Shawn C. Lazar
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society
It is no secret that Western society has become increasingly secular.1 The world has become disenchanted.2 The ancient cathedrals are empty. Many churches, especially mainstream ones, are slowly dying. And there are even calls to banish theology—once considered the queen of the sciences—from university studies altogether.3 The fact is, for many people, God seems very distant, if not completely absent. Why? What happened?
According to Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005), it was because “God has been explained to death.”4 Instead of proclaiming God’s promises to the people, churches have turned to endless explanations about God’s nature that have had the counterproductive effect of making Him seem even more remote. According to Forde, we must recover the church’s proclamation in order to call people to faith in Christ.
This article will present Forde’s theology of proclamation, including its presuppositions, means, form, and content, and it will end with a critique and application of it from a Free Grace perspective.
II. THE ABSENCE OF GOD
Why has it become increasingly difficult to believe in God? To answer that question, Gerhard Forde pointed to a distinction Martin Luther made in The Bondage of the Will between God-preached and God-not-preached. This was Luther’s odd, but memorable, way of distinguishing between what God has revealed about Himself (which should be preached) and what He has kept hidden about Himself (which should not be preached).
According to Luther, there are some theological problems that should not be meddled with because God has not revealed the answers to us and does not intend to. We can reverently adore these divine mysteries, but we are not to engage in endless speculations about them, and they should not be the subject of our preaching.5 As Luther said, “God in His own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish us to deal with Him.”6 We have nothing to do with the hidden God. This is God-not-preached.
Instead, what we have to “deal with” is God as He reveals Himself to us in His Word and through Jesus Christ. That is what Luther called God-preached.
Forde thought Luther’s distinction between God-preached and God-not-preached helped explain why so many people find it hard to believe in God. With secularism on the rise, Christian philosophers and theologians have used ingenious arguments involving modal logic, possible worlds, and analogies of being to prove that God is metaphysically necessary. Others have sought to redefine the classical picture of God in order to make Him more acceptable to contemporary values in the belief these redefinitions of God are the only “pastoral” solution to the problem of God’s absoluteness. If God seems less threatening and more like us, maybe people will believe in Him (or Her!).
But according to Forde, all these attempts to describe (or to re-describe) God in the abstract only exacerbates the problem of unbelief. Not only are these explanations too sophisticated for most people to understand, even when they are intelligible they “tell us more about what God is not than what God is.”7 For example, teaching that God is timelessly eternal tells us that God does not experience time as we do. But that does not give us something positive to believe about God; it only confirms how different He is from us. People are left with the feeling that God is even more abstract and distant than He was before.
And what is even worse, Forde argued that some people are actually terrified by God-not-preached because He is so impersonal and absolute. For some, it is frightening to think that God has the power to do as He wills with creation, including what to do with our eternal destiny. In light of His naked sovereignty “we are left with nothing—no significance, no freedom, no place to stand.”8 God-not-preached seems to threaten our very existence.
In the end, these uncertain speculations about God in the abstract do not lead to faith. “Instead of a word from God we hear theological opinions about God.”9 And people find it very hard to stake their lives on an opinion.
Given these problems, how does Forde propose that we bridge the gap between man and God, and between unbelief and belief?
Instead of offering even more sophisticated speculations about God-not-preached, God Himself needs to enter into the discussion and speak to us directly. “The only solution to the problem of the abstract, naked, absconding God is the proclamation: God preached.”10
III. WHAT PROCLAMATION IS NOT
Before exploring what Forde thought proclamation was, let us first try to understand what he thought it was not.
A. Proclamation Is Not Systematic Theology
According to Forde, proclamation is not the same thing as doing systematic theology. For one, there is an important grammatical difference between the two. Systematic theology belongs to what Forde calls “the sphere of secondary discourse.”11 What makes it secondary discourse is that systematic theology is usually written as third-person, past-tense,12 “words about God.”13 Consequently, systematic theology gives us information about God. While that is very important to have, mere information has a serious limitation.
Forde compares systematic theology to a book about love. Books about love serve an important function insofar as they can help us understand what it means to love someone. But writing a book about love is not the same thing as telling your daughter that you love her. Books about love are no substitute for the proclamation of love itself. The same point can be made about systematic theology. Information is not the same as proclamation.
