christ, church, definition of faith, fellowship, grace, justification, means of grace, mystical practices, prayer, sacraments, sanctification, sufficiency of grace, theology, Word, worship experiences
In the previous blog, I wrote about the sufficiency of grace in the life of the believer. The grace of God found in the atoning sacrifice of Christ is absolutely sufficient to redeem and save the Christian. Nothing else is needed apart from God’s grace to save the sinner. Since His grace is truly all-sufficient, it can only be received through faith. This faith is not simply an intellectual ascent to the terms of the gospel, but a faith that comes from a regenerate heart wrought by God (the best definition of faith that I’ve heard came from Martin Luther). For this reason, it can be said that the complete work of justification is distinct yet inseparable from the progressive work of sanctification in the believer.
As many believers, I rejoice in the reality of being justified by God; however, I’m also frustrated at times because it appears that my growth in Christ is rather slow (at times, it appears as slow as watching grass grow). However, God has provided the means to accomplish His work; namely, God has established the means by which Christians grow in the grace and the knowledge of the Lord. Throughout Christian history, these means are called the ordinary means of grace. They are ordinary in the sense that every Christian can use them to grow and God has promised to communicate His grace to His people through these means.
These means are also ordinary in the sense that they transcend time and every Christian fad that has developed over the years. These means may not be flashy, popular, or trendy, but they will always be effectual when practiced in faith. Unfortunately, many Christians have neglected these means and have spent their time devoted to various other means such as mystical practices, Purpose Driven Life study groups, twelve step groups, worship experiences, being “slain in the Spirit”, and etc. Just as God’s ordained means of salvation comes only through His message and His work in the gospel, God’s ordained means for communicating His grace to His people come through His prescribed means of grace.
God’s Ordained Means of Salvation
The passage that best describes the means of grace is Acts 2:37-45
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This passage explains the practice of the church that God formed on the Day of Pentecost. We see first that Peter preached the gospel because it is the only message that God has ordained for saving the lost. Those who were convicted by the Holy Spirit repented of their sin, trusted in Christ, and were baptized. Following their conversion, the passage describes four practices that the new converts were completely devoted to: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Supper), and prayers. These are the means of grace. There is nothing flashy about these things, but when believers are committed to them with faith, God works extraordinarily in them.
If we would be honest with ourselves, when we are growing in the Lord, we are typically devoted to these practices. When we are stagnant in our walk with God, we are typically neglecting at least one of these basic practices. If we are in a backslidden state, we are typically neglecting all of these practices in some way. If we would examine the lives of great men and women of God today or in history, regardless of their denominational affiliations or theological positions, virtually all of them have been faithful using the means of grace. The temptation is to believe that there is secret spiritual knowledge or spiritual experiences that produced the mature spirituality of great men and women of God. Moreover, the temptation is to believe that our development will rapidly accelerate if we find their secret. For this reason, many Christians go to multiple conferences each year, go to large corporate worship services, and read multiple Christian biographies to figure out their secret. The reality is that it is the ordinary, faithful use of the means of grace that has caused all of these Christians to grow. There are no alternatives to the means of grace. These other methods may be helpful, but if Christians do not devote themselves to the ordinary means of grace, all of the other means will be worthless. I would argue that the ordinary means of grace are absolutely sufficient for the growth and maturity of Christians.
Unfortunately, we live in a time where professing Christians do not devote themselves to the means of grace and many Christians simply neglect them to their own peril. Rather, unbiblical practices such as “contemplative prayer” have found their way into many churches under the banner of “Christian disciplines.” Many Christians chase great church experiences, yet they neglect true biblical fellowship. Many Christians chase after the spiritual gifts, yet they neglect a serious study of the scriptures. Many Christians esteem great praise and worship services, yet prayerlessness abounds. Many Christians rejoice over the baptism of new converts, yet very few Christians see the significance of the Lord’s Supper.
The Means of Grace in the New Testament
In upcoming blogs, I will focus on each of the means of grace specifically, but in this blog, I want to emphasize examples of how the New Testament church grows in the grace and knowledge of the Lord.
In regards to the Apostles, Acts 6:1-4 records:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
The apostles understood that although there are many tasks that need to be done in the church, these tasks are of a lower priority than prayer and the word. Here, the apostles give us a pattern of the priority and devotion that Christians should have to prayer and the Word. Of course, this is exemplified in Christ who devoted Himself to prayer constantly throughout His ministry. If the perfect Son of God devoted Himself constantly in prayer, how much more should we be devoted to prayer?
In regards to the importance of the Word and the ministry of the Word, Paul gives a strong exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13-16:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
The call given to Timothy was to immerse and absorb himself in the Word because his devotion to the Word would determine how much he would grow in the faith. Moreover, Timothy’s devotion to the scriptures would significantly impact the development of those who are under him. For this reason, Paul charges Timothy to labor in the Word and to rightly divide the Word of truth (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15).
In terms of devotion to fellowship, Paul praises the household of Stephanas for their faithful service to him and to the saints in Corinth
Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer. I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such men. 1 Corinthains 16:15-18
Paul emphasizes that the devotion of the household of Stephanas refreshed him, indicating to us that devotion to fellowship is vital to the health and growth of the church. The Christian who chooses not to devote himself to fellowship or neglects the ministry of the church does so to his own peril. God doesn’t save individual so that they may live individual lives; rather, He saves lost sinners so that He can integrate them into His bride. He gave Himself for us to redeem us from lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for His own possession (cf. Titus 2:11-14).
I want to emphasize again that grace is not a force or a substance. When I speak about the means of grace, I’m not talking about a method that dispenses grace as if it were accessible through a wall-outlet. Moreover, stating that the Word, sacraments, and prayer are ordinary means does not imply this these means are common or boring. God gave us these things for the purpose of being transmitters of his grace to us, if we by faith will appropriate and use them! If we gave them up so that we might replace them with things that are “more exciting” or “more relevant,” what would that say about the “ordinary means?” It would say nothing at all about their power or their relevance, but it would say a great deal about our lack of confidence in God. If we would use and immerse ourselves in the means of grace, we will see God do miraculous things in our life that no trendy Christian practice can produce. This is a call for perseverance; God will complete His work of sanctification for us if we continue to devote ourselves to the Word, the sacraments, fellowship, and prayer.