10 QUESTIONS (ON THE FAMILY) by Rebecca VanDoodewaard

10 Questions with Rebecca VanDoodewaard

(Rebecca VanDoodewaard is a wife, mother, and author of several books. Her most recent book is Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth. In this interview, she discusses some of the most significant challenges mothers face today, recommends two women from the Reformation era, and some of her favorite things to do on her days off.)

You are a stay-at-home mom and yet you find time to write. Amazing! Tell us, as a busy mother why did you first start writing?

\After moving from Canada to Scotland to Indiana within one calendar year, I started writing down things to remember—spiritual and mental—for the next move (it happened 8 months later). The list grew with each move, and became my first book, Uprooted: A Guide for Homesick Christians.

What is one of the most significant challenges you think mothers face today in raising children?
One of Satan’s tactics has always been to distract Christians from truly important things. A second tactic is to make it look like faithfulness doesn’t really work. In the twenty-first century, distractions are at a record high, and it can often seem like biblical parenting doesn’t work in this day and age. So, the one challenge is to be focused on spiritual realities, including eternity. That makes priorities much clearer.

The second challenge is to realize that using the means God gives us, even when we don’t see clear or immediate fruit, is faithfulness. Walking by sight seems easier and smarter! But that’s not what God calls us to. Barbara Challies’ article, “But Insanity is Good,” is so encouraging on this point, from someone whose faithful mothering is now bearing fruit.

Many women may just feel exhausted. Carving out time to read the Bible, pray, and fellowship with other believers may feel impossible. What advice might you have for women feel crushed by the weight of responsibilities?

During one frantic season of life, a deacon in our church gave me Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. It really helped me see the “extras” in my life and be ruthless in cutting them out. David and Shona Murray’s books on burnout (Reset and Refresh) are also excellent in showing how we can run the marathon that we’re in, be fruitful, and enjoy it. It also helps to remember that while we do have responsibilities and have a call to work hard and run well, we only have to answer for our own obedience to the Lord. We can’t control anything else and we don’t have to.

You’ve written on the importance of biblical hospitality. How does hospitality fit into family life, especially in the 21st century where families can be so separated from one another?

Growing up, I watched my parents host hundreds of people every year (even at their tenting campsite). I knew it was a blessing to the guests, but I didn’t really understand how significant it could be until we moved to other countries and were very much on our own. Believers welcomed us into their houses and lives. It was not only the food and fellowship giving us strength for that time; we also learned loads about life and godliness from these saints in other cultures. Hospitality turns strangers into family.

Going back to the Reformation, the Luthers were constantly practicing hospitality, in their own unique way of course, as evident by Martin Luther’s Table Talk. How did the marriage and family life of the Luthers revolutionize the way Christians thought about the family in the sixteenth-century?

The Luthers were certainly models of this, part of a larger movement of Christian couples who were also opening their homes in sacrificial ways. One of the things that made an impression on Martin Luther’s students was that Katharina would sit at the table with them, occasionally contributing to the discussions and even disagreeing with her husband. Their example of family life significantly raised the status of women. Protestant family life in this time also showed that hospitality, mercy ministry, and intellectual activity were not isolated or institutionalized endeavors, but the overflow of a healthy Christian home.

You’ve just published a book called Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth (Reformation Heritage Books). This book may surprise many as men tend to hog the attention in terms of sixteenth-century events and publications. So please help us understand why women were so key to Christianity’s “rebirth” as you call it.

Well, you brought up the Luthers—imagine what his life would have looked like without Katie. By the time he married her, his sheets were mildewed from his sweat. She did a lot to keep him alive and sane. Some women in this period saved their husbands’ lives during outbreaks of plague, so they could continue ministering. Others wrote influential works that changed the way people thought about issues. A few directed armies, successfully making room for Protestantism in their countries. And a lot of them raised godly children; God blessed their faithful parenting in many ways so that they were a blessing to many generations of believers.

Katie Luther and Lady Jane Grey tend to immediately come to mind when a conversation turns to women in the sixteenth-century Reformation. But you’ve drawn our attention to twelve other women who are not as well known. If you had to put one at the top, which women would you first recommend to our readers and why?

Picking one is hard, but I think that Jeanne d’Albret is helpful given our cultural context. She has a lot of characteristics (good and bad) that are stereotypically “male”: strong leadership, self-sufficiency, anger, guts, high intellectual and low relational abilities, etc. With a lot of confusion of what it means to be a woman, especially a Christian woman, I think it is useful to ponder how Jeanne used her personality to excel as a mother and queen in the hard situations where God put her. Femininity can mean that we are delicate and timid, but it can also mean that we escape a kidnapping plot and come back with an army. Jeanne’s life was more than interesting; it gives us lots of principles to work through.

Is there a second woman who our readers just must learn about too?

Anna Bullinger did nothing remarkable in the world’s eyes. She raised children, helped her husband, and practiced hospitality. Her unglamorous, hard work is a model of self-denial and self-discipline bearing fruit in secondary ways: her husband’s writing, her guests’ fruitfulness, and her children’s service after her death. There was nothing concrete, like a book or a military victory, that she could point to and say, “I did that; now it’s done.” She did things that needed to be done over and over, like meal preparation, laundry, and care for the poor. But that mundane work did incredible things to build up the Church. She’s a great encouragement for stay-at-home-moms!

If our readers read your book and want to go deeper, is there a book or two you would especially recommend on women and the Reformation?

Ernst Kroker’s Mother of the Reformation, is a great resource on Katie Luther; Olympia Morata’s letters and writings are in modern translation in The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic; Nancy Roelker wrote the definitive work on Jeanne d’Albret that includes a lot of Huguenot history.

It’s been a long week but you now have an entire Saturday to yourself. Walk us through your ideal “day off” and what you enjoy most.

A whole day? Well, the market would be my first stop because of the color and texture on display—loading up on fruits and veg. Then I would spend a lot of time cooking and baking while listening to Bach, and working out listening to Sinclair Ferguson or Ian Hamilton. An unrushed dinner with the family and at-home movie with my husband would be a good end to the week.

Rebecca VanDoodewaard is a wife, mother,  homemaker, author and gift to the churches. Her husband teaches church history at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.



God sent forth the power of his Word in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation served as a dynamic motivation and catalyst for change and progress wherever its influence reached. Many would credit Martin Luther as the driving engine that propelled the Reformation, but Luther said, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” John Knox said, “God did so multiply our number that it appeared as if men had rained from the clouds.” How did the Reformation change the church and the world? Here are ten lasting fruits in which the Reformation made a significant difference.

1. The Word of God
The Reformers recognized the Bible as God’s written Word, and the supreme rule of faith and life for both the individual believer and for the life of the church. Here is the great starting point for understanding the aims, dynamism, and achievements of the Reformation. As part of the revival of learning connected with the Renaissance, the Western church recovered the knowledge of the original languages of the Bible. For the first time in many centuries, her scholars and teachers were able to read the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and examine the extant Latin translations of the Bible in the light of the original. If you want to call yourself an heir of the Reformation, then you must be a student of the Bible. Read the Word of God and meditate on it daily. Cultivate a systematic understanding of the Bible’s teachings. Compare Scripture with Scripture. Never walk away from private devotions, family worship, or a sermon without taking hold of some particular truth and applying it to your soul.

2. The Gospel of Grace
The Reformers recovered the authentic gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, and proclaiming it to the ends of the earth through zealous evangelism. They taught that sinners are saved as Christ graciously works in them by His Word and Holy Spirit, convincing them of their sin and misery, and leading them to faith in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, offered once for all, as the only ground of their salvation. Justification from the guilt of sin is not the distant goal, but the beginning of life in Christ. Good works are fruits that accompany justification, and only serve to confirm it. Justification is by faith alone, through Christ alone. Salvation is the gracious, free gift of God, “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9). What Luther and the other Reformers discovered was that Rome had exchanged the true gospel for a false one. According to Rome, salvation was achieved by slow degrees and hard work, by receiving the sacraments and by doing such good works as the church required or directed. Sinners must atone for their sins by doing penance in this life and suffering the fires of purgatory in the next, calling on saints and angels for help, and cherishing the hope of full salvation only in the far distant future. Some degree of comfort was afforded to the faithful by the sale of “indulgences,” promissory notes issued by the church forgiving or “indulging” some part of the debt of sin owed to God. This “gospel according to Rome” was a message to inspire fear of wrath, not faith in Christ.

3. Experiential Piety
The Reformers enlivened the church worldwide with a deep conviction of the fatherly sovereignty of God through Christ, which results in a deep, warm, sanctifying, experiential piety or godliness that moves believers to commit their entire lives to His praise. One of the most compelling proofs of this assertion is the Heidelberg Catechism. Nothing is stated in an abstract or purely theoretical way. The very first question is intensely personal and experiential: “What is thy only comfort in live and in death?” Time and again the practical use or personal benefit is pressed: “What doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” (Q. 59). This pressure persists to the last sentence of the Catechism: “Amen”––that is, the “Amen” of the Lord’s Prayer—“signifies that it shall truly and certainly be, for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him” (Q. 129). Subsequent generations of Reformed pastors and teachers took up this concern and developed it, as Christian experience and the strengths and weaknesses connected with it, received close scrutiny, careful analysis, and thorough exposition.

4. Old Paths
The Reformers preserved, exposited, and defended the ancient Christian faith through preaching and sound literature as the system of doctrine taught in God’s Word. The Reformers found support for their formulations of the Christian faith in the writings of the ancient church fathers. They saw themselves as the true heirs of historic Christianity. The Roman church had added to the biblical faith and obscured the gospel of justification, but there remained many essential truths of true Christianity as summarized in the Ecumenical Creeds. Though mired in layers of corruption, the gold of apostolic Christianity had not been utterly lost. The Reformed faith was given to the world not as something new, but only a return of the faith, worship, and order of the apostolic church. It is popular today to cast off all tradition in order to cultivate a religion based on “me and my Bible.” Much contemporary Christianity is superficial and without deep foundations, and so very unstable. However, this is not the Reformation principle of Scripture alone, but a corruption of it. We do not reject tradition in itself, but tradition that is not subordinate to the Bible.