However, Forde says that systematic theology should lead to proclamation. Systematic theology “attempts to put things in order, to focus, to lend coherence, and to measure the church’s discourse on the basis of established norms, scripture, the creeds, and confessional documents.”14 If done well, systematic theology should make proclamation “the necessary and indispensable final move in the argument.”15 For example, systematic theology gives us information about the atonement, forgiveness, and eternal life. What will you do with that information? For Forde, it must lead to proclamation. But systematic theology itself is not identical to proclamation.
B. Proclamation Is Not Exegesis
Proclamation is not the same as doing Biblical exegesis. When a preacher studies a Biblical passage he identifies its genre and context within a book. He looks at style, grammar, and word choices. Then the preacher can begin to draw out the theological meaning and practical applications of the passage.
But like systematic theology, all of these studies can stay at the level of secondary discourse and only give information about the Biblical texts. Although there is no doubt that Biblical exegesis supports proclamation and should ultimately lead to it, the two are not identical. The Biblical exegete may spend all his time relating the historical and cultural details about the life of Abraham, for example, and never reach the level of proclaiming the Biblical promises to the congregation.
C. Proclamation Is Not Preaching
Forde also distinguished between proclamation and preaching. When a pastor preaches a sermon, he may do a number of things that do not count as proclamation. He can spend the time talking about the history of God’s actions, or explain the grammatical and historical meaning of a verse, or draw out the systematic implications of a particular belief.
In other words, preaching, like systematic theology, can confine itself entirely to speaking about God without ever speaking for God. The preacher can speak about a text, without addressing the congregation, or the individual, with God’s promise to them.
IV. WHAT PROCLAMATION IS
So what makes proclamation a unique form of discourse, different from Biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and preaching? In this section I develop six aspects of Forde’s theology of proclamation.
A. The Grammar of Proclamation
Forde argued that a distinguishing mark of proclamation is its grammar. Writers and preachers often like to employ the pronoun “we” as a polite way to include themselves in the admonition made in the sermon. However, as J. C. Ryle cautioned, using “we” leaves a congregation “in a kind of fog.”16 In order to cut through it, we must use a direct style of preaching that involves “the practice and custom of saying, ‘I’ and ‘you.’”17 This is precisely the kind of direct address that Forde thinks distinguishes proclamation from other types of discourse.
As I noted above, systematic, Biblical, and historical theology are all forms of third-person “words about God.” By contrast, proclamation is first-person “words from God.”18 That is the key difference between proclamation and all other types of theological discourse.
Forde claims that in proclamation, God Himself speaks to the people through the preacher. The preacher actually and truly speaks for God, in His name, on His authority, announcing the “present-tense, first-to-second person unconditional promise authorized by what occurs in Jesus Christ according to the scriptures.”19 A direct address from God grabs peoples’ attention.
B. The Shape of Proclamation
According to Forde, there is an important fact about man that influences the nature of what is proclaimed. As a Lutheran, Forde believed strongly in the bondage of the will, but his definition of that bondage is atypical. He thought the will was bound to reject God’s absolute sovereignty and predestination for belief in free-will: “We will not accept an almighty God and so are bound by our own will to construct a theology of freedom.”20 Because of the bondage of the will, we prefer theologies that emphasize our self-control, self-determination, and free-will instead of trusting God to make sovereign decisions about our eternal destinies. “In effect we say to God, ‘God, I cannot trust you with my destiny, therefore I must claim at least enough freedom to control it myself.’”21
Given this interpretation of the bondage of the will, Forde believed that proclamation cannot be an offer, negotiation, or an “an appeal to free choice.”22 Why not? Because according to Forde the gospel is not a negotiation. God is not a salesman who is desperate to cut a deal with a potential customer. God is not somebody who comes “hat in hand begging, ‘Won’t somebody believe in me?’”23
Instead, the proclamation is an unconditional announcement of God’s purposes in Christ and of what He has done for us on the cross, whether we believe it or not.
