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The Efficacy of Scripture

Teachers of writing often encourage students to strengthen their writing by moving key ideas away from the nouns to the verbs; in other words, to put the action where it belongs—with the action words. For instance, there is just a smidgin more vitality in saying “Don and Shirley farm the land,” than to say simply, “Don and Shirley are farmers.”

It is not surprising, then, that the Lutheran theologian Martin Franzmann (1907-1976) used that strategy when he penned the hymn “Thy Strong Word,” where he produced phrases like “Thy strong Word did cleave the darkness”; “Broke the light of thy salvation”; and “bespeaks us righteous.” The potency of such language, along with the drumbeat cadence of its melody, make it a thrilling hymn to sing.

But Franzmann deeply understood the Bible’s own testimony—that Holy Scripture is indeed strong because it carries the Holy Spirit’s own vitality. Lutheran teachers speak about the “efficacy” of Scripture, or, to apply that “strong verb” idea: “Scripture effects whatever it is supposed to do.” That is what the Lord Himself asserted through the prophet Isaiah; pointing out the power of the rains to make the earth spring forth in vitality, He says, “So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall not return to Me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) What Isaiah taught in the Old Testament, Paul also taught in the New, comparing God’s creative Word in the beginning to the effectiveness of the message of Jesus Christ: “For it is God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4.6)

Different aspects of Holy Scripture accomplish different things. When Scripture addresses sinful humans with the holy will of God (His Law), it has the power to crush all fleshly defenses, as Paul explained to the Roman Christians: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. . . for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (3:19-20) People are pretty good at covering up their dark impulses and shameful thoughts, but the right Scripture, applied at the right time, can break through human rationalizing, white lies, and denial, leaving the sinner in what the theologians call “terrors of conscience.”

Such Law-preaching is only part of the work of Scripture, though; it is a means to an end, working up the soil of the heart so that the sinner may be more ready to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ (His Gospel). Paul had profound confidence in this Word’s power to create faith: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16) This really is the central message of all Scripture; it is the testimony of God’s effective love for the world of sinners, carried out by His own Son’s life, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit works through that message to justify the guilty sinner, calm the anxious heart, comfort to the grieving soul, and settle the troubled spirit.

Holy Scripture—and only Holy Scripture—is able to bring sinners, you and me included, to repentance and saving faith. That’s a powerful thought.

Peter Reim is a former pastor who now teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He makes his home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.