The popular idea in regard to the use of the Word, seems to be that it is intended merely as a book of instruction and a guide -- that its purpose is merely to tell us about sin and salvation; that like a guide-post it points out the way of salvation, and shows the necessity of repentance, faith, and holiness. That it tells about the need of the Holy Spirit to effect a change of heart, and that further than this it affords no help for fallen man. A poor sinner goes to that Word. He reads it, or hears it preached. He learns indeed that he is a sinner, but he has no deliverance from sin. He learns of Christ's redemption, but its benefits are not applied to him. He sees that he must repent and believe, but by his own reason and strength he cannot. He learns further, that he needs the Holy Spirit to enable him to repent and believe, but, according to the current opinion, that Spirit is not in the Word, nor effective through it, but operates independently of it. The using of the divine Word is at best an occasion that the Spirit may use for independent operation. He might go from his Bible and from many a sermon and say: "I know I need religion -- I need the Spirit of God, and I hope at some time the Spirit may come to me and bless me with pardon and peace, but I cannot tell when or how this may be." According to this popular conception, the Holy Spirit might be compared to a dove flying about, and alighting at hap-hazard on this one and on that one.
The Lutheran Church does not so understand the teaching and claims of the Word concerning itself. According to her faith the Word of God is more than a book of information. It not only tells about sin and salvation, but delivers from sin and confers salvation. It not only points out the way of life, but it leads, nay more, we might say, it carries us into and along that way. It not only instructs concerning the need of the Holy Spirit, but it conveys that Spirit to the very mind and heart. It is indeed a precious truth, that this Word not only tells me what I must do to be saved, but it also enables me to do it. It is indeed the principal of the means of Grace. It is the vehicle and instrument of the Holy Spirit. Through it the Holy Spirit works repentance and faith. Through it He regenerates, converts, and sanctifies.
This is the doctrine of the Lutheran Church, concerning the use and efficacy of the divine Word. Thus, Luther's Small Catechism, Apostles' Creed, Art. III. explanation: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit hath called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by His gifts," etc. Thus also Augsburg Confession, Art. V.: "For by the Word and Sacraments, as by instruments, the Holy Spirit is given; who worketh faith, where and when it pleaseth God, in those that hear the Gospel," etc.
Is this the teaching of the Word itself? Let us see. In John vi.63, Jesus says: "The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life." In Romans i.16, Paul says of the Gospel: "It is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." Heb. iv.12: "For the word of God is quick (living) and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword." 1 Peter i.23: "Born again not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever." James i.21: "Receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls." It is clear, therefore, that the Word does claim for itself virtue, life, power, and effectiveness.
But does it claim to be the Spirit's means and instrument, by and through which He operates? In 2 Cor. iii.8, it is called a "ministration of the Spirit." In Eph. vi.17, Paul calls it the "sword of the Spirit."
We learn the same truth from the fact that the same effects are ascribed indiscriminately to the Spirit and the Word, showing clearly that where one is, there the other is also, and that one acts through the other.
Thus the divine call is ascribed in one place to the Spirit, and in another to the Word. Rev. xxii.17. "The Spirit ... says come." In the parables, Christ's ministers, preaching the Word, say: "Come, for all things are ready."
In like manner, enlightening, or teaching, is ascribed to both. John xiv.26, Jesus says of the Spirit: "He shall teach you all things;" chapter xvi.13, "He shall guide you into all truth." He is called a "spirit of wisdom" -- a "spirit of light." On the other hand, the Word is called a "Word of wisdom;" also, Ps. cxix.130: "The entrance of thy Words giveth light;" 2 Tim. iii.15: The Scriptures are said to be "able to make wise unto salvation;" 2 Pet. i.19: It is as "a light that shineth in a dark place."
So, also, regeneration is ascribed to both. John iii.5: "Born of water and of the Spirit:" verse 6: "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit;" verse 8: "So is every one that is born of the Spirit:" 1 John v.4: "For whatsoever is born of God (i.e., of God's Spirit) overcometh the world." But of the divine Word it is said, 1 Pet. i.23, "Born again ... by the Word of God;" James i.18: "Of his own will begat he us, with the Word of truth."
In like manner, sanctification is ascribed to both. John xvii.17: "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy Word is truth;" but 1 Cor. vi.11, "Ye are sanctified ... by the Spirit of our God."
And thus we might go on, and show that what is ascribed in one place to the Spirit, is ascribed in another place to the Word -- proving conclusively that the two always go together. Where one is, there the other is also. The Spirit operates through the Word, whether it be the written, the preached, the sacramental, or the Word in conversation or reflection. The ordinary operations of the Holy Spirit are through that Word. Those who are renewed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit are those who have been influenced by this regenerating and sanctifying Word.
This blessed Word of God, quick, powerful, able to save the soul, because of the life-giving Spirit connected with it, is not only to be read, but to be preached and heard. This is God's own arrangement. From the days of Enoch, Noah, the patriarchs and prophets, down to Jesus and the apostles, and from them to the end of the Gospel dispensation, He has had and will have His preachers of righteousness.
Our Lord preached His own Gospel, the words of spirit and life. He commissioned His apostles to preach the same Gospel. They "went everywhere preaching the Word." The Church called and sent others, whose life-work it was to "preach the Word, to be instant in season and out of season, reproving, rebuking, exhorting." And this divine arrangement is to continue. Rom. x.13-15: "For whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord, shall be saved; how then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent?" 1 Cor. i.21: "It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe;" Rom. x.17: "So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." Therefore, according to Rom. x.6-8, let no one say, "Who shall ascend into heaven (i.e., to bring Christ down from above), or who shall descend into the deep?" (i.e., to bring Christ up again from the dead) for "the Word is nigh thee ... that is the Word of faith which we preach." This then is evidently God's order of the application of divine Grace.
And yet, notwithstanding these plain declarations, men try all sorts of measures and methods to bring Christ near, because they cannot understand that when they have the Word, they have the Spirit, and when they have the Spirit, they have Christ. In Luke xi.27, we read how a woman called down a blessing on the mother of our Lord because she was privileged to have borne Him. But Jesus answered, "Yea, rather blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it." Because that Word carries the Spirit to the hearer, and through it converts the sinner and sanctifies the saint. In the Acts of the Apostles also we read how again and again the Spirit was given through and in connection with the Word. The Apostles depended on nothing but Word and Sacrament.
The Lutheran doctrine, then, that the Word of God is the great effectual means of Grace; that it is the vehicle and instrument of the Holy Spirit; that through it, the Spirit renews the soul, applies forgiveness, and sanctifies the hearer or reader more and more -- is the pure truth of Christ. Hence, wherever the Lutheran Church is true to her name and faith, she preaches the whole counsel of God, and relies on that for ingathering and upbuilding. A true Lutheran pulpit cannot be a sensational pulpit, for discoursing wordly wisdom, philosophy, poetry, or politics. It must expound the Word, and never gets done preaching repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
What a beautiful and harmonious system of God's methods of saving men is thus brought into view! How helpful to the sinner desiring salvation! Instead of waiting and hoping and dreaming of something wonderful to happen to bring him into the kingdom, he needs only to go to the divine Word and let that Word do its work in his heart.
"Though devils all the world should fill,
"The Word they still should let remain.