How preaching is necessary for conversion
Samuel Rutherford (c. 1600 – 1661) was one of the foremost Scottish theologians and apologists for Presbyterianism in the seventeenth century, playing a major role in formulating the Westminster Standards at the Westminster Assembly. He is best known for his many devotional letters and Lex, Rex–his seminal work on political sovereignty.
9 May, 2024

Not even the Word of God will convert souls unless the Holy Spirit blesses it. Does this mean that preaching is pointless? Absolutely not, says Samuel Rutherford. Interacting with writers in his own time, Rutherford concludes emphatically that preaching the Word is necessary for people to be converted. As seen in the following updated and abridged excerpt, Rutherford is clear on the one hand that the Word is only an instrument, and also on the other hand that it is a real instrument. The Word — read and especially preached — is God’s chosen method of winning souls to Himself.

Preaching the Word is necessary as an instrument

The Word preached is the instrument of the Holy Spirit in our conversion, not the author of it, or its “efficient cause.”

The Word (written or preached) is a created thing, not the formal object of our faith. It is not the objectum quod [the object which] but the objectum quo [the object by which], the intervening means or medium of our faith. The Word, like all instruments, must be elevated above its nature, to bring about more than a “letter” impression of Christ believed in.

The writing, speaking, and conveying of Christ to the soul in the preached Word may be human and by the letter, but the thing signified by the Word, Christ, is divinely supernatural, and the way of it being conveyed to the soul, in regard of the higher operation of the Spirit (above the actings and motions of the letter), is divine, heavenly, supernatural.

The action of the Holy Ghost, in begetting faith, is “immediate.” The Word only prepares and informs the external man, but the Spirit cometh after, and, in another action, distinct from the Word, infuses faith. Then the Spirit of regeneration is not said to work with the Word, but there is a more common operation of God, which begets literal knowledge, or some higher illumination. Also, the Spirit works with the Word, so as in one and the same act, the Spirit opens the heart to hear and receive what is carried along in the letter of the Word, and so the Spirit works mediately, not immediately.

In the infusion of the new heart, and the habit of the grace of God, we are merely passively acted on, and put forth no cooperation with God, any more than a dead person cooperates to bring itself to life (Eph. 2:1–2), or the withered ground cooperates to receive the rain (Isa. 44:3–4). Though the Word goes before the Spirit’s work, and the Word may be preached during the time while the Spirit is working, yet the act of infusing the new heart is a real action by God, received by us by no subordinate activity of the mind, or act of the will. In this formal act of infusion, what the Word does, other than by way of disposing or preparing, I must profess my ignorance, although it is certainly true that “faith cometh by hearing,” and, in the very meantime whilst Peter was still speaking, “the Holy Ghost fell on them which heard the Word” (Acts 10:44).

Then if we take conversion in the sense of the humbling self-despairing of a sinner and all preparatory acts, going before the infused life of Christ, and in the first operations flowing from this infused life, the Word is an instrument of conversion. But I cannot see how it is an active or moral instrument when the soul is undergoing the Lord’s act of infusion of the life of Christ, unless you call it a passive instrument, because it does not persuade the soul to receive the new life, nor is the soul, being merely passive, an apprehending, knowing, choosing, or consenting faculty. This is an act of omnipotency, the Lord pouring in a new heart. The Word is the instrument as far as the Spirit works in us the same habit of new life, and the same Spirit of grace and supplication that is promised in the Word (Isa. 44:3–4; Zech. 12:10; Eze. 36:26–27), and the same Spirit that the Scripture says Christ purchased by His merits (John 1:16–18; John 12:32; Rev. 1:5; Heb. 10:19–22).

So we conclude that the Word preached is the means which instrumentally concurs with the Spirit for the begetting of faith. “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:14–17). It is clear that he is speaking of the external Word because in v. 14–16 he is speaking of the word that a sent preacher carries, also called the glad tidings that messengers on the mountains bring (v.15), and a “report” which they all hear even if they do not all believe (v.16).

