The Ordinary Means of Grace

Dear Church Family,

We’ve just completed the first half our Sunday morning summer preaching series, “The Church and the Means of Grace” (the audio recordings of the sermons preached thus far in this series are available online here). We’ve concluded our brief look at the Church and this Sunday we will begin our examination and study of the ordinary means of grace: the word, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s supper), and prayer. So, the remainder of the sermons in this series are as follows:

- The Effectual Preached Word
- Baptism: A Rite of Passage
- The Lord’s Supper: The Grace of Discipline
- Prayer: Pursuing the Nexus of God and Creation

As a confessional church, we hold to the ordinary means of grace as those things which the church ought to be emphasizing and prioritizing in her corporate life and ministry – often to the exclusion of many other things that a church could do. How a church lives and ministers to those inside and outside the church says as much about what a people believe as the content which a church communicates to those inside and outside the church. The medium is indeed the message.

This is one of the purposes of our current sermon series. The church is in constant danger of mission creep. Therefore, we need continually to remind ourselves of the nature of the Church (WCF 25:1-2), as well as the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” which Christ has given to His Church for the gathering and perfecting of the saints (WCF 25:3).

The Ordinary Means of Grace

The ‘means of grace’ refers to the concept that God uses particular means (methods or modes of communication) to communicate or give His grace to His people. When we speak of the ordinary means of grace, we are speaking specifically of ‘the word, sacraments, and prayer.’ This idea and the language used to express it comes from the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries. For instance, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 88, says this:

Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

 

These are the things that Christ has instructed us to use as His church to receive His grace. Of course, God is able to work through any means He wishes – or even apart from means, should He desire to do so – but the Catechism is here summarizing the teaching of Scripture that the ordinary things that God uses to bestow His grace, bless His people, bring them to faith and grow them in that faith are: the word, sacraments, and prayer.

At one time, the Lord even used a donkey (!) as a means of communication (Numbers 22; 2 Peter 2:16); however, it’s certainly not ordinary. Simply because God chose to speak through a donkey at one point in history, it does not mean that we all need to start listening to donkeys or keep one in our back yard just in case God desires to do it again. Instead, we attend to the instruction which He has given us in the Scriptures and pursue God’s grace through the ordinary means that He has given us: the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and prayer.

The Differentiated Ordinary Means of Grace

One other thing that we ought to take note of with regard to our understanding of the ordinary means of grace: they do not communicate God’s grace in the same manner or for the same purpose. The Westminster Confession of Faith (14:1) differentiates the means of grace by describing the centrality and preeminence of the ministry of the word in relation to the sacraments and prayer:

The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened.

 

Saving faith is ordinarily wrought (created or fashioned) by the work of the Spirit of Christ by the ministry of the word. That same faith is increased and strengthened by the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and prayer. To put it another way, faith is not bestowed or begun through the sacraments or prayer. These (along with the ministry of the word) are means of grace which are provided to God’s people for their continuance in the faith. It is the ministry of the word – especially the preaching of the word (WSC 89) – which ought to have priority in the life and ministry of the church and God’s people because the ministry of the word is unique among the ordinary means of grace. Christ both works faith in the hearts of people, and increases and strengthens that faith, through the ministry of the word.

An Ordinary Means of Grace Church

When I meet people and they ask me about Providence Presbyterian Church – “What kind of church is it?” – I will tell them about our denomination (“We’re PCA”); I will tell them about our worship (“We have simple worship, singing Hymns and Psalms along with some contemporary hymns with piano accompaniment”); I will tell them about our people (“We have a very welcoming and caring congregation who love others in very tangible ways”). There are many ways in which one could describe our church; however, one of the favorite things that I like to say is, “We are an ‘ordinary means of grace church.’”

Unfortunately, being an ‘ordinary means of grace church’ is becoming less and less common in our day. In an article that Ligon Duncan wrote several years ago called, “The Ordinary Means of Growth,” he explained the waning understanding of the ordinary means of grace in our contemporary context:

We are living in a confused and confusing time for confessional Christians (Christians who are anchored by a public and corporate theological commitment to be faithful to the Bible’s teaching on faith and practice as expounded by the great confessions of the Protestant Reformation). We are witnessing the final demise of theological liberalism, the rise of Pentecostalism, the beginnings of the so-called emerging church movement, the breakdown of evangelicalism, and an utter discombobulation about how the church is to conduct its life and ministry in an increasing “post-Christian” culture. All around us, in the name of reaching the culture with the Gospel, we see evangelical churches compromising (usually without intending to) in both message and methods.

It is not uncommon today to hear certain buzz-words and catch phrases that are meant to capture and articulate new (and presumably more culturally-attuned) approaches to ministry: “Purpose-driven,” “missional,” “contextualization,” “word and deed,” “ancient-future,” “emerging/emergent,” “peace and justice.” Now, to be sure, there are points, diagnoses, and emphases entailed in each of these terms and concepts that are helpful, true, and timely. Sadly, however, the philosophies of ministry often associated with this glossary are also often self-contrasted with the historic Christian view of how the church lives and ministers. That view is often called “the ordinary means of grace” view of ministry.

 

Notice Duncan’s mentioning of the importance of churches refusing to compromise in either their message or their methods. In that same article, Duncan explains how there are basically three views of gospel ministry:

There are those who think that effective cultural engagement requires an updating of the message. There are those who think that effective ministry requires an updating of our methods. And there are those who think that effective ministry begins with a pre-commitment to God’s message and methods, set forth in His Word.

 

May Providence Presbyterian Church be, and continue to be, a church comprised of people who are committed to God’s message and methods, as set forth in His Word. May we strive to be an ‘ordinary means of grace church’ as we seek to gather and perfect the saints of God here in Midland, TX.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch