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The Preaching of the Word of God Is the Word of God: The Holy Spirit’s Use of Preaching in Regeneration, Sanctification, and Illumination

Jeffrey C. Waddington


Reformer Heinrich Bullinger said that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God.[1] This sentiment has been a hallmark of Reformed theology regarding the work of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the message of sacred Scripture in corporate public worship in the work of regeneration, sanctification, and especially illumination. While we recognize that the Holy Spirit can work without means,[2] he normally uses means. That is, there is an intellectual element to the work of the Holy Spirit in the initial work of regeneration as well as the further work of progressive sanctification and illumination that needs to be remembered in this day and age when so many think of the work of the Holy Spirit in mystical (i.e., non-intellectual) terms alone.[3] All of this is to say that under normal circumstances, the works of regeneration/effectual calling, sanctification, and illumination involve the means of the external preached Word in coordination with the inscrutable internal work of the Holy Spirit.[4]

My goal in this article is to first walk us through some of the biblical seedbeds of this Reformed confession that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God. This will be followed by a brief consideration of the formulation of the doctrine in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566). Finally, we will consider the contemporary ramifications of holding, confessing, and carrying out this doctrinal commitment in practical terms in public corporate worship.

The Biblical Seedbeds

There are many places we could turn to in our consideration of whether there is in fact a biblical basis for the Reformed confidence that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God. But I will focus on three texts from the New Testament: Luke 10:16, Romans 10:14–17, and 1 Peter 1:22–25. In each case we find that the Word is integral to the new birth, further growth, and development of Christian disciples, and that this Word comes through the medium of human preaching. In this public proclamation of the Word of God, the proclamation itself is the Word of God. Another way to summarize what we will find is to note that the Holy Spirit ordinarily uses the public proclamation of the Word in the drawing of sinners to himself and in the building up of the saints and that there is nothing more powerful or efficacious towards these ends.

In Luke 10 Jesus begins his long trek toward Jerusalem and the events of passion week. The time is coming when he will give himself up once for all for the sins of his own. The time is growing short and so he dispatches seventy (or seventy-two) disciples to go into the various towns and villages ahead of him as a sort of advance team. They are to proclaim the message of the kingdom and to heal the sick. All of this mirrors the evangelistic campaign that Jesus sent the twelve disciples on earlier in the gospel with similar results. In the earlier account and in this one Jesus expects a mixed response to the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. In this later account Jesus issues stern rebukes to several communities to which the disciples will go. In that denunciation Jesus states that “the one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Jesus reveals here that the proclamation of the gospel by his disciples is tantamount to his own proclamation and that acceptance or rejection of his disciples’ message is the acceptance or rejection of him and God the Father.

In Romans 10:14–17 the apostle Paul reminds us that people come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by means of the preached Word.

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? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.[5]

It seems clear here that the calling on the name of Christ unto salvation requires the sending of messengers who convey or herald a message which is then heard and believed and then embraced and concludes with calling on the Lord. Faith, Paul says, comes through hearing the Word of Christ. Note that in verse 14 where I have italicized the word “of” that this “of” is not in the Greek text but is typically inserted in English translations. The text should read “And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” Jesus, Paul tells us, is speaking through the proclamation of the gospel. Let the late John Murray draw the proper conclusion: “A striking feature of this clause is that Christ is represented as being heard in the gospel when proclaimed by the sent messengers. The implication is that Christ speaks in the gospel proclamation.”[6] We see here the necessity of the preached Word in order to the saving of souls (and presumably the feeding of the souls of saints). And we also see that in the public proclamation of the Word of God that Jesus is himselfspeaking. That is, if I may be so bold to state the obvious, to preach the Word of God is the Word of God itself since Jesus speaks in the act of proclamation himself.[7]

In 1 Peter 1:22–25 Peter reminds the recipients of his letter and us as well, that they (and we) have been born again by means of the imperishable seed planted in them and that that seed is the “living and abiding” Word of God which was preached to them.

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.[8]

Peter notes that Christians are Christians by virtue of their having believed the imperishable seed that is the living and abiding Word of God preached to them. New life began in these saints by the proclamation of the Word of God. This new life began and continues in Christians since the Word of God is living and abiding.

