(Editor’s note: The following address was delivered at the convocation of the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches, held this year at the Southeast Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids on Sept. 5, 1973.)
This school year bids fair to be an historic year for our seminary. Last Friday evening I visited 4949 Ivanrest. Our new building is taking shape. Walking, in the quiet of the evening, through the already-erected framing, I could readily discern the shape of the building and of the various rooms and could begin to visualize somewhat how things will be upon completion of the building, hopefully about midway through this term of our seminary. As I was there, I began to think, too, about the fact that the Lord has graciously heard our prayers, and has already sent us our third professor, the Rev. Robert Decker. And though I was aware beforehand of our enrollment for the coming term, this morning at registration I could not help but be struck anew by the fact that the Lord has given us a larger number of students at our school than we have had in many, many years.
And what were my reactions?
My first reaction was that all this seems almost like a dream. When one thinks back on our history—and I needed only to think back over the brief span of the fourteen years that I have served at our seminary—it seems almost to be unreal, too good to be true. And then there welled up within me an overwhelming sense of gratitude: how good the Lord has been to us, and that, too, in spite of all our unworthiness! And with that came, thirdly, a sense—almost as a note of caution—of the grave responsibility that is incumbent upon our seminary, the school of our churches. After all, a fine building, an enlarged faculty, a comparatively numerous student body, an increasing degree of recognition—all these are in themselves of no worth, and are not worthy of consideration, UNLESS our Theological School and all its labors are devoted wholeheartedly and unreservedly and antithetically to the Word of God and to the faithful ministry of that Word.
Something of this I want to convey to you at this convocation, on the basis of the Word of God as found in Jeremiah 23:29, “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” This is a word which is found in the context of one of the most severe warnings against and condemnations of the false prophets and the pastors who destroy and scatter God’s sheep. And for that reason it is all the more timely and pertinent in the peculiar days in which we live. If you read over the chapter in which this word is found, it is almost alarming to note how the description of the circumstances in Jeremiah’s day accurately pictures the circumstances of our own day. Well may we give heed, therefore, to this Word of God.
The Idea of God’s Word
When Scripture here speaks of the Word of God, it is evident at once that it is referring to God’s Word as God Himself speaks it. The text here says that the Word of Jehovah is like a fire and like a hammer, that is, effectual. And we feel at once, therefore, that here we have to do with that Word of God as God Himself speaks it. This is a broader concept than the idea of Holy Scripture. I do not mean by this, you understand, that we must conceive of several different Words of God, as is the presentation of some. Nor do I mean that we must differentiate thus, that God’s Word, the written record of that Word, the revelation of that Word as to its content, is not completely identical with Scripture. The latter is indeed true. The revelation of the Word of God is not merely in Scripture, but it is,Scripture. The two are coextensive in content. Depart from this,—and I mean this in the strictest sense of the word—and you have destroyed the very nature of Holy Scripture, and with it all possibility of a revelation of God to us. If we depart from this, we have no revelation left. But we must distinguish as follows. Scripture without an operation of God, without a speech of God, does not constitute an effectual word. It does not accomplish anything, and it is not capable of accomplishing anything. The Bible in itself as a mere book, is a dead letter. The same is true of the word of a preacher, even though the word of the preacher is according to the Scriptures. It is not in itself an effectual word; it is not able to accomplish anything. All this arises exactly from the fact that God Himself speaks His own Word. God is the only One Who is able to speak the Word of God, If God does not speak it, there is no Word of God. There may be, and there is, a record, a written record of God’s Word, that is, a written record of the contents of God’s Word, a record of what God has spoken. But that is not the same as the idea of the Word of God. The Word of God is the word which God Himself speaks. And it is through that speech, or speaking, of God that the Word, whatever may be its content in a given instance, becomes effectual, like a fire and like a hammer.
Hence, the idea of the Word of God is that it is God’s own expression of His divine thoughts.
We have a very weak reflection of this concept in our human word. We humans may have thoughts about various things. And we express those thoughts in words. That is the idea of the human word: they are human thoughts and human words, a human speaking. Thus it is with God on an infinite and perfect plane. There are in God divine thoughts. Those divine thoughts God expresses through a divine speech. And that act of God whereby He in divine fashion expresses His divine thoughts—that is the Word of God as it occurs in Jeremiah 23:29. It is the Word that goeth forth out of God’s mouth, as Scripture calls it elsewhere.
The content of that Word is God Himself. We must remember this, also when we consider the Word of God as it proceeds outside of Himself. In the deepest sense of the word, the Word of God is always a Word of Self-revelation. It was something that gripped and deeply moved the prophet Jeremiah, according to verse 9 of the chapter, when he referred to”the words of his holiness.” He says there: “Mine heart within me is broken because of the prophets; all my bones shake; I am like a drunken man, and like a man whom wine hath overcome, because of the Lord, and because of the words of his holiness.” The words of His holiness are exactly words of His holiness because they are the Word of the Self-revelation of the Holy One! This we must always remember, therefore. When God speaks, the content of that speech, whatever God says and about whatsoever God may speak, is always in the deepest sense of the word, as to its content, God Himself. This is not true of our word. We are creatures; and as such we always consider things that already are. For that reason our thoughts and our speech are never really original. But God’s thoughts are only concerning Himself, and therefore His speech is altogether of Himself—original. God knows and thinks Himself, and there is no one and nothing beside Him. He alone is God. And therefore all God’s thoughts are thoughts concerning Himself. And therefore the content of God’s entire Word, His speech is also Himself? God is the speaking Subject, and God is the Predicate. He speaks out Himself, and speaks of Himself. His Word has Himself for its contents—in the deepest sense of then word always and in all His speech!
This is true, first of all; in God Himself. In the divine economy itself, that is, in the life of the ever blessed Trinity, this speech of God takes place in the Son, the Word, the Personal expression of all the divine. thoughts concerning Himself, the express image of God’s substance. This speech of God, of the Father, in the Son, through the Holy Spirit, is the speech of God in God Himself. This is the idea of the Word as God Himself alone can know and understand it. In the Son God speaks of Himself to Himself.
In the second place, there is the speech of God outside of Himself. God also speaks an outgoing Word, a Word that proceeds outside of Himself. We may remark parenthetically that here we approach the idea proper of revelation. God has from eternity willed to reveal Himself, to speak of HIMSELF outside of His own Being. This eternal thought and will and purpose of God to speak of Himself outside of Himself is, of course, God’s counsel, His eternal wisdom in relation to all things. And this counsel and purpose of God, which includes all the divine thoughts, forms the content of God’s Word outgoing. It includes all that takes place in time, and that too, in creation and in recreation. We cannot take the time now to recount in detail the content of that speech. We only call attention to a few chief “moments” of this divine Word. And then we note, in the first place, that the chief content of that Word outgoing is God Himself, His glory! We must remember this. God’s Word outgoing is the Word of SELF-REVELATION. I believe, let me say in parentheses, that this is forgotten and overlooked in much of the current discussion about the nature and authority of Holy Scripture. The thinking is not theological, but soteriological. There is much discussion about the question whether the Word of God is always a saving Word or not, a redemptive word or a non-redemptive Word. But it is overlooked that the chief and controlling idea (and glory!) of the Word of God lies exactly in the fact that it is a Word of Self-revelation. Our thinking must be theological also here. Secondly, this glory is centrally expressed in Christ, the Word made flesh, the Son of God in our nature. Thirdly, to that Christ a people is given, the Church, His body. That is the Word of election. The fourth “moment” which I would mention is this: that people is realized amid the chaff of the reprobated, ungodly world, along the lines of sin and grace. In the fifth place, for the realization of that people in Christ, the Firstborn of every creature, all things in heaven and in earth, in creation and history, are conceived and presently SPOKEN. And, finally, all converges in the fulfillment of God’s eternal covenant at the parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ, when all the wicked (speaking now in terms of the simile of our text) shall be crushed and shall be burned up, and when the everlasting kingdom shall be ushered in. Such, briefly, is the content of that Word which God speaks, which goes forth from His mouth through all the ages.
The Power of God’s Word
Now the Scripture here emphasizes that this Word of God is effectual,. This is expressed in the figure of speech in verse 29. There is a comparison here: the Word of Jehovah is likened here to a fire and a hammer. We will not go into detail as to all the various suggestions that have been made in connection with these two figures. We will only point out positively that the fire here represents the power to bum up something, the power to consume. And the hammer is the symbol of great and invincible and irresistible strength: a force able to smash in pieces the rock (the rock representing that which is apparently unchangeable and unmovable in all of creation). And the significance of these figures as applied to the Word of God is, I think, very evident. In the context of this chapter which speaks of the word of the false prophets, who say, “Thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord has not spoken, these figures are obviously used here to portray the Word of God in its negative, destructive power. And then the figures together denote that God’s Word is effectual, powerful. There is a very ominous note of warning in this expression. And there is this difference of emphasis between the two figures of speech: the fire emphasizes the effectualness of the Word of Jehovah as such. As the fire burns up the fuel upon which it feeds, so the Word of Jehovah is going to consume those who prophesy falsely. For our God is a consuming fire. And the figure of the hammer applied to the Word of God emphasizes the innate, unconquerable strength of thateffectual power of the Word of Jehovah. His Word is not a little power, effectual to accomplish only small things. But it is a great and irresistible force. That which is apparently most stable and immovable will be crushed and smashed to pieces by that Word: His Word is like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces. Such is the significance of these figures.
