concursus of providence [and] the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit distinct from the efficacy of the Word for the conversion of man – with the order to the consistories that they proceed with ecclesiastical censure against all who teach these opinions… so that they do their duty to prevent the students in theology from being tainted by these novelties.[57]

The language of an immediate work of God, as distinct from a mediate work of God, was, therefore, current in the 1620s when men of the theological and spiritual stature such as André Rivet and others from Leiden were expressing concern with respect to Cameron’s teaching as being inconsistent with that which was laid down at the Synod of Dort. Over fifty years later Étienne de Brais, Pierre du Bosc, Jean Claude and Pierre Jurieu were calling on consistories to censure those who held to Pajon’s teaching, which, amongst other things, denied an immediate operation of the Holy Spirit which was distinct from the efficacy of the Word for the conversion of man. Note that this is distinguished from the immediate concursus of providence and, furthermore, that such denials were regarded by these men as being both novel[58] and contrary to their Confession of Faith. Of course, it is necessary to understand what they meant by these words: this will become clear, I trust, when we consider the controversy which brought forth a volume by Bavinck, and which was largely devoted to the issue of immediate regeneration and its relationship to the use of the means of grace. Suffice it to say, at this point, that the term hardly gained its currency from Berkhof, nor, as we shall see, is it, as Cunnington claims,[59] something of a red herring to Olyott’s argument.

4. Controversy in Holland: Herman Bavinck’s Contribution

Given that Cunnington regards Bavinck’s positon on the relationship of Word and Spirit as being “entirely consistent with Calvin’s” it is surprising, to say the least, that he confines his study of, and quotations from, Bavinck to Volume 4 of the latter’s Reformed Dogmatics,[60] and completely ignores his Saved By Grace: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Calling and Regeneration.[61] In a note before the Contents page, Bavinck wrote the following:

From 29 March 1901 through 2 May 1902, some forty articles were published in “De Bazuin” [“The Trumpet”], essays which sought to communicate greater clarity concerning the doctrine of immediate regeneration. These articles now appear separately under a somewhat modified title. May they, also in this form, ensure that difference of insight does no injury to the unity of the Confession and to the peace of the churches.

This book represents, therefore, a sustained analysis by Bavinck of the precise issues which are raised by the concept of immediate regeneration. In dealing with this question, Bavinck also addresses the relationship between Word and Spirit and regards this as a matter which is essentially related to the concept of immediate regeneration. Thus Part IV of this volume is entitled “The Relation Between The Immediate Operation Of The Holy Spirit And The Means Of Grace”. The terminology of immediate regeneration is the same as that of French pastors some 230 years earlier, as well as of Dutch theologians about 280 years earlier than when Bavinck was writing. It is clear from Bavinck’s irenic language in the words quoted, as well as in the tone of the entire work, that he was dealing with a somewhat different aspect to this problem from that which exercised the worthies of the seventeenth century.

Bavinck’s work is remarkably nuanced and balanced: to appreciate the rich theological texture of what he says, the particular volume from which I am quoting in this section needs to be read in its entirety. I am only too conscious of the danger of selective quotation and of, therefore, misrepresenting Bavinck. Although, as with Letham and Cunnington – and, indeed, as I have sought to demonstrate, as with Lloyd-Jones – Bavinck believed and taught that Word and Spirit are distinct but not separate, he articulates with particular clarity the importance of the means of grace in a context of belief in immediate regeneration. We shall see that Bavinck’s position was essentially the same as that which we have already found in the writings of Lloyd-Jones. I shall set out below some of the most significant statements by Bavinck in this work.

The Holy Spirit does connect His work to the Word, but does not bind His work within that Word, so that with His almighty power He penetrates the human heart, touches a person immediately in the innermost part of his being and thus renews him to conform in principle to the image of God, apart from a person’s knowing and willing. The operation of the Holy Spirit in regeneration is thus absolutely independent from the consent of the intellect or the will. Between regeneration and the person who is born again there stands nothing, no word, no sacrament, no church or priest, no act of the intellect or the will. The Holy Spirit works the grace of regeneration within the heart of the elect person directly, irresistibly, and in this sense immediately.[62]

It will be profitable to analyse this quotation before considering other quotations from Bavinck. First, he regards the Word and the Spirit as working together: this much is clear from the words, “The Holy Spirit does connect His work to the Word”. Secondly, as with Hywel Jones, he wishes to distinguish this joining of Word and Spirit from the idea that the Spirit is, in some way, imprisoned in the Word: thus, he immediately adds, “but does not bind His work within that Word”. What he means by this is made clear by the words which follow. Bavinck is adamant that in the work of regeneration nothing comes between the Holy Spirit and the person who is born again: “no word, no sacrament… no act of the intellect or of the will”. This, of course, goes to the heart of the issue: Bavinck is stating that the Word plays no part in regeneration, nor does the intellect or will. For the Word to benefit us, intellect and will must be engaged: the Word requires faith if we are to benefit from it,[63] and faith must issue in obedience,[64] and both of these involve the intellect and the will. The divine initiative in this matter is such that we are passive: this is what Bavinck means when he concludes the paragraph thus: “The Holy Spirit works the grace of regeneration within the heart of the elect person directly, irresistibly, and in this sense immediately” (Bavinck’s emphasis). He is spelling out with crystal clarity what he means by “immediate regeneration”.

