The ministry of the heard Word of God

This post continues a series examining key points of Andrew Purves' book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. For other posts in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 91011.

Abide with Me by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with artist's permission)
We looked last time at the ministry of the spoken Word of God (in preaching and pastoral care). Now we'll look at the ministry of the heard Word of God. Jesus is the focus in both, for as Purves notes, as the incarnate Word of God, Jesus "not only speaks God's Word to and for a man he hears and receives God's Word on our behalf" (p. 166). This is truly good news, because left to our own devices in either aspect of ministry, we are cast back on ourselves---left helpless and without hope.

Jesus: speaking God and hearing man

As Purves notes, Jesus is "speaking God and a hearing man, and this for us." Indeed, the gospel declares that the God-man Jesus, being our representative and substitute, both speaks and hears (and in hearing obeys) God's Word on our behalf. That being so, "at all points the ministry of the gospel is a ministry of God's grace" (p. 167). Some object to this teaching, wrongly thinking it means there is no calling (imperative) for us as persons to proclaim and hear/obey God's Word. Purves is well aware of this objection and gives this response:
That which has been heard vicariously [by Christ on our behalf] can by God's empowering Spirit be heard by us for what it is, the Word of God with its claims upon [our] life. Yet even then, let there be no doubt, that later hearing is itself a hearing "in Christ," a hearing, that is, in which [the individual] person participates in that which Christ has already heard on her behalf... Our human hearing of the Word of God always happens in union with the actuality of Christ's hearing for us, so that the hearing of the Word of God is, as with everything else, a gracious gift of God in and through Jesus Christ. (p. 168)

The basis of our assurance

It is on this basis that we gain true assurance of salvation, for salvation, from first to last, is God's work on our behalf, not our own work. Purves comments:
While a [personal] response is called for, we are saved by God in, through, and as Jesus Christ. This means that the hope of salvation rests in God's goodness, not in a required response or behavior... (p. 169) 
This is good news for those who are cognitively impaired (like who suffer with Alzheimer's disease, or for babes in arm). It is also good news for the rest of us, particularly when we take seriously how deep the "stain of sin" affects us all, for  the effects of the fall are truly pervasive.

Is this universalism?

Don't misunderstand Purves' point here. He is not teaching universalism. As he is careful to note, in the case of those who in Christ can hear and respond (and thus have response-ability) a response is called for and by the Spirit is enabled. Nevertheless, we all (no matter what our limitations) can, and should, rest assured that the imperfection (feebleness) of our response does not jeopardize our salvation, for in the end, Christ has heard God's Word and on our behalf has already said "yes." As pastors we can, and with confidence should proclaim this word of comfort. It truly is affirmation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what about faith?

Lord I Believe! by Liz Lemon Swindle
(used with artist's permission)
Unfortunately, especially since the Reformation, the Latin theological tradition (North American Evangelicalism being a primary example) has tended to emphasize heavily the faith of the believer, which has been elevated to a precondition for salvation. But if that is the case, how is a person to know if they have enough of the right kind of faith to be reassured that they truly are saved? This is a huge pastoral issue. Sadly, the "bottom line" of salvation for many is this factor of human decision---a paradigm that, according to Purves, leads to "a religion of...conditionalism" (p. 170). He comments:
A fully evangelical [Christ- and gospel-centered] perspective on faith does not cast persons back upon themselves, whether upon religious experiences of some kind or the assent given to statements of belief. Here, as at all other points of Christian faith and experience, the primary reference is to Jesus Christ as the one who stands in for us, doing for us what we do not and cannot do for ourselves. In this case, Jesus Christ is the one who, in the flesh of our humanity, hears and responds disbelievingly and faithfully to the Word of God. Before we have faith, he is the believing human into whose faith we are engrafted, so that at the last we are cast upon his faithfulness and not our own. This is not to dispute the faith that grows within, which is the Spirit's gift. Neither is it to say that in the freedom of Christ's faith for us to which we in the Spirit are engrafted we may not with perversity and ingratitude walk away from faith in unbelief to our judgment. This is surely a great mystery. Nevertheless, the whole movement of the gospel is away from us and toward Christ, in whom we have faith. Faith involves our trust in God's gift rather than confidence in our choices. (p. 171) 
In the end, "our faith" as we might refer to it, is not our own, but what God, by grace, has done in our life as a special gift of the Spirit who joins us to Jesus, including to his faith (faithfulness) on our behalf. "In union with Christ, that which is his becomes ours" (p. 171).

What should we do as pastoral ministers?

Think now about our response to all this as pastors and ministry leaders. Our calling is not to "throw people back on themselves" (as in urging them to "work up" faith), but to encourage them to throw themselves on Christ---to trust in him fully, including relying on his faith, not their own. Remember the statement in the Gospel of Mark: "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:24 KJV). What we do in ministry must always be shaped by the Christian truth that in all things we, and those we serve, do not stand before God on the strength of our own piety, good works or faith. Rather, because the Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus we share in everything that he is, has done and will yet do---all involving both hearing and obeying the Word of God on our behalf. Ministers of Christ, I implore you---proclaim this gospel truth to your people and then minister accordingly.