Word & Sacraments or the Holy Spirit?

Say it aint so, but the Puritans cut and pasted their own material across their works! I think it was Mark Jones who once made this point in relation to Thomas Goodwin. Well, John Owen did it too. For example, his sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:11 (Works 9:441–452) does this.

But there is one section where he breaks some new ground in my reading of him that has opened my mind. In speaking of Christ's presence with his church, Owen distinguished between Christ's presence "essentially . . . by the immensity of his divine nature," his presence "in his human nature," and his presence "by his Spirit" (Works 9:443–444). It is this final mode that is principal and fundamental. After proving this from John 14–16 and the account of the giving of the Spirit in Acts, Owen gave a very memorable and striking line that will surely stick with me: "And Christ hath no vicar, but the Spirit" (Works 9:444). What a great line. It's what he goes on to say, though, that is really the substantive material. If the Spirit is Christ's vicar in this age, what does that mean for us? Let me let Owen speak for himself:

Some begin to say in our days, that Christ is no otherwise present than by the outward ordinances of it [the church],—his word and sacraments. I grant he is present with them, as pledges of his presence, and instruments wherewith, by his Spirit, he doth effectually work; but to make them the whole presence of Christ with us, I do not know what better church-state we have than the Jews, when they had the law of old (Works 9:444).

Is Christ with us today by the word and sacraments or by the Holy Spirit? Speaking from experience, too often we who have come to the Reformed church from all forms and manifestations of evangelicalism have replaced the Holy Spirit with the word and sacraments. I've heard this type of phraseology used often. Of course Owen shows that this is a false dichotomy, but the emphasis needs to be on the Holy Spirit, and not the instruments of his presence. I once heard one of my mentors, Dr. Hywel Jones give a lecture at Westminster Seminary California on this very point. He said one of the most shockng things in coming to the Reformed world in the States from that in the U.K. was that there was so much emphasis on the sacraments, on law-gospel preaching, on biblical theological preaching, on Christ-centered preaching...but there was hardly any talk of what makes those methods effectual: the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit cannot be swallowed up by the word and sacraments. Just as we say the divine nature of Christ is beyond of the bounds of his humanity (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 48), so too the divine Holy Spirit is beyond the bounds of the word and sacraments. May God give Reformed churches sensitivity to the need of the work of the Spirit in our churches today.

Danny Hyde