The word of God is authoritative and can be trusted to do the work God has set out for it. But how exactly do we expect that to happen? The answer to such a question will have profound implications for evangelism. Let me put forward two extreme positions:
The word of God = Scripture = The Bible. Therefore, preach the Bible faithfully. The word of God will not return to him void.
Potential Problem: “Just explain the word of God well enough and people will become Christians.”
The word of God = John 1, Christ incarnate. Therefore, get people into contact with the mystical ‘word of God’ in the world. (And we hear of conversions of this nature all the time, for example, with Muslims who have dreams or visions of Jesus.)
Potential Problem: “If only we could give these people an experience of God, they would become Christians.”
I’ve heard both of the problems in quote marks stated in evangelical churches and and mission events. They play off two different uses of the same biblical term “word of God” against each other, that is, the word inscripturate (Position 1) and the word incarnate (Position 2). This has been a confusing issue for me: how do the two relate? are they they same?
I’ve found Jesus’ words in John 14-15 instructive on this issue. Firstly, what I notice is that Jesus (the word incarnate) is going away (14:28). I take this to be in his ascension (though pull me up on that if you want). So if the word incarnate is away, he’s obviously not here. Except, there is someone here, because he has sent the Holy Spirit to teach us all things and remind us of what Jesus has said (14:26). Already, we’re beginning to see that the Holy Spirit’s role has something to do with Jesus’ words.
As we go on in John 15, we discover that Jesus’ makes little distinction between remaining in him and remaining in his words. Take for example, the substitution of the “I will remain in you” in v.4 with “my words remain in you” in v.7. It seems that to remain in Jesus is, by the power of the Spirit’s teaching, to remain in his words (commandments, etc – see v.10f.) The experience of word inscripturate, taught by the Spirit, is an experience of the word incarnate! To separate the two is like trying to taste the flour in a cake.
This is why I like Dunn’s interplay of the word of God interpreted by the Spirit, because it doesn’t separate off the ordinary from the supernatural. It well recognises that when a person hears the word of God and responds, there is more there than a reasoning process. It might feel very ordinary, but it’s actually a work of the Spirit. There’s something that won’t be and can’t be controlled in that. It’s not a matter of working out a formula. It’s a matter of appealing to the God of the universe to have mercy in this case, to do a work in this person. Yet, lest we think that we need only pray, Dunn’s interplay reminds us that we need to be fiercely committed preaching God’s word as well. Evangelism ought to be centred on proclamation of the word of God if we expect to experience the power of God to save.
I suspect that many of us know this in theory, but that an overtrust in reason means we spend more time in prepping our evangelistic talk than in prayer; or, that we so doubt the power of God’s word, that we pray unceasingly, but without expecting that it will be in preaching the Bible that we will see God’s word go out to do its work. I suspect that I fall on both sides. I don’t pray enough; but I also doubt that ‘just preaching the gospel’ will ‘work’. I suspect that it’s easy enough to work out a ‘doctrine of scripture’, but that’s it’s a much harder task to apply that.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.