To the members of the church in Philadelphia,
We ended our last letter with a number of questions. These questions arise out of our assertion that the preaching of the Word is of fundamental significance for the salvation of the child of God. It is of such critical importance that there is salvation in no other way. This is, e.g., the clear teaching of Paul in Romans 10:13-15: “For whosoever shall call upon 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?” Paul constructs a chain here which cannot be broken. He is talking about how we are saved. Or, perhaps more accurately, he is talking about who are saved. And his answer is that only those are saved who call upon the name of the Lord. But it is impossible for us to call upon the name of the Lord unless we believe in Him. And, it is impossible to believe in him unless we hear him. We cannot believe in someone whom we never hear. But we cannot hear Him unless there is a preacher. And there can be no preacher unless the preacher is sent. And so, when a preacher is sent, he can preach. And when he preaches, Christ is heard. And when Christ is heard, then we can believe in Christ. And believing in Christ we can call upon His name. And in this way we are saved.
It is for this reason that there is no salvation apart from the preaching. It is for this reason that it is a grave sin to separate one’s self from the preaching. It is for this reason that separation from the preaching deprives one of salvation.
This has been the gist of our argument against all such groups who do precisely this.
But it is this argument which raises other questions which I want to discuss with you now.
Basically these questions involve the spiritual efficacy and benefit of all sorts of other Christian activities. These activities include such things as Bible study (whether with other believers or in private), prayer, family devotions, Christian witnessing, etc. Does God use these means also to save us? Does Christ speak through these different means?
Surely this is an important question, for if Christ does not speak through these other means then they are little more than exercises in futility. And if you are in any way persuaded that this is true; then all these exercises to which Scripture calls us will span disappear from our lives.
The answer to these questions is rooted in the fact that God has established an inseparable connection between the preaching and all these other exercises. The Scriptures are quite clear on the fact that the preaching is central to our lives. But the preaching is connected with the whole life of the child of God. That connection is clear and important. For one thing, that connection lies in the Scriptures themselves. The content of the preaching is the Scriptures. In fact, it is not too much to say that the preaching derives its authority, its “Thus-saith-the-Lord” from the authority of the Scriptures. There is no preaching where the content of the preaching is anything else but the Scriptures. But, at the same time, the spiritual exercises of the child of God are also centered in the Scriptures. His Bible study is the study of the Scriptures. His prayers have as their content the Scriptures. His Christian witnessing is concerning the truth of the Scriptures. The connection is in the Word of God itself.
Furthermore, there is the connection of faith. According to our Heidelberg Catechism, the preaching of the Word is the means of faith. And the idea is that the preaching of the Word is the God-ordained way to bring faith into consciousness in our lives. Under the preaching the Holy Spirit so works faith that we believe the Word of God; and believing the Word of God, we believe Christ and call upon Him: But that very faith which is worked by the preaching is a faith which must come to expression in all our lives. All the exercises in which the Christian engages must be exercises of faith.
Closely connected with all this is the fact that the Holy Spirit is He Who works all this in our hearts. The Holy Spirit works faith through the preaching and makes that faith conscious. The Holy Spirit works that faith which must be operative in all our life: in our. Bible study, our prayers, our witnessing, our daily walk. But the Holy Spirit never works apart from the Word. He never works apart from the Word preached principally. And when He works in us so that we live out of faith in all our lives, the Holy Spirit always works that faith as we tie ourselves to the Word of God.
The preaching is the real fountainhead of all our life. But drinking of the waters of life at the fountain of the preaching, we drink those waters from God’s Word daily and those waters flow forth from us in all our life of faith.
Hence, the truth of the matter is that indeed Christ speaks to us through the Scriptures when we read those Scriptures in our inner closet, when we discuss those Scriptures with our families about our tables, when we study those Scriptures in the company of God’s people.
But there is a sort of reciprocal relationship here. When we hear the preaching and are fed by the preaching, then we are very interested in the further and constant study of the Scriptures. It is as if the preaching serves as the stimulus to drive us in all our life to the preaching. The preaching quickens within us the desire to study God’s Word and to pray. But the opposite is also true. When Scripture reading and study along with prayer occupy an important place in our lives, then too, this very exercise of faith quickens within us the desire to go up to God’s house to hear His Word proclaimed every Lord’s Day.
The same thing may be said of Christian witnessing. I think sometimes that we have made here a mistake of emphasis. We have emphasized so strongly the efficacy of preaching as the sole means of salvation that we have all but discouraged God’s people from Christian witnessing. The heart of the question is really whether or not the witnessing of the people of God is effectively used by God in the salvation of those who hear such witnessing. Does God use the witness of the individual members of the Church to save those whom .he has ordained to eternal life? May we expect that God will so use us in our calling to be faithful witnesses of His Word to bring to conversion those who are numbered among God’s people?
To me the only answer to that question has got to be: Yes. The Scriptures, it seems to me, are clear on this point. Christ Himself tells us: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
It is also simply a fact that in the early history of the post-apostolic Church there were almost no missionaries. And yet the Church spread rapidly throughout the whole Roman empire. The rapid spread of the Church is to be explained in large measure by the faithful witness of the early Christians who witnessed to their faith even in the face of death.
God’s people are called again and again to be witnesses to His truth—both in their confession with their mouth and in all their walk. Peter presupposes that this is indeed the kind of life God’s people live when he admonishes those who are pilgrims and strangers in the earth: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.” I Peter 3:15. No one will ever ask us for a reason for the hope that is within us unless that hope comes to expression in the witness of our mouth and lives.
We must be witnesses to our faith. We sin when we are not witnesses. There is no option here on our part. The calling to witness is insistent and compelling. But we may confidently expect that the Lord will also use that witness. We need not think that our witnessing is little else than a kind of going through the motions. God will use it as a means to gather His Church.
Does all this mean that there are therefore two ways in which God gathers His Church: the preaching of the Word and the witness of God’s people? No, it does not mean that—not, at any rate, if you make a separation between the two. It is totally and utterly impossible for the Christian to witness to the truth unless he himself faithfully attend to the preaching of the Word. All his power to be a witness comes to him only through the preaching. If he should cut himself off from the preaching in any way, he will never succeed in the calling to witness to the truth. Then the power of his witness is the power of the preached Word applied by the Holy Spirit as spoken by him.
But even this is not all. His witnessing must never be aimed at any other purpose than to bring those to whom he witnesses to the Church. He may not witness just to bring someone to Christ—as the saying goes; and have no more regard for the relation of that man to the Church. He may not witness, and then simply leave it to the person’s own choice whether he will go to church or not, or whether he will go to one church or another—something like: “Go to the church of your choice.” That witnessing will achieve its purpose when such a person who is brought to the knowledge of the truth comes himself under the preaching. There is the official proclamation of the Word and the work of the Holy Spirit to work faith in the hearts of those who belong to Christ. In this way there is an inseparable connection between the preaching and the witnessing of God’s people.
But it must be remembered at the same time that just as the preaching itself is a savor of life unto life not only, but also a savor of death unto death, so is it with the faithful witnessing of God’s people. That witness can also harden, and it often does. But God accomplishes His purpose. And that is all that matters.
And now we have come to the end of another letter. May God make you all faithful witnesses to His glorious truth.