The Efficacy of God's Word
The Bible has a great deal to say about the efficacy and power of the word of God. Take a few of clearest promises from Scripture:
In addition to the Bible's own inspired claims about it's power, the Westminster Larger Catechism faithfully summarizes the teaching of the Scriptures
Q. 154. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, Sacraments, and prayer: all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.
Q. 155. 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 enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached?
A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.
It is important to note that the word of God has an objective power, andit also demands a subjective response. God's word is objectively efficacious and transformative. According to Isaiah 55, God's word never returns void. It always accomplishes the purpose for which God's sends it forth. Sometimes—as in the case of Abraham—it is received in humble faith so that it grants life and blessing and righteousness (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 1:16-17). In other cases—such as the tyrant Pharaoh—the word of God hardens a person even further in their rebellion and blindness. But that doesn't mean that the word of God has failed. Whether in salvation or judgment, the word always accomplishes God's purpose.
The Relationship Between Word and Sacraments
The important question to consider is the relationship between preaching and the sacraments. How are they similar? How are they different? First of all, we need to consider what a sacrament is.
The Westminster Larger Catechism describes a sacrament—similar to the ministry of God's word—as "an effectual means of salvation" that "strengthens and increases faith all other graces". The sacraments are efficacious for imparting the blessings of Christ because of the work of the Holy Spirit and the promise of Jesus.
Q. 161. How do the Sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The Sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered; but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ by whom they are instituted.
A sacrament is basically a tangible ("sensible") sign (water, bread, or wine) that is accompanied by the word of God and the promise of Jesus' blessing that allcovenant members are instructed to receive. (This, by the way, is one significant reason why Protestants do not believe marriage, ordination vows, etc. are sacraments—because those things do not apply to every member of God's covenant people.) Sacraments are only efficacious because of the Spirit's work through the word of God that is attached to the water or the bread or the wine. There is nothing special or magical about the water, bread, or wine. The Reformed tradition (following Calvin) does not believe that the water, bread, or wine is metaphysically transformed (like the Roman Catholics teach) or that it becomes holy in and of itself by consecration (like Lutherans and Episcopalians teach). To summarize, the administration of a sacrament involves the words of Jesus accompanied by doing a physical action prescribed by Jesus.
We know that the Spirit is at work through the reading and the preaching of God's word to do all the things described above (convict of sin, impart faith, communicate grace, overcome the attacks of Satan, revive the soul, enlighten the eyes, make one wise, etc.). So, does the word of God lose its power to do those things when it is attached to a tangible sign? Does the promise of Jesus' blessing somehow get "watered down" (pun intended) by the addition of an outward, physical sign? Do water and bread and wine—because they are physical and external—somehow interfere with the ability of God's word to impart inward and spiritual blessings?
I think there is a gnostic impulse in many evangelical Christians that treats outward, physical things as less "spiritual" than the immediate (without any outward instrument) work of God's Spirit. But this is a major error. First of all, the Holy Spirit almost never works immediately on a person's heart. God almost always works through some sort of means or agent or instrument: his word, prayer, singing, other believers, etc. Second, the reading and preaching of God's word is no less physical than the administration of baptism or the eating of bread. The act of reading God's word is an intensely physical action, just as the hearing of God's word is intensely physical. Whether it's light entering your eyeball after being reflected off paper and ink or vibrations in the air caused by someone's vocal chords that enter your ear canal and shake your ear drum, we need to recognize that the ministry of the word of God is a very earthy, physical experience. If reading or hearing God's word can be used by God to work faith in a person, why shouldn't the Holy Spirit be able to work in you through water or bread or wine. Are the senses of sight and sound that much more holy or "spiritual" than taste and touch?
The Objective and Subjective Aspects of Sacraments
The Word and the Sacraments are both administered in very concrete, physical ways, and it is the Spirit's work through the Word of God that makes both Word and Sacraments efficacious. In addition to this similarity, both Word and Sacrament have an objective and subjective aspect as described earlier.
The sacraments have an objective efficacy (regardless of how they are received) just as the word of God has an objective efficacy regardless of how it is received. The sacraments demand a subjective response of faith and obedience just as the word of God demands a response of faith and obedience. In other words, we must respond to the sacraments the same way we respond to the preaching of God's word in order to receive the blessings promised by the Word and Sacraments.
Failure to receive either the Word or Sacraments in faith and obedience does not nullify their efficacy and render them powerless. Instead, it actually brings condemnation upon the one who receives them but rejects them. This is what Hebrews 6:1-12 is referring to when it describes land that receives the blessings of rain and sunshine but only produces thorns and thistles. (I believe this is first and foremost a reference to apostate Israel—"the land"—who rejected Jesus and his word and were cursed as a result). This is why some in Corinth were getting sick and dying after doing the Lord's Supper in a divisive way, which undermined the very unity that the Supper is meant to enact. If the sacrament of the Lord's Supper can be abused with the result that someone dies, then it must have some potency for those who receive it in humble faith and obedience.
John Calvin and his mentor, Martin Bucer, co-authored a summary of the doctrine they taught, which highlights the dual importance of a sacrament's proper objective administration andfaithful subjective reception: "We confess and teach that holy baptism, when given and receivedaccording to the Lord's command, is in the case of adults and of young children truly a baptism of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whereby those who are baptized have all their sins washed away, are buried into the death of our Lord Jesus Christ, are incorporated into him, and put on him for a new and godly life and the blessed resurrection, and through him become children and heirs of God." (Brief Summary of Christian Doctrine Taught at Strasbourg)
All the blessings described by Calvin are taught in Scripture and in the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms. The problem, however, is that many Christians do not believe the Sacraments are capable of imparting these sorts of blessings because so many people who have been baptized do not show evidence of these blessings in their lives. But we can still affirm the objective efficacy of baptism taught by Scripture if we recognize the need for a subjective response of faith. The Westminster Larger Catechism refers to this as "improving our baptism":
Q. 167. How is our Baptism to be improved by us?
A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others, by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of the Baptism and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that Sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
May God give us faith to trust His promises and to receive his word and sacraments with gratitude and obedience so that they might bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives.