What is the “Word of Christ”?

Christians have as their rule and authority the written word of God—the Bible. We value what God has recorded in the Scriptures not only as sufficient for our lives, but also all we need in order to understand who God is, and what he has done. Scripture is, in other words, a revelation of God and from God. The truth of God’s Word is attested to in several places within the Bible itself. Psalm 19 speaks of God’s Word in its various forms as perfect, sure, right, and pure.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;

When we come to the New Testament, Jesus himself in the High Priestly prayer of John 17 asks God the Father to sanctify, or set apart, his disciples in the truth. He immediately defines what that is: “Your word is truth.” John 17:17

Christians quite rightly regard references to the Word of God to denote Scripture. But in two places, Paul uses a slightly different phrase, “the word of Christ” which calls for a closer look.

In Romans 10:17, Paul writes “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is at the end of a series of questions he has asked about the progress of the gospel. No one can believe unless they hear, and they cannot hear unless preachers are sent, and hearing the word of Christ is what brings faith. The word of Christ is the gospel message; the word about Christ. In that sense the presentation of the saving work of Jesus, the description of what he did when he died and rose again—this is the word of Christ. The centrality of the gospel in the salvation of the lost is self-evident. The word of the cross may be foolishness to the world, but as Paul elsewhere says, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. As Christians, we hear the word and are saved when we believe, but we do not outgrow the gospel. This does not mean that believers hear an appeal to be saved week in and week out. Rather, it is the implications of the gospel for the rest of our Christian lives that the gospel also contains. The second of these instances of the phrase focuses on these.

Paul writes to the Colossians a series of exhortations and admonitions, among them, is this: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” What does Paul refer to with the phrase “word of Christ”? Is he speaking of Scripture, that they should read God’s Word to one another? I suggest it is not Scripture per se but the entailments of the gospel that he refers to. These no doubt rest upon the foundation of God’s Word, but they are those parts of the Christian life that have particularly to do with discipleship in Jesus. Forgiveness, humility, love, these are what Paul has told them, things which, unsurprisingly would conform to what Paul wrote to the Galatians as the law of Christ: self-sacrificial love for one another.
Paul models the teaching and admonishing that he here calls for in the 12th chapter of Romans. A series of short imperatives such as “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” A shorthand for this may be “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Many of the other exhortations in the New Testament epistles could likewise fit in this category.
The word of Christ, about Christ, in harmony with Christ, is also a word in harmony with the written word of God. To paraphrase Emerson, who said “Common sense is genius, dressed in his working clothes,” the word of Christ is theology applied.

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