21 April 2006

faith through preaching

faith through preaching

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (14.1)
What I want to say a little bit about is the emphasis here on the instrumentality of "the ministry of the Word" in the Spirit's work of bringing sinners to faith in Christ.

This emphasis, of course, is fully biblical. As Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, "But how are they to 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?...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (10:14, 17). Likewise, when Philip asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" the Ethiopian eunuch replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" (Acts 8:3).

Thus, the Reformed confessions have rightly emphasized that the very word of God comes to people through the public ministry of the Word and that such a ministry is indispensible to bringing sinners to salvation through faith in Christ.

While a certain sort of primacy is given to the Word here in the Westminster Confession, the function of the Word is accompanied and made further effectual through the administration of the sacraments and the other means of grace. These means, naturally, are not to be pitted against the Word since, after all, they are enjoined by the Word itself and, indeed, the sacraments are partly constituted by a biblical "word of institution" and "promise of benefit" (WCF 27.3).

The primacy of the Word, however, raises the question of the relationship between the ministry of the Word and, in particular, the sacrament of initiation - holy baptism - which stands at the inception of the Christian life, signifies and seals the event of that inception, and marks one's solemn admission into the church visible. So what can be said concerning this?

While there is not one uniquely confessional position here - let alone a single historically Reformed approach - one significant strand of Reformed thought would make some distinctions here along the following lines.

First, in connection with baptism there's a distinction between [a] the ordinary order of adult conversion from unbelief to faith in Christ and [b] covenant child conversion into a maturing faith.

Adults, ordinarily speaking, come to conversion and saving faith by the work of the Spirit through the ministry of the Word, particularly preaching, as we've seen the Westminster Confession teach. We can add that when, as a result of the ministry of the Word, people turn to Christ in repentance and rest upon him in faith, part of that turning takes public form through baptism as a solemn admission into the church visible.

Now, these individuals may very well have believed in Christ prior to the actual moment of baptism, and thus may have already received Christ in a saving way, yet the Gospel holds out Christ and his benefits to us not only in the Word, but also in the sacraments: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).

Thus, faith receives and rests upon Christ as he is offered and present in baptism as much as in the Word and, in that way, the faith already begun by the Spirit through the Word is nourished, confirmed, and strengthened in baptism. And so, the gifts of Christ received by faith through the Word are reconveyed and reappropriated in baptism.

Moreover, since baptism is a public and tangible act, it is the means by which the church visible publicly and officially receives sinners. Whatever operations of the Spirit may have already occurred prior to baptism (operations which give us a firm hope of salvation for covenant infants and catechumens dying before baptism), it is nonetheless baptism by which the church visible ordinarily recognizes and embraces sinners in Christ. In doing so the church solemnly receives those individuals as belonging to the people and family of God, under his protection and care, and as the proper objects of God's saving actions through the Word, sacraments, and other means of grace.

I've only touched here on what I take, biblically, to be the "ordinary pattern" of adult conversion, setting aside various exceptions, such as those baptized for the wrong sorts of reasons and who only come to saving faith subsequently to baptism, if at all. But that's another topic. Therefore, enough on adult conversion.

With regard to covenant children, it is the hopeful expectation of God's people with regard to these children that, in virtue of the promises of the covenant, God is at work in them, by his Spirit, from the beginning. They are federally holy, are within the covenant with respect to their believing parent(s), and to be regarded as believers. As a result, covenant children are properly to be baptized.

This is where a second distinction comes in, a distinction between [a] the seed or root of faith or faith in principle, on one hand, and [b] the exercise of faith or actual(ized) faith, on the other hand. Covenant children are to be regarded, in virtue of the covenant and its promises, as having the seed and root of faith. Thus their baptism is a virtual profession of faith on their part, as well as a public and official reception of these children by the church visible as believers, with the privileges that pertain to them, in respect to children.

Moreover, Christ is at work in his sacraments, among his people, by his Spirit, presenting and offering himself to our covenant children as much as to adult converts. Baptism thus is a means by which the seed and root of faith is confirmed, strengthened, and nourished in a manner appropriate to the condition of a child.

As these children grow up within the church visible - within the people and family of God, under his protection and care, and as objects of God's saving action through the Word, baptism, prayer, and other means of grace - it is our joyful and hopeful expection that God will mature the seed and root of faith into the full exercise of a faith actualized.

As with adults, coming to a full exercise of faith, turning to Christ and resting upon him in an explicit way - while not a "conversion" from unbelief and perhaps not marked out by a particular "moment" - does nonetheless involve a process that is brought about through the ministry of the Word. This ministry of Word, however, builds upon what has already been offered and presented to the child through the promises of the covenant as held forth in baptism and other means. Thus saving faith, as the exercise of actualized faith, is as much as matter of the ministry of the Word in covenant children as it is with adult converts, in keeping with the Westminster Confession.

Again, I haven't deal here with anomalous situations that run contrary to the nature of baptism. For instance, there are certainly cases where unbelieving parents have their child baptized out of custom, culture, or superstition. I have only explained, however, one view of the hope that Christian parents may have regarding their covenant children in the ordinary course of events.

Even if this view is not necessarily the dominant one in modern American evangelical Presbyterianism, it is certainly one major, historically Reformed position. Moreover, it is a view that was held by a not a few of those who wrote and approved the Westminster Standards.