Stuart Olyott on Luther’s mistake
Stuart Olyott has an excellent short article in the December 2009 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine (information and subscription here – warmly recommended), reflecting on Luther’s retrospective on the progress of the Reformation. Luther said:
I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing: the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.
Stuart is dealing with the error of ‘mediate regeneration’, an error which he perceives gripping a vast swathe of British evangelicalism. (Incidentally, my interest in this article was piqued because I was thinking of preaching on the Spirit’s illuminating work this Lord’s day – I may not, but I should like to soon.) Stuart describes this error in this way:
Mediate regeneration teaches that when the Holy Spirit transforms somebody into a new creature in Christ, he uses an instrument to bring this about. That instrument is the Word—the Holy Scriptures. The work of the Spirit is so intimately connected to his instrument, that we can say that the Word of God actually contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit. If you let the Word loose, you are letting the Holy Spirit loose.
To put it another way: the Spirit, or the principle of new life, is shut up in the Word, just as the life-giving germ is shut up in the dry seed. Just sow the seed and people will get converted! If they don’t, it will be because they have persistently resisted the appeals of God’s Spirit coming to them through that Word. His power is resident in the Word, but that power has been resisted. Where the gospel has little success, there is a human explanation.
So Luther should not have baldly said, “I left it to the Word” because the Word, apart from the Spirit (who is not bound to the word in the way wrongly suggested) accomplishes nothing.
Stuart’s point is that the Spirit works with the word (cum verbo) and not simply through the word (per verbo). While it is and always remains the true Word of the living God, yet without the operation of the Spirit on the heart of the man reading it, it remains as dry as a stick to him. Regeneration is an immediate operation of the Spirit of Christ on the heart of a man making him spiritually alive and aware, and therefore able to comprehend the truth. But the Spirit does not use the truth to accomplish that regeneration; the effect of regeneration is spiritual comprehension of the truth.
Isn’t this splitting hairs? No, says Mr Olyott:
A biblical mind-set ticks completely differently. It goes like this:
- Although the Word can bring a new spiritual life to birth and visibility, it can never bring about the generation of that new life. God himself must do that, by a direct action of his Spirit within the human soul.
- We can preach, teach, persuade and print until we are blue in the face, but nothing will get done unless the Lord himself accompanies the Word. All men and women are spiritually dead, and will remain so for ever, unless the Lord brings them to life.
- It is not enough then to sow the Word, making its meaning plain while we do so. We must have dealings with God, pleading with him to do what only he can do, that is, to work by direct action within people’s souls.
What will be the effect of such a Biblical state of mind?
Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find preachers who ‘pray through’—men who strive and agonise and prevail in prayer, until the Lord accompanies their preaching in an obvious way.
- Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find crowded prayer meetings filled with believers who storm the throne of grace, determined that by sheer importunity they will persuade God to accompany the word to be preached.
- Where the biblical mind-set rules, you will find gatherings of Christians beseeching the Lord to pour out his Spirit in awakening power. Of course you will! They understand all too well that no spiritual work will get done anywhere, however much sowing takes place, unless the Lord himself changes rebellious hearts and gives to them spiritual life and appetite.
- But the biblical mind-set does not rule. Most British preachers study more than they pray. Countless believers do not go regularly to church prayer-meetings, or, if they do, fail to plead with God for his blessing upon the preaching. Prayer for revival has almost left us. The error of mediate regeneration is slowly but surely strangling us, and things will go from bad to worse unless we repent.
Stuart is not saying anything new. The 1689 Confession of Faith contains a chapter on the gospel and its gracious extent. The fourth paragraph, in its usual pithy and dense fashion, makes the same point as Stuart, which I give in a slightly modernised format:
The gospel is the only outward [external] means of revealing Christ and saving grace, and, as such, is fully sufficient for this purpose. However, in order that men who are dead in trespasses may be born again, quickened or regenerated, there is also necessary an effectual, insuperable [irresistible] work of the Holy Spirit upon the whole soul to produce in them a new spiritual life.8 Without this, no other means will accomplish their conversion unto God.9
8 Ps 110.3; 1Cor 2.14; Eph 1.19-20 9 Jn 6.44; 2Cor 4.4, 6
I feel the charge of spending more time bending over a commentary than bending my knees in prayer. I see all around me men and women who have heard and are hearing the truth as it is in Jesus without any spiritual comprehension of that truth, and I see the desperate necessity of a direct work of God’s Spirit upon their hearts if they are to believe. They are, many of them, competent, intelligent professionals, some eminent in their spheres, but they cannot see the truth. They never will, unless the Holy Spirit opens their blind eyes.
The story is told of how William Wilberforce once took William Pitt, Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, a man of intellectual penetration and brilliance, to hear Richard Cecil, an evangelical minister of the gospel with a reputation for sweetness and clarity. As the brilliant Pitt came out of the church, having heard the gospel plainly and powerfully declared, he blinked in the sunlight. “You know, Wilberforce,” he said, “I have not the slightest idea what that man has been talking about.” What was missing? The blessing of spiritual enlightenment for which Wilberforce had been praying, a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit enabling even the most humanly brilliant of men to grasp the simple truth of the good news in Jesus Christ. Truly, the kingdom advances “’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts” (Zec 4.6).
Let us not, then, fall into the sterilising error of mediate regeneration, but pray for the Spirit powerfully and savingly to accompany the Word preached.