Preaching the Word is a powerful instrument

The Word preached, of itself, is not a dead letter, as some call it. Paul does call the law a “dead letter,” but that is because, while it teaches what we should do, it does not promise the Spirit of grace to obey, as the gospel does. As Augustine says, the law makes us know sin, but not eschew it. But the gospel is not a dead letter of itself (even though the letter of it is void of the Spirit), except incidentally, in the same sense that it is the savour of death unto death, and a rock of offence — i.e., to those that stumble at the Word.

The gospel, in its letter and in its literal sense, offers a way or means of reconciliation to those who believe. But the law, as the law, in no sense can either offer or give life. Rather, seeing that all have sinned, the proper use of the law, to all under the law, is to give out a sentence of condemnation, in the literal sense of it. If the law leads anyone to Christ, that is done by a higher Spirit than that which speaks in the letter of the law. It’s true, it’s the same infinite Spirit, the Lord, who speaks in all Scripture, but in the law He says nothing but, “Either perfectly do all or die eternally.” But in the law He condemns and convinces, in order that we may flee to the Surety of a better covenant (Heb. 7:22).

In this sense, law and gospel called the Word of God, is not a dead letter in itself, for, “the law of the Lord converteth the soul, etc.” (Psa. 19:7); “the gospel is the power of God to salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). The Word externally preached has power in itself to destroy, and, when it is accompanied by the Spirit, it has power to convert, and so is an instrument of the Spirit both ways.

The Lord uses preachers of the Word

The Lord has made and sanctified a ministry, and ministers, to be fathers of the second birth and instruments to save themselves and others (1 Cor. 4:1; 1 Tim. 4:16). “Ye are our epistle, written in our hearts, and read of all men. Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not in tables of stone, but in the fleshy tables of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:2–3) (see also 1 Thess. 2:19–20).

Some have argued that the Word by which Christ saves us is not the Word outside us, but the Word within us. So, for them, the preaching of the gospel is not the Word by which souls are converted, and faith does not come from outward hearing as an instrument. Their argument runs like this. “The Word outwardly preached can never convert the soul, because it is only a mere sound, therefore it is not an instrument of conversion; it’s only the Word within us that matters.” But I utterly deny the consequence. Put a pen to paper a thousand times, and it will never write, unless the hand of a writer draws the characters. Will we then conclude that, ergo, the pen is not an instrument of writing? It doesn’t follow! It’s an unjust consequence, and destroys all ordinances, natural and spiritual. The only thing that follows is, “Ergo, the Word without us is not a principal cause of conversion, it can do nothing except the Spirit empowers and animates and co-works with the Word.”

Furthermore, whereas they argue that the preached word is merely a sound and a letter, I answer that it is not an ordinary sound, like you get from reading the odes of Horatius or the epistles of Seneca. In itself, it is a sound filled with majesty — power — heaven. Every word is pregnant with grace and life. Even if you separate the Word from the Spirit, in the style, conveyance, method of it there is still so much divinity, majesty, holiness, life, and gravity that it betrays its origin to be heaven and its author to be God. Some might call it a “dead letter,” referring to the paper and ink and printed characters, but that’s not how to think of it. The words connote and involve the things they signify, the precious promises, and what the Lord calls “the great things” of His law. In this sense they are not dead letters, but the instrument, chariot, and means of conveying Christ and the Spirit to the heart.

Of course the Word doesn’t work without the Spirit. No instrument, no tool, no hammer, no axe can build a house without the mason and carpenter moving them. But it doesn’t follow that they are not instruments at all! All that follows is, “God does not work faith by the preached Word alone, but by the omnipotency of grace going along with it.” Although the preached Word, in its sound, is physical, literal, bodily, yet in its power, majesty, and the things it signifies, it is spiritual, lively, heavenly.

The Word must be preached to everyone

Those who argue against the instrumentality of the preached Word end up also arguing that the gospel shouldn’t be preached to anyone except those who already have the Word and Spirit in their hearts (because, they say, these are the only ones who can receive it by faith). In effect, they take away the Word, ministry, ordinances, preaching, and dismiss them as mere delusions. They are arguing that there is no need of Scripture, preaching, sacraments, hearing of or doing any duties to each other.

But you see how false it is that the gospel is not to be preached to any but to those that are converted. It is contrary to Christ’s express commands to His apostles, “Go teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19–20). Likewise Paul preached to the obstinate Jews (Acts 13) and to the scoffing Athenians (Acts 17).




Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.