Ordinary Means of Extraordinary Grace

Every so often we hear a new methodology or approach to ministry being championed. It will transform the Church’s appeal, we are told, by transforming what the Church does. These approaches have been proven “to work” and therefore they must be the right way. Usually, however,  they explicitly require trading the historic Christian view of how the Church worships and functions for the new way. These things must be tested by Scripture. It also becomes a practical question for the individual believer. How can we best grow spiritually? What sort of church should we attach ourselves to? Is it right to be discontent with a way of worshipping that just seems…ordinary?

We tend to despise the ordinary as customary, commonly practiced, fixed and regular and unexceptional. We prefer what is novel. The ordinary isn’t high-octane, it just doesn’t seem to excite. We are naturally attracted by what pleases our senses and what fits with the assumptions that we draw from the culture of the world around us. The ordinary also represents order and naturally we do not want to be restrained by boundaries.

The Westminster Standards and historic Christianity represent an altogether different perspective. They speak of ordinances that have been ordained and ordered by God in His Word. They are ordinary because that is God’s purpose. He wants us to use them because He has appointed them for ordinarily communicating His grace. God’s grace is not an ordinary thing of course and therefore we can expect extraordinary things to happen spiritually by God’s grace and Spirit.

After reading about an extraordinary work of God’s Spirit on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 we discover that the Church did not try to invent new things to whip up an excitement that comes from the flesh. Instead it moved to the ordinary means of prayer, fellowship and the Word (Acts 2:41-42). When Christ gave a mission to the Church through the apostles He sent the apostles to use specific means: preaching and baptising.

There is a common notion currently that because so much has changed in the world around us, we must therefore change our methods. Why do we think that we need to invent new means of mission for a sovereign God? Surely our duty is simply to follow what He tells us in His Word. How much have things really changed in terms of the needs of the human heart and God’s appointed ways of addressing them? Faith still comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Christ’s sheep still hear His voice in His Word. If we despise God’s ordinary means as common, boring and irrelevant it says nothing about the means themselves. Instead it says volumes about us and our confidence in God and His Word.

Means used to convey vital and important things may often be unassuming and appear ordinary but that does not reduce their importance. Rather it draws more attention to what is conveyed. God uses the things that the world despises in order to bring greater glory to Himself (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Naaman despised the idea of washing in the Jordan but if some great thing was asked of him he would have done it (2 Kings 5:13).

It’s striking how often the Standards speak of that which is ordinary as positive not negative. They speak of God’s ordinary work and the ordinary means He has appointed to convey His extraordinary grace. Both the Larger and Shorter Catechisms ask questions concerning “the outward means” by which Christ communicates to us “the benefits of redemption” (Shorter Catechism, Q88).

This does not happen automatically, these means cannot save or communicate grace by themselves. We need to make use of these means by faith. “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” (Westminster Confession 14:1). The Larger Catechism gives, it tells us a lot about the ordinary means:

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation (Q154)

1. The Ordinary Means are Outward

Why outward? This distinguishes them from the inward work of the Spirit by which we are born again, sanctified etc. The Spirit uses outward means ordinarily as part of this work, although He is free to work without them in extraordinary cases. He makes the outward means effectual by His inward work.

These outward means include the Word read and preached as well as prayer in the name of Christ (1 Timothy 4:13; 2 Timothy 4:2; 1 Timothy 2:1, 8). It may also be the Word sung (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). It is striking that the Shorter Catechism states that the “Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (Q89). The means also include the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are meant to bring increase and growth in grace as we use them by faith (Matthew 28:19; Matthew 26:26–28).

2. The Ordinary Means are Christ’s Gift

God has given us not just the message to proclaim but also the means by which it should be proclaimed. These outward and ordinary means are ordinances which have been given to the Church. Sometimes it seems as though they are unwanted gifts because many wish to diminish their role or substitute other things instead. These are the means by which Christ wants His Church to grow and flourish spiritually.

3. The Ordinary Means are for the Church’s Wellbeing

Christ has not just given us the spiritual life we need but also the means to gather and grow the Church; to nourish and edify that spiritual life. Christ has given to the Church “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world” (Westminster Confession 25:3).

Christ has also given us the means to preserve the peace and order of the Church. Disorder comes from fallen man, order comes from following God’s appointed way. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints”. Therefore, let “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40). On the other hand, new methods invented by our own mere wisdom tend to divide and unsettle the Church.

4. The Ordinary Means Connect us to Christ

If these are the ordinary means by which Christ communicates the benefits of His redemption then they have been given to connect us to Christ. Christ is communicating His benefits to His Church through these means. They are where we meet Christ and have communion with Him. As Samuel Rutherford put it, “Lord’s way of coming to us, and our way of coming to Him” is through His appointed means (Isaiah 64:5).

5. The Ordinary Means Communicate Grace

The Scriptures are spoken of as the word of God’s grace (Acts 20:32). This is their purpose. The same verse goes on to speak of how they build us up. In prayer we come to the throne of grace to find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

6. The Ordinary Means Are to Be Used Diligently

We are to use these means patiently and consistently (Proverbs 2:1-5; 8:33). They are not instant nor a quick fix. God has the sovereign liberty to bestow His spiritual influences when and how He chooses according to His own secret will and purpose. But He has promised such spiritual influences and grace in His appointed means. We use them prayerfully depending on God’s promised grace. We are to work and expect that God will work within us (Philippians 2:12–13).

7. The Ordinary Means are Not Just Those Effectual for Salvation

Notice that the Catechism lists the three means that are made effectual to salvation. There is one other outward and ordinary means. This fourth means is the fellowship of the Church (Acts 2:42). It means all that is shared in the mutual, active functioning of the Church together and what keeps them together. The Sum of Saving Knowledge therefore highlights Church government as a means of grace. By means of this, Christ “will have them hedged in, and helped forward unto the keeping of the covenant”.

This aspect is generally forgotten. The order and governing of the Church is a manifestation of concern for the spiritual welfare and edification of those within it. It ensures that the other ordinary means are maintained in an orderly way in the public gatherings of the Church. It also ensures that Christ’s Word is followed out in practice and seeks to keep His people within the way of His commandments. This requires the loving exercise of Church discipline (Matthew 16:18). The
purpose is to edify and bring to repentance (2 Cor. 10:8; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). This is how it is a means of grace. It is the Word of God practically applied with instruction, exhortation and rebuke.

Conclusion

We ought therefore to have confidence that God in His own extraordinary way is able to make use of ordinary means for the spiritual benefit of ordinary people. He has promised He will do this. May we all experience that (in His sovereign will) on the Lord’s Day.

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