C. The Content of Proclamation
What is the message to be proclaimed? Here we come to the heart of Forde’s theology. Even among Lutherans, he was infamous for his emphasis on the doctrine of justification. Here is one example of Forde urging other Lutherans to return to the core message of justification:
Let us be radicals…radical preachers and practitioners of the gospel by justification by faith without the deeds of the law. We should pursue it to the radical depths already plumbed by St. Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, when he saw that justification by faith without the deeds of the law really involves and announces the death of the old being and the calling forth of the new in hope…We should realize first of all that what is at stake on the current scene is certainly not Lutheranism as such. Lutheranism has no particular claim or right to existence. Rather, what is at stake is the radical gospel, radical grace, the eschatological nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen as put in its most uncompromising and unconditional form by St. Paul.24
But in order for the message of justification by faith alone to count as proclamation, the preacher must stop talking about it and actually present Jesus given for you. As Forde himself preached, “you are just, for Jesus’ sake!”25 That is the essence of the message.
Proclaiming justification is not a third-person retelling of Jesus’ history, or an explanation of how justification works in principle, or a treatise on the histories of the justification controversies. All of those studies have their proper place. But they are not proclamation. In order for proclamation to occur, the preacher must proclaim that Christ died for you, was raised for you, forgives you and justifies you.
D. The Response to Proclamation
Since proclamation is a first-person address, it should elicit a first-person response from the hearer. He must either confess, pray, praise, worship,26 or above all, believe or reject the promise.
Forde’s paradigmatic example of proclamation is the absolution. In the Lutheran tradition (and many other Christian traditions) the person confesses his sins to the preacher. The preacher then pronounces forgiveness upon him, saying “I absolve you.”27 According to Forde, the absolution is powerful because it is unconditional and personal. There is no doubt about who is doing the absolving (God) and no doubt about who is being absolved (the one confessing). The preacher does not pronounce a general absolution upon someone, somewhere, based upon God’s mercy in general. He actually looks at the person directly, addresses them by name, and pronounces their forgiveness in Christ.
For Forde, this is how to pierce the fog of unbelief and how to make an otherwise abstract God present to unbelievers. When God speaks to you personally, the message is hard to ignore. The hearer must take a stand one way or another.
E. The Power of Proclamation
Forde believed it was essential to recover proclamation because as a word from God, it has God’s own creative power to accomplish what it promises. In other words, Forde tied proclamation to the doctrine of creation:
These words are the creative words of God. Just as God once said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He didn’t consult the darkness as to whether it thought it needed the light. The darkness would never admit to that. So God speaks to show his righteousness. The words are intended to do what God’s Word always does, to create out of nothing, to call something new into being, to start a reformation. God, that is, has decided just to start over from scratch. So listen up!28
Critics have dismissed the doctrine of justification as a mere “legal fiction.”29 That complaint betrays a lack of appreciation for the doctrine of creation. There is nothing fictitious about the power of God’s Word to create out of nothing and to raise the dead to life. And it is astounding to think that He accomplishes this new creation through the preacher. As Forde writes, “The concrete moment of the proclamation is the doing of the mighty act of God in the living present. It is not a recital of past acts, but the doing of the act itself now.”30
There are two ways the proclamation works on the hearers. These two ways correspond to the distinction between law and gospel. What do law and gospel do to us?
When preachers proclaim the law, hearers are put to death. As Paul said, the law is the ministry of death (2 Cor 3:7, 9). The law accuses.31 It reveals sin. It provokes sin (Rom 7:5). It increases sin (Rom 5:20) and convicts us of sin (Rom 3:20). And as we are convicted, the law serves to kill the old man. That is the effect of the law on those who hear it.
Additionally, when preachers proclaim the gospel, hearers are brought to life. The one who responds in faith to the proclamation of justification by faith in Christ, apart from works, is born again (John 3:3; 1 Pet 1:23). The gospel puts an end to the accusations of the law.32 It unites the believer to Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:3-5). Before, there was only an old Adam (Rom 6:6), but the proclaimed Word creates a new man (Eph 4:24) and a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). The power of the proclamation is the power of God’s creative word to actually kill and make alive, changing the people who hear it.
F. The Method of Proclamation
According to Forde, the promises of God are proclaimed through the spoken word and through the sacraments.33
It is easy to understand why proclamation comes through the spoken word. The preacher (or any Christian) can speak the promises of God, in a first-person, me-to-you, direct discourse from the speaker to the hearer.
But according to Forde, the sacraments proclaim the same message as the spoken word in a non-verbal manner. For example, baptism is God’s message that you (the baptized) are buried and raised with Christ. The Lord’s Supper is the message that Jesus died and made atonement for you (the one partaking of the bread and wine).
