Who Speaks for God?


The heart of the Christian faith can be expressed in one phrase: God justifies the ungodly. If someone were to ask us, “who says?” we can answer boldly, “God does!”

How can we be so sure? Isn’t such a bold assertion about God out of place in the modern world? Today, we do not often look to the church for matters of truth, for that we trust science. In our time, faith isn’t often considered a matter of truth but a private matter.

How can we speak of God with certainty? The great churchmen and theologian, Martin Luther, was surprisingly cautious when he worked with this question. Most often, he simply said what the church has said for centuries before his time and has for centuries since: God is triune, three in one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

Knowing God

Luther, and the original Lutherans, were reluctant to venture behind those words. They sometimes spoke of God as all-knowing (omniscient), present everywhere (omnipresent), and all-powerful (omnipotent). But even here they are very careful, convinced that we can’t know that much about God on our own. They shy away from ideas or theories people might cook up about what God might be like.

In fact, in his own writings Luther often spoke more of the hiddenness of God. “Outwardly, God’s grace seems to be nothing but wrath, so deeply does he hide beneath two thick hides or pews–our opponents condemn it as God’s wrath and we ourselves do not feel much differently about it,” he once remarked in his comments on the Psalms. We cannot see or observe God. God is revealed under opposites, confounding our expectations.

We cannot see or observe God. God is revealed under opposites, confounding our expectations.
— James A. Nestingen

So, we often must admit that God cannot be known as God has made Himself known to us in nature. We can only speak of God as He has spoken to us.

Watch Luther’s explanations of the three articles of the Apostle’s Creed in his Small Catechism. For example, he doesn’t use any of the technical “omni words” or make an attempt to describe God. Instead, he zeros right in on what God does and has done for us: “I believe that God has created me and all creatures…, redeemed me, a lost and condemned person…, called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith,” in the same way he “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

Action Words

So, it is best not to speak of God in nouns and adjectives, words meant to name and describe something sitting still. Instead, we can find comfort in speaking of God in verbs, action words that pop and jump, full of life.

We can find comfort in speaking of God in verbs, action words that pop and jump, full of life.
— James A. Nestingen

Who is God? God is the one who gives everything good, who justifies the ungodly, who brings us to faith. God is the one who creates out of nothing, who raised Jesus from the dead, who sends the Spirit to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify.

How can we trust this? Through the Word. For God has made Himself known to us in Christ, the Word made flesh, to make Himself known as the God who gives Himself completely, withholding nothing. And God expresses Himself to us through the teachings of Christ, as they are recounted in the Scripture and told by our neighbors as they speak to us of God.

Just a Good Man?

But how can we be sure that God is the speaker of these words? Aren’t there other explanations of how the world came into being? Couldn’t Jesus have been just a good man? Might not our faith merely be the result of the way we were brought up?

Sorry to say, there are no magical answers to these questions. It seems less than helpful to advance theories about how the world was made or evidence that the Spirit actually gives faith. Nor is it helpful to say, “The Scripture says so, so you’d better believe it.” And though evidence for the truthfulness of the Scriptures and their testimony can certainly be mustered, this evidence will never create saving faith which is trust.

Rather, it is more helpful to say that you will believe it; that you can trust because God will give you the trust you lack. For God is the speaker of the Word––the one who spoke and brought the world into being, the one who spoke and brought Jesus forth from the tomb, the one who spoke when you first heard the Word of Jesus, the one who spoke when you were baptized, the one who speaks when it is said to you, “This is my body, given for you.”

Does that sound circuitous or silly? Maybe so. But still, God does what He says––creating, justifying, and sanctifying by giving trust whenever the Word is heard.

Adapted from: The Faith We Hold: The Living Witness of Luther and the Augsburg Confession, James Arne Nestingen. Adapted by Scott L. Keith, Ph.D. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983).

Permission to use given by the author.


A graduate of Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., in 1967, Nestingen earned the master of divinity degree from Luther Seminary in 1971 and the master of theology degree in 1978. He received his doctorate in theology from St. Michael's College, University of Toronto, in 1984.

Following his ordination in 1971, he served as pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Coquille, Ore., for three years before becoming curriculum editor at Augsburg Publishing House from 1974-1976.

Nestingen has written and spoken prolifically on Luther's catechisms and confessional Lutheran theology.