5. The Head of the Church
The Reformers reasserted the crown rights of Christ as King over the nations and the only Head of the church. This resulted in a church where all is done in subjection to God’s Word and in relation to the triune God rather than in subjection to man’s desires. The Reformers soon found themselves at odds with the hierarchy of the church, and in particular with the Pope. Over the centuries, the Papacy had advanced its claim to dominion over the worldwide church and over the kings and princes of Christian Europe. In a similar way, these kings and princes often claimed dominion over the church within their realms. Not infrequently, these divergent views led to fierce and bloody conflicts. The Reformers found themselves fighting a two-front war, as the Pope used all his power to suppress the Reformation, and hostile kings and princes resisted and punished attempts to reform the church in their territories. Against both, the Reformers exalted Christ as the only Head of the church in heaven and on earth. Where they prevailed, the church was delivered from the twofold tyranny of the Papacy and the state.

6. Christian Freedom
The Reformers established the freedom of the Christian from tyranny in the church, the rights of citizens under the rule of law, curbing the powers of kings and nobles, and enabling the rise of representative democracy in the form of constitutional monarchies and republics. Upholding the supreme authority of Scripture, they dealt a deathblow to the medieval theory of the divine right of kings. All estates of the nation, including the king, are subject to the law of God and the laws of the state. Each citizen lives under the law’s protection, enjoying the liberty secured by subjection to God and to Christ. None but God has power over the conscience, and the calling of magistrates is to “do justice for the helpless, the orphan’s cause maintain; defend the poor and needy, oppressed and wronged for gain.” This idea of kingship broke upon sixteenth century Europe as a revolutionary thunderbolt. A long struggle ensued to curb the excesses and abuses of kings, free the church from interference by the state, and establish the rule of law in Protestant Europe. It is no coincidence that representative democracy flourished best in lands and nations where the Reformed faith was most deeply rooted. The habits of democratic self-government were acquired by many citizens in meetings of congregations, consistories, classes, sessions, presbyteries, and synods. The modern deliberative assembly is the brainchild of Presbyterianism. We should cherish our political freedoms and use all lawful means to preserve them. The rule of law, rights of all human beings, and covenantal accountability of leaders to God and the people are precious biblical principles. However, we should also remember that no political freedom has a stable foundation unless the church remains grounded in its freedom in Christ. Unless Christians walk in our blood-bought freedom from the dominion of sin, we cannot expect society around us to preserve civil liberty. Moral degeneration corrupts political freedom into a mask for any tyranny that promises to gratify a people’s passions.

7. Vocations for the Common Good
The Reformers recast the state as a commonwealth, promoting the dignity of labor, encouraging commerce, and increasing wealth among all classes, while curbing the excesses of unregulated capitalism and providing for the care of the sick and the poor. In the view of the Reformers, a well-regulated state ought to provide for the common good. All should thrive together, walking agreeably in decency and good order. Everyone has a stake in the life and well-being of the nation. No man is granted freedom to do as he pleases, without regard to the laws of God and the state. Such is the idea of the state as a commonwealth. Reformed Christianity played a major role in the eradication of serfdom and the abolition of slavery, though, sadly, for some Reformed Christians these measures seemed too radical to be endorsed. According to the Reformed idea of vocation or calling, the common laborer came into his own as an image-bearing servant of God. Reformed doctrine sanctifies all of life, and resists attempts both ancient and modern to draw a line between the sacred and the secular. Men of wealth are called to use their wealth for the good of others and for the cause of Christ. The restoration of the office of deacon meant that measures were taken in hand to care for the sick and lighten the burden of poverty on the poor. The communion of saints, each one employing his gifts for the advantage and salvation of the others, welded Reformed communities together as forces for benevolence, civic improvement and social progress.

8. Marriage and Child-rearing
The Reformers established the Christian home on the principles of Scripture, in which marriage is understood as a reflection of the Christ/church relationship; where husband and wife covenant with each other to walk in God’s ways; and parents, to rear their children, who are loaned to them by God. Casting out the medieval cult of celibacy, the Reformers embraced and exalted marriage in the Lord as the norm for the Christian life. The Christian family is counted as the basic unit of the church and the foundation of society. In no better way can the mystery of Christ and His church be honored and enacted before the world. The children of believers once more became the heritage of the Lord, loved and nurtured, called to faith and repentance, confronted with Christ’s claims upon their faith and obedience, and schooled in the “true and perfect doctrine of salvation” taught in the Reformed churches.

9. Arts and Sciences
The Reformers rekindled the spirit of inquiry, founding schools, academies, and universities; disseminating knowledge; encouraging research and exploration; enabling many discoveries and producing many valuable inventions. Exalting God as Maker of heaven and earth, believing that man was created in God’s image, and valuing the creation as God’s handiwork, Reformed Christians have been stirred to seek out the laws of the universe and to realize much of the great potential built into the world as God created it. Believing that knowledge is essential to life and happiness, Reformed Christianity fostered the development of universal education. A large chapter in the history of Reformed Christianity in the United States is the history of the founding of schools, school systems, and institutions of higher learning wherever Presbyterian and Reformed immigrants and settlers established their new homes and churches. The need for a well-educated ministry lay at the heart of this enterprise, but side by side lay the concern for an educated laity, that all might profit from the ministry of the Word.

10. The True Worship of God
Perhaps, above all, the Reformation promoted true worship. For them to worship God, whether privately or publicly, was to bow down before His majestic glory, and in spirit and in truth to bring Him, in and through Jesus Christ and in accord with Scripture, the honor and praise that belong to Him alone. Calvin said that the Christian faith turns on two main hinges: how we are saved, and how we should worship God. Reformation worship turns away from the saints as heavenly mediators and encourages people to draw near to God the Father through the sole mediation of God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit. It simplifies the sacraments (from seven to two), purges the service of unbiblical rituals and imagined sacred objects, and restores the people to their function as a holy priesthood. It makes the Holy Scriptures both the rule of worship and its content as the church reads the Word, prays the Word, sings the Word, preaches the Word, and sees the Word in baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion: Soli Deo Gloria
Here then, we have ten crucial ways that the Reformation—contra Rome—has blessed our world. What is the one great reality that all these things reflect? The diamond of the Reformation is the glory of God. The Reformation was about the centrality of God—the supremacy, sovereignty, holiness, goodness, and mercy of God in His triune being. The spirit of the Reformation, if you boil it down to its distilled essence, is to love God by faith in the grace of Christ, as He is revealed in the Scriptures.


Dr. Joel Beeke, noted author, pastor and professor of systematic theology serves at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI.


Posted by R Scott Clark

Many of us have probably been led to think of Reformed (and Presbyterian) tradition as being separate and parallel tradition to the Lutheran. There have been those within the modern Reformed tradition and within the Lutheran tradition since at least the 1550s who want us to think of things this way. This was not the story that John Calvin (1509-64) told, however, nor is it the way he saw his relationship to Martin Luther (1483-1546). In light of the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and the ongoing Calvinist “resurgence,” it is worth asking how Calvin himself saw his relationship to Luther and how his perception should influence ours.

Luther was the pioneer of Protestant theology, piety, and practice. He gradually became Protestant in the period between 1513-21 as he lectured through the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms again. Reading Augustine as he lectured on the Psalms he realized that the doctrine of man and sin that he had learned in university did not agree with Scripture nor did it agree with Augustine. In the Psalms he saw that human depravity is greater than he had thought and grace is greater, more powerful, and more free than he thought, that God has elected his people to new life and true faith unconditionally, from all eternity (sola gratia). By the end of his lectures on the Psalms he had become young, restless, and Augustinian but he was not yet a Protestant. As he lectured through Romans he began see that the basis on which we stand before God is not the sanctity wrought in us by grace and cooperation with grace but Christ’s righteousness accomplished outside of us and imputed to us. As he lectured through Galatians he came to see that view confirmed and he began to re-think what he had learned about the role of faith in salvation, that it was not just another virtue formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. The picture became clearer as he lectured through Hebrews and the Psalms again. Late in life, looking back at his theological development, he said that it was as he lectured through Psalms again that the light went on, as it were, and he realized that it is faith that apprehends Christ, that rests in and receives Christ and his righteousness for us. It is through faith the Spirit unites us to Christ so that he becomes ours and we become his (sola fide).

In this period he also gradually came to see that the traditional way of speaking of law and gospel, i.e., of the “old law” and the “new law” were inadequate. Those categories did not account for the fundamental difference in principle between the law and the gospel as distinct principles and as they relate to sinners. The old scheme had made the entire Bible bad news for sinners. Luther discovered that Scripture contains both bad news and good news for sinners.

His last breakthrough was to see that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and life. He saw that whereas the various councils had contradicted themselves, that canon law was endlessly complex, where popes contradicted Scripture and each other, the Scriptures were wonderfully simple and clear on the gospel and the Christian life.

By the time Luther published his justly famous treatise on predestination, On the Bound Will (1525), he his theology, piety, and practice had been revolutionized. He was no longer a medieval theologian nor a Roman Catholic, but a Protestant and evangelical theologian and minister.

By the time Luther reached his essential Protestant convictions, Calvin was about 12 years old. He was just beginning a kind of internship toward the priesthood in Noyon. He would not become a Protestant for a little more than another decade, after several years in university. Where Luther was a educated in theology faculty, Calvin was educated in the arts and law faculties. Nevertheless, Calvin, who had originally intended to read theology toward entering the priesthood, retained an interest in theology and read Luther in university. In a passing comment he later remarked that he had been unusually stubborn in his Romanism. His conversion to the Reformation theology seems to have surprised even himself and Luther’s writing, categories, and theology played a central role.

In the early 1530s “Lutheran” and “Reformed” were developing categories. The boundaries between them were fuzzy. The divisions between the two traditions, Lutheran and Reformed, would begin harden in the confessional period beginning in the 1550s but Calvin always saw himself as Luther’s loyal son.

The two never met and never even corresponded. Luther became aware of Calvin about 1539 in connection with Calvin’s defense of the Reformation and sent well wishes via Melanchthon. Calvin wrote to Luther in 1545 professing his admiration for Luther whom he described as “the most excellent pastor of the Christian church.” He repeatedly called Luther “my father” as he asked him to endorse two treatises he had written to the “Nicodemites,” i.e., those who said that they were with the Reformation but who nevertheless remained in the Roman church. Unfortunately, Melanchthon, to whom Calvin had sent the letter, pocketed it and Luther never saw it.

Calvin’s received as basic Luther’s five breakthroughs. In 1543 he wrote to Emperor Charles V, “God raised up Luther and others in the beginning [of the Reformation].” He wrote that it was Luther “who carried the torch for us toward re-discovering the way of salvation, who founded our ministry, who instituted our churches.” In a volume defending the biblical doctrine of election and reprobation he described Luther as “a distinguished apostle of Christ.” A catalogue of similar expressions of identity with Luther is easily found in Calvin’s works.