The question which therefore arises is this: how is this immediate action of God to be related to the means of grace? Bavinck answers this question in chapter 14 of the book, which is found in Part IV. I shall give a representative sample of quotations from this chapter and thereby let Bavinck speak for himself:

Word and sacrament perform no other operation than a moral operation. They operate in the same way as a contract. God had bound Himself to impart His grace to everyone who receives and enjoys these divinely instituted means in faith according to His ordained purpose. In those means, He has, so to speak, indebted Himself to us. Whenever we use them in the proper way, in childlike obedience, then He gives us the right to plead with Him and to expect everything from Him on the basis of them; and then He binds Himself through His covenant, through His promises, to provide everything our spiritual and physical indigence requires.[65]

The above passage occurs in a section in which Bavinck is contending for what he claims to be the Reformed view, which he denotes as the “moral operation” view, of the means of grace, which he distinguishes from what he calls the “physical operation view”. Although in the Middle Ages, before the Reformation, there were those who accepted the moral operation view, including, Bavinck claims, Bonaventura, after the Council of Trent the Roman Catholic Church rejected the moral operation understanding of the sacraments for the physical operation position. At this point, therefore, Bavinck is concerned to distinguish what he regards as the Reformed view from that of Roman Catholicism. He continues:

Thus grace is indeed joined to the means, but it is not thereby infused and is not confined to them. Nor is this grace under the authority and in the control of the minister who proclaims the Word and administers the sacrament. But it remains the property of God who bestows grace in Christ through the Holy Spirit according to His sovereign good pleasure.

Whenever the means of grace are administered, therefore, properly speaking, no union between the external, visible signs and the spiritual, invisible grace comes into existence, as if both of these in any manner were locally bound and united together. Rather, there comes about a union between grace and the soul of him who uses the means of grace in faith.[66]

The first word of the above quotation – “thus” – demonstrates that Bavinck is continuing and concluding from what he had said in the previous paragraph, which is quoted before the above quotation. He is explaining and clarifying what he means by a “moral operation” view of the sacraments. The all-important words from the earlier paragraph are: “God has bound Himself to impart His grace to everyone who receives and enjoys these divinely instituted means in faith according to His ordained purpose” (emphasis mine). The question which demands an answer is this: how is someone who is dead in trespasses and sins able to receive the Word in faith? Bavinck has already supplied the answer to this question in the very first quotation which I have given from this part of his book: “Between regeneration and the person who is born again there stands nothing, no word, no sacrament, no church or priest, no act of the intellect or of the will. The Holy Spirit works the grace of regeneration within the heart of the elect person directly, irresistibly, and in this sense immediately” (emphasis his). He now spells this out in the above quotation in the words which I have emphasised and which form the last sentence of the first paragraph of the quotation. In the second paragraph he makes it abundantly clear that no union exists between external, visible signs and the spiritual, invisible grace. How could they, in Bavinck’s view, given that he has already said that grace is neither infused by, nor confined to, the outward means of grace “but it remains the property of God who bestows grace in Christ through the Holy Spirit according to His sovereign good pleasure”.

Bavinck concludes this chapter as follows:

This is how, already in the Middle Ages, the profound and pious theologian Bonaventura spoke. The sacraments, he declared, do not contain grace within themselves like a cup holds water or a pill contains medicine, but they signify grace and point to grace. And if it is claimed that grace is imparted by the sacraments, then this is to be understood thus, that grace is bestowed not to the visible signs but to the soul of the recipient.

Among the Reformed in a later period, Gomarus expressed himself in the same sense when he argued that it was more correct to say that the thing signified is united to us rather than that the thing signified is united to the signs. The mystical union arises between Christ and our souls; and of that the means of grace function as sign and seal.[67]

Having dealt with the means of grace in general, Bavinck devotes the next chapter to a consideration of “The Word as Means of Grace in Particular”. He stresses that although the means have no power to recreate and although God’s grace is not infused in the means, it nevertheless “accompanies them”.[68] Here is the idea for which Cunnington and Letham – and Lloyd-Jones! – rightly contend, namely, that although the Word and the Spirit are distinct, they are not to be separated. What Bavinck means by this is brought out in the next sentence: “Even though God in His great goodness employs means and works through means, He Himself remains independent of those means; He descends into the heart of the sinner, and there works with His grace and Spirit in a direct, invincible, though also gentle and lovely manner”:[69] that is to say, God works immediately upon the heart.

Part of the confusion in the debate concerning the relationship between the Word and the Spirit in preaching derives from the fact that the Scriptures employ the term “Word” in a variety of ways. If one takes the term “word”, when referring to Scripture, but then pours into it the meaning which attaches to God’s creative word or to the second Person of the Godhead, one will inevitably confuse the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Word as Scripture or as Scripture being preached.[70] I do not wish to say more on this at present because I intend, in the next main section of this paper, to define certain terms. Suffice it to say, at this point, that Bavinck helpfully distinguishes between the second Person of the Holy Trinity and God’s creative word, on the one hand, from the Word which constitutes law and gospel, on the other hand. Bavinck concludes this chapter as follows:

Because the Reformed understood this, they also insisted that the external call was neither sufficient nor effectual. For the external call was simply a call by the word and could thus perform merely a moral, persuasive operation. In this they agreed with the Remonstrants. But whereas the latter thought that such a moral persuasion was sufficient, the Reformed taught on the basis of God’s Word that an effectual, invincible, direct operation of the Holy Spirit must accompany the word if the external call was to be heeded and obeyed.

