John Calvin and the Sacramental Word

Posted by on Oct 11, 2021 in Uncategorized
Genève Cathédrale St. Pierre Innen Kanzel 1. Zairon. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This is a guest post by Drew Admiraal, a member of our church, a licensed exhorter in the URCNA, and an M.Div. student at Westminster Seminary California.

One of the great and somewhat forgotten confessions of the Reformation is the Second Helvetic Confession, written by Heinrich Bullinger in 1562. Bullinger begins it with a chapter on Holy Scripture in which he discusses the perfections of Scripture in three articles. He, then, turns to the preaching of the Word in article four. Here he writes that when Scripture “is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very word of God is proclaimed… and that now the word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the word of God remains still true and good.”[1]

This is an amazing claim for Bullinger to make. Not only is Scripture the Word of God, but that preaching that comes from an ordained minister and conforms to Scripture is itself the Word of God. So as the very Word of God, preaching is a truly divine act. But Bullinger was very aware of the truly human nature of preaching as well. Even if the minister is evil and a sinner, if his message is biblical, Bullinger claims that it should still be regarded as the Word of God. So preaching on the basis of Scripture is a truly divine and a truly human activity. How can this be?

John Calvin provides a helpful paradigm for understanding preaching as both truly divine and truly human in his concept of the sacramental word.[2] Calvin, like Bullinger, held the highest view of preaching as the speech of God himself.[3] On Calvin’s view, Christ and all his benefits is the content of both Word and sacrament. And the necessary link between the words of the preacher and Christ, who is held forth to us in those words, is the same as that which is between the signs of a sacrament and Christ, who is signified to us in the sacrament, the Holy Spirit.[4]

On the Reformed view, there are three components to the sacraments: the tangible external sign (water, bread, wine), the inward and invisible grace signified (Christ and all his benefits), and the union between the sign and thing-signified effected by the Holy Spirit. This is how Calvin understood not only the sacraments but the preaching of the Word. The words of the minister are an external, tangible sign and when these words are based on Scripture, they present Christ and all his benefits. The union between the two is effected by the Holy Spirit.

As we read in Romans 10:17, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is in the faithful preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit unites the sign of the words of the minister with what is signified, Christ and all his benefits, making the preaching of the Word effective for those whom God draws to himself. The Holy Spirit creates faith through this Word, bringing sinners from death to life, and sustains Christians in their faith through this same Word as he communicates Christ and all his benefits to them. Understanding preaching as a divine and human activity should have significant implications for our worship. God is pleased to use the means of preaching by weak and sinful men to communicate his grace in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to its hearers. This means that preaching should hold the central place in the worship of the church, that all Christians should make it a priority to attend a church where the Word of God is preached faithfully, and that we should trust that as we hear the Word preached, putting our faith in Christ, not only are we hearing a minister in front of us, but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are receiving Christ and all his benefits.

[1] Second Helvetic Confession 1.4.

[2] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.4.

[3] See e.g. Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.5.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.17.