Posts Tagged ‘Speech Act Theory’

What is good preaching? Or better, What is preaching at all? Some people talk about “speech acts” where people (or preachers) actually ‘do’ things with words. Thus, preaching is less about just ‘teaching’ about certain doctrines that are true, or even about telling people what to do. True preaching actually ‘does things’ to people — then and there.  Preaching the law ‘kills’ us while preaching the gospel brings us to life.  Bad preaching will do neither. ‘Perlocutionary preaching’ describes that kind of preaching which actually ‘effects’ that which it speaks.  This distinction is brought out quite helpfully by Michael Horton in the following excerpt from Covenant and Eschatology. I would highly encourage reading on…


Within the context of the covenant, one can distinguish two subsets of divine discourse–two distinct illocutionary forces or stances: commanding and promising. This is one of the insights of the Reformers and their successors. Both Luther and Calvin insisted upon the distinction (though not separation) between law (command) and gospel (promise). In defending this distinction, Melanchthon points out that it is sanctioned not merely by an observation of the whole, but by explicit exegetical references. While in the law God promises eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience, in the gospel God promises the same on the basis of Christ’s perfect obedience. Melanchthon unfolds this argument by means of a summery of redemptive history and its covenants, including the one [with Abraham]. These categories do not coincide with Old Testament and New Testament [respectively], as if the former were “law,” while the latter were “gospel.” Rather, as Theodore Beza put it,

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the “Law,” the other the “Gospel.” For all the rest can be gathered under the one or the other of these two headings. What we call Law… is a doctrine whose seed is written by nature in our hearts…. What we call the Gospel is a doctrine which is not at all in us by nature, but which is revealed from heaven (Mt. 16:17; Jn. 1:13), and totally surpasses natural knowledge. By it God testifies to us that it is His purpose to save us freely by His only Son (Rom. 3:20-22), provided that, by faith, we embrace Him as our only wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30).

According to the Reformed and Lutheran scholastics, law and gospel are actually the means by which the Holy Spirit effects what is promised. “The letter kills, the Spirit makes alive.” “Law” creates terror in the hearer because of the awareness of sin it engenders, while “gospel” actually brings life: “By it, I say, the Lord testifies to us all these things, and even does it in such a manner that at the same time he renews our persons in a powerful way so that we may embrace the benefits which are offered to us (1 Cor. 2:4)” [Beza]. Here it seems to me that we have, as in Ezekiel 37 and Romans 10, an example of a perlocutionary speech act. In the Discourse of judging and justifying, individuals are actually judged and justified.

This is amply demonstrated throughout scripture: “This is my comfort in my distress, that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:50). “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 succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). Jesus adds, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.” But he was hardly pitting the Spirit against the word and the ordinary means of grace, adding, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The words spoken are themselves life-giving, not because there is a magical power inherent in a string of utterances, but because of the efficacy of the Holy Spirit working through the faith-creating promise. By this word God actually performs what is threatened in the law and what is promised in the gospel.

– Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama, (WJK: 2002), 136.


So by hearing the gospel we are actually ‘enabled’ to accept its terms — something we would not be able to do if the gospel itself doesn’t ‘do’ something to us when we hear it. That is why we need to hear the true preaching of the gospel, not just when we first believe, but every week and for the rest of our lives. For this is the ordinary means by which God makes us continually alive to himself, and preserves us unto eternal life.  Let us never tire of hearing that word of good news. For, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

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