The Reformed also correctly inferred from this moral operation of the external call that nobody can hear the word savingly unless a person is previously regenerated – not in time, but in sequence – by water and Spirit. The saving hearing of the Word of God presupposes regeneration. For no one can come to Christ unless the Father draws him. And everyone who has heard and learned the Word of the Father comes to Christ.[71]

The following chapter, chapter 15, is entitled “The Work of God’s Word in Regeneration, Faith and Conversion”. Bavinck distinguishes regeneration from faith and conversion.[72] The reason for this should be obvious: conversion denotes our turning from sin to God, and faith denotes our resting upon Christ. Both of these involve actions of our intellect and will in response to God’s Word. By contrast, Bavinck argues, regeneration is God’s work, not ours, and takes place in such a way that neither our intellect nor our will are actively engaged in the act of regeneration: we are passive under God’s hand. This, of course, inevitably raises the question as to the role played by God’s Word in regeneration, faith, and conversion. Bavinck is at pains to stress that even although regeneration is an immediate act of God on and in the soul of the sinner, it “is not thereby to say that the Word is completely excluded from regeneration in every way whatsoever”.[73] This is to say that the Word and Spirit cannot be separated, though they are distinct, which is precisely the position for which Cunnington and Letham rightly contend. Bavinck then goes on to emphasise that although the internal call and external call – what are sometimes denoted by the terms “effectual or efficacious call” and the “general call” – are to be distinguished, they are not two kinds of calling but are two sides or aspects of the one call.[74] Bavinck is remarkably nuanced in this chapter, even though, at points, he seems to make heavy weather of matters and could have compressed his treatment of the subject. Thus, having asserted the two aspects of the call, he nevertheless goes on to say the following:

So, too, external and internal calling are not always united. On the one hand, many are called who are not chosen; and on the other hand, it is possible that some are internally called who were never able self-consciously to hear the preaching of the Word. This latter occurs in the case of children of believers who die in infancy, in reference to whom the Synod of Dort confessed that believing parents ought not to doubt their election and salvation [Canons of Dort, I, art. 17].[75]

It may not be inappropriate, at this point, to note that the Westminster Confession states something similar to the Canons of Dort, though in some respects the Westminster Confession is both narrower and broader. Paragraph III of Chapter X reads as follows: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how He pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”

It will be observed that the above quotations from Bavinck and the Westminster Confession of Faith are saying essentially the same thing we have already seen in Lloyd-Jones’s writings and referenced in note 24.

Earlier in the chapter Bavinck has already hinted at the fact that a child, who does not die in infancy, may be regenerated when a child. He writes thus:

…no one will disagree that with adults regeneration and faith can occur simultaneously, and that a person savingly hears and accepts the Word at the same moment he is regenerated under the preaching of the Word. On the other hand, no one will dispute that our infants can be regenerated by God’s Spirit without being in a position, on account of their age, to manifest that new life in acts of faith and repentance.[76]

The following should be noted. First, the presence of the word “can” indicates that Bavinck is here distinguishing quite clearly, as he does throughout, between regeneration and faith: that they can occur at the same time does not mean that this must be so. (It is important to distinguish here that, as the editor of the volume notes,[77] between a capacity or disposition for faith and the actual exercise of faith. The former is implanted in regeneration but the latter is only exercised when the Word is heard and understood.) Secondly, he is not here specifically referring to those who die in infancy: thus someone may be regenerate as a very young child before they are able to hear or understand the Word. Clearly, when they are old enough to hear and understand the Word, there will be a response of repentance and faith.[78] This having been said, Bavinck goes on:

As a rule the Spirit of Christ works only where His Word and sacrament are administered in accord with His ordinance. And to the extent that the Spirit might work savingly outside of this sphere, such a working is infrequent, extraordinary, and unknown to us…

…regeneration, as a rule, is a fruit of the operation of the Holy Spirit, connected to the proclamation of the gospel.[79]

Throughout this chapter Bavinck distinguishes between the disposition of faith, which is implanted in regeneration, and the calling into expression of the act of that faith by Word and Spirit. That the Word cannot regenerate – that is to say, that it cannot implant the principle of faith – is self-evident to Bavinck, as may be seen from the following words:

…in a logical sense the Word presupposes regeneration if it is to be heard and accepted savingly …a person cannot believe savingly unless he be born again of water and Spirit beforehand, perhaps not in terms of time but certainly in terms of order…

One who insists on denying this would be abandoning the Reformed position and be moving over to the Remonstrant position. Such a person would be erasing the boundary line drawn in Holy Scripture between one who is spiritually dead and one who is spiritually alive, and would be exchanging the essential difference between both for a gradual transition.

