There is a scene in a superhero movie my son was watching where a character suddenly receives the power of super hearing. Wouldn't that be great? To be able to hear conversations a mile away? To listen to a music concert in another city? Not so fast. What the movie showed was how overwhelming and difficult it would be. Imagine hearing every conversation in the city all at the same time. Imagine hearing every animal, every car, every single sound around you loudly and at once. What the character in the movie learned was that too much input can be painful. And if we're going to be able to function, we need to learn how to focus on the right sounds. Just hearing is not enough. We hear plenty of things every day. We need to hear the right things and hear them in a way that actually helps us.
Question 90 in the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “How is the Word [of God] to be read and heard that it may become effectual to salvation?” The question explores the problem facing our super-powered listener in the illustration above. We may hear (and read) the Word of God regularly. We hear it preached, we see verses on our calendar, we read it on our lunch break, we receive a word of scriptural encouragement from a friend. But is hearing enough? The question works on the assumption that simply hearing is not enough (and to that you may add reading). We have to hear in a way that the word we hear is effectual. Effectual means accomplishing its purpose or goal.
When you see that word 'effectual,' think of Isaiah 55:10-11, one of my favorite passages in Scripture: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Or think of the parable of the four soils. The same seed (the Word) landed on different soils, but on only one soil does it result in fruit.
Ultimately, it is God who makes his Word effectual. But he gives us responsibility to live in such a way that the word is effectual in our lives. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 3:6 “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” God caused the Corinthian church to grow, but he called Paul and Apollos to be faithful in their tasks, which God then used to bring about growth. If God's Word is to be effectual in our life, if it is to bear fruit, we have a responsibility to hear it in a certain way.
This is one reason that two people attending the same good worship service and hearing the same Biblical sermon might come away very differently. One may complain, “I wasn't fed by that preaching,” and the other may be strengthened and discipled for loving obedience to Jesus. Perhaps (not always, but perhaps) the first person was hearing, but not hearing effectively.
The next few blog posts will explore the Westminster Catechism's answer to question 90. How is the Word to be read and heard that it may become effectual to salvation? The answer given is this: "That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer, receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives." Join me as we consider in turn each of these biblically-informed conditions that prepare our hearts to hear the Word of God, not just as one more sound amid the great cacophony of our day, but as the lamp to our feet and light to our path that it is intended to be.