These texts are seedbeds of the doctrine that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God. We can draw these conclusions from what we have seen here: (1) When the duly recognized and appointed heralds of the gospel proclaim that gospel the response that proclamation engenders is tantamount to an acceptance or rejection of Jesus and the Father. (2) The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is disseminated by means of external oral proclamation. (3) In the proclamation of the Word of God/gospel of Jesus Christ, Jesus himself is speaking. (4) The new birth involves believing the living and abiding Word of God which has been publicly proclaimed. (5) This same new birth involves the implanting of the imperishable Word which in turn is believed on. (6) Since this imperishable seed is the living and abiding Word of God, it continues to bear fruit in the ongoing life of all those who believe it. All of this demonstrates the biblical provenance of the Reformed dictum that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God.

The Second Helvetic Confession

This Swiss confession from 1566 codifies the insight of Heinrich Bullinger noted at the beginning of this article. I will highlight the appropriate portions from chapter one of the confession:

Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be feigned, nor to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; who, although he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God abides true and good.

Neither do we think that therefore the outward preaching is to be thought as fruitless because the instruction in true religion depends on the inward illumination of the Spirit, or because it is written ‘No man shall teach his neighbor; for all men shall know me’ (Jer. 31:34), and ‘He that watereth, or he that planteth, is nothing, but God that giveth the increase’ (1 Cor. 3:7). For albeit ‘No man can come to Christ, unless he be drawn by the Heavenly Father’ (John 6:44), and be inwardly lightened by the Holy Spirit, yet we know undoubtedly that it is the will of God that his word should be preached even outwardly. God could indeed, by his Holy Spirit, or by the ministry of an angel, without the ministry of St. Peter, have taught Cornelius in the Acts; but, nevertheless, he refers him to Peter, of whom the angel speaking says, ‘He shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do’ (Acts 10:6).

For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the self-same, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, ‘Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature’ (Mark 16:15). And so Paul preached the Word outwardly to Lydia, a purple-seller among the Philippians; but the Lord inwardly opened the woman’s heart (Acts 16:14). And the same Paul, upon an elegant gradation fitly placed in the tenth chapter to the Romans, at last infers, “Therefore faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:14–17).

We know, in the mean time, that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, which is a thing appertaining to his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.[9]

First, the Word of God preached is the Word of God and none else ought to be expected. When it is preached it is received by the faithful for what it is, the very Word of God. Note this is not said merely of the public reading or recitation of the biblical text which is to be expounded but of the whole preaching event.

Second, it is the Word of God preached that is efficacious and not the character of the preacher. Even if the preacher should be wicked the Word of God still is the Word of God and the preaching is the Word of God.

Third, the outward or external exposition of the Word of God is not made irrelevant or superfluous by the necessity of the internal work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the source of both the external Word and the internal enlightenment of the mind and renewal of the will, to use the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

We see here that the Holy Spirit has “tied” himself to his own Word. While it is true that the Holy Spirit can work apart from the Word, he ordinarily works in and through the Word he himself inspired the human writers to set down. This theological grammar is not unique to the Second Helvetic Confession but is found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q & A 89:

Q: 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 salvation.[10]

Here we see that the Holy Spirit makes the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners (i.e., illumination/regeneration and/or effectual calling) and of building up the saints in holiness and comfort through faith (illumination/sanctification). There is a careful wedding of the external Word inspired by the Holy Spirit and the internal correction of the intellect, will, and emotions by the Holy Spirit according to their proper order and manner/function.

Contemporary Significance and Application

What do we make of this traditional Reformed doctrine? Is it in fact the case that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God in and of itself? Are we saddled with an archaic notion of the importance of preaching? I would argue that we are not saddled with an archaic notion if by archaic we mean untrue. The age of a doctrinal formulation speaks not one whit directly to its truth value and practical usefulness. Our brief consideration of three biblical texts should make us sufficiently aware of the fact that to say that the preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God was not the mere personal opinion of Heinrich Bullinger or the Westminster Divines but actually captures the warp and woof of the fabric of the biblical witness to itself. We could considerably expand the foundation of this doctrine if I had the time and space. This is not merely an archaic leftover that needs to be quickly abandoned. On the contrary it is a doctrine we need to recall, reaffirm, and put into immediate practice if we do not so embrace it already.

