Ronald S. Wallace in his book Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament summarizes Calvin’s views. “Through the preaching of the Word by His ministers, Christ therefore gives His sacramental presence in the midst of His Church, imparts to men the grace which the Word promises, and establishes His Kingdom over the hearts of His hearers. The preaching of the Word by a minister is the gracious form behind which God in coming near to men veils that in Himself which man cannot bear to behold directly” (p. 84).
“Christ, therefore, uses the preached word as a means of revelation and self-communication in much the same way as He uses the other signs of His presence and grace in His historic acts of revelation. Thus Calvin can refer to preaching as a token of the presence of God, and as a means whereby He comes near to us” (p. 85). Obviously everything is dependent upon the free and personal work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin distinguishes, but does not separate man’s words and God’s personally present speech. The Sender is truly present in the sermon and thus the sinner meets the Lord face to face.
This fact, discernible and precious only to believers, makes the preaching situation in the worshipping congregation so exhilarating, humbling, and withal healing in its effect. Christ is really present summoning, commanding, inviting, calling sinners to salvation and life. Thus preaching is much more than communicating a factually accurate report of an event which happened many years ago. When the past historical events of Christ’s birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension are preached, the reality, the power, the effects of Christ’s work are made present. In real Biblical preaching Christ makes himself present, here and now. As this fact of faith grips us we join the Psalmist in dancing and singing, “All my fountains are in thee” (Ps. 87:7).
This view of preaching implies various things for the sermon-maker, the Sender and the sinner.
The preacher is humbly grateful for such high privilege. That our gracious God should freely and willingly and lovingly join His presence to human words is a miracle of condescending grace. As modem youth cast about in their hearts for a God-honoring vocation they do well to remember these words of Calvin: “Among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that He deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to His service, making His own voice to be heard in them” (quoted by Wallace, op. cit. p. 84). What a humbling privilege to be a sermon-maker! Once this vision charms youth, the shortage of preachers will begin to fade.
The preaching event demands much, very much from everyone who has been called to this high and holy task. Careful, patient study of God’s Word; disciplined self-denial to agonize over the real meaning of the Spirit; urgent prayers to be led by and used by Christ; diligent self-effacement so that worshippers may see the Sender and not the sermon-maker; high standards because Christ’s direct work demands excellence; patient, childlike trust in the Sender; eagerness to work; deep concern for the worshippers who shall gather to meet the Lord; confidence in the Lord whose final coming will dawn unexpectedly—all this and much more is demanded of the sermon-maker. No one is sufficient unto these things. Christ the Sender is the sermon-maker’s sufficiency.
The Sender of the sermon-maker is the God of our salvation. He teaches, comforts, warns, threatens, commands and also offers. Christ offers salvation, lOvingly, well-meaningly, earnestly, and triumphantly to every sinner who gathers to worship. Christ offers himself together with all his benefits to the sinner in the way of repentance and faith. And this fact raises some interesting and vexing questions which are relevant to the current discussion in the Christian Reformed Church dealing with God’s love to sinners.
If Christ Jesus truly offers salvation in the preaching situation, is salvation truly available to the hearer? I believe it is. At this point we must be clear and unambiguous in expression. There is a true sense in which it can be said, “Salvation is available to gospel hearers in the way of repentance and faith.” This statement emphasizes the “thereness” of redemption. Because Christ is “sacramentally” present in preaching, the realities of eternal life are genuinely present. In love Christ Jesus earnestly offers himself to all those who will repent and believe. In the exciting confrontation between Christ and the sinner our Savior earnestly and lovingly reveals his intention to save all those who will believe. Thus salvation, eternal life, the realities of saving grace, Christ himself are present, truly offered to all. God reveals an earnest desire and will to save just as truly as he wanted to gather the dwellers of Jerusalem many years ago (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). It seems to me that if Christ truly offers himself in gospel preaching, then we must accent the genuine “thereness” of salvation.
