Editor’s Note: This is part 2 of a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answers 154-160.
A pastor recounted the recent conversion of a young woman. Before being drawn to Christ, she had been experiencing a dark time in life and so, at the invitation of a Christian, went to church. While there, she “was struck by the power of the Word and kept coming back.” This process led to unsaved parents attending her baptismal service and at least one parent gaining an interest in “things he has never considered before” and then asking for a church in his home city that taught what he heard and saw at his daughter’s church.
Not long after, I preached at a church and received an email message about a young man in the church who “had been going through some difficult times…” The young man recounted how “what he heard… preached was exactly what he needed to hear.” Now, any minster who has sought to faithfully proclaim the Word of God can no doubt recount similar accounts of the profound impact of the Word on the hearers. How does this happen?
CATECHISM Q&A 155
The Westminster Standards frame the preceding types of accounts as follows:
155. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
This scripturally and theologically rich question and answer summarizes in brief compass how the Holy Spirit affects the converting (‘driving [sinners] out of themselves and drawing them unto Christ’) and the ‘conforming’ of those who sit under the proclamation of the Word. In short, we’re reminded that sinners are converted by the evangel and saints are conformed into the image of Christ in edification. Note two brief observations about this rich catechism question.
CONTEXT OF THE WORD’S EFFECT
The reading and preaching of the Word is a special ordinance, an outward means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of his mediation (WLC 154). While our Reformed forebears saw the importance of personal and family devotion (WCF 21.6), they espoused the scripturally-based centrality of hearing and receiving the Word in corporate gatherings. As a people who live in an era of dwindling church attendance in the West and are witness to an evangelical cottage industry that has grown around private devotions or ‘quiet time’ in the Word, we need the constant reminder: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25). We need the outward public means of the Word to drive and form our personal private use of the Word.
The scriptures are a collection of corporate documents written to and for groups of believers. They are intended be read and proclaimed to a gathered people. It is for that reason they were created by a God-breathed act of inspiration. It is the very Word of God for the assembled people of God. And it is in that primary context that they achieve their ‘conforming,’ ‘subduing,’ and ‘strengthening’ effect on believers. So conscious were some African churches of the effectual work of the Word in the corporate gathering that upon hearing the closing words of I Cor. 16:24, ‘My love be with all of you I Christ Jesus”, the community responded audibly with ‘Thank you, Paul.’
And when the Word is declared publicly under the enlivening influence of the Spirit, the effect on saints will be: ‘building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.’ That was the clear demonstrable effect of the preaching of Reformers such as Calvin, Bucer, Farel, and John Oecolampadius (whose preaching so completely won the city of Basel that it officially embraced the Reformation a few years after he began preaching on Isaiah before the city council). Spirit attended proclamation of the Word is still effectual today. Two years ago, when a former professor was asked to account for the dramatic turnaround, revitalization, and reformation of the church he pastored, he said ‘[T]he Spirit has chosen to bless the regular, expository preaching of the Scriptures to transform this dying church into a thriving congregation.’ There were no ecclesiastical gimmicks; no amazing organizational techniques applied. No, it was just the simple straightforward ordinary preaching of the Bible which, when blessed by the Holy Spirit, is attended with transforming effect.
The saving effects of the Word today and in church history simply reflect its effects in biblical history. When Ezra read the law and gave the sense of it to the people of Israel, they wept as they heard and understood it in their ears (Ezra 8:8ff). The Word had effect. When Peter preached from the prophet Joel on Pentecost and connected it with the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, three thousand were converted (Acts 2:14ff). The Word had effect.
That scripture is living and active, especially as an outward means, should spur us on, not to minimize the Bible’s public use among the saints, but to maximize it more and more. We should intentionally take occasion to read and teach scripture in gatherings both formal and informal. It should be unthinkable that a session meets for pastoral purposes and yet, takes no time for directed devotions from the Word, the effectual means of drawing those elders unto Christ. Where the Lord is actively building his church, the truth of Westminster Larger Catechism 155 is not being neglected. The Word is having free course to saving effect. So, if you haven’t done so, take out your Westminster Standards with your Bible, dust them off, read and remind one another of Q&A 155.
CORE OF THE WORD’S EFFECT
Note the specific effects of the preached Word: ‘enlightening,’ ‘convincing,’ ‘humbling,’ ‘driving,’ ‘drawing them unto Christ,’ ‘conforming,’ ‘subduing,’ ‘strengthening,’ ‘building,’ and ‘establishing their hearts.’ Some of these are logical effects whereby the mind is persuaded; others are the impact of the Word on the human disposition and volition. But each of these effects begin in the interior life by means of the Holy Spirit’s work. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). The Spirit takes the outward means of preaching and accomplishes an inward work of transforming. In preaching, we hope for more than mere rational explication of the text and its relevance for life in the present cultural moment. We aim and hope for preaching that reaches the deepest recesses of the heart of a man, that gets to the conscience and core of a person.
In an age and day where the content of a presentation is often measured more by its emotivist appeal than its coherence with empirical reality; where listener and reader response outweighs authorial and speaker intention, giving fresh consideration to how the Word affects us internally presents an opportunity to recover WLC 155 for this present moment. But the preacher’s ability to exegete the cultural moment aside, it is The Sovereign Spirit of God who makes the Word effectual in every age.
So, dear preacher, may the long arc of your homiletical history be marked by an unwavering confidence in the work of The Spirit of God to take the Word of God and make it effectual unto the salvation of the people of God to the glory of God in Christ.
Old, Worship According to Scripture, p. 72