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.

Prioritizing God’s Word (part 2)

tsslogo.jpgWords play a central role in our lives, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed with words.

Yesterday and today on TSS we ask: How do I value God’s words over the avalanche of words pressing in on all sides of my life?

Last time we broadened our definition of ‘words’ to include the person and works of our beautiful Savior as the self-disclosure of the Father who dwells invisible in unapproachable light. Christ is the Word of God, the self-disclosure of a loving God who seeks to be known through His Son.

Today I want to pursue a second answer to our question: God’s words are intended to establish and maintain a deeply personal relationship with His children.

Cheap words

In our culture, words tend towards the impersonal because words are showered over our culture like a hurricane rainstorm. The flood of spoken and written words saturate the ground of mass consumption like talk radio, books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs. This current philosophy of words – downpour and hope a few words are absorbed before running off – has brought with it the impersonalization of words. We neglect 75-percent of the words in a newspaper, and find nothing missing in our lives as a consequence.

In contrast, Scripture reminds us that words are intended as deeply personal means of connection. At a foundational level, an inability to communicate drives us apart whereas common language and words tie persons together into close relationships.

In a culture saturated in cheap words, I think this deserves some further reflection.

Tower of Babel

Maybe the best example of how words unite and draw people together comes from the story of the Towel of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. It reads:

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves (self-glory), lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.’ 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them (constraining wickedness – God prevents societies from being as evil as they could be). 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.

Lesson number one: To confuse language is to confuse relationships, disperse and separate. Sinners in Genesis 11 were conspiring towards self-glorification in the form of a tower. God intervenes and constrains the full expression of their wickedness. He constrains sin by separating sinners and He does this by confusing the common language.

Confused language separates. Using “the same words” unites.

This is not difficult to illustrate. What did immigrants do once they crossed into America through Ellis Island? The first step was to find their respective ethnic communities: Italians found their Italian communities, Germans found a home in the German communities, Irish, Polish, British, etc. Why? Because when you speak the same language you are naturally bound together. Communities, even in new lands, are established and bound by common words.

Lesson number two: The intimate communion between the Triune God operates by words. Now, I’m not saying God speaks Hebrew or English or even that God needs words like we do. The point is when Scripture reveals God’s intimate Triune communication, it says God uses words. So it is accurate to say the Triune God – the most intimate of all relationships – communes through words.

Intimate words

What all this means for the 21st century blog reader inundated with words is that God’s words are intended as a personal communication of Himself to us. God has spoken His words as an act of drawing sinners into an intimacy and closeness to Himself.

Carl Trueman writes, “God’s use of language is the basic element which allows the encounter between God and humanity to be considered as a personal relationship” (The Wages of Spin, p. 46).

God created words to speak to His children.

Words and friendship

Last time we highlighted that Jesus Christ (the Son) is the revelation of the Father. It’s significant that God did not just speak the Bible but His words came in the form of a man – Christ Jesus! His Word is the incarnate God-man to illustrate the personal nature of God’s self-disclosure.

Now listen to those Christ considers the closest and most intimate of friends: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

Christ’s words reveal the very thoughts of the Father. When God opens our sin-blinded eyes to the beauty of Christ’s words in Scripture, we hear the Son echoing the words of His Father. And when we hear the voice of God through Christ in Scripture, we have entered into personal communion with God.

By God’s sovereign grace, we can hear the words of Christ disclosing the motives of the Father. For those who have ears to hear, Christ considers them close friends.

To state it another way: By His disclosed words, God draws us into intimate communion and fellowship with Himself!

Such amazing grace!


Abiding in Christ’s words – that is, reading and meditating upon Scripture and letting His words richly dwell in our hearts – means we are engaged in nothing short of intimate communion with Christ! To abide in His words is to abide in Him (John 15:7-9)!

May God prevent the mountain of words in our lives from making God’s words impersonal. They are not. Words are the “basic element which allows the encounter between God and humanity to be considered as a personal relationship.”


Related: See part one of this two part series here.

Prioritizing God’s Word (part 1)

tsslogo.jpgWords, words, words. My career and ministry center around words – selecting the ‘right’ words and assembling these ‘right’ words into a correct sentence order that follows some cohesive progress towards stating and defending an argument. Likewise, my favorite hobby is reading words. Some of my favorite books promise to help me select and order my written words better. What I’m saying is words are central to my life.

