The Priority of Divine Words

Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 6:50-51:

“The Bible at the very beginning emphasizes that God is not merely an acting God of deed-revelation, but a speaking deity also who shapes language as a medium of intelligible communication with man made in his image. Words are the means of transmitting ideas from person to person: it is not centrally in symbols and visions, but especially in words, that the Old Testament focuses its account of divine-human relationships. Moses the lawgiver reports the Word of God; the prophets impart the revealed Word of Yahweh. The Gospels record three occasions on which the invisible God spoke from heaven to acknowledge Jesus as his unique Son: at his baptism (Mark 1:10; cf. Matt. 3:16 f.; Luke 3:21 f; John 1:32 f.); at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; cf. Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; cf. 2 Pet. 1:17); and shortly before the crucifixion (John 12:27–39). Jesus Christ, moreover, commissioned disciples to “preach the word” (Matt. 10:7, 20, 27:20; John 6:63). The secret of Christianity’s expansion was growth of the apostolic word (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). The orally proclaimed biblical truth, together with the subsequently published Gospel of Christ or teaching of the Bible, was the message of the early Christian church (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2 ff.); the authoritative source of that message was, is and forever remains the transcendent God (1 Thess. 2:2, 13; Gal. 1:11 f.).”

The Word in the Church

“…Without this transcendent Word in its life, the church has no rudder, no compass, no provisions. Without the Word, it has no capacity to stand outside its culture, to detect and wretch itself free from the seductions of modernity. Without the Word, the church has no meaning. It may seek substitutes for meaning in committee work, relief work, and various other church activities, but such things cannot fill the role for very long. Cut off from the meaning that God has given, faith cannot offer anything more by way of light in our dark world than what is offered by philosophy, psychology, or sociology. Cut off from God’s meaning, the church is cut off from God; it loses its identity as the people of God in belief, in practice, in hope. Cut off from God’s Word, the church is on its own, left to live for itself, by itself, upon itself.”

David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994) p. 150.

Luther, God’s Word, and Justification

tsslogo.jpgI’ve been enjoying Robert Kolb and Charles Arand’s new book, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Baker Academic, 2008). Especially noteworthy is Luther’s awareness that God acts through his word. God speaks and his words create, change, and transform. God creates by his word (Genesis 1). In the same way God created light by his word, God illuminates and transforms sinners by his word (2 Corinthians 4:6). God enters into this world by his word (John 1). In general, the word of God is active in impacting human existence (Isaiah 55:11). Of course, the antithesis to God’s work is Satan—the father of lies (John 8:44).

In Luther’s theology, God determines reality through his word.

This efficacy of God’s word forms the thrust of chapter six (“The Functions of the Word”; pp. 131-159). Kolb and Arand break Luther’s understanding of the power of God’s Word into the following subsections:

  1. The Word Creates.
  2. The Word Re-Creates.
  3. The Word Establishes the Relationship of Conversation Between God and His Human Creatures.
  4. The Word Elicits Faith.
  5. The Word Simultaneously Reveals God and Hides God.
  6. God’s Word Kills and Makes Alive.

Though obviously I don’t agree with all of Luther’s application of the doctrine, this chapter (and the book in general) does shed light on a number of important theological categories.

God’s word and justification

Near the end of chapter six, the authors wed the efficacy of God’s proclamation to God’s declaration of a sinner’s justification. God’s words literally determine the reality of justification. Listen to how Kolb and Arand state this (and notice Luther’s practical use of the doctrine).

Although one might misunderstand the concept of “pronouncing sinners righteous” as a divine shell game, Luther found the concept helpful in reassuring those who still found evidence of sinfulness in their hearts and minds, as well as in their actions. It assures them that God’s love trumps their sinfulness. When hearers were concentrating on their sinfulness, Luther emphasized that God considered them righteous, or counted and reckoned them free from sin through his verdict of “Innocent!”—no matter how they felt about themselves. …

Those who see this form of forensic justification as merely a legal fiction do not share Luther’s understanding of the power of the Word of God. The reformer knew that from the beginning of the world, God determined reality by speaking. Therefore, he was certain that God’s word of forgiveness created a new reality in the life of the sinner. The reformer could not explain the mystery of evil and sin continuing in the lives of those God had claimed as his own in baptism. But he did not doubt that when God said, “Forgiven,” the reality of human sinlessness in God’s sight was genuine and unassailable. God’s children must live with the mystery of the continuing sin and evil in their lives as they engage in the battle against their own sins. But they have no warrant to doubt that God has established the mightier reality of their innocence in his sight. And what he sees is real because he determines reality. (pp. 154-155)

This excerpt ministers to my soul. It reminds me that in wrestling with sin there is a greater, God-spoken reality that transcends the struggle. Through the perfect sacrifice of the Son I have been justified! I stand guiltless and blameless before a holy God, not because some distant judge slammed the gavel and signed a paper. My blamelessness comes from God’s spoken declaration. He spoke “Innocent, guiltless, righteous” and by declaration effectively created the reality of my justification.

When we see the profound power behind God’s words in shaping reality, our justification transcends “legal fiction” and—as Luther fully understood—becomes strength to endure trials, overcome circumstances, live fruitful lives, and find hope with the struggle with sin. May God give us the conviction of our justification so we may plant our feet in this divine amnesty and speak with the boldness of Paul, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33). May I see what Luther saw, the indestructible foundation for our justification is directly connected to the declaration of God.

Luther has given us a great reminder that we can apply to all of Scripture—God’s words are not relevant today because they accurately align with reality, but because God’s words determine reality.