From this it also follows, however, that with the coming into existence of regeneration, the Word can exercise no moral operation. For in order to exercise such an operation, the capacity for believing would need to be sown beforehand. By the nature of the case, the Word can work only when it is understood. But the Word can be understood only by the person who has been regenerated.[80]

One of the most vital things to note about what Bavinck writes is that, although the external and internal or efficacious call are not two separate things but two sides of the same coin, in the case of those who hear the gospel but are never saved, there is only the external call, and this means that the Spirit is not working or is not active in those who are not saved in the same way that he is at work in those whom he regenerates. We shall see, in the theological section of this paper, that this does not mean that the Spirit is separated from the Word in the case of the Word being heard by the non-elect; but, in the case of those who are regenerated there is an activity of the Spirit which cannot – to adopt Hywel Jones’s and Bavinck’s phraseology – be imprisoned in the Word: for if it could, the effect would be the same for all hearers. It is not the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation; it is the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. As Paul expresses it so eloquently in Romans chapter 10, such believing presupposes hearing, and such hearing presupposes preaching. It is the Word, it is the gospel, which is preached; but it is only powerful to those who believe, and, as Bavinck makes so very clear, the disposition of faith, the capacity to believe is not created by the Word, but by the Spirit working immediately on the heart. Clearly, in those situations where many come to faith, the Spirit is at work in a large number of people in a way in which he is not at work in those who do not believe. I shall return to the importance and significance of these observations in the next section of this paper.

Christian doctrine is less like a string of individual pearls and more like a seamless garment or series of interlocking units. It is quite clear from Bavinck’s treatment of the relationship between Word and Spirit in the area of regeneration, faith and repentance, that he realised that these matters were intimately related to biblical anthropology. If one does not express correctly the work of God in regeneration and the place of the Word in calling new life into expression, one will inevitably fall into one of two opposite extremes: either an unbiblical mysticism, where spiritual experience is divorced from God’s saving truth, or an essentially Remonstrant position, which would accord to man the ability to respond to the Word without a prior work of God upon the soul. This latter error would effectively substitute an Arminian understanding of the state of man in sin for the biblical view which underlay the Reformed position. Bavinck then goes on to assert:

So regeneration occurs under the Word, by the Word, with the Word, but it does not occur through the Word in the sense that the Holy Spirit could work with the human heart only through that Word. For the Holy Spirit has indeed bound Himself to creating fellowship with Christ and His benefits where the Word of Christ is proclaimed; but He has neither imprisoned nor enclosed Himself and His operation within the Word. No more than the sacrament is the Word a magical instrument that imparts grace by its supernaturally infused power; rather, it supplies the condition under which, the occasion when, and the path along which God exalts His grace to the sinner and makes the sinner to share in Christ and all His benefits.[81]

I shall return to Bavinck later in this study and seek to pull together the threads of his teaching concerning the relationship of Word and Spirit in preaching and in regeneration. One of my reasons for deferring a consideration of Bavinck’s conclusions is that in the final part of his book he specifically addresses the exegesis of verses in James and 1 Peter to which Olyott appeals in his article and concerning which Cunnington offers fairly sharp criticism. It will be necessary in the theological section to consider those verses; in doing so, I wish to consider the views of a number of exegetes and theologians, Bavinck being one of them.

5. Other Reformed Writers

We are still considering the concept of “immediate regeneration”. We have seen that the Leiden theologians of the early sixteenth century were concerned about the teaching of John Cameron with respect to this matter, and that the whole issue became much more acute in the latter part of that century, when numerous French pastors and theologians expressed their criticism of Pajon’s teaching. We have also seen that Bavinck regarded the concept of immediate regeneration as being extremely important in understanding how God’s saving grace touches a sinner’s heart. It only remains, in this section, to consider briefly a number of key theologians in the Reformed tradition to demonstrate that the concept of immediate regeneration has been fairly widely accepted and, in some cases, the term “immediate” has also been part of the currency of theological language. The purpose of this brief survey is to demonstrate that Olyott’s concern to emphasise the importance of immediate regeneration – whatever misgivings one might have with respect to some of his historical analysis and biblical exegesis – is anything but theologically novel, eccentric, or even misleading; rather, it is representative of a spectrum of Reformed theology and goes to the heart of what is involved in becoming a true Christian and, therefore, is not irrelevant to a consideration of the relationship of Word and Spirit in the preaching and the hearing of the Word of God.

(i) Jonathan Edwards      

Although it might be sensible to consider this matter chronologically, I shall, rather, deal first with a writer from the eighteenth century because he actually uses the term “immediate”. The writer is Jonathan Edwards, and the term occurs in his famous sermon, A Divine and Supernatural Light immediately imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God, shown to be both a Scriptural and Rational Doctrine.[82] In this sermon it is clear that Edwards is distancing his teaching from that of those who separated Word and Spirit. Thus he writes: “This spiritual light is not the suggesting of any new truths or propositions not contained in the word of God… [It is not] such as some enthusiasts pretend to… It reveals no new doctrine… not taught in the Bible, but only gives a due apprehension of those things that are taught in the word of God.”[83]

