FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–We often hear today that Christians must make the Word of God relevant to their culture. During my first full-time pastorate, I learned a difficult lesson that challenges such an idea. Because of prior training in finance and economics, my assumption was that it was the essential actions of the pastor and the people that determined how successful the church would be.
More specifically, I assumed that man was the effective agent rather than the instrument in the health and growth of the church. I knew better than that in my formal doctrine but not in my lived doctrine. With this assumption of human power in heart, I set off to grow that first church through man-generated evangelistic fervor and organizational manipulation. In the process I learned a lesson in the relevance of God’s Word.
Now, mind you, God honored that activity and that active spirit; however, He did so not because of my man-centered assumption but in spite of it. What I discovered, experientially and scripturally, was that all my efforts to make God’s Word relevant to the people failed week after week. However, when I reached the end of my own efforts and relied only upon the Word of God, the church thrived. I may not be the sharpest tack on the board, but the repetition of 1) failure through my efforts, followed by 2) success through focus on preaching the Word alone, demonstrated a pattern.
When I began to cry out to God as to why there was so much heartache with my own efforts on His behalf but marvelous and often unexpected results from focusing on preaching His Word, He opened my eyes to the relevance of His Word. Indeed, the Bible declares the utter relevance and power of the Word, even as it teaches the temporal and weak nature of human action.
Is the proclaimer of the Word a necessary agent in God’s redemptive plan? Absolutely! Is it the teacher of the Word who makes the Bible relevant to contemporary culture? Absolutely not! A review of Scripture’s witness to the relevance of the Word may be helpful here.
THE OLD TESTAMENT WITNESS
The Hebrew uses of “Dabar” and related terms for “word” are important in Old Testament theology. The book of Genesis begins with a Trinitarian work: in verse 1, God creates; in verse 2, the Spirit of God forms that creation; and in verse 3, the Word of God speaks creation into existence. Thence onward, the Word of God is considered in dynamic terms.
Repeatedly, the Word of the Lord was said to come upon the prophets and compel them to speak. The Word of God “came” to Jeremiah bringing joy and delight (Jeremiah 15:16), except when the people rebelled against the Word and persecuted the prophet. Yet, when the prophet tried to remain silent, the Word would literally consume his inner self like a fire in his bones (Jeremiah 20:9). The prophet was an instrument that the Word employed in order to proclaim God’s will and ways to humanity.
According to Isaiah, the Word of the Lord is eternal while man is temporal and quickly passes away (Isaiah 40:6-8). Moreover, the eternal Word comes down from the Father in heaven in the same manner that rain or snow falls. And just as the rain brings forth the harvest, “so shall My Word be that goes forth from My mouth.” The Word comes from the Father and does not return to Him without accomplishing what God sent the Word to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Word of God is presented as actively accomplishing the Father’s will.
WHY IS THE WORD OF GOD POWERFUL?
The Word of God, as we know, was not only spoken through the prophets; the prophets also recorded the Word of God in writing. They did this because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so (2 Peter 1:21). God inspired the written Word so that, even today, people might hear Him and be redeemed, instructed, and perfected by God (2 Timothy 3:15-17). This is why many theologians speak of the Word of God as being both the Word intoned or spoken and the Word inscribed or written. The Word of God, whether written or spoken, speaks actively to people.
A third way to speak of the Word of God — next to the Word intoned and the Word inscribed — is as the Word incarnate. The eternal Word, participating in the very nature of God, came to this earth and assumed to Himself our humanity, thus participating also in the very nature of Man.
The Word of God is therefore powerful because the Word of God is first and foremost the Second Person of the Trinity. Moreover, the Word of God is known clearly today through the written Word of God, which is the inspired and inerrant Bible. Finally, the Word of God is clearly proclaimed when believers speak the Bible to others. God the Word speaks powerfully through the proclamation of the book that His Spirit inspired.
THE NEW TESTAMENT WITNESS
In the New Testament, the Greek words for “word” are “Logos” and “Rhema.” According to the Gospel of John, the Word is both “God” and “with God.” This is true in the very beginning or from eternity (John 1:1). Moreover, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word “became flesh” (John 1:14). Thus, in all three ways of speaking of the Word — spoken, written, and enfleshed — there is a definite active meaning. There is no hint whatsoever that the Word of God lacks power or relevance; God acts in His Word.
The relevant nature of the Word of God becomes absolutely clear in Hebrews 4, where we are told that the Word is “zon” (“living”) and “energa” (“active”). This energetic Word is neither passive nor impotent. Like a Machairan, a double-edged surgical knife, in the hand of the Great Physician, God approaches the human person and pierces down into the deepest part of his or her being.
God’s Word penetrates and probes into the inseparable aspects of the human soul and spirit, delivering divine judgment upon what He finds there. For the Word is “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” and nobody can hide from Him (Hebrews 4:12-13). In this passage, the Word is not seen as a static object that man dissects; rather, the Word is the subject that reads and dissects man!
The activity of the Word in Hebrews 4 is to judge man, while the activity of the Word in Romans 10 is to present salvation to man. Drawing upon a number of Old Testament texts, the Apostle Paul presented the Word as coming from God through the preacher to the human ear. But the Word does not stop there, for the Word engages a person by coming “near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8).
And there, when the Word is believed it is by reason of its proximity to the heart. The Word is also confessed, having come into the proximity of the mouth (Romans 10:9-10). Thus, the Word that has been called out by God in turn empowers human faith, enabling a person to call back to God (Romans 10:13). The truth that faith comes through hearing is supplemented by the truth that hearing itself is an activity empowered by the Word of God as the effective agent (Romans 10:17).
Yet, God has also ordained that the churches and their preachers are the chosen instruments of God in the proclamation of the Word. The churches send the preachers as they are led by God’s Spirit (cf. Acts 13:2-4); the preacher preaches the Word; the listener hears the Word; the believer believes the Word and calls back to God in faith, and is thus saved.
The temporal ordering of Romans 10:13-15 is significant in this regard: sending—preaching—hearing—believing—calling. Through every step in the communication and reception of salvation, the Word of God is active. The Word by His Spirit provides the power of salvation; the preacher is instrumentally used to deliver the Word; and the believer receives the Word then in turn calls back to God.
THE RELEVANCE OF THE WORD OF GOD
The Word of God is energetic, being active in judgment and salvation. This Word is theological — He is God Himself. This Word is scriptural — the Bible is God’s written revelation. And this Word is proclamatory — the speech of God is on the lips of His gospel preachers. Because God is a living and active God, His Word is also living and active.
The active relevance of the Word is a reminder that His human instruments are both blessed and humbled. It is the greatest blessing to be the instrument by which God saves a human being — “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace” (Romans 10:15). It is the greatest humbling to recognize that the initiating and effective agent alone is God Himself speaking in His Word.
We may add nothing to the Word of God to make the Word relevant. We may only speak the Word in the ears of the people of the world. When we speak from the Bible, the Word opens ears and hearts to God’s truth. The Word reveals to the listener what is truly relevant: that God is sovereign, that man is sinful, that judgment is at hand, and that the cross of Jesus Christ is man’s only hope.
Ever since I learned this lesson from Scripture and witnessed the life-transforming power of God’s Word, I have found that there is no greater joy than being a preacher of the Word. Let us be instruments of the Word of God — let us read it constantly for our minds and lives; speak it consistently to our families; bear witness of the Word boldly to lost souls everywhere; and, preach the Word faithfully and expositionally to His churches. When we do so, we shall rediscover that the Word alone provides relevance.
For the glory of God alone in the power of the Spirit alone, let us preach the Word alone.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.