But, and this also needs saying, every sinner needs the sovereign initiative of God’s grace before he can appropriate this available salvation to himself. If by the phrase “salvation is available” one means “anyone can take it to himself because he has the ability to appropriate it,” one must object strongly. The sinner by nature is totally unable to take to himself the salvation offered by Christ. But, if one means by the phrase “salvation is available,” that “salvation is truly present, is genuinely being extended to those who hear on the condition of repentance and faith,” I can see no reason why this phrase cannot be used. True, the phrase can readily be misconstrued, but that does not necessarily disallow its use, providing it is accompanied by careful explanation. The reality of the gospel offer –which no one in the Christian Reformed communion would dispute underscores the availability of redemption in the preaching situation. Christ is present offering himself in his own unique and sovereign manner which underscores human responsibility, displays genuine love and is efficacious according to the counsels of God’s sovereign will. The unique dynamics of the preaching situation, it seems to me, preclude a simple statement like this; “Christ Jesus did not secure salvation for all by his work. Therefore salvation is not available for all.”
THE SENDER’S LOVE
And what about the revelation of God’s love in the preaching situation? What kind of love is revealed to the sinner when the gospel offer is made by Christ? How must we describe God’s love as revealed in such a passage as Deuteronomy 5:29, “Oh that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep my commandments always, that it might be well with them and with their children forever.” This word, and many like it, were spoken to a community of people among whom there were those whom the covenant God had not predestined to salvation. Think of such passages as Deuteronomy 32:29; Psalm 81:13–16; Isaiah 48:18. What kind of divine Jove did the Savior reveal when he spoke the words of Matt. 23:37 and Luke 13:34 to the people of Jerusalem?
Professors J. Murray and N. Stonehouse in a pamphlet entitled The Free Offer of the Gospel conclude their exegesis of Isaiah 45;22, “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth,” with these words: “This text expresses then the will of God in the matter of the call, invitation, appeal, and command of the gospel, namely, the will that all should turn to him and be saved. What God wills in this sense he certainly is pleased to will…While, on the one hand, he has not decretively willed that all be saved, yet he declares unequivocally that it is his will and, impliedly, his pleasure that all turn and be saved. We are again faced with the mystery and adorable richness of the divine will. It might seem to us that the one rules out the other. But it is not so. There is a multiformity to the divine will that is consonant with the fulness and richness of his divine character, and it is no wonder that we are constrained to bow in humble yet exultant amazement before his ineffable greatness and unsearchable judgments” (pp. 20, 21). In summing up their study these Reformed scholars write this: ‘“The full and free offer of the gospel is a grace bestowed upon all. Such grace is necessarily a manifestation of love or lovingkindness in the heart of God. And this lovingkindness is revealed to be of a character of kind that is correspondent with the grace bestowed. The grace offered is nothing less than salvation in its richness and fulness. The love or lovingkindness that lies back of that offer is not anything less; it is the will to that salvation. In other words, it is Christ in all the glory of his person and in all the perfection of his finished work whom God offers in the gospel. The loving and benevolent will that is the source of that offer and that grounds its veracity and reality is the will to the possession of Christ and the enjoyment of the salvation that resides in him” (p. 27).
In the preaching situation God displays a Jove of his heart which is of a kind or character that corresponds to the salvation offered. In describing this love of God we can make use of the same theological distinctions which we employ when we speak of God’s will. Reformed scholars consistently teach that there is a will of God, his revealed will, which displays a will toward the realization of something which he has not decretively willed. Since we must not abstract God’s love from his will (God is One—simplicitas Dei), why can we not adoratively face the same kind of apparent contradiction when we speak of God’s love? In the legitimate and necessary interest of maintaining the sovereignty and unique and free love of God to the elect as revealed in the definite particularity of the atonement we must not tone down, render suspect, or questionable the genuine redemptive character of God’s love revealed in the preaching situation. Both aspects of this apparent contradiction must receive their accent if we are to do full justice to the adorable greatness of God’s love to sinners.
It seems to me that Prof. H. Dekker’s distinction between redemptive and redeeming love does Dot do full justice to all the facets of the problem. Perhaps if he would employ the distinctions indicated above, he could more adequately emphasize his point that there is real, redemptive love displayed to all who hear the gospel (remember his original intention was geared to missions) and still unambiguously articulate the unique character of God’s love to the redeemed (the elect) for whom complete redemption was secured in Christ’s work. It seems to me that when all is said and done Dekker must hold to some sort of qualitative distinction when he speaks about God’s love if he is to describe fully the manifold richness of God’s love to sinners. It will be both instructive and interesting to hear more from our Professor on this matter.
