GOD OF WORDS
Written by Doug Ponder on October 9, 2016
The Way of Words
Less than two months ago, an influential British theologian passed away. His new was John Alexander “Alec” Motyer. (Incidentally, my third son will share his name.) He said and taught many helpful things, but I especially appreciate his observations about how the world changed in the 91 years of his life. “Nowadays we don’t live in a literary generation,” he said. “We live in a generation of lookers, not readers. That is one of our great problems as Christians. We are book people in a non-book world.” That is to say, we have a (growing) problem with words.
At 91 years old, he probably never noticed how Facebook gave way to Twitter which gave way to Instagram which gave way to Snapchat. He probably never saw how blogs got shorter and shorter, until they became little more than lists, which eventually evolved into slideshows of pictures. He probably never sent a text message, much less an emoji in the place of sentences. And yet Motyer still saw clearly the same trend we witness everywhere around us: words are being replaced by images in surprising ways.
There are two problems with this. The first is that we have become oblivious to the “fringe of images.” Put another way, there are some important things that images cannot do. And while the same goes for words, hardly anyone says “a word is worth a thousand pictures,” while almost everyone assumes that a picture is worth a thousand words.
The second tragedy that befalls a “generation of lookers, not readers” is that we are increasingly separating ourselves from one of God’s main ways of working in the world. God is a God of words.
God of Words
When God created the world from nothing, he did say with words. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6). The world exists because God said, “Let there be…” (Gen 1:3). Not only this, but God continues to uphold the world by his word, sustaining and governing all things in accordance with his promises. “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3).
God also reveals himself through words. He speaks to us, through his Son and in the Scriptures, in order to communicate who he is. Put another way, knowing God would be impossible without words. God does not leave us in the dark or play charades with us; he tells us plainly who he is. It is no accident, after all, that Jesus is called “the Word of God” (John 1:1, 14) who came to reveal the nature of God himself.
Finally, God accomplishes the salvation of sinners through words as well. To be sure, Jesus physically lived, died, and rose in victory over death. The gospel is not just pretty words about words, but real accounts about an actual event. However, apart from the gospel message, the saving work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection is lifeless—like a ship without wind for the sails. This is why God says “the gospel is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). God has linked his saving power with words!
Why Words Matter
The fundamental response of humanity to God is faith. But how can people believe in someone that they have never heard of? And how can they hear unless some proclaims—with words—the good news to them? This is the logic that leads Paul to conclude, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ” (Rom 10:17).
I can recall a time when my wife and I were praying for the salvation of one of her dear friends. Everything about my wife’s prayer was a model of love. She wept with anguish even as she prayed with faith, pleading with God to save her friend. When we had finished, I reminded her that this sort of praying—while being absolutely essential—is still not enough.
That sounds unspiritual, right? It sounds negative. It even sounds mean… until you realize that it’s completely true. God won’t save my wife’s friend apart from words. No one is “zapped” by salvation like lightning from heaven. Everyone who has ever come to faith in Jesus has done so because someone told them about Jesus. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, and only the gospel. This is how God has chosen to work in the world.
It should be clear, then, why words matter! They matter not only because they are how God made the world and continues to sustain it—as wonderful as all that is. In the final reckoning, words matter because God introduces himself to us with words, and he changes our hearts with words, and he rescues sinners as they come to believe the words of the gospel. From creation to new creation, our God is a God of words.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.