Calvin’s intellectual and spiritual debt to Luther has often been missed by students. Why? The reasons are several but here are three: 1) We have read our post-sixteenth-century loyalties back into the sixteenth-century. 2) Modern Reformed Christians are typically not well read in Luther and thus miss Luther’s structural influence on Calvin’s theology as well as the allusions to and even verbatim (but unacknowledged) quotations from Luther in Calvin’s works. 3) Students of Calvin particularly in the modern period have tended to rely almost exclusively on his Institutes where he did not cite contemporary (sixteenth-century) writers by name, which creates a misleading impression about his debt to Luther.

Calvin did criticize Luther’s manner and theology. For decades he wrote privately to friends to complain about Luther’s rhetoric against the Zürichers. He also complained about those who toadied up to Luther, who refused to stand up to him regarding his rhetoric on the Supper and the two natures of Christ. He resented the expectation among some orthodox Lutherans that the Protestants should unfailingly follow Luther’s biblical exegesis without dissent. Finally, Calvin and the Reformed reached different conclusions from Luther (and the Lutherans) on what he called “the rule of worship.” In public, however, he was rarely so critical of Luther, whom he praised lavishly, as the one from whom he learned the gospel and the basics of evangelical Christianity.


Dr. R. SCOTT CLARK is Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California. 


The Judgment of the Canaanites

Written by Lane Keister | Saturday, October 7, 2017

“This brings us to the question: what did the Canaanites deserve? Did they deserve life? Did they deserve heaven? No one deserves life, and no one deserves heaven. The evidence suggests that they were a very sinful people on whom God’s judgment is therefore entirely just.”

It is a fairly common objection to the Bible and to all forms of biblical faith that a God who would order the extermination of all the Canaanites by the Israelites cannot be a loving God, and therefore cannot be any kind of god that they would want to worship.

There are a number of answers that have been posed to this question that are inadequate for anyone wishing to take the Bible seriously. One answer is that God did not prescribe the war, He simply decreed it. This falls foul of the Scriptural injunction that God gives to wipe all the Canaanites out. He commanded them to do it (though with very important exceptions, as will be noted below. The exceptions, in fact, point us in the right direction, as I will argue). Another inadequate answer is that Israel falsely attributed the command to God, but actually conquered Canaan on their own steam. Nor is it adequate to say that all forms of warfare are evil, as if there were no such thing as a just war. Christian ethicists have argued from Scripture through all the centuries of church history that there is such a thing as a just war. The question is a formidable one, and it will not do to simply wish the problem away, or explain it in such a way as does not do justice to the biblical data.

The exceptions to the genocide are, as state above, quite important. Rahab and her family were spared. Why were they spared? Because of their faith. The Gibeonites were spared. Why were they spared? They believed that the land was going to Israel, and they feared the God of Israel. They used underhanded methods to gain their lives. And yet, while there is a reproach from Joshua directed towards the Gibeonites, there is no reproach from God, interestingly. In fact, in David’s time, the Gibeonites are allowed to exact justice on the seed of Saul’s line because Saul violated the treaty made with the Gibeonites. In both cases, there was a belief (on the part of the people spared) that God’s people Israel had the right to the promised land, and that Israel’s God was the true King of all named gods. There was a measure of faith, in other words. Whether we would call that saving faith is a question that would go beyond the evidence.

But if a faith, a belief that Israel’s God was the real deal was sufficient to create an exception, then we may infer from this fact that the Canaanites, as a general rule, did not worship the one true God at all. This is well-documented in Scripture. The false gods of the Canaanites (Molech, Shamash, Baal, etc.) are mentioned over and over again. The sin of the Amorites is mentioned in a revealing way: it is something that is not yet full earlier in redemptive history (compare Genesis 15:16 with later mention of the Amorites), thus pointing to a long-suffering patience on God’s part (He could have judged them far earlier!). Sin and faith then can be seen as the central issues here. The majority of the Canaanites were unbelievers who lived extraordinarily sinful lives (Leviticus 18). The exceptions were spared!

This brings us to the question: what did the Canaanites deserve? Did they deserve life? Did they deserve heaven? No one deserves life, and no one deserves heaven. The evidence suggests that they were a very sinful people on whom God’s judgment is therefore entirely just.

The objection immediately comes to mind, however: what about the women and the children? What had they done? The evidence of Balaam and Balak in Numbers suggests that the Canaanite women actively tried to seduce the Israelite men in order to get them to worship false gods. Ok, then what about the children? Weren’t they innocent? Psalm 51 states that children are sinful from the time of conception. Not even children are innocent. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never had children. They are not the cute little innocents that we think they are, though they certainly have not had opportunity to become Jack the Ripper. The point is this: what does anyone deserve? The simple truth is this: none of us deserve a single day of life on this earth. We have no right to demand anything of God any more than the pot has the right to demand anything of the potter.

If one wants to talk about the most evil event that has ever happened in human history, we cannot look to the genocide of the Canaanites. That was God’s judgment on a wicked people. God used the judgment as simultaneously giving Canaan to His people to be the promised land. Later on, when the Israelites became terribly wicked, God did the same kind of thing: He used another nation to judge Israel. But the most evil event cannot be the genocide of Canaanites. It cannot even be the Holocaust, as horrific as that was. The most evil event in history is the crucifixion of the Lord of Glory.

God has infinite dignity. A sin against God is therefore a sin against an infinitely holy God with infinite dignity. Try this thought experiment: contemplate the differences of the consequences that a slap in the face has with regard to the following people: what would happen if you slapped a hobo on the street, a fellow citizen, a police officer, the President of the United States, and the God of the universe? The same action has drastically different consequences depending on the dignity of the person being offended. Imagine, then, the heinousness of putting to death a person who is both God and man in one person, and therefore has infinite dignity; but who is also absolutely innocent and perfect. Not only this, but the method of putting Christ to death was the most humiliating kind of death on offer in the Roman world (it was reserved for traitors to the Roman empire: Jesus Christ the most resolute non-traitor, died the traitor’s death in place of traitors).

So, the most humiliating death a person could die being inflicted wrongfully on the God-Man, who was and is perfect in every way, is the most evil event in all of human history. This raises the question: why would the genocide of the Canaanites stick in our craw if the death of Jesus Christ of Nazareth does not? The truth is that God brought amazing and infinite good out of the infinite evil (the power of God is manifest in its most amazing form just here and at the resurrection of Christ from the dead) of the cross. As Joseph says of his brothers, they meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. What is the good, then, that came out of the genocide (I prefer the term “judgment” for obvious reasons!) of the Canaanites? The Canaanites were judged for their sin, while the Israelites received the promised land from God. This event, in fact, is part of the stream of the story that culminates in the very death of Jesus Christ Himself. Therefore, there seems little point in objecting to the judgment of the Canaanites, which seems just. The real question is the marvelous, amazing, and inexplicable mercy of God in sending His Son to die for us.


Lane Keister is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is pastor of Momence OPC in Momence, IL.


There are not wanting here and there the signs that good Christians are suffering from a kind of spiritual metal-fatigue. In our fellowships iron rarely sharpens iron any longer. Much preaching that is orthodox lacks that ring of conviction which is needed to thrust it home into sinners’ consciences. A guilty tameness smothers our zeal. Prayers are hum-drum and predictable. The apostolic fire has died down and looks like dying away. The gospel, even where it is preached at all, is clothed with the impeding garments of excessive politeness and respectability. Our sermons are frequently no more than a gentle homily or a quiet talk about good religious ideas. Slowly and imperceptibly evangelical people are coming to terms, emotionally and intellectually, with the spirit of the age. Though we should not care to say so, we nonetheless betray our inner despair of ever seeing revival, or even a reversal of the present trend downwards.

This weariness of soul is not difficult to explain. A deep-seated disappointment has paralysed many Christian people in our day. Both preachers and hearers are disheartened. The recovery of the doctrines of purer orthodoxy some thirty years ago has not yet been matched by a recovery of spiritual power or influence in society. The world passes by the doors of many excellent churches with as much unconcern today as it did when the old theological liberalism reigned in them, and before new and biblical ministries began in them. Preachers who deserve to be listened to by a thousand have to be content with less than fifty hearers.

The vision which many had only a few years ago has not been realised. The mirage has not yet become a pool of water. The promises of God are seemingly at variance with his providences. A bewilderment and a confusion has come upon us. There is a widespread feeling that something has gone wrong. Meanwhile we all grow older. There is an unspoken agreement that the fight is too hard for us. When shall we be able to withdraw from the scene of battle with at least some semblance of honour?

Spiritual drowsiness is very catching. The air soon becomes heavy with it. Active life and movement, once so noticeable, gradually dies down as one after another succumbs to the spirit of drowsiness. As the voices of young children in a nursery die down one by one at their rest time, so the once active testimonies of God’s people become gradually silent in a sleepy time.

The Bible portrays for us times when the people of God enter into a period of collective sleepiness. The age in which Moses was born was such a time. Israel had settled down in Egypt. Even their hard servitude did not take from them a love of the Egyptian life-style. They were very loath to follow Moses out into the wilderness. They had dreamed too many this-worldly dreams to want to give up the leeks, the onions and the garlic for the uncertain prospect of receiving their ‘Promised land’. Four hundred years in Egypt had sent Israel fast asleep.

The days of the Judges were another period in which the church of God was largely asleep. It is amazing to us as we read the Old Testament to see how flagrantly Israel was disobeying God’s Word at the period of the Judges. They appear to have been blind to the plainest teachings given so recently by God through Moses. Even some of the Judges themselves had serious blemishes in their faith and conduct. ‘Every man did that which was right in his own eyes’. If we require an explanation for the state of life at that time, we must surely put it down to a widespread and almost universal soul-sleep.

One might have hoped better of the church in New Testament times. But it was not to be so. For a thousand years, till Luther woke up with a start in Germany, the European church slept soundly while Bible, gospel and grace lay hidden out of popular sight. Only here and there was there a warning cry from some remote Italian valley or passing Lollard preacher. Europe, however, as a whole slept on. Dark night covered the one continent of mankind which ought to have carried the torch of gospel truth to every corner of the globe.

It is solemn, too, to recall the words of Christ which inform us, evidently, that the very last period of world history will again be characterised by widespread spiritual sleepiness: ‘They all slumbered and slept’ (Matt. 25:5). Not only the nominal church, represented by the five foolish virgins, will be asleep when the Bridegroom returns; but also the true church herself, though certainly prepared, will have sunk down with weariness and drowsiness just before the wedding day dawns.

