In certain evangelical Christian churches it is the tradition to exalt preaching above the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Ever since the rise of Revivalist preachers pushing for conversions, the practice has cast doubt upon the possibility of Baptism or the Lord’s Supper being a “means of grace” to save someone. “Baptism doesn’t save; the preaching of the Word saves!” is a Revivalist mantra across many evangelical denominations. After all, there are plenty of bible verses that speak to the power of the preached Word to convert sinners and a plethora of stories in the bible testifying to this. Whether one holds to sacraments or not, every denomination and Christian minister teaches the necessity of the preached Word of God because of the testimony of Scripture.
But what is not clear is why some evangelicals hold to preaching being the means to carry the power of the Holy Spirit, yet deny other means—primarily Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—to do the same. I have written in other places Here, Here, and Here, about the promises of God attached to the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These promises sound very much like the promises that are attached to preaching. “Preaching saves!” proclaims the revivalist quoting the bible. “Baptism saves!” writes the Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:21), but no revivalist preaches that. Why do they hold to one promise but not the other?
Simply reading the anti-sacramental writings of various authors reveals their unbelief that the material world can truly and effectively be used to give spiritual realities. Many examples could be given, but one will suffice for now.
Charles Spurgeon, the great preacher in 19thCentury England says,
“We hold that persons are not saved by baptism, for we think, first of all that it seems out of character with the spiritual religion which Christ came to teach, that he should make salvation depend upon mere ceremony. Judaism might possibly absorb the ceremony by way of type into her ordinances essential to eternal life; for it was religion of types and shadows. The false religions of the heathen might inculcate salvation by a physical process, but Jesus Christ claims for his faith that it is purely spiritual, and how could he connect regeneration with a peculiar application of aqueous fluid? I cannot see how it would be a spiritual gospel, but I can see how it would be mechanical, if I were sent forth to teach that the mere dropping of so many drops upon the brow, or even the plunging a person in water could save the soul (emphasis mine).1
Spurgeon is concerned about attaching spiritual realities to material, earthly existence. After all, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper use inescapably earthly substances in our material world consisting of the elements of water, bread, and wine.
But we see in other sermons of Spurgeon that he has no reservations about preaching being a means to convey and produce spiritual realities:
“Preaching the gospel will effectually civilize, while introducing the arts of civilization will sometimes fail. Preaching the gospel will lift up the barbarian, while attempts to do it by philosophy will be found ineffectual. We must go among them, and tell them of Christ; we must point them to heaven; we must lead them to the cross; shall they be elevated in their character, and raised in their condition. But by no other means. God forbid that we should begin to depreciate preaching. Let us still honor it; let us look to it as God’s ordained instrumentality, and we shall yet see in the world a repetition of great wonders wrought by the preaching in the name of Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine).2
Here we see Spurgeon speak of the efficacy of preaching to produce change in the world. Whatever preaching is in Spurgeon’s theology, it is clearly effectual to produce spiritual change “But by no other means.” It’s as if preaching, in Spurgeon’s theology, is not limited in the same way as the material sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Preaching is evidently something that escapes the real world and exists on a non-material “spiritual” plane. Maybe it’s something “not of this world” and that is why it’s powerful? But is that why it works?
No. Not completely. The truth is that preaching and hearing the preached word is just as material, physical, and substantive as bread, wine, and water. There is not a non-material “spiritual” plane to which preaching can ascend, which is off limits to the lower earthly, material things like bread, wine, and water.
A basic understanding of the vocal cords, vibrating sound waves, and the responsive eardrum reveals that without the created order of material reality sound cannot travel in a vacuum. Without the movement of atoms and molecules and vibrations of matter (vocal cords, sound waves, ear drums, etc.) it is impossible for sound to reach one point from another. Therefore, preaching cannot be elevated above the material world, as something more “spiritual”. Preaching, as with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, is also constrained and contingent in worldly matter.
But some how there’s still hope for preaching to work in communicating God’s presence to someone. Spurgeon is correct to recognize the hope to produce necessary change. But what is that hope? Preaching is a physical and material reality that the Holy Spirit uses to effectually change an individual by vibrating his eardrums. By the grace of God, when the physical sound waves hit the ears, the heart inside of the spiritually dead arises. Or to speak sacramentally, preaching is a material reality that God the Father promises to attach the powerful Holy Spirit to in order that his Word will not return void. The only thing that makes preaching effective is the promise of God attached to it—not the denial of its own material reality to which it is bound.
And this raises the question: If God can use the physical speech act of preaching to produce spiritual change, can He use other material substances such as bread, wine, and water to produce spiritual change? Well, since God’s promises are attached to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – it’s His promises that make those rites efficacious, not some absence of the material realities. And the same can be said for preaching.
As theologian, Dr. James B. Jordan says,
“God’s affirmation of the material world is seen in the fact that he uses physical water to introduce people into his Kingdom. By the fact that we eat Christ’s flesh and drink his blood in the Lord’s Supper. Many Christians cannot embrace such physical ideas. Water baptism is thus reduced to a “mere symbol” instead of a powerful communication from God and so are the bread and the wine of the Supper. Such a reduction is NOT the view of the Protestant Reformers…God created the universe in such a way that it was designed by him as his means to communicate with man.
Does anybody want to say that God saves people apart from his Word? But the bible is a physical book. And when we read it, physical light passes between our physical eyes and the pages of this physical book stimulates our physical brain. When we hear the Word read, physical vibrations in the physical air rattle three physical bones in our ears and stimulates our physical brain….All of this is thoroughly physical and material. These are the means that God has appointed to bring us near to him as God’s Spirit uses these physical things. Therefore if God uses water, oil, bread, and wine to communicate his presence to us, what is so strange about that?”3
If you can say, “Preaching saves!” with the Revivalist, you can say, “Baptism saves!” with the Apostle Peter. God’s promises do not render one more efficacious or more spiritual than the other.
Rev. Mani Marprelate is a pen name of a Reformed pastor in the USA.
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