He goes on to distinguish this act of God from something which merely gives a person what we might call “warm feelings” about Christ:[84] in other words, he is avoiding the pitfall of confusing this divine light with subjective feelings per se. Edwards explains that this divine light consists in the Holy Spirit so giving himself to a person and changing the person’s disposition that they have a true sense of the divine excellence of the things revealed in the Word and a conviction of their truth and reality. The Word of God, therefore, is essential, but Edwards clearly lays out what the Word can and what it cannot do. He explains himself thus:

When it is said that this light is given immediately by God, and not obtained by natural means, hereby is intended, that it is given by God without making use of any means that operate by their own power or natural force. God makes use of means; but it is not as mediate causes to produce this effect. There are not truely [sic] any second causes of it; but it is produced by God immediately. The word of God is no proper cause of this effect; but is made use of only to convey to the mind the subject-matter of this saving instruction: and this indeed it doth convey to us by natural force or influence… The mind cannot see the excellency of any doctrine, unless that doctrine be first in the mind; but seeing the excellency of the doctrine may be immediately from the Spirit of God; though the conveying of the doctrine or proposition itself may be by the word.[85]

(ii) John Owen

Many would regard John Owen as the greatest Reformed theologian of the English-speaking world. Here is his definition of sanctification: “Sanctification is an immediate work of the Spirit of God on the souls of believers…”[86]

Owen unpacks his definition in the following words: “It is the renovation of the Holy Ghost whereby we are saved. And a real, internal, powerful physical work it is… He doth not make us holy only by persuading us so to be.”[87] By “physical” Owen does not mean that it is a bodily work or an unspiritual work; rather, he employs this term to clarify the point that the Spirit does not simply persuade us in a moral way. He means, therefore, that the Spirit works, as in sanctification – of which regeneration is the first act – by a direct or immediate work upon the heart. Owen distinguishes sanctification from regeneration by noting that whereas the latter is “instantaneous, consisting in one single creating act” the “work of sanctification is progressive and admits of degrees”.[88] Owen makes it perfectly plain how this relates to the Word of God:

The whole renovation of our nature, the whole principle of holiness before described, is nothing but the word changed into grace in our hearts; for we are born again by the incorruptible seed of the word of God. The Spirit worketh nothing in us but what the word first requireth of us. It is, therefore, the rule of the inward principle of spiritual life; and the growth thereof is nothing but its increase in conformity to that word.[89]

Owen has, however, been at pains to spell out what this does not mean: “[The Spirit] doth not only require us to be holy, propose unto us motives unto holiness, give us convictions of its necessity, and thereby excite us unto the pursuit and attainment of it, though this he doth also by the word and ministration thereof.[90]

There is a clear distinction between the Word and Spirit, as Cunnington and Letham contend for, though they are not separate; yet Owen is clearly not saying that wherever the Word comes with commands, the Spirit is present to enable one to obey those commands, for the work of sanctification is something which is only prosecuted in the hearts of those who are regenerate. Moreover, the immediate work of God upon the soul in sanctification is different from the work performed by the Word.

(iii) Louis Berkhof

There are many other writers and theologians, such as Thomas Halyburton[91], Archibald Alexander[92], Abraham Kuyper[93], B. B. Warfield[94], and John Murray[95], all of whom stood within what may be broadly described as “the Reformed tradition”, who clearly believed in an immediate act of regeneration. But I shall not weary the reader with quotations from all of these writers; rather, I shall conclude this part of the article with some words taken from Berkhof. The importance of referring to these other writers, however, as well as those from whom I have already quoted, is that this demonstrates that Berkhof was doing nothing other than reproducing and re-stating what was fairly standard in Reformed theology. Here is the quotation:

…the Reformers maintained that the Word alone is not sufficient to work faith and conversion; that the Holy Spirit can, but does not ordinarily, work without the Word; and that therefore in the work of redemption the Word and the Spirit work together. Though there was little difference on this point at first between the Lutherans and the Reformed, the former from the beginning stressed the fact that the Holy Spirit works through the Word as His instrument (per verbum), while the latter preferred to say that the operation of the Holy Spirit accompanies the Word (cum verbo).[96]

The theological case being made by Bavinck, Edwards, Owen, Halyburton, Alexander, Kuyper, Warfield and Murray is essentially the same as that made by Charles Hodge.[97] Whatever differences may or may not have existed with respect to the sacraments between Hodge and some of his contemporaries, on the one hand, and sixteenth-century Reformers such as Calvin, on the other hand, the need of the Holy Spirit to work directly in the human heart to give it spiritual life was not an area of difference between them. A number of things are essential to be able to see something: there must be the object to be seen; there must be light to illuminate that object; and there must be visual capacity in the individual to see the object thus illuminated. Christ is the great object of faith and the Spirit by his Word illuminates this great object of faith. But this is insufficient for the blind sinner to see the glory of Christ. There is need for an internal work of God directly upon the heart for the sinner to see the glory of Jesus Christ as he is set forth in the Word. Without this, nothing of a saving nature will be accomplished in the human heart. Not to believe this is to depart from the biblical and the Reformed understanding of the condition of fallen humanity.

Having – hopefully! – shed some light on the issue of immediate regeneration, we now need to define some terms which are relevant to the relationship of Word and Spirit.