The above instances – not the only ones we could cite – are evidence enough to remind us that a blanket of sleep may fall across large parts of the visible church in some ages. This is a sheer fact of history and one which the Word of God presents to us for our warning. No doubt there are many who sleep in the best ages of the gospel and under the liveliest of preaching. No doubt society is at best little more than half-awake at any time to the moral and spiritual duties of God’s Word. Nevertheless, it would seem to be a clear lesson of Scripture that some ages are marked by a sleep that is well-nigh universal.

Sleep is a remarkable phenomenon. It is a kind of animated death. In sleep we are oblivious to the real world. The thief may be at the door, or the fire already running up the curtains of the bedroom. But when asleep we neither notice, nor know, nor care. On the other hand, in the dreams of sleep we care for what is unreal and delusive. Men flee from savage beasts, or fall from cliffs, or sail to treasure islands. Our attention is taken up with what is fictional and fictitious.

Just so is the sleep which comes upon men’s souls in ages when the gospel is weak. Armies of heresies threaten the church and people of God; but the church’s watchmen are so fast in slumber that they neither realise nor care. When here and there a faithful voice is raised in warning, there is a general outcry and a demand for the maintenance of silence. Or there may happen some scandalous abuse which threatens to mar the church’s reputation and her credibility. But when sleep has laid the faculties of the soul to rest, men resent the unpopular question and seek to smother the healthy spirit of enquiry. Nothing is so unwelcome to a sleepy man as the alarm which summons him from his bed.

When soul-sleepiness is widespread, men are all taken up with childish dreams and empty trifles. They make great sound and bluster about small matters of procedure and right order. But they may as easily overlook the great matters of justice, mercy and truth as those Pharisees who ‘strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel’ (Matt. 23:24). The cry of all – or almost all – is for more sleep, and woe be to him who tries to wake them!

None who is even half-awake needs to wonder what the explanation is for the state of our modern societies. True religion is banished from the schoolroom and from the media. The slaughter of aborted infants proceeds like a daily holocaust, Governments meet to legislate away the Sabbath and to decriminalise sodomy. Leprosy is breaking out in every limb of the body politic and there is no physician to heal us. Scarcely a voice is raised in high places to call us to repentance. Such voices as there are are either not heard or else not heeded. Poor nations! Alas, that so great a civilisation as ours should be so deep in spiritual slumber!

It is not surprising that evangelical Christians at this hour should feel numb with battle-fatigue. It is no great miracle if they too, catching the general spirit of drowsiness, are tempted to give in to unresisted slumber at this hour. But this is what we must at all costs refuse to do.

By some means or other Christians must contrive to stay awake and on their feet in these days. If, in order to do so, we must cast out the television set or cut off our right arm, we had better do so. To fall asleep at this hour is treason to Christ and to our own souls. It is to lose our ‘full reward’ (2 John 8), or, worse still, to lose our reward and our soul altogether.

The way to avoid sleeping when poisonous gas fills the room is to run for fresh air and to breathe deeply. We owe it to God and to our salvation to run for fresh oxygen for the soul in this present crisis. What is to stop us all from a radical re-appraisal of our present life-style?

Instead of meeting for merely social purposes, might we not as Christians meet to read good books to one another? The time which we have formerly devoted to easy viewing and listening, might we not devote, in part at least, to secret prayer or family prayer or neighbourhood prayer? The hours which have been spent cruelly criticising the preacher could in future be put to better use in the careful study of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Some of the energy formerly spent in excessive recreation and socialising might be more productively spent visiting the widows in their affliction ( James 1:27) and in comforting the downcast.

Above all others, preachers must cry to heaven for grace to stay awake at this hour. Let them plunge their heads in the cold waters of God’s truth till their dreams of worldly ease are thrown aside. Never did the world more urgently need an awakening ministry than now. Never was there a more crucial hour for lifting high and blowing loud on the gospel trumpet. All heaven watches as we strive to keep awake while all others sleep. It will stand to our eternal credit if we keep at our post. Sooner than we think perhaps may come the dawning of a new and better day. The wakeful servant must one day sit in honour at his Master’s table (Luke 12:37).


Pastor Maurice Roberts was the Editor of the Banner of Truth magazine for 15 years while pastoring a Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) congregation. His many excellent article were published in 3 volumes by the Banner of Truth (THE THOUGHT OF GOD, GREAT GOD OF WONDERS and THE CHRISTIAN’S HIGH CALLING). They are spiritual gold. This article first appeared in the Banner of Truth magazine, December 1994.


As far back as the late medieval period, men such as John Wycliffe (c. 1329–1384) and Jan Hus (1373–1415) called the church of their day to return to Scripture. When challenged by hostile church officials, Hus answered his opponents, “Show me… better out of the Scriptures, and I will forthwith recant!” Hus’s devotion to sola Scriptura cost him his life, for it compelled him to attack the principles on which the medieval church based its authority.

Beginning with Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), and continuing in men such as John Calvin (1509–1564) and John Knox (c. 1514–1572), the Reformers developed Hus’s emphasis on Scripture to promote a recovery of the great teachings of the Bible. Sola Scriptura at its heart was an assertion of the sufficiency of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “The Word of God—and no one else, not even an angel—should establish articles of faith” (Part 2, Art. 2, Sec. 15). The Geneva Confession (1536/37) declares in its first article, “For the rule of our faith and religion, we wish to follow the Scripture alone, without mixing with it any other thing which might be fabricated by the interpretation of men apart from the Word of God; and we do not pretend to receive any other doctrine for our spiritual government than that which is taught us by the same Word, without addition or reduction, according to the command of our Lord.”

The principle of sola Scriptura explains why the Reformers accepted some parts of Roman Catholic teaching but not others. They believed that Christ, as the only Head, rules His church by His Word and Spirit. The authority of Scripture is thus absolute, the authority of Christ Himself, not an authority derived from or accorded to it by the church. Calvin said that Scripture is as authoritative as if we heard God’s “living words” from heaven with our own ears (Institutes, 1.7.1) and so Christian’s should be governed by its promises (Institutes, 3.2.6–7) and the church should be wholly subject to its authority (Institutes, 4.8).

The principle of Scripture alone arises out of the unique properties or attributes of the Bible as the Word of God. Since Scripture is God’s written Word, we cannot pass judgment on Scripture; rather, Scripture passes judgment on us. As God’s Word, the Bible is the only book characterized by infallibility and inerrancy. Every word of every sentence is there by God’s determination (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As the Word of God, the Scripture is pure truth without any assertions of error (Prov. 30:5). Thus, Luther said, quoting Augustine, “I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant” (What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass [St. Louis: Concordia, 1959], 1:87).

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible has full authority to rule our consciences, for it comes to us resonating with the words, “Thus saith the Lord.” This authority is not dependent upon the testimony of mere men, or the judgment of the church, but arises from the certainty produced by the Spirit who bears witness to the Word (1 Thess. 1:5). Calvin emphasized the self-authenticating character of the Bible. This teaching holds that the Bible’s witness is confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit in the believer’s heart (Institutes, 1.7.2–5).

As the revelation of the only wise God, the Scripture is not obscure, but perspicuous, meaning that its sense is clear and can be understood (Ps. 119:105). With the Spirit’s illumination to overcome our native blindness, the Bible both authenticates itself and interprets itself. It must be said that Holy Spirit is the true expositor of the Bible, enabling “not only the learned, but the unlearned” to use Scripture to interpret Scripture and so “attain to a sufficient understanding” of it (Westminster Confession, 1.7, 9). The key of interpretation, therefore, belongs to the entire community of Christians, not just to Peter and his reputed successors in Rome. While tradition aids interpretation, the true, spiritual meaning of Scripture is its natural, literal sense, not an allegorical one, unless the particular Scripture passage being studied is clearly allegorical in nature.

The fact that the Bible is the written Word of God, supremely authoritative and self-authenticating, unfailingly true in all that it declares, clear in its doctrines, and made efficacious by the Spirit’s work, implies that the Bible is uniquely sufficient as God’s special revelation to us today. Recovering the Word of God means releasing the power of God (Rom. 1:16). As this Word of power, we can look to Scripture to transform and renew our minds as an instrument of the Spirit of God. That power must be manifested in our lives, our homes, our churches, and our communities.

Biblical Sufficiency Defined
The doctrine of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures teaches that “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary” for saving faith and the Christian life is revealed in the Bible. Therefore, the preaching, teaching, and counseling ministries of God’s church are the ministry of the Word of God. There is no need or warrant to base our doctrine or directives on anything else, even if enshrined in church tradition. When an early bishop of Rome based an argument on tradition, Cyprian (c. 200–258) responded with this rule: “If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles… let this divine and holy tradition be observed.” Cyprian argued, “What obstinacy is that, or what presumption, to prefer human tradition to divine ordinance, and not to observe that God is indignant and angry as often as human tradition relaxes and passes by the divine precepts.” Cyprian warned, “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error” (Epistle 73.2–3, 9).

The Reformation brought a renewed emphasis upon the Bible’s sufficiency as special revelation in opposition to Roman Catholic claims to supplement the Bible with additional revelation passed down in tradition. Calvin said, “All our wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, and neither ought we to learn, nor teachers to draw their instructions, from any other source” (Commentary on 2 Tim. 4:1). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) offers a helpful summary of the doctrine: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.”

The sufficiency of Scripture is, however, limited to the Bible’s purpose in revealing truth for our salvation, faith, and obedience (Ps. 19:7–11; John 20:31). The doctrine does not assert that the Bible is sufficient to guide all human activities in every respect, except in the most general way. The Bible does not claim to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of everything. Instead, it gives us “the words of the wise” so “that thy trust may be in the Lord” (Prov. 22:17, 19). The Holy Scriptures “are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). It is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (v. 16). Other matters must be governed by “the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed,” such as “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Biblical Sufficiency Clarified
The Bible’s sufficiency should also not be understood to exclude the use of the church’s helps, such as her many teachers past and present, and the writings produced by them. These are not to be rejected, but welcomed as a means that the Holy Spirit has provided in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11–13). However, they are subordinated to the Bible in such a way that they have authority to direct our faith and obedience only insofar as they faithfully reproduce and apply the teachings of Scripture. The principle of Scripture alone, rightly understood, does not mean the church of any given time or place operates by the Bible alone without reference to the traditions of the church through the ages. Rather, the sola of sola Scriptura means that the Bible alone is the fountain and touchstone for all authoritative teaching and tradition. This point especially needs to be emphasized in an ahistoric contemporary culture that emphasizes radical individualism and personal liberty. As Peter warns, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20).

