Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Monday, September 06, 2010

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 89

This, as well as the previous post, is something I posted on Facebook. I have been posting the questions and answers from the Westminster Shorter Catechism on a regular basis, and occasionally offering some commentary on them, which is what you see here. Whether or not I write commentary on any of the other questions is yet to be seen, though I imagine I will.


Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching,
of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners,
and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto

The pastors and theologians at the Westminster Assembly, who composed the Catechism, had a very different view of the Word of God than we tend to have today. With the Church havin...g recently come out of a time in history in which the preaching of the Word was left out of the corporate worship service entirely, they understood how central preaching is to the life of the Church, and how necessary it is for the spiritual nourishment of believers. In the late middle ages, the Latin Mass was the form of worship of the Church in Europe. Latin had long been a language no longer spoken by the common people, and so worshipers who bothered to attend Mass never understood a word spoken by the priests in worship. The common Christian was left to obey the rules of the Church, whether Biblical or unbiblical, with no way of examining Scripture to see if those rules were of God, and with no way of actually learning what Scripture has to say on any matter. In addition, literacy rates with regard to the common language were low. Most people were common laborers, with no need to read, it was thought, and certainly no ability to do so. The Church told people what to believe, and any questioning of the Church was held in the same regard as questioning God Himself.

So when the Reformation of the Church began, a great emphasis on education, as well as a reformation of the corporate worship service, began to take hold. Along with the Reformation came a push toward educating the laity, especially the fathers, that they might be able to instruct their own families in the word of God. The corporate worship service ceased to be carried out in Latin, and was carried out in the local language, so that all could understand and learn, worshiping God with their own minds as well as their lips.

(As a brief aside, let me make an important modern application. Contrary to what some professing believers think today, knowledge is not contrary to true faith. The anti-intellectualism of Revivalism and Fundamentalism is an enemy of Biblical Christianity, and has more in common with late medieval Romanism than with Protestant Christianity.)

Yet to the modern Christian today, this might all seem strange. Why the need for preaching then? We live in a time in which the majority of the population can read for themselves. Can I not read and understand the Bible for myself? Why do I need some preacher telling me what it says?

But contrary to the apparent wisdom of this response, our time does not provide as good an argument against preaching as it might seem. While most can read, it is still true that not all can. Today we see the government schools graduating students who can't read at all. And of those who can read, we see a decrease of comprehension when reading a text. Reading has become a pragmatic activity. We seek to do as little work as possible, for the purpose of gaining as little as it takes to get by in life.

In addition, in our time we are especially lacking when it comes to a proper understanding of legitimate authority. We consider it liberating to not need others telling us what to believe. Yet this is also counter to the teaching of Scripture. From the beginning of the New Testament Church, there have been God ordained teachers, set apart to communicate God's Word to those who would hear. Even Christ Himself set apart the first ministers of the Church, the twelve Apostles, and the Church ever since has done the same, based upon the example of Christ. The ministers of the Church are to be especially educated for the purpose of teaching the laity the Word of God. These ministers are not infallible, or above being questioned. And yet, based on their gifting, education, and calling of God through the Church, they are to be regarded with respect. Once having fulfilled the Church's requirements for ministry, and having been lawfully called by the Church, their call is to be considered of God, and their authority to be from Him. And because they are believed to be called by God, when they preach the Word of God, their words are held to be the Word of God itself, insofar as it conforms to the actual teaching of Scripture.

While there are those today who are abandoning the Church for do-it-yourself religion (or "spirituality", as some prefer to call it), we see churches setting aside the Word, especially the Word preached, for drama presentations, testimonies from lay people, and other such things. Aside from the fact that none of these appear in Scripture within the context of corporate worship, one can't help but wonder what would make a church think they are a sufficient substitute for the means of communicating truth that God has given, that being the preaching of God's Word. Whatever the answer to that might be, a simple looking to the decreasing Biblical knowledge of professing Christians should reveal that perhaps these trends aren't the wisest. In conjunction with this is the trend toward the use of video and images in worship. And yet God spoke the world into existence (Genesis 1). Words in Scripture precede images in the order of creation, and as Scripture bears throughout, in the order of priority. To give up words - that is, the Word - is to give up the means of converting power inherent in the world. Images serve no use apart from the Word. They are empty symbols, and can at best give the illusion of salvation. And even with words, those words must contain the Word of God in substance.

While testimonies can encourage people, they are often given by those lacking in substantial Biblical knowledge. We, after all, tend to assign people to that task when they are young, immature Christians, and we do so based on their excitedness. Yet not only do new Christians have a severe deficit of informational knowledge when it comes to the Bible, they are lacking in the appropriate maturity by which to understand it, and by which to instruct others. The result is a case of the blind leading the blind, leaving large portions of congregations merely lying in ditches.

With all this before us, our best hope is to return to the God-chosen means of godly, mature, educated men, reading and preaching Holy Scripture to us. We should rightly ask this question: is the failure to be strengthened by the Word to be found in the Word, or in us (Mark 6:5-6)?


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