Defining terms

1. The Holy Spirit

First, “the Holy Spirit”. These words refer to the third Person of the blessed Holy Trinity, who is possessed of the divine being or essence, and is God in every sense of the word, just as the Father is God and the Son is God. He is, however, a distinct person from the Father and from the Son: modalism, therefore, is a heretical misunderstanding of the teaching of Scripture. As such, the Holy Spirit must be distinguished from his works ad extra: this is to say, that although he was involved, as were the other two Persons of the Godhead, in the creation of the universe, he must not be identified with the creation. While it is true that the created universe expresses and declares the glory of God[98] and, therefore, reveals something of him[99] and, therefore, of the Holy Spirit, it would be quite wrong to identify the Holy Spirit with his creation, even though that creation expresses something of his being: for this would collapse the distinction between Creator and creature and would pave the way for idolatry and pantheism.

Is God only distinct from his creation, or is he also separate from it? The question does not admit of a straightforward answer. In the sense that God upholds all things by his powerful word and works in all things according to the counsel of his will, and in that in him we live and move and have our being, God is distinct from his creation – there is a great difference between Creator and creature – but he is hardly separate from it. Thus, while he transcends his creation and is rightly referred to, therefore, as the transcendent God, he is also immanent in his creation. But in the sense that there was when he was but when the creation was not, God was not only distinct but also separate from his creation, for the creation did not ontologically exist.

2. The Word of God

Secondly, “the Word of God”. This is a much more difficult phrase to define. I do not mean to cast any doubt upon the fact that the 66 books of the Bible are the Word of God written. My point is somewhat different. Consider the following questions. Is the Word of God the Creator or is it a creature? This question demands that we define more terms. If by “Word of God” we are referring to the second Person of the Trinity, then clearly the phrase refers to the Creator because this Person is God.[100] If, however, by “Word of God” we mean ink marks upon India paper bound within leather covers, or we are referring to pixels on a screen, what then? Clearly, ink is created, not creator, as are paper, and pixels and screens. But what of the semantic content that is conveyed by these marks upon the paper or these pixels on a screen? Again, care is needed. Is the semantic content conveyed by the words, “you shall not steal”, God? Clearly not. But “you shall not steal” is part of God’s Word. As Letham himself acknowledges, “it is true that the written and preached Word are not hypostatized, and so must be understood as under the living Word”.[101] I take it that “living Word” is understood here, by Letham, as referring to the second Person of the Trinity. But this position is very similar to that of Lloyd-Jones and Hywel Jones although it is expressed in different terminology. God’s special revelation in Scripture is the expression and revelation of himself and of his saving plan. As Calvin and Warfield make clear, it differs from God’s general revelation in creation, in that it reveals God’s saving plan and work but does not come to all people.[102] Just as the Word and the Spirit were active together in the creation, so the three Persons of the Trinity were active in the breathing out of Scripture. And God still speaks through what he once spoke.[103] Just as God was active in creation and is active in providence, so he was and is active in speaking his Word: his Word is an expressive activity of his being, not a hypostatized entity.

The upshot of what has been said in the previous paragraph is this: as with creation, in one sense God the Holy Spirit is distinct from his Word but is not separate from it; but in another sense, he is separate from it. In which sense? In the sense that the Bible is quite different from the Islamic view of the Qur’an. The latter is viewed as something which exists eternally in heaven with God. Although the Bible can refer to itself as being eternal and standing firm in the heavens,[104] and although the thoughts and mind of God are eternal, this does not mean that Scripture is, in some way, an ontological entity eternally existing in heaven. Fundamental to the biblical doctrine of Scripture is the fact that the personalities of the human authors were involved in the writing of Scripture and this was a process which took place in real time, at different periods in human history. The very fact that God’s Word came in human languages and expressed certain timeless truths in time-bound cultural contexts (for instance, the example and command to wash one another’s feet and to greet one another with a holy kiss) must mean that before the creation God was not only distinct but separate from these biblical commands and, therefore, from Scripture. An analogy may help to elucidate this point. Prior to the creation of the universe and to the assumption of human nature into personal union with himself, the Son of God was not only distinct from human nature but separate from it. After taking human nature into union with himself the eternal Son of God is joined, by an indissoluble union, to human nature, so that he is forever the God-Man: there is one person by virtue of the hypostatic union but the two natures remain distinct. Similarly, there was when the Holy Spirit was but when Scripture was not, and in this sense, the Holy Spirit was then separate, as well as distinct, from the Word, if we understand the Word to refer to the sixty-six books of the Bible or to any of those books being preached. Indeed, the progressive nature of biblical revelation means that God’s revelatory activity kept in step or in tandem with his redemptive work, and that redemptive work occurred within real space and real time of the real space-time universe.

A further analogy may help here. Scripture is human, as well as divine, in that the personalities of the human authors were involved in the writing of Scripture.[105] This is an aspect of a concursive doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. But Luke’s Gospel is not, ontologically, Luke. And although the Word of God reveals the glory, power, wisdom and grace of God, there is more to God than there is to Scripture, just as there was more to the works of Jesus Christ than are recorded in Scripture.[106] This, surely, is all that Hywel Jones was arguing for when he said that “the Holy Spirit is ‘greater’ than the Word and must not be imprisoned in it”.[107] Those who had the privilege of sitting through Jones’s lectures on different books of the Bible know how careful and reverent he was in his handling of Holy Scripture, knowing that this is the living Word of the living God. But that is precisely the point: it is the living Word of the living God; it is not the living God.

