“Instead of the Church and the sacraments, the means of grace, being conceived, as they are represented in the Scriptures, and as they must be thought of in all healthful religious conceptions of them, as instrumentalities which the Holy Spirit uses in working salvation, the Holy Spirit is made an instrument which the Church, the means of grace, use in working salvation” (B.B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, p. 65).
Instrumentalities which the Holy Spirit uses in working salvation. Keep that in mind.
One of central themes of Warfield’s book The Plan of Salvation is the idea that the sine qua non of evangelical religion is the doctrine of God’s immediate work in salvation. But what exactly is meant by “immediate”? It should be obvious that for Warfield it does not mean an utter absence of mediating means.
It is tempting to think that Warfield means “apart from any instruments or means of grace,” but what he actually means is “in hierarchical distinction from any instruments or means of grace.” And not surprisingly, this word “distinction” all goes back to the effectual call.
As Warfield notes above, when the Holy Spirit is “working salvation,” He is using “instrumentalities.” But those instrumentalities by themselves are impotent in the work of salvation. They mean what they mean, but they do not do what they mean by themselves. When the surgeon is gone from the hospital, his instruments are lined up in the drawer, full of potential.
As an aside, I am happy to notice that Warfield avoids the dodge that many contemporary evangelical Presbyterians resort to, which is to insist that salvation has to be the work of an invisible Holy Ghost thunderbolt, while the sacraments are means of sanctifying grace only, never saving grace. But Warfield talks the way the Confession talks, speaking of sacraments and salvation easily and in the same breath.
Nevertheless, his take on what the evangelical stance should be is a sound one. The issue is the immediacy of God’s work, but we have to be careful not to misunderstand it. There is a definition of immediacy apart from means that would be much closer to some sort of Quaker quietism, or more to the point, closer to a pop evangelical Jesus-in-your-heart-bypass-the-church view, than to the understanding of the magisterial reformers. But there is another understanding of immediacy — the effectual call — that is historic and confessional evangelicalism. That is what I am seeking to articulate and defend.
So how can the Holy Spirit use an instrument for salvation, and at the same time have the work of salvation be immediate? Doesn’t the Spirit’s use of the instrument at all make His work mediated? No, not in the way that Warfield intends.
The immediacy has to do with God’s intention, made manifest by and through the effectual call, the gift of life. That immediate call can take place in a sermon, while reading a book, in the midst of a baptism, or while listening to a street preacher. Place two men, side by side in each instance, with one of them being saved and the other not. The distinction between them is not to be found in the presence and absence of the means, for both of them experienced the same means — whether sermon or sacrament or something else. The distinction between them is found in the efficacy of the means. That power, the authority, is immediate. The means is dependent on the presence of God’s power. God’s power is not dependent on the presence of the means.
So the other understanding of “immediate” is something which I believe that Warfield, being a good churchman, would reject. That understanding says that if salvation is “immediate,” then means are superfluous, and at worst, a hindrance. Some people do try to go in this direction, but since we live in a universe chock full of matter, this is hard to do, as in, impossible to do. They usually just succeed in privileging one means over another one, making their use of it invisible to themselves, and then taunting people who picked a different favorite means, a means visible to them. To claim the Holy Spirit can use baptismal water is apparently superstition, but the use of Bibles and sermons is not — even though material means are equally involved in both.
When the Spirit anoints something, that makes it effectual, and the effect is immediate. The Spirit’s work does not come through the means (the sermon, the sacrament) like water through a garden hose. Rather, the Spirit’s anointing is given on account of the means. He is not doing an “end run” around the means. God could easily do it entirely apart from the means, but He chooses not to. He meets us where He promised He would, in the Word and in the sacrament. But if we show up later with our tiny cages for those very same means, hoping to chain the Spirit up, we find that He is gone.
When the glory departs, the things that were previously glorified are commonly still there. When God “gives the increase,” this is something that only God can do. When He does this, it is immediate. When God gives life — and He is the life-giver — it is immediate.
The mediating means are still present when a man is alive, but there are also all there when he is dead. So the means aren’t the thing. Adam’s body was there before the Lord God breathed into him. And when He did, something else was there. And that “something else” is what confessional evangelicalism is concerned to protect.