Now, this deep exposure to words has a few drawbacks. Besides the natural tendency towards weight gain and nerdiness, the bigger problem is a spiritual one. In the avalanche of words read and written, I easily forget their value and importance. Specifically, I forget the value of God’s Word.

Let me explain.

I tend to put God’s Words on the tall stack of other words I need to read. I have newspapers, magazines, how-to books, books about writing, biographical books, dozens of blogs, emails, Christian living books, websites, electronic books and commentaries all waiting for attention like a quiet dog staring at its owner. What this means is that I have a hard time correlating my stack of words alongside God’s Word.

Today and tomorrow I want to answer this question: How do I value God’s Word over the avalanche of words pressing in on all sides of my life?

Defining ‘words’

First we must expand our understanding of ‘words’. Remember how the Gospel of John begins?

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5).

What’s all this about? This prologue sounds foreign because we think of words only as sound waves in the air, ink on paper or pixels on the screen. But understanding God’s Word is a bit more complicated than written words. Let me broaden the theme a bit.

Unapproachable light

Crucial to properly valuing God’s Word is to understand God, Who “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16, cf. 1:17). We cannot approach (still less see!) God in His magnificent holiness and glory. Moses, you recall, asked to see God’s glory and God told him, ‘I will show you My abundant goodness but you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’ (Ex. 33:18, 20).

The face is what most identifies us. Our mug shot captures ‘us’ for the yearbooks (or for the police records). We have Botox, facelifts and facial implants of all types because a general improvement of our face is an improvement of the perception of our entire being. Yet surprisingly in Scripture we are told we cannot see God’s face (i.e. we cannot see “Him”). There is a majesty and holiness to the glory of God that we cannot behold. This is another way of saying He is unapproachable and invisible.

If I preached with a veil over my head (like the minister in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Minister’s Black Veil), you would naturally perceive me to be impersonal. Being shielded from God’s face means He is (at some level) impersonal. Hawthorne’s minister veiled himself in shame. God veils Himself in perfection.

We recognize we are utterly different than He is and we worship Him in His transcendent majesty and holiness. (Now hold this thought until tomorrow when I pick up this impersonal/personal theme.)

Now all this does not mean God’s existence is unknown to the world. We can all see enough of God to know He exists and that we should bow in thankfulness for all He has given us (Rom. 1). Atheism is inexcusable. But at some level, God the Father in His full-orbed majesty and glory is impersonal. His face is veiled to us.

An understanding of this veiling sets the foundational bedrock for developing a deep value for God’s Word.

Today and tomorrow I want to build from this foundation and construct two profound truths that will change how we view Scripture. Tomorrow we will look at the intimate, personal nature of God’s Words to draw us to Himself. But today I want to capture the importance of God’s Word in the person of Christ.

Seeing God

So how do we see God? This question takes us back to Christ as the Word.

At one point the disciples ask to see the Father – we’ve seen the Son, but we really want you to show us the Father, too. Jesus says, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me … Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” (John 14:9).

Christ reveals His Father to us. “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).

What all this means is the arrival of Christ Incarnate is an act of God’s self-disclosure. How do we know the “invisible” God? Through the visible Son. This is what makes Christ the Word of God. He is God’s revelation to us. He is the Word of God as the message of God spoken to sinners. Christ is our hope, He is our life, He is our light! Christ is the self-disclosed Word sent from the Father who dwells in an unapproachable light.

(Later, when we look at Communion with the Triune God by John Owen we will see that God’s love, grace and truth is revealed in the Son’s love, grace and truth. This is super important to grasp if we are to understand God the Father as our loving Father. More later.)

God reveals Himself holistically, not merely in written words but also in Christ’s humility, mercy, grace, truth, sinless nature, awesome works, blameless character and especially in His substitutionary action on the Cross! Everything about Christ speaks the Word of God to us. Scripture is the infallible account of God’s self-disclosure in Christ.


I find myself neglecting Scripture simply because I fail to see God’s Word as the precious self-disclosure of an invisible God. Without Scripture, where will we find Christ? Without Christ, where will we find God? Without Christ, where is life and hope?

Armed with this awesome reality, pull your Bible from under the stack of words begging for attention. It’s more than words. It’s life. It’s God’s self-disclosure to you.

If you don’t know where to begin, start in the Gospel of John and read the precious Words of God as they display the Incarnate Word of God.

May God reform our definition of ‘words’.