Forde is careful to point out the sacraments are not “magic.” They only become saving when they “succeed in creating faith.”34
If sin is basically unfaith, baptism is the remedy for sin because it creates faith. It gives faith something to believe, to hold to, and so saves from sin. It is a Word of God addressed directly and concretely to us. It has our name on it. There is no mistake about to whom it may be addressed.35
Given their faith-creating nature, Forde says the sacraments are an evangelical necessity, but not a legal one.36 They are not a legal necessity in the sense of being conditions for having eternal salvation. The sacraments are not works that man must do to justify himself before God. Rather, the sacraments are evangelical necessities in the same sense that preaching is an evangelical necessity. You can’t believe the gospel until you have heard it and understood it. Faith needs an object and the sacraments provide that object. They are tangible expressions of God’s promises that people can see, feel, and taste, leading them to faith.
According to Forde, the sacraments are also crucial for assurance. Without having external sacraments to believe, Forde fears that that faith will have nothing to believe but the subjective experience of believing itself. As he says, “Faith is called forth by the sacramental Word. Faith is precisely a faith in the God who comes in the sacrament. Faith depends on, clings to, stands on, just this externality. Otherwise it feeds on its own internality.”37
When faith turns in on itself to an internal experience, it necessarily turns away from Christ’s external and objective promises, and attempts to ground assurance on subjective feelings of being saved or having believed enough. This can only result in doubt, loss of assurance, and possibly loss of faith. Forde argues the sacraments prevent this kind of downward spiral into morbid introspection by grounding our assurance in God’s external promises and actions for us.
The sacraments also teach us that salvation is something that we receive as a gift. The sacraments comes from outside of us, from the hands of the preacher who acts as God’s representative, and is given to us personally. This emphasizes to the person who is baptized or who receives the Lord’s Supper that they are called to believe that Jesus’ saving work was done for them personally, “for you,” and to receive eternal salvation as a gift from God.38 And so, God uses the sacraments in an evangelistic way. They call people to faith in Christ’s promises, and to be assured those promise are true “for me.”
V. APPLICATION TO FREE GRACE THEOLOGY
Since Forde is a Lutheran, and there are few in the Free Grace movement who belong to that tradition, any number of differences could be raised between the two schools of theology. I will leave it for the readers to read the footnotes to understand why Free Grace theology would take issue with Forde’s understanding of divine determinism,39 the bondage of the will,40 the nature of baptism,41 and election.42 However, the Free Grace movement can benefit from Forde’s theology of proclamation in four ways. All four serve to highlight the nature and power of preaching Christ’s promises.
First, Forde’s analysis shows that preaching and believing the historical details about Christ’s life and mission are not the same thing as proclaiming and believing the promise of life. Free Grace theologians can agree with Forde that doing Biblical, systematic, and historical theology, while important, is not identical to proclaiming the promise of life.
Second, although Free Grace theologians will not necessarily agree with Forde about the bondage of the will, they can agree that faith in Christ for eternal life is not a matter of deciding to believe. While people have the freedom to search for God, to look for new evidence, to consider arguments for or against a position, and to listen to the proclamation (Luke 10:38-42), faith itself is not a decision so much as an involuntary response.43 People believe the gospel because they are persuaded that it is true, not because they decide that it is true.
Third, Free Grace theologians can agree the object of saving faith is not their own (internal) act of faith, but Jesus’ (external) promise of life. In moments of doubt, we do not look to our subjective experiences to see whether we have “truly believed.” Instead, we look to the objective promise of the Word of God (e.g., John 3:16) and believe it. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper can serve as non-verbal depictions of that same work and promise, but only if their meaning is made clear. People must understand that believing the promise, not participating in the sacraments, is necessary for eternal salvation.
Fourth, Free Grace theologians can agree that saving faith is faith in what Christ has done for me. It is not belief in what Jesus had done in general, without being assured that it is true for me. Saving faith includes the assurance that by virtue of His death for me on the cross He gave me eternal life and He justified me by faith alone, apart from works.44
In sum, Forde correctly challenges us to prioritize our preaching. Instead of spending our time devising elaborate explanations about God’s hidden nature, endlessly speculating about divine mysteries, or engaging in controversies about historical theology, in short, instead of concentrating on God-not-preached, we must concentrate on God-preached. That is, preachers must speak for God, in His name, and proclaim His promise of life directly to the congregation. An unbeliever can dismiss a preacher’s abstract speculations about God as mere opinion. But when an unbeliever hears a word directly from God, addressed to him by name, about what Jesus has done for him, then God’s Word can be set free to pierce the fog of secularism and to call that man to faith in Christ for eternal life.