Bullinger and the other Reformers understood that the Word of God was the viva vox Dei and the public proclamation of the Word partook of that very living voice of God. Have we lost faith in the power of the Word of God? Do we, instead, invest manmade stratagems with divine efficacy? While we rightly recognize that the Holy Spirit must illuminate the minds of both saints and sinners so that they would rightly receive, understand, and apply God’s Word, that does not negate the necessity of the external Word. That Word, at the bare minimum, supplies the grist for the spiritual mill that the human soul becomes through the mighty working of the Holy Spirit. We grievously err when and if we pit the internal work of the Holy Spirit (the so-called testimonium internum Spiritus Sancti) against his external work of producing and sustaining and using the Scriptures and in his use of the public proclamation of that same Word.

While it is true that God can work apart from the means of his Word (his potentia absoluta or absolute power), under ordinary circumstances he uses the reading, but especially the public preaching of the Word as the means of bringing sinners to faith in Christ and saints to a deeper faith (the potentia ordinata or ordained power). God both brings about the new birth (regeneration and/or effectual calling) and the further growth in grace (illumination and sanctification) by means of the preaching of his Word. The Word is not optional. Its public proclamation is not optional. The new birth is not optional. Growth in grace is not optional.


The preaching of God’s Word is itself God’s Word. Jesus addresses us in the public proclamation of his very own Word. God uses means. He used human authors to write the Bible. He used human heralds to proclaim the gospel in the days of the early New Testament church. He uses human heralds now. The Holy Spirit is at work in his Word now. Not just back “then.” Every time a duly gifted and appointed minister steps into the pulpit and expounds the Scriptures, Jesus is addressing his people through him. The preaching of the Word of God is itself the Word of God. There is no hope without it.[11]


[1] It has been formally codified in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), ch. 1. Sam Chan attempts to buttress the traditional Reformed perspective with an appeal to speech-act theory in Preaching as the Word of God (Eugene, OR: Pickwick/Wipf & Stock, 2016). I should note that Bullinger was not idiosyncratic in his view, but reflects the common assessment of Reformers such as Luther and Calvin.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith 5.3.

[3] See Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) Q&A 31 on effectual calling. Whether regeneration is identical with effectual calling or an element of it, is an interesting question which will need to be pursued on another day. I do, however, want to stress that a concern for the intellectual element of the work of the Holy Spirit in the use of means does not require that one be committed to an intellectualist anthropology. Elsewhere I have argued for a concurrentist anthropology or function of the various aspects or powers or faculties of the human soul involving the intellect, will, and emotions. All the capacities of the human soul were created very good by God, are fallen, and restored in the elect. There is an order or taxis to the proper functioning of the powers of the human soul (perhaps analogous to the internal relations of the persons of the Triune Godhead. See Cornelius Van Til’s comments to this effect in his Introduction to Systematic Theology, William Edgar, ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1974), 34–36, but this taxis does not require subordination of one power to another. Western philosophy and theology is littered with debates between intellectualists and voluntarists and neither are correct. For more on this see my The Unified Operations of the Human Soul: Jonathan Edwards’ Theological Anthropology and Apologetic (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications/Wipf & Stock, 2015), 148–86. A recent work that rightly stresses the intellectual aspect of Christian discipleship is Vern S. Poythress, The Lordship of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).

[4] This is what we mean when we say that God uses the “ordinary” means of grace: the Word, sacraments and prayer, per WSC Q&As 88–107. The biblical texts that we will shortly examine remind us that the Word that is used is the spoken or preached Word. This does not discount the personal silent reading of the Word, but that God has indicated he will bless (i.e., work through or with) the public oral reading and preaching of the Word to bring sinners to himself and to edify the saints. The Reformed Scholastics would refer to these as the principium cognoscendi externum et internum or the external and internal foundation of knowing.

[5] Emphasis mine.

[6] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 2:58.

[7] Paul’s citation of Isaiah 52:7 reminds us that the authoritative proclamation of the Word of God is a joyful task indeed.

[8] Emphasis mine.

[9] Phillip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, with Translations (New York: Harper, 1882), 3:832–33.

[10] Emphasis mine.

[11] I have not said as much, but I have assumed throughout this essay that the minister has done his due diligence in preparation for the public proclamation of the Word of God. So, to be technical, the long form of my thesis would then be, Assuming the minister has properly prepared his sermon, the public proclamation of that portion of the Word of God he is expounding is itself the Word of God. I trust my readers know that the minister is to both diligently prepare for his preaching and at one and the same time, he is not to rely upon that preparation in the sense of expecting that the mere human preparation of a sermon is sufficient to convince and convert sinners or build them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation. That is God the Holy Spirit’s work.

Jeffrey C. Waddington, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is stated supply of Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February 2017.

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