3. Speakers, speech acts and speech

It will be profitable to probe a little more deeply into the relationship between a speaker and his speech or speech acts and then work out this relationship more carefully with respect to the relationship between God and his written Word. Someone who is reading the speeches of Winston Churchill might say that they have Churchill’s words and that Churchill is speaking to them: “Churchill is here, in his words” they might say. They do not mean, of course, that the person of Winston Churchill is ontologically present in the words or that he is forming words by his vocal chords, tongue and lips. How could they? His body is in the grave and his spirit has entered into its eternal state. The situation with God’s Word, however, is quite different and that for a number of reasons. It is true that God is not perpetually breathing out his Word: he did this when he superintended men to write it.[108] In the same way, it is true that God is not breathing out his Word every time someone picks it up and reads it: the revelation has been given once and once for all.[109] To believe otherwise would be to believe something which, while different in some respects, bears affinities to Jonathan Edwards’s occasionalism with respect to God’s constant creation of the world. Does this mean, therefore, that in saying that we are hearing God’s Word and that God is present in his Word we are saying essentially the same thing as what we mean when we say that Churchill is present in his words? No, and that for a number of reasons. First, God is the living God and is both omniscient and omnipresent: this means that his eye is upon us when we read or hear his Word, and his Word is able, therefore, to “read” us, or, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses it, “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.[110] It possesses these qualities precisely because it is the word of him before whom “nothing in all creation is hidden” and before whom “everything is uncovered and laid bare”[111] and in whose presence we all live and move and have our being.[112] God is always present in, through, and by his Word because the God who gave the Word is eternal, omniscient and omnipresent, and therefore, years after the words were first spoken, the writer to the Hebrews can quote Scripture with the introductory formula, “So, as the Holy Spirit says”.[113] God still speaks through what he has spoken once for all time. Moreover, because God is immanent within his creation, he is immanent within the semantic content of Scripture and, in this sense, is in his word and is speaking through it. But although the Scriptures, and the foregoing analysis, posit the very closest relationship between God and his Word, this still does not mean, however, that they are to be identified with each other: the inscripturated Word is not a fourth person in the Godhead.

4. Comprehension of God’s Word

We need to analyse the concept of the Word of God still further. The argument which runs through much of 1 Corinthians 14 is that language and speech must be intelligible if one is to benefit from it. This is so even in the case of Holy Spirit-prompted speaking in tongues: although the hearer may hear the sounds, he does not grasp the semantic content. Therefore, the words do not build him up spiritually, even though what is being said may be conveying the most sublime truth, for it is not conveying it to him. It will do an Englishman not an atom of good to hear the most heavenly message in Chinese, unless he understands Chinese! The presence of the Holy Spirit in his Word, therefore, is not an argument for keeping the Bible in the original languages; rather, precisely because it is such a precious possession, it is vital that the Scriptures be put into a language that people can understand. In other words, people need to be able to understand the semantic content conveyed by the verbal signs that are on the page and the verbal sounds that are made by the preacher. This in no way minimises the fact that the Holy Spirit is speaking in, through, and by his Word; it means, rather, that the reader or hearer cannot read or hear the semantic content of God’s Word unless it is expressed in words that he can understand.

But there are other, deeper barriers – spiritual barriers – to “hearing” God’s Word, and these barriers cannot be overcome in the way in which ignorance of a language may be overcome by one learning that language or by the material in the unknown language being translated or interpreted into a language which the reader or hearer does understand. The problem with the realities which are conveyed by God’s Word, however, is that they require a spiritual understanding to receive them, and “the natural person” – that is, a person without the Holy Spirit – cannot understand or receive them (1 Cor 2:14). It is necessary to make clear what this means and what it does not mean.

First, it is clear that a man or woman in a state of sin can understand some things from God’s Word: our first parents understood the meaning of God’s interrogation of them after they had sinned. Furthermore, although there is nothing to indicate that Felix was regenerate and came to faith in Christ, it is clear that he was afraid when he heard Paul’s explanation of righteousness, self-control and judgment to come (Acts 24:25). But the “understanding” to which 1 Cor 2:14 refers is linked with “receiving”: it is an understanding of the true nature of things and, therefore, the true excellence of them, an understanding that leads to delight and affiance in Christ and the things of the gospel. It is an understanding that leads to an embrace of the spiritual realities denoted by the Word which the Spirit first breathed out. In other words, it is more than a notional understanding. It is the kind of thing to which Jonathan Edwards referred in the sermon to which reference was made earlier in this article. For this to take place the Spirit needs to renew the heart. Without this renewing work of the Spirit, there can be no saving response to the Word of God.