1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2007).
2 Alister McGrath, The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002).
3 As Richard Dawkins quipped, teaching theology is as illegitimate in a university setting as “the study of leprechauns.” See “Theology has no place in a university,” http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/1698. Accessed February 10, 2015.
4 Gerhard Forde, The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament, eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 34.
5 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming, 1957), 169.
6 Ibid, 170.
7 Gerhard O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1990), 16, emphasis added.
8 Ibid., 15.
9 Ibid., 17.
10 Ibid., 21.
11 Ibid., 3.
12 Ibid., 41.
13 Ibid., 2, emphasis his.
14 Ibid., 3.
15 Ibid., 5, emphasis his.
16 J. C. Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching (Carlisle, PA: Banner of the Truth, 2010), 14-15.
18 Forde, Proclamation, 2, emphasis his.
19 Ibid., 2.
20 Gerhard O. Forde, Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-to-Earth Approach to the Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1972), 24, emphasis his.
22 Forde, Proclamation, 55.
23 Ibid., 56.
24 Gerhard O. Forde, A More Radical Gospel: Essays on Eschatology, Authority, Atonement, and Ecumenism, eds. Mark C. Mattes and Steven D. Paulson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 8.
25 Gerhard O. Forde, The Captivation of the Will, ed. Steven Paulson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 87.
26 Forde, Proclamation, 2.
27 Ibid., 28.
28 Forde, Captivation, 87.
29 For example, Catholic apologist James Akin wrote, “Catholics go beyond this and say that God gives us more than merely forensic righteousness—that the righteousness he gives us is more than a legal fiction, more than just an accounting procedure. Instead, when God justifies us he actually constitutes us in righteousness.” See “Justification in Catholic Teaching.” See http://www.ewtn.com/library/answers/justif.htm. Accessed February 12, 2015.
30 Forde, Proclamation, 35.
31 Forde, Where God Meets Man, 15.
32 Ibid., 16.
33 Forde, Radical Gospel, 13.
34 Forde, Proclamation, 164.
35 Ibid., 166.
36 Forde, Preached God, 133.
37 Forde, Proclamation, 162.
38 Forde, Preached God, 137.
39 Ron Rosso, “God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Free Will: Another Look,” Grace in Focus (Jan/Feb 2014): 19-20.
40 Zane C. Hodges, “Man’s Role in Conversion,” Grace in Focus Newsletter (September 1993).
41 Art Farstad, “We Believe In: Water Baptism,” JOTGES (Spring 1990): 3–9; Lanny Thomas Tanton, “The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38,” JOTGES (Spring 1990): 27–52 ; Lanny Thomas Tanton, “The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 22:16,” JOTGES (Spring 1991): 23–40.
42 Robert N. Wilkin, “The Doctrine of Election Reconsidered: Election to Service Not to Eternal Life,” JOTGES (Autumn 2012): 3-22.
43 The idea that faith is not a choice is not unique to Free Grace theology. See Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 16–17.
44 Protestants traditionally defined faith as notitia (understanding), assensus (assent), and fiducia (trust). But there are two different interpretations of “trust.” The first understands it in terms of doing good works. To quote John M. Frame, trust is “subjection to Christ as Lord, a willingness to obey. As James 2:14–26 says, faith must be living faith, obedient faith, faith that works, or else it is dead” (Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013], 953). This is a serious misinterpretation of James (cf. Robert N. Wilkin, “Another View of Faith and Works in James 2,” JOTGES [Autumn 2002]: 3–21; Zane C. Hodges, The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing [Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999, 2015], 59–72). But even more devastatingly, if works are a necessary condition for eternal salvation, then salvation is by works. And if salvation is by works, we can never know if we have done enough works to be saved, meaning we can never have assurance of salvation. The second view is that “trust” means assurance that the promises of God are not just true in general, but true “for me” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 21). This seems to be Forde’s view.