Hence, this is the meaning. God’s Word goes forth from His mouth. He sends it forth, speaks it. And God speaks and sends forth His Word to His purpose. And that Word is not merely a sound, as is the human word, accomplishing absolutely nothing. Such, indeed, is our word. It occurs after the fact, not before it. Things exist, and things take place: and only then can we and do we speak of them. God’s Word is different. It is a mighty, living power. It accomplishes that which it says, that is, all that God pleases, thinks, all of His eternal counsel, His good pleasure.
Thus it is, first of ah, with respect to God’s Word as He speaks it in Himself, as the Triune God. God eternally speaks His Word to Himself. And that Word is the power of eternal generation. It is effectual. Within the Divine Being the Word proceeds from the Father from eternity to eternity as the image of the eternal Son, the Logos, through the Holy Spirit.
Thus it is when God speaks His Word outside of Himself in creation. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God. God spake, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast. The Word of God in creation is an effectual Word.
Thus it is also in recreation. God is not finished speaking with creation. The world must, along the way of sin and death; be raised up through suffering and death to eternal life. And God speaks His Word in Christ, the Word of the Holy Gospel, the Word which shall not be wholly spoken till all shall be finished in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through that speech of God comes the enmity of Genesis 3:15, and God’s covenant is maintained in the midst of sin and suffering and death. Through that speech of God comes the flood: and God’s church is saved by water from this present world. Through that effectual Word of God comes Abraham: and God’s covenant is established with him and his seed. Through that Word of God comes Israel, comes the exodus, comes Canaan, come the enemies of God’s people, comes the captivity, comes the deliverance and return from captivity. Through that speech of God in the fullness of time comes Christ out of the virgin, comes the cross, comes the resurrection, comes the exaltation of the Word made flesh. Through that same effectual Word of God comes the church of the new dispensation, gathered from among ah nations. And presently, through that effectual Word of God shall come the new creation and the new Jerusalem. And always—because Zion shall be redeemed through judgment—that Word of God not only acts effectually in a positive manner, that is, to save and finally to usher in the everlasting kingdom of glory in the new creation, but acts as a fire and a hammer, to consume and to crush all the powers of darkness. And when all shall be finished, then all shall witness of the glory of God’s eternal Word, spoken in the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and displayed in the many Words of His holiness!
The Significance of That Word
That Word God has caused us to know. He has not only revealed to us the content of that Word. But He has also revealed the power of that Word, and caused us to know it. He has made known to us what He through all the ages speaks and brings to pass by His Word.
Thus it was already in creation, in the state of rectitude. There was a revelation of God in the “book of creation.” But there was also a man created to read those Words of God and to receive them. That latter element belongs to the concept of revelation.
And thus it is in re-creation. Jehovah reveals and declares His new work in the Holy Gospel: through patriarchs and prophets and apostles, and centrally in our Lord Jesus Christ. That Word, the written record of it, we have in the Holy Scriptures in their entirety. But that is not all. God also forms by His almighty and effectual Word of grace a people that can believe and that can through faith understand that Word of the Holy Scriptures. God has made known to them His Word. And the reason for this lies in God’s covenant of friendship. In that covenant His people are of His party; they are His friend servants and that people enters into the secret of Jehovah, which is for them that fear Him (Psalm 25:14). He speaks with them as Sovereign Friend with His friends. He has no secrets from them, but His secret is with them. And the purpose is that His covenant people should know Him and tell forth His virtues. The purpose is that in their deepest ways they might know God’s high thoughts and put their trust in Him.
And if I may apply all this specifically to the occasion of this convocation, then I must say this. To that Word and its ministry our seminary is and must be devoted. That is true, for the faculty with respect to all the branches of instruction. That is true for the student body. It is true for you seminarians, whose work is more nearly and more directly geared to preparation for the ministry of that Word of God. But it is also true for you pre-seminarians, though your work at this stage is more distantly and indirectly geared to preparation for that ministry. None of us must forget this. In all our labors and in all our studies this must be our purpose.
There is a warning here. There is an ominous note of warning in this Word of verse 29 as it occurs in the context of this severe condemnation of the false prophets and the pastors who scatter the sheep. (And remember: it is precisely the false prophets, who depart from the Word of God and speak their own word in the Name of the Lord who scatter the sheep and fleece them, instead of gathering and feeding them.) And that word of warning is this, to you and to me: should any of you ever think of going the way of the false prophets, who say, “thus saith the Lord,” when the Lord has not spoken, then remember this: your word will never stand and will never endure, and you will never stand and never endure. For Jehovah’s Word will act as a fire, to consume, and as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces! Be warned, therefore, and never depart from His Word, which for us is always the Word of the Scriptures.
But there is also a sure and reliable encouragement in this truth. It is an encouragement to learn and to know and to speak His Word, and to say, “Thus saith the Lord,” in truth, that is, according to the Scriptures. For His Word, which we then proclaim, is an effectual Word. It is living and powerful. It shall surely stand, and it shall accomplish all to which God sends it.
Only thus, but also surely thus, the task of preaching is hopeful!
His Word is like a fire and like a hammer!