Nor is it right to appeal to the decisions of the church’s synods and councils as if they were as authoritative as Scripture. In Roman Catholicism, much is made of the decrees of the “Ecumenical Councils” of the ancient church, as though the authority of such assemblies were infallible and absolute. The Westminster divine did not reject the decisions of these bodies outright, but sounded a warning: “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both” (21.4).

The Bible’s sufficiency as revelation should also be carefully distinguished from its efficacy. The efficacy of the Word of God comes from the present activity of the Holy Spirit working with the Word (1 Thess. 1:5). The Westminster divines wisely added the following qualification to the definition cited above: “Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word (John 6:45; 1 Cor. 2:9–12).” However, this does not reduce the Bible to a dead letter. The Word and the Spirit are inseparable (Isa. 59:21; John 6:63), for the Spirit directed the writing of the Bible Word (2 Peter 1:20–21), and the Word is the great instrument of the Spirit for accomplishing His work in us and in the world (John 16:7–11; Eph. 6:17). We must always remember, however, that the Spirit is sovereignly free, working when and where and how He pleases (John 3:8), as He uses and applies the Word, whether to harden the wicked or draw sinners to Christ.

The sufficiency of the written Word of God does not mean that the Bible contains all special revelation granted throughout redemptive history. Our Lord Jesus Christ did many things that are not written in the gospels (John 20:30; 21:25). God revealed some things to the apostles that He forbade them to report to the church (2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 10:4). However, the Bible does contain all things that God willed to function as the rule of faith and obedience for His people.
Though the sufficiency of Scripture informs all of life with respect to how to please God, it has special relevance for the sacred activity of the church and its officers. The Belgic Confession says, “Since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures” (art. 7). All our activities, though serving many legitimate earthly purposes, should be done for God’s pleasure, but the public worship of the church is performed in God’s special presence for His pleasure as the sacrifices of His royal priesthood offered in His living temple (1 Peter 2:4–5, 9). Therefore, in the worship and witness of the church as the church of God, the sufficiency of Scripture implies and confirms the regulative principle: we must worship as God has commanded, not according to human ideas of worship, neither adding nor subtracting from His Word (Deut. 12:30–32).
This is not to say, however, that we must have biblical warrant for every incidental detail of our worship. The Westminster divines again clarified, “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (1 Cor. 11:13–14; 14:26, 40).” The regulative principle must be nuanced: the Bible is sufficient to direct us in regard to the elements, content, and character of our worship, but provides only general guidance with regard to things merely circumstantial to it.

Biblical Teaching on Scripture’s Sufficiency
Negatively, we find the sufficiency of Scripture asserted in the prohibitions against adding to or taking away from God’s Word (Deut. 4:2). The Word of God, as it exists in each stage of redemptive history, is sufficient to be the wisdom and righteous law of God’s people (Deut. 4:6–8). The Bible closes with a warning not to add to or take away from the book (Rev. 22:18–19; cf. Prov. 30:5–6).

We recognize that the Word of God as revelation predates the Bible, for God spoke to mankind in the garden of Eden. His spoken word was prior to His written word. God spoke to Adam, Eve, and the serpent after the fall, and His spoken word was sufficient to bring our first parents to repentance and faith in the coming Savior. God added to His word progressively over time through His servants the prophets, but forbade men to add or subtract anything according to their own ideas. Through Moses, God initiated the writing or “inscripturation” of His word, He Himself writing the ten commandments on tablets of stone. At every point in redemptive history, the word of God, spoken or written, was sufficient for His people’s needs at that time. With the apostles and New Testament prophets, God completed His special revelation. Today the Bible is the only Word of God that the church possesses.

As the written Word of God, the Bible issues an oft-repeated warning against drawing spiritual wisdom from any other source. All claims to know God’s will for us today must be tested by Scripture, as the prophet Isaiah admonished (Isa. 8:20). Tradition cannot be added to the Bible as a distinct source or repository of divine revelation. Isaiah, the Lord Jesus, and the apostle Paul all unite to warn against doctrine or practice based merely on “the precept of men,” “the tradition of men,” or “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Isa. 29:13; Mark 7:6; Col. 2:22).

Positively, the Bible bears witness to the completeness and finality of its revelation. The Bible is sufficient for moral instruction. Even before the coming of Christ, the prophet could say, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee” (Mic. 6:8a). The Bible is sufficient for evangelical repentance and salvation. When He spoke of the rich man in hell and Lazarus with Abraham in heaven, the Lord Jesus presented the rich man as denying the sufficiency of Scripture. He asked Abraham to send a man back from the dead to warn his brothers, but when Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them,” the man in hell objected, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” In other words, the rich man claimed that the Bible was not enough; men need to see miracles. The answer of Abraham in Christ’s parable is startling: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:27–31). If God’s Word is rejected, then no miracle will suffice to convince them. How much more is God’s revelation full and complete now that God’s Son has come in the flesh (Heb. 1:1–2).

Christ performed this work of revelation during His earthly life, and brought it to fulfillment in the ministry of the Spirit through His apostles. The Lord Jesus said to them that the Comforter “shall teach you all things” (John 14:26). Christ promised the Spirit would “shew you things to come” (John 16:13). The “all things” and “all truth” in view is certainly not all possible knowledge about everything, but consists of the full revelation of the Father’s will for our redemption, accomplished in Christ (vv. 14–15). These promises, originally given to the apostles, pertain especially to the apostolic ministry of the Word that was distilled in the New Testament writings. They do not give warrant for new revelations that add to the Bible, for the Spirit “shall not speak of himself,” or go beyond Christ, but, Christ said, “he shall glorify me,” and “shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (vv. 13–15). Therefore, in the apostolic documents of the New Testament, together with the Old Testament, we have the “all things” and “all truth” which God has willed to reveal in Christ, for our time and for all time to come.

Paul deduced the sufficiency of Scripture from its nature as a “God-breathed” document. He said to Timothy, “From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:15–16). Even when taught to children, the Bible is “able” to lead them to wisdom and salvation. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, the Bible is also sufficient for the church and its ministries. A “man of God” in biblical parlance is God’s prophet (Deut. 33:1; 1 Kings 13:1–10; 17:24), but here, a preacher of the Word (2 Tim. 4:2; cf. 1 Tim. 6:11). Paul said that God’s servant is fully equipped for “all good works,” the whole ministry required of him by God, because the Bible is “profitable” or useful for all those works. We find the same Greek phrase here translated “all good works” (pan ergon agathon) a little earlier in this epistle: “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). Just as a holy life qualifies a man morally for ministry, so the Bible qualifies him with the full revelation of truth needed to feed the flock of God. This is all the more striking when we remember that Timothy had listened to Paul’s preaching for years (2 Tim. 2:2; 3:10), but when Paul neared death, he did not tell Timothy to rely primarily upon his memories of Paul’s words, but to rely on the Holy Scriptures. Having the written Word is even better than fallible memories of an apostle’s teaching, even if you heard an apostle with your own ears. Peter bids his readers take heed to the written Word of God because, as “the word of prophecy,” it is “more sure” than his own testimony as an eyewitness of Christ’s transfiguration in the mount (2 Pet. 1:16–21). Thus Paul proceeded to tell Timothy, “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).


TheWord as a Means of Grace by Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theo- logical Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. degree from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Dr. Trueman has written more than a dozen books, including his most recent works: The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012), and Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (Crossway, 2015). He also writes and blogs regularly for First Things.


The differences over grace between the medieval Catholic Church and the churches of the Reformation are nowhere more obviously apparent than in the architecture of their respective places of worship. To enter one of the great cathedrals of the high Middle Ages, such as that of Cologne, is to enter a space that is focused on and saturated in the sacraments, specifically the Mass. As one enters the building, one’s eyes are drawn to the high altar because the architect knew his theology. He knew that the most important thing that happened in the liturgy was the celebration of the Mass, where Christ literally came down to meet his people in grace. As the bread and wine became the body and blood of the Lord Jesus, Christ was present with his people. Heaven met earth and all eyes should thus be focused on the place where this mystery took place.

Enter a Protestant cathedral, say, St. Giles’ in Edinburgh, and one enters a very different world. Not only are the usual elaborate aesthetics of medieval piety missing, one’s eyes are drawn not to any altar but rather to the elevated pulpit. Again, the architect knew his theology well, for the most important thing that happens in a Protestant service is the reading and especially (to

use the adverb employed in the Shorter Catechism) the preaching of God’s word. God’s presence is mediated not under the accidents of bread and wine at the altar. It is not the eyes and the tongue that apprehend God. It is the ears. God comes to his people but through the declaration of his word by the mouths of his preachers. Indeed, as the Second Helvetic Confession so dramatically expressed it in the very first chapter:

We believe that today, when this word of God is proclaimed in the Church by preachers who have been legitimately called, then the very word of God itself is proclaimed and received by the faithful.

The language is emphatic: the very word of God itself. When the preacher preaches faithfully, the congregation actually hears God’s word. We might put this another way: when the preacher preaches faithfully, it is really God who speaks to the congregation.

Of course, Heinrich Bullinger, the Confession’s author, did not believe that his sermons were so to be seen as the word of God that they should therefore be inserted into the canon of inspired scripture. The point he was making was this: when God’s word was correctly parsed and proclaimed, God spoke to his people through the words of the preacher in an authorita- tive and powerful way. In so doing, Bullinger stands as representative of the Reformation Protestant tradition: it is the word of God, not the sacraments, which was the primary means of God dealing graciously with his people. God addressed his people through the word proclaimed; the sacraments gained their significance from being attached to the Word, a point which was also architecturally reinforced in Reformed by having the table placed symbolically in front of, and beneath, the pulpit.

Understanding this point is crucial. Protestantism is not simply a set of theological doctrines. Those doctrines stand in direct relation to practice. If the Reformation understanding of grace is taken seriously, then the reading and especially the preaching of the Word of God, will stand at the center of Protestant practice. Preaching the word is a means of grace, in fact the primary means of grace. It is the means God has appointed for bringing his gracious purpose to fruition in the lives of the men and women who make up the church. God acts first and foremost in the proclamation from the pulpit of his mighty saving acts.

