I understand evangelicals when they wonder why we can’t communicate the gospel through methods more in tune with our culture. Preaching can seem boring or too formal and hardly able to compete with the entertainment we can so easily access. This, however, is not about novelty versus tradition. There is something much deeper in this notion that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12).
Speech itself is an action we do in order to perform some other action. Someone cries “Fire!” in a crowded theater in order to warn people but also to persuade them to vacate the building. In a wedding ceremony, we’re not just expressing our inner wishes or emotions. When we say “I do,” we’re making a promise that actually constitutes a marriage.
God also acts with words. The Father speaks in the Son and by his Spirit. By saying “Let there be light!” or “Let the earth bring forth fruit-bearing plants,” he accomplished certain things. God wasn’t expressing his inner thoughts, nor was he teaching (who would have been his pupils?). He wasn’t providing information or moral instruction or describing a certain state of affairs. Rather, by these words, he created a completely new state of affairs out of nothing.
God also acts with words through his prophets and apostles (Isa. 55:11). We are “born again. . . through the living and abiding word of God,” which is “the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet. 1:23, 25). James calls us to “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21). Indeed, the gospel “is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). In the preaching of the gospel, Christ himself addresses us personally through the lips of a fellow sinner.
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:13–17)
Although it may sound strange to our ears, a better rendering reads, “How then will they call on him whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe him whom they have never heard?” It is from the mouth of the faithful preacher that Christ addresses us. Although preaching may seem like foolishness in our modern day of high-tech multimedia, it still pleases God to save through the foolishness of the gospel preached those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21).
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.