III. Some theological considerations

Although the Spirit is always at work in, by and through the Word – and, in this sense, the Word and the Spirit, though distinct are not separate – it is not true that the Spirit is always savingly at work in the hearts of the hearers. If he were, then all the hearers would be saved. And, in this sense, the Spirit may be said to be separate from the Word, in that the Word may be read or preached but the saving activity of the Spirit not take place within the soul. Since the Word only savingly benefits those who have faith,[114] it follows that without faith the Word produces no saving benefit. Of course, the Word is needed to be believed; but the Word does not produce the ability or capacity to believe, any more than the seed which the sower sowed could change the condition of the soil into which it fell. This is such a basic and fundamental point of biblical religion that it is surprising that it needs to be spelled out in this way.[115]

Secondly, contrary to the impression that Cunnington gives, a distinction between regeneration, narrowly understood as the implanting of a new principle of spiritual life in the soul, and more broadly comprehended as the calling into expression of that life by the Word and Spirit, is not fanciful nor is it something confined to Berkhof and Olyott. Some writers may wish to distinguish between spiritual “conception” and spiritual “birth”, whereas others, while not accepting this distinction, nevertheless distinguish between regeneration, understood as the direct act of God in implanting new life, and a wider understanding of new birth as including the response of repentance and faith – conversion. The reason for this should be obvious: since the Word does not profit anyone unless they have faith, then the capacity to believe must exist prior, in order of nature, to the exercise of faith in the Word and in the Christ held out in the Word. This is abundantly clear from those who took issue with Pajon, from Bavinck, Edwards, Owen, Lloyd-Jones, Berkhof, Warfield and Murray. Indeed, Bavinck specifically addresses the interpretation of James 1:18 and 1 Peter 1:23, as does Murray, and both men distinguish between regeneration as narrowly conceived and as more broadly understood in their exegesis of these verses. In the very first issue of this journal Hywel Jones argued for a distinction between spiritual conception and birth, and sought to do so by way of a careful consideration of the Greek terms employed.[116] The article demonstrates that there is more to be said for the exegesis that Olyott offers of James 1:18 and of 1 Peter 1:23 than Cunnington, with his summary dismissal of it, would acknowledge.[117] The important point to observe, however, is this: those writers, such as Bavinck and Murray, who do not accept a distinction between spiritual conception and spiritual birth, nevertheless emphasise that there is a “narrow” meaning to regeneration and a broader meaning. The narrow meaning refers to the implantation of a new principle of spiritual life, and this is something which the Holy Spirit accomplishes directly and immediately in the human heart; the broader meaning involves the calling of that life into expression, and the Word is involved in this, and so is the individual’s intellect and will. In this broader sense of the term, regeneration is similar to conversion. In this respect, as has been noted by numerous writers, some early Reformed writers, such as Calvin, used the term regeneration to refer to this broader aspect and, at points, appeared to identify it with effectual calling.[118]

While it is true that God’s Word will always accomplish what God intends it to accomplish, this is not the same as saying that God’s Word always blesses the hearers: for it is manifestly the case that some people are hardened under the proclamation of the gospel. Unless we are to adopt a Pickwickian understanding of the word “bless”, which has more in common with the Alice-in-Wonderland idea that a word means just what we want it to mean than it does with sober exegesis of God’s Word, then we have to say that God the Holy Spirit does not always bless his truth to the souls of the hearers. To assert that he does so is to confuse Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim! The preaching of God’s Word will always accomplish what God intends it to accomplish (Is 55:11). (It is true that in the context of Is 55 the intended accomplishment will be spiritual fruitfulness. This does not, however, negate the larger truth that all things that occur – including people’s response to God’s Word – do so in fulfillment of God’s sovereign decree [e.g. Acts 4:27-28]. Thus, the effect of Isaiah’s ministry was to harden his immediate hearers [Is 6:9-10].) In that the Word is the Holy Spirit speaking and, in this sense and because of the omnipresence and immanence of the transcendent God, the Spirit is working in and through his Word, one may say that it is the Spirit who is hardening men under the preaching of the Word. But, as with salvation and condemnation, there is an asymmetry in the Spirit’s work in blessing, on the one hand, and in hardening, on the other: in the former case, his immediate work in the heart and soul actively changes the sinner; but there is no immediate act of the Spirit in the heart of the unregenerate, whereby he makes them or keeps them unregenerate.

IV. Conclusions

  1. The Word of God is the Holy Spirit speaking. This being so, and in view of the fact that the Holy Spirit, as God, is omniscient, omnipresent, immanent and transcendent, the Word of God can never be separated from the Spirit of God. The Word of God, however, is not the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Holy Spirit clearly exists apart from Scripture: if this were to be denied, then we would have to say that Scripture existed as a phenomenon before the universe was created.
  3. The Holy Spirit is active in providence in the universe and amongst people who have lived and died without access to God’s special revelation. The Spirit has been at work, therefore, apart from the Word, the Word being understood here, as God’s inscripturated special revelation.
  4. Although the Spirit works by, through, and in the Word, he also works with the Word. The manner of his working (in imparting new life) and the degree of his working (the numbers to whom he imparts new life) are not constant, and sometimes he does not accompany his word in blessing and in bringing salvation.
  5. His activity, through the Word, in hardening and judging is asymmetrical to his work in blessing his Word and in imparting new spiritual life and creating or begetting the disposition of faith.


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