By saying “God reveals a genuine redeeming love in the gospel offer and yet he reveals this love in a unique way which does not cancel out or ignore the particular redeeming love of his decree or Christ’s atoning work,” we can deal with Editor Vander Ploeg’s question. In his analysis of Dekker’s views he raised this question: “If God actually bestows his infinite love that is redemptive upon someone, how could this possibly stop short of being at the same time a redeeming love?” (The Banner, March 1, 1963, p. 9.) It seems to me that if we respect the theological formula (if there is a better one I would be most happy to learn of it), namely, God wills earnestly and genuinely in his revealed will that which he is not pleased to will in his secret or decretive will, then we can say in answer to the Editor: “We don’t know. God’s love as his will is so ineffably great, so adoringly variegated, so multiform in its Oneness that we can only bow before his unsearchable ways. The love of God revealed, displayed, bestowed in the preaching situation freely comes to all, and yet we know that this love is irresistible and insuperable as it works itself out according to the counsel of his good pleasure.” This attempted answer to Vander Ploeg’s legitimate question is only a confession of faith, devoid of logical consistency, hopefully unrelated to theological irrationality, and elicited by the ways of our Triune God whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are past tracing out.
Tn the current discussion there are two simple ways out of our theological misunderstanding and haziness. On the one hand, interested in maintaining the reality of God’s love revealed in the gospel offer, one can obscure or deny the reality of the particularity and insuperably sovereign character of God’s decretive love and atoning love. On the other hand, interested in maintaining the uniqueness and sovereign character of God’s electing and atoning love, one can obscure or deny the reality of truly redemptive love which is displayed in gospel preaching. I have tried to avoid both of these simple solutions, as everyone is interested in doing. As we continue our conversations let us pray for light which will aid us in seeing something of the grandeur and glory of God’s victorious program of world salvation.
Sinners hear sermons and are confronted with the Savior in the form of human words. These sinners are sons of Adam. In Adam they broke the covenant which God in his pre-fall favor had instituted (Romans 5). In the sermon Christ Jesus, the second Adam, is commanding, inviting, urging and calling covenant-breakers back to Father’s fellowship. God through the foolishness of the preaching (including the gospel offer) is maintaining the claims of his original covenant upon all men. This is God’s love in action, the kind of love described above. God is not merely active redeeming his creatures for his own glory, hut he is grandly busy in bringing lost covenant-breakers back to his paternal bosom. This facet of the matter gives unique accents to the mission situation which underline God‘s patience, his tenderness, his paternal concern for children who willfully have left and who willingly continue to run away from our heavenly Father’s home. Taking no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23,33:11 ) our Father urges us on to the happy and victorious task of true missions. It seems to me that our theology of missions could fruitfully reflect on the implications of the original covenant structure of human history for our work of foreign and domestic mission effort.
Sinners, Adamically conditioned people who willingly love their sinful wanderings, must know the high seriousness of the preaching situation. As the Savior invites, commands, urges and instructs them, they must react in repentance and faith. Sophisticated intellectual negations, wanton lustful rejection, indifferent careless ignorings are not tolerated by the Sender. Love can and does show its other side which is wrath, awful in its holy majesty. Isaiah, a sermon-maker, was commissioned: “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their cars heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their ears and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9, 10). Nor must we forget the words of Christ himself in Matthew 13:11–17. And the awful words of Rev. 22:10-12 are still in force. Every sinner in the dynamic arena of the preaching situation lives in an atmosphere charged with the realities of the end of the ages. Every sinner meeting the Sender in the sermon is touched by the powers of the age to come. Christ is patient, tenderly longsuffering, but he does not always strive with man. We must urgently, insistently, immediately pray for faith lest he harden the heart and release the terrible, life-destroying power of his wrath. “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not when they refused him that warned them on earth, much more shall not we escape who turn away from him that warmeth from heaven:….Wherefore, receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us have grace, whereby we may offer service well-pleasing to God with reverence and awe: for our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:25,28,29). Today is the day of salvation.
To the sinner who does believe comes the joy unspeakable of living in the presence of the reigning Redeemer. The great Shepherd of the sheep gently leads those that are his own as he transforms them from glory unto glory. In the sermonic confrontation between the Savior and the saved, consciences are cleansed from evil works, wounds are healed, tears are wiped away, and the believer is given strength to continue his happy journey toward home where his life is hid with Christ in God. As we worship in our sanctuaries let us pray that each sermon may bring both sermon-maker and sinner into the saving presence of the Sender. With such prayer Christ’s work and our lives move on from victory unto victory unto the praise of the glory of the grace of the Triune God whose ways of love are so difficult to comprehend and yet so delightful to behold.