That means that preachers need to understand that what they do is perform a theological action which demands care and earnestness because they handle the Word of God and bring the most important message of all to people’s ears. And it also rests upon confidence because the power of the message does not reside ultimately in them as messengers but in the God who speaks through the message. Nothing kills churches faster than preachers who do not seem to understand these various elements of the task. Preachers need to understand God’s grace, not simply so that they can preach its content but also so that they can preach, period.

A Theology of God’s Speech

At the heart of the Reformers’—indeed, of all anti-Pelagian—understandings of grace is the idea that grace is something which ultimately comes from without. For the Reformers, as indeed for Paul, this grace breaks into the lives of individuals primarily through the Word proclaimed. The gospel is not an experience, it is the declaration of the identity of Jesus Christ, with all of that entails for the identity of human beings made in his image. Yet in order to understand the Reformers’ position, we need to understand something of the biblical teaching on speech, specifically God’s speech. This provides the foundation for the Protestant understanding of how the Word proclaimed can be powerful unto salvation.

The Reformers took their cue on the Word of God from the description of how God acts which they found presented in scripture. One of the very first things which the Bible reveals about him, beyond the fact of his mere existence, is that he is one who acts primarily through speech. This is how the creation is brought about in Genesis 1. God speaks, he uses words. There was nothing, God spoke, and then there was something, that which God had spoken into existence.

Now, presumably speech is not predicated of God and humans in a univocal manner: God’s speech did not involve the use of vocal chords, for example, and until matter was created there could have been none of the vibrations which we associate with physical sound. Yet by implication the Bible makes it clear that the closest analogy to God’s creative act is the human act of speech.

It is one of the great insights of Protestantism that this is central to how we are to understand God and the world he created. We should note that this

The Word as a Means of Grace

creative power of God’s speech correlates with what we saw earlier with regard to Luther’s understanding of the cross and of justification. Justification by grace through faith depended upon the power of God’s declaration to make a thing to be that which it intrinsically was not. God’s speech determines reality, creates reality. Thus, the person who is actually sinful is declared by God to be righteous because clothed in the imputed, extrinsic righteousness of Christ. He is not righteous in any way that the world would recognize as being “real.” But he is really righteous simply because God has said that he is such. This finds its parallel in the work of the cross. Christ hangs on the cross, apparently a crushed, defeated sinner yet in reality the holy, triumphing Lamb of God. To the world, the cross is obviously a crushing defeat of the one who hangs there. But God declares that it is the opposite, a spectacular and decisive triumph over evil. No empirical observation can lead to this conclusion, only the revelation of the truth via the Word of God can do so. Only faith grasping that word can acknowledge the truth. And thus that word grasped by faith makes the cross the power of God to salvation.

Creation is, of course, described in Genesis 1 as a series of verbal actions by God. “And God said….” is the repeated refrain which punctuates the account and brings into existence various parts of the created realm. God’s word is not simply a descriptive thing. It is a powerful, creative thing. Psalm 33:6 summarizes this well: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their hosts.”

This transcendent creative power of words lies at the heart of Luther’s understanding of the nature of language, as he makes clear in a famous passage in his Lectures on Genesis:

Who could conceive of the possibility of bringing forth from the water a being which clearly could not continue to exist in water? But God speaks a mere Word, and immediately the birds are brought forth from the water. If the Word is spoken, all things are possible, so that out of the water are made either fish or birds. Therefore any bird whatever and any fish whatever are nothing but nouns in the divine rule of language; through this rule of language those things that are impossible become very easy, while those that are clearly opposite become very much alike, and vice versa.2

The phrase that describes creatures as “nothing but nouns in the divine ruleof language” is fascinating, drawing out the clear implications of Luther’s linguistic philosophy: words constitute reality. It is God’s speech which makes the sea produce birds, a natural impossibility. This is the late medieval nom- inalism which we noted earlier and which bears some similarities to certain aspects of postmodern literary theory which emphasizes the constructive nature of words. To an extent we can all sense the creative power of language: the use of a racial epithet is regarded as obnoxious because it does something to the people to whom it is applied. It denigrates them and thus transforms reality for them in a negative way. Language is creative and we instinctively know that, as demonstrated by the heated debates over freedom of speech and political correctness.

Yet Luther’s understanding of language here is not that of radical post- modernists in one very important way. For Luther, language is creative because it is spoken by God and he uses this speech as the instrument for determining what exactly reality is. He is in himself unknowable. Prior to his speaking human beings cannot put a limit on what he may or may not do. But when he speaks, his power uses that speech to bring things into being and to constitute reality. That reality has a stability and a certainty to it precisely because it is the speech of the sovereign and omnipotent God who rules over allthings. Bycontrast,I might scream and shout at the ocean all day long, commanding it to give forth fish and birds but it will not happen because I am a mere creature and not creator. It is because it is God who speaks, God who controls all things, that his language is creative. This is a crucial point to understand when it comes to making the transition from God speaking in his Word to the preacher speaking God’s word to the congregation.

There is also a further aspect to God’s speech which is important. As God’s speech creates and determines reality, so the scheme of the Devil is to create an alternative linguistic world which possesses a compelling appearance of reality but which is ultimately false. Here is how Luther describes the temptation in the Garden:

Moses expresses himself very carefully and says: “The serpent said,” that is, with a word it attacks the Word. The Word which the Lord had spoken to Adam was: “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” For Adam this Word was Gospel and Law; it was his worship; it was his service and the obedi- ence he could offer God in this state of innocence. These Satan attacks and tries to destroy. Nor is it only his intention, as those who lack knowledge think, to point out the tree and issue an invitation to pick its fruit. He points it out indeed; but then he adds another and a new statement, as he still does in the church.3

This point will be critical in understanding what preaching is and why it is important. The serpent is challenging God’s Word by presenting another, alternative Word. Calvin puts it this way: “he wished to inject into the woman a doubt which might induce her to believe that not to be the word of God, for which a plausible reason did not manifestly appear.”4 The serpent’s game is a linguistic one: undermining how God had specified reality to be by hinting at an alternative account. The struggle between God and Satan then, begins a struggle over speech.

The early chapters of Genesis also point to another significant theological fact about speech: one of the things which connect God to human beings and to no other creature is the ability to talk, to communicate and to do things with words. Indeed, speech, particularly as it connotes rule and sov- ereignty, is part of the image of God in which human beings are made. No other creature is given the power of speech, and no other creature is given the mandate which comes with that power. Thus, as God creates by the word of his power and names Adam. This naming of Adam is the sign of his authority over the man. He then gives to Adam authority over all other creatures, a point made clear by his responsibility to name them. Genesis 2:19-20 makes this clear: the Lord brings the creatures to Adam, that he might name them; and whatever name he gave to each creature, that was its name. Adam is thus responsible for bringing a certain element of order to the creation which God has made. We might thus say that Adam’s speech too is “creative” in a subordinate manner to that of God himself. Human words carry power and can be used to order and thus (within creaturely limits) to change reality.

This creative power of speech is not restricted to the early chapters of Genesis. Throughout the Old Testament, God’sspeechcontinuestobe the primary mode of his action and continues to reshape reality or to bring new things into being. He calls Abraham and gives him a covenant promise. He calls to Moses from the burning bush. He speaks again to Moses on Sinai and gives him the Law. Significantly, Heinrich Bullinger refers to this as “preaching.”

In the mount Sina [sic] the Lord himself preached to the great congregation of Israel, rehearsing so plainly, that they might understand those ten commandments, wherein is contained every point of godliness.5

By using this language of preaching, Bullinger points towards a clear analogy which he sees between the act of God in addressing his people and that which God’s servants do when they speak God’s words to his people. God does things through his Word. He creates, he commands, he promises. And he does things through his Word proclaimed by his servants. Thus, God in the Bible also speaks through various prophets, giving them detailed words to say to his people or even to foreign nations, or using their words to accom- plish his own purposes.6 This is a very important for understanding the connection between grace and preaching in the Reformation church: New Testament and then post-apostolic preachers are the successors of the Old Testament prophets as they bring God’s Word to bear upon God’s people and upon the world around. The word they proclaim is the means God uses to accomplish his purposes. Its power is thus rooted in divine action, not in the eloquence of the preacher.

One obvious implication of this is that divine speech is not simply, or perhaps even primarily, a matter of communicating information. It is the typical mode of his presence and power. Speech is how God is present or, to use a more modern idiom, how he makes his presence felt. God’s speech created the universe and it also created the people of God. God called Abram and made him the father of all nations. To meet God is to be addressed by him or by his chosen speakers. The Jews were special because God spoke to them in a special way, by means of his covenant promises. His rule was exercised by and through his Word. The Jews were those who had God’s Law and his promises. These were the means by which God was gracious to them.

This presence of God by speech is not restricted to the Jews. When God addressed the Gentiles, he was present to them also, whether in general mat- ters, such as the judgment against Babylon or in mercy, as in the particular case of Naaman. His sovereignty over them was also exercised in and through his Word. When God ceased to speak, it was a sign that he had withdrawn his favor from his people. Thus Amos predicts a famine of the Word of God which will cause the people to wander over the face of the earth seeking God but doing so in vain. A silent God was an absent God.

When we move to the New Testament, the power of the speech of God continues to be emphasized. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father publicly recognized his Son by speech, as the Holy Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove. The point is clear: God in Christ is now present with his people, a presence signified by the Word. The economy of grace which is manifested in Christ is inaugurated by a verbal declaration. Then, when Christ is confronted with the Devil’s temptations in the wilderness, his weapon of choice is the Word of God. The Word is the means by which Christ is upheld. As the Devil does what he did in the Garden, that is, pervert the Word, so Christ aptly applies it and puts his enemy to flight. Then there are the many examples through- out the gospels of Christ’s speech casting out demons, healing the sick and even raising the dead. Not all his acts of power are linguistic (for example, the healing of the woman with the flow of blood) but most are. The Word was the means by which Christ demonstrated his sovereignty and brought grace to bear in the lives of individuals.

This Word-oriented means of God’s presence and power continued into the post-ascension apostolic church. Preaching is central to the narrative of the Book of Acts and lies at the heart of the practical realization of God’s gracious purposes in Paul’s New Testament letters. It was by means of verbal declaration that the Reformers saw the apostles expanding the kingdom. The prophetic Word was a word which tore down illusions and built up realities. Thus, the preacher stood at the very center of the spiritual struggle of the present age, both for judgment and for grace.

