What do you think of when you hear the phrase “the Word of God”?
Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, had a break-down answer that might surprise many of us today. Typically, a Protestant today might expect his (and subsequently their own) answer to be the Bible is the Word of God. But in fact the Bible is not his primary definition of the Word of God, nor even the secondary, but the tertiary meaning of God’s Word.
The three-fold Word of God
Luther began with John 1:1 “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. This verse, and the paragraphs following, clearly establish the Word to be the second person of the Trinity, who became flesh, Jesus. First of all, the Word of God is Jesus.
Secondly, in recognition of the Bible’s many examples of the power of God’s Word spoken (both by Old Testament Prophets and by New Testament Apostles), Luther identified the secondary Word of God as the preached Word. Our sermon text (Isaiah 40:6-8) and its New Testament use (1 Peter 1:23-25) clearly demonstrate this.
Finally, Luther considered the Word of God to be the Bible also – God’s Word written. Why is this so far down the list when the return to Scriptural authority was such an important hallmark of the Reformation?
God’s Word is identified by its power.
It has to do with the active, powerful, working of the Word. The most significant activity of God’s Word is the incarnation and self-sacrifice of Jesus. The Word became flesh, dwelt among us, and died as our substitute and representative.
Secondly, God’s Word is proclaimed and preached. It draws sinners to repentance, it keeps believers on the narrow path of Christ, it is a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, God’s Word has a printed form, written in a book. On its own, it is nowhere near as active as preaching, let alone as Jesus himself. The Bible exists to guide and safeguard Christian teaching and preaching, and thus in Luther’s three-fold understanding of “the Word of God”, the Bible is merely the tertiary expression.
Luther wrote in one of his most famous hymns “one little Word will fell [the devil]. That Word, above all earthly powers… Christ Jesus it is he.” Even if you cannot read the Bible and do not know how to preach, you can still receive Jesus.
So we are reminded by views like this that the most important thing in our religion is Jesus. Preaching enables us to know about Jesus better; and the Bible enables us to preach better (or to understand preaching better). To make the Bible the supreme “Word of God” is to forget that Jesus is the Word of God, and thus commit idolatry. While this is not an especially common problem among Christians, it does happen from time to time, so we must remember to keep the message (Christ) above the messenger (the Bible).