The Word Preached and the Grace of God

It is not surprising that the Reformers saw themselves a standing in continuity with this biblical emphasis on God’s Words as his means of action, both for judgment and for grace. Thus, in the Reformation, preaching was power and the preaching office was the most significant one within the church. All of the major Reformers were preachers, with the pulpit being the center of their professional lives. Their various reformations were all centered on and driven by the proclamation of the Word.

There were obvious cultural aspects to this: in an age of low literacy, the preacher was often the person through whom many people obtained their understanding of the world around. Thus, Luther’s sermons often ended with an appendix, not connected to the main exposition which offered commentary on some aspect of current affairs.7 This political significance of preaching helps to explain the constant attempts in England to regulate the practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and even to suppress it entirely at points in the 1630s.

Yet the cultural power of preaching is clearly only a small part of the story and not one which would have interested the Reformers to any significant degree. For them, the biblical theology of the Word which we have noted above was the driving factor. God’s preached and so his servants must preach. Preachers had power because their words connected in some way to the Word and were thus the means of God accomplishing his purposes in this world. Indeed, Reformation preachers saw themselves as the successors in some ways of the great prophets of scripture. This is reflected often in the language they applied to the preaching task. The gatherings of ministers in Reformation Zurich and later in London, where they would hear each other proclaim the Word and offer critique and encouragement, were known as “prophesyings.” William Perkins classic text on how to preach was entitled The Arte of Prophesying. The preacher was not merely a lecturer or teacher. His task was not simply descriptive. His task was no less than prophetic: in proclaiming the Word of God he was to tear down human inventions and illusions about the world and to build in their place reality as God had declared it to be through the Word of his power. As the Second Helvetic Confession declared, the Word of God preached is the Word of God.

A good example of such confidence in the Word is provided by Luther in 1522. This was the moment when he returned to Wittenberg from his time at the Wartburg Castle in order to bring order back to a town whose Reformation had fallen under the sway of radical iconoclasts and was quickly descending into chaos. Under pressure from the authorities to restore order, Luther did the one thing he knew would have power to transform the situ- ation: he preached. And during this series of sermons, he made one of his most famous comments about the Word of God:

I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.8

The rhetoric is typical of Luther’s exuberance yet the content reflected his theology: the Reformation was above all a movement of the proclaimed Word because that was how God achieved his gracious purposes. As long as Luther preached that Word, he could be confident that God would use it to tear down human pride and bring sinners by grace to Christ.

Preaching and the Word Written

Given this, the question of authority—never far from the surface in the Reformation—now becomes acute. If preaching is God’s primary means of accomplishing his purposes, what are the authoritative norms for post-ap- ostolic preaching? We have noted a number of times that the fact that the Reformation involved a fundamental critique of the medieval church’s sac- ramentally centered view of grace meant that it was also a basic critique of medieval understandings of church and authority. Given this, the question of the content of this preaching comes to the fore. If the Word is the primary means of grace, is preaching the word simply a spontaneous or ecstatic thing prompted by the Holy Spirit or is it regulated and normed in some way?

The first thing to note in answering this is that the practical content of preaching is shaped both by the understanding of grace—God’s freely bestowed favor—and of justification—God’s righteousness given to the believer via the instrumentality of faith in God’s promise. That salvation has a promissory content demands that preaching must have a specific content too. A promise, any promise, requires content: a thing promised and one who promises. It also assumes certain things, such as the promiser’s basic integrity—that he is able, desires and will deliver on the promise.

Thus, preaching must highlight the promise and the character of the God who makes the promise. That means talking about human sin and the grace that is embodied in Christ which is the divine response. Thus, to preach is to preach Christ, and Christ is no empty cypher into which any content can be poured. And that points the preacher back to scripture as the norming authority of all statements made in sermons. For a sermon to be true preaching, it must express the teaching of the Bible. Then it comes with divine power.

In many ways, while Luther was not the greatest exegete of the Reforma- tion, his theology of justification by grace through faith set the basic criteria for Reformation preaching. The antithesis of Law and Gospel as destroying self-righteousness and creating faith in Christ was foundational to the Chris- tian life and foundational to the content of preaching. As his Catechisms and his liturgies move from Law to Gospel, so the preacher was to do this in his sermons. The pattern of the economy of grace was to be reflected, indeed, enacted, in the preaching which came from the pulpit. Each sermon was to be a microcosm of the human condition and the divine, gracious response. The preacher must first declare the Law and then declare the promise in Christ.9 This is content regulated entirely by the being and action of God as revealed in his great deeds throughout history, the words of his scriptures and the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Both must be taught or else problems ensue, either despair or presumption.10

This understanding of preaching as regulated by scripture was another point of contact between the Reformers’s understanding of post-apostolic ministry and that of the Old Testament prophets. Indeed, the precedential model for the post-apostolic preacher. Calvin himself describes Moses and the Old Testament prophets in terms that might equally apply to contem- porary preachers:

[T]he law was promulgated, and prophets were afterwards added to be its inter- preters. For though the uses of the law were manifold, and the special office assigned to Moses and all the prophets was to teach the method of reconciliation between God and man.11

Calvin’s use of the term ministry of reconciliation resonates with Paul’s characterization of his own apostolic ministry (and, by implication, that of those who follow in his footsteps) in 1 Corinthians 6. Post-apostolic preaching was to be like the preaching of biblical times: an exposition of God’s revealed truth. Of course, the words of the preachers recorded in the Bible possessed a peculiar authority by virtue of their canonical status. But the principle of a sound sermon—the exegesis and application of divine revelation—remained the same for post-apostolic preachers.

Bullinger expresses the matter thus:

But we read, that the Lord hath used this ordinary means even from the first creation of all things. Whom he meaneth to bestow knowledge and faith on, to them he sendeth teachers, by the word of God to preach true faith unto them. Not because it lieth in man’s power, will, or ministry, to give faith; nor because the outward word spoken by man’s mouth is able of itself to bring faith: but the voice of man, and the preaching of God’s word, do teach us what true faith is, or what God doth will and command us to believe. For God himself alone, by sending his Holy Spirit into the hearts and minds of men, doth open our hearts, persuade our minds, and cause us with all our heart to believe that which we by his word and teaching have learned to believe. The Lord could by miracle from heaven, without any preaching at all, have bestowed faith in Christ upon Cornelius the Centurion at Cesaria: but yet by an angel he doth send him to the preaching of Peter; and while Peter preacheth, God by his Holy Spirit worketh in the heart of Cornelius, causing him to believe his preaching.12

Here Bullinger makes it clear that faith is the product of preaching. This is not simply in the sense that preaching sets forth the promise that the human mind can then grasp and trust. Rather the preaching itself is an instrument used by the Holy Spirit as the means for creating this faith or, we might perhaps add in the case of, say, Pharaoh, of hardening the heart.

Indeed, in The Bondage of the Will, the case of Pharaoh’s hardening is one of the biblical passages to which Luther had to respond at some length because of the use made by it of Erasmus in his Diatribe. Luther’s resolution of the problems of both the shift in narrative from Pharaoh hardening his own heart to it being hardened by God focuses on the role of the proclaimed Word. Pharaoh is, like all unregenerate people, in bondage to sin. When God’s Word comes from outside and the Lord chooses not to have the Spirit use that Word to liberate him, he grows harder and more implacable in his wickedness. This is because God’s Word is not simply a collection of facts. It makes moral demands upon people. It condemns their unrighteousness and points them towards the all-sufficiency of Christ whose grace in itself is also a reminder of human insufficiency. Thus, Pharaoh is both hardened by the Lord via the Word and yet chooses to be harden himself by not responding in faith to that which is presented to him.13

Behind this, of course, stands the fact that grace rests upon the divine decree of predestination. Preaching the Word thus becomes the means by which election is realized and revealed in time. This is the point Calvin makes in Book 3 of the Institutes when he reflects upon why the preaching of the Gospel does not seem to have the same saving power amongst all those who hear it:

The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgment, and is without doubt subordinate to God’s purpose of eternal election.14

In other words, preaching is not simply a question of describing something; preaching is powerful. It is God’s means of bringing into reality his gracious purposes for his people. It is itself a spiritually constructive exercise which confronts the individual and is used by God to transform him through the Holy Spirit or to harden him in his sin. One cannot hear the Word of God and be left indifferent to it, for the Word of God is the means by which God works out his purposes, both of grace and of judgment. As God’s Word was God’s instrument for creation by the Spirit in the beginning, so his Word remains his instrument for recreation by the Spirit in the ongoing extension of his kingdom.

Word and Spirit

This connection between Word and Spirit is crucial in the Reformation for dividing magisterial Protestantism from more radical movements. Indeed, early on in the Reformation, more radical voices than those of Luther or even Zwingli emerged which posed a challenge not simply to traditional Catholicism but also to the magisterial Reformers themselves. Thus, in 1521-22, during Luther’s absence while he sojourned at the Wartburg, the Wittenberg leadership welcomed the arrival of the so-called Zwickau prophets to the town. These three men were representative of a theological tendency which was to continue throughout the Reformation and indeed finds counterparts even in the church today. What they did was offer a radical separation of Spirit from Word, or at least from the written word of scripture. The result was chaos. In effect, this position cedes church leadership to the most charismatic and forceful personalities who convey the conviction that their plans are those of God himself.

For Luther, the prime example of this in 1521-22 was his former friend and co-belligerent in the Reformation, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt. Karlstadt claimed to be led by the Spirit beyond the Word to a more dynamic and, in practice, socially and politically radical version of the Reformation. Karlstadt had once stood shoulder to shoulder with Luther but by this time he had come under the influence of others. Here is Luther’s denunciation of his former colleague’s theology:

But should you ask how one gains access to this same lofty spirit they do not refer you to the outward gospel but to some imaginary realm, saying: Remain in “self abstraction” where I now am and you will have the same experience. A heavenly voice will come, and God himself will speak to you. If you inquire further as to the nature of this “self abstraction,” you will find that they know as much about it as Dr. Karlstadt knows of Greek and Hebrew. Do you not see here the devil, the enemy of God’s order? With all his mouthing of the words, “Spirit, Spirit, Spirit,” he tears down the bridge, the path, the way, the ladder, and all the means by which the Spirit might come to you. Instead of the outward order of God in the material sign of baptism and the oral proclamation of the Word of God he wants to teach you, not how the Spirit comes to you but how you come to the Spirit. They would have you learn how to journey on the clouds and ride on the wind. They do not tell you how or when, whither or what, but you are to experience what they do.15

The problem was clear: claims to such direct inspiration from the Spirit, separate from the Word, were ultimately immune from criticism through their acknowledgment only of some kind of subjective, mystical authority. This preaching was preaching unregulated by the Word and subject only to the tastes and whims of the preacher.

By contrast, Luther and indeed all the other magisterial Reformers were concerned to keep together both Word and Spirit, such that claims to the latter which did not involve the outward proclamation of the former, and the sacraments which were themselves tied to the Word. It is also worth noting the theological direction which Luther speaks of such a Spirit emphasis implying in the passage above. Detaching Spirit from Word turns Christianity into a quest for God, a work in which man engages in trying to reach out to the Divine. Tying Spirit to Word makes the Spirit the agent of grace and Christianity into something which seizes hold of the sinner. The spiritualist radicals have a form of works righteousness. Those who see the Word as the instrument of God through the Spirit know that this is of grace.

Calvin is similarly emphatic on inseparability of Word and Spirit:

Those who, rejecting Scripture, imagine that they have some peculiar way of penetrating to God, are to be deemed not so much under the influence of error as madness. For certain giddy men have lately appeared, who, while they make a great display of the superiority of the Spirit, reject all reading of the Scriptures themselves, and deride the simplicity of those who only delight in what they call the dead and deadly letter. But I wish they would tell me what spirit it is whose inspiration raises them to such a sublime height that they dare despise the doctrine of Scripture as mean and childish. If they answer that it is the Spirit of Christ, their confidence is exceedingly ridiculous; since they will, I presume, admit that the apostles and other believers in the primitive Church were not illuminated by any other Spirit. None of these thereby learned to despise the word of God, but every one was imbued with greater reverence for it, as their writings most clearly testify.16

Thus, the magisterial Reformers emphasized the need to tie together both the Word and the Spirit. They could not be separated, let alone set in some kind of opposition to each other. To separate them would lead simply to a nightmare of subjectivity and chaos. As a result, scripture was set forth as the normative criterion for the public proclamation of God’s Word. The content of preaching was to be the content of scripture and thus regulated by the same. Then this would be used by the Holy Spirit to bring God’s grace to bear upon those who heard.

Thus, preaching regulated by scripture was no dead letter. As Calvin says just two paragraphs after the above quotation, commenting on 2 Corinthians 3:8, “the Holy Spirit so cleaves to his own truth, as he has expressed it in Scripture, that he then only exerts and puts forth his strength when the word is received with due honor and  respect.”17 Thus,faithfulpreachingofthe Word in accordance with scripture brings the Spirit to bear and is the means by which the Spirit works in order to do his deeds of power.

This is important because it helps reinforce the fact noted above, that preaching is not, for the Reformers, simply a matter of the communication of information. It is a means, a real means, of grace. Indeed, it is the principle means of grace because it bridges the gap between the ancient text of scripture and the congregation, bringing the promise of Christ to a present reality. God’s Word preached is thus confrontational, creative and transformative, and this is linked to the connection between the preacher and the text he preaches and the Spirit which takes his words and makes them the words of God. For Luther, of course, God’s grace is only manifest in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ and thus all preaching must ultimately bring Christ to bear upon the congregation. Christ is the very embodiment and fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes as set forth in the Bible. To speak meaningfully about Christ is to explicate what the Bible says about him. That means that the preacher has to regulate his declarations by the facts set forth about Christ in scripture but also by the commands and the promises expressed therein which drive home the personal existential urgency of the gospel message. As Luther declares in The Freedom of the Christian Man:

[I]t is not enough or in any sense Christian to preach the works, life, and words of Christ as historical facts, as if the knowledge of these would suffice for the conduct of life; yet this is the fashion among those who must today be regarded as our best preachers. Far less is it sufficient or Christian to say nothing at all about Christ and to teach instead the laws of men and the decrees of the fathers. Now there are not a few who preach Christ and read about him that they may move men’s affections to sympathy with Christ, to anger against the Jews, and such childish and effeminate nonsense. Rather ought Christ to be preached to the end that faith in him may be established that he may not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me, and that what is said of him and is denoted in his name may be effectual in us. Such faith is produced and preserved in us by preaching why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, what benefit it is to us to accept him.18

This a powerful wake-up call to preachers. The purpose of preaching is cer- tainly not to tell people how to live their lives, to handle crises or to reach their full potential, whatever that may be. Nor is it simply to describe Christ to them and outline what he did. Nor is it to inspire warm, fuzzy feelings

about him by playing on their emotions. Christ’s story is certainly an emo- tionally powerful one but that is not where its true significance lies. Christ is not supposed to be an inspiring or moving example. He is the manifesta- tion of God’s grace, coming from outside to bring salvation to a sinful and lost people. Thus, the preacher’s task is to be focused on that. His job is to press the personal existential significance of Christ upon those who hear, to make them realize that Christ’s words and actions of are of immediate and eternal significance to them. The preacher must not think of himself as a lecturer, simply explaining some historical events. I cannot as a preacher simply declare that Christ is died and risen. I have to bring out why he has died and why he risen. Then I have to drive home the personal importance of this for each and every person listening. They need to know that what I say to them on a Sunday morning is going to be the most vital thing they hear all week. That is what preaching as a means of grace means.


In his Lyman Beecher lectures, delivered at Yale in 1907, the Scottish Congregationalist theologian, Peter Taylor Forsyth, began with this dramatic statement:

It is perhaps an overbold beginning, but I will venture to say that with its preach- ing Christianity stands or falls. This is surely so, at least in those sections of Christendom which rest less upon the Church than upon the Bible. Wherever the Bible has the primacy which is given it in Protestantism, there preaching is the most distinctive feature of worship.19

In saying this, Forsyth stands in the line of Protestant thinking which goes right back to the Reformation. Forsyth understood that preaching is not ultimately about communicating information, still less entertaining a crowd for a few minutes on a Sunday morning. It is about life and death, an utterly serious undertaking through which God confronts people with their sin and his grace in Christ.

For those who hold to the Reformation understanding of salvation by grace alone, the proclamation of the Word of God is the principle means of grace. It is the thing which God uses to force people to reckon with their sin, to drive them to their knees in repentance and then to draw them to the resurrected Christ by faith. After all, what is faith but the God-given trust in the promise of God’s Word as it is declared week by week to the congregation?

For this reason, the Reformers’ emphasis on grace alone cannot be sepa- rated from the specific form of church life which they advocated. We often think that form and content can be routinely separated. There is a whole industry committed to this, where talk of contextualization seems to trump everything else. Certainly attention to context is important. The Reform- ers understood this. Luther once bewailed a student who preached on the merits and joys of childbearing to an audience made up of elderly widows and spinsters. All the Reformers were committed to scripture and preaching in the vernacular. But the meat of the message was not a function of context but of the content of the Word of God.

Thus, those things which place the Word central in the church are non-ne- gotiable to those who believe in the Protestant view of grace alone. The reading of the Word must occupy a prominent place in every service. That is foundational to God’s grace for it is there that he reveals himself, there that he describes and interprets the human condition and his great saving acts in response. And then preaching must lie at the very heart of the service, for that is where God truly meets his people, as the preacher takes the text of scripture, expounds and applies it, and trusts the Holy Spirit to take those words and use them to transform those who hear them.

This has implications for ministerial preparation. Preachers need to be well-trained and able to speak clearly. They need to be able rightly to divide and apply the word of truth and that means study. Yes, there will always be the occasional Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones who, with little or no formal training are yet outstanding preachers; but they are the exceptions, not the rule. There is a reason why the Reformers required rigorous study as a prerequisite for pastoral ministry: most aspiring ministers urgently need that if they are to the central task of the ministry, preaching the Word, with any degree of competence.

This view of grace and preaching also puts an onus on congregants. Chris- tians need to attend church with a desire to encounter God primarily by hearing him speak to them through the words of the preacher. It is as they hear God’s Word and as they grasp it by faith that their hearts and minds will be transformed.

I used to fret that I could remember very few of the sermons I have heard in any detail. Now I sometimes fret that I can remember very few of the sermons I preach in any detail either. I also remember no details from any of the Latin lessons I took throughout my entire school career, and yet I can still pick up a book of Latin prose or verse and read it. I may have for- gotten the details of individual classes but my mind was rewired by what happened there and I was changed from someone for whom Latin looked like an impenetrable code to someone who now delights in the cadences and periods of Cicero and his ilk.

I believe preaching is like that. It is not remembering all the details that makes us into those who grow in grace. It is the slow, incremental impact of sitting under the Word week by week, and year by year, that makes the difference. That is how we mature as Christians. God uses this means of grace to make us into vessels of his grace. And that is why a Protestant theology of grace must place the clear, powerful, unequivocal proclamation of God’s Word right at the very center of its existence.

  1. 1  This article was first presented at The Southern Seminary Theology Conference on September 24-25, 2015 at the The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY.
  2. 2  Martin Luther, Luther’s Works (LW) 1, 49.
  3. 3  Ibid., 1, 146.
  4. 4  John Calvin, Genesis (trans. J. King; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010) 1, 148.
  5. 5  Decades (trans. H. I.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1849) I. i, 38.
  6. 6  “But in times past, and before that the Son of God was born in the world, God, by little and little, made himself acquainted with the hearts of the holy fathers, and after that with the minds of the holy prophets; and last of all, by their preaching and writings, he taught the whole world. So also Christ our Lord sent the Holy Ghost, which is of the Father and the Son, into the apostles, by whose mouths, words, and writings he was known to all the world. And all these servants of God, as it were the elect vessels of God, having with sincere hearts received the revelation of God from God himself, first of all, in a lively expressed voice delivered to the world the oracles and word of God which they before had learned; and afterward, when the world drew more to an end, some of them did put them in writing for a memorial to the posterity.” Decades I. i, 38-39.
  7. 7  Thus, and most unfortunately, his very last sermon of 1546 included an appendix which was simply a tirade against the evil of the Jews.
  8. 8  Luther, LW 51, 77.
  9. 9  “We must bring forth the voice of the law that men may be made to fear and come to a knowledge of their

    sins and so be converted to repentance and a better life. But we must not stop with that, for that would only amount to wounding and not binding up, smiting and not healing, killing and not making alive, leading down into hell and not bringing back again, humbling and not exalting. Therefore we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused. Without this word of grace the works of the law, contrition, penitence, and all the rest are done and taught in vain.” LW, 364.

  10. 10  As the Reformation progressed, Luther became increasingly concerned that some Lutheran preachers declared only the Gospel without also declaring the Law. This led to presumption and practical laxity in