Why the Ordinary Means of Grace Must Be Central in Our Gatherings
The Westminster Shorter Catechism provides as helpful a definition as any of the means of grace:
The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates 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. (Question 88)
All the ordinances of God, but especially the Word read and preached, the sacraments of baptism and the Supper, and the prayers of the people of God: these are the outward and ordinary means Christ uses to impart the blessings of the gospel to his people by the Holy Spirit. And I daresay that every evangelical would agree that these are the constituent elements of Christian worship, commanded by Scripture, and normative for the church.
To be sure, some of us might quibble over the language here or there. Some dislike the word “sacraments.” Some worry that calling these ordinances of God “means of grace” might convey the mistaken idea that simply in the performance of these outward acts grace is conferred (which is not at all what the phrase intends). But these differences aside, the Word of God read and preached, prayed and sung, seen in baptism and tasted in the Lord’s Supper—all agree that these are the fundamentals of Christian worship. They are the primary mechanisms given to us for our discipleship. So far, so good.
It remains, however, a perennially pressing question as to what role these elements ought to play in any given Sunday service. Certainly, they ought to feature regularly in the life of the church. But can’t we do other things too? Can’t we set aside some part or other of these ordinary means, in favor of something special once in a while?
Perhaps the simplest way to respond to these challenges is to parse the phrase “ordinary means of grace.”
1. Ordinary means ordained.
Calling the means of grace “ordinary” teaches us two things. First, these means are appointed. They are “ordinary,” in the sense of having been ordained by God in Holy Scripture. That’s why the catechism calls them “ordinances.” The classic text for this assertion is Acts 2:42, where we read of the post-Pentecostal church that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
When we ask what Christians should do when they gather in churches on the first day of the week, Scripture has answers for us: reading the Bible, preaching the gospel, praying, singing, and observing baptism and the Supper. That’s what we should do. That’s it. When Paul wrote to Timothy, to encourage him in his new pastorate at Ephesus, his Ministry 101 refresher course is remarkably clear. As contemporary evangelicals, we are often prone to measuring church vitality by the Three Bs: buildings, bodies, and budgets. That’s how we know things are going well. But Paul wants Timothy focused elsewhere.
Listen to his counsel to the young pastor:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1–5)
Timothy faces mounting pressure to give people what they prefer, what sits more easily with them, what they enjoy. Paul presses him in the opposite direction. He tells Timothy to remain resolute in giving people what they need. In other words, he needs to preach the Word. The central means appointed by God for the gathering-in of the lost and the growing-up of the found is the preaching of the Word. It’s not flashy. It’s not novel. But it is what God has ordained.
So pastors, just do that. It might be harder (notice that Timothy is to “endure suffering” as he does the “work of an evangelist”!). It might result in slower measurable growth in your buildings, bodies, and budgets . But it is God’s way, so it must be ours.
2. Ordinary means not extraordinary.
Secondly, the word ordinary needs to be set in contrast to its antonym: extraordinary. To be sure, God regularly made use of many extraordinary means to impart his grace to his people. All of the miracles and revelatory gifts were extraordinary. And fidelity to Scripture compels us to maintain that God remains free to work as he wills.
But surely, we ought never to neglect the ordinary means while we look expectantly for him to work through the extraordinary. The context of Acts 2:42 is once again important here. If ever there was an unusual and extraordinary season in the life of the church, this was it. But what characterizes the newly Spirit-empowered church in the grip of what we might today recognize as a remarkable revival? Well, it’s not an obsession with the new and the unusual and the innovative and the extraordinary. No, the church is devoted to the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. There is not chaos. There is clarity. The Word of God was mighty in their midst and the people responded in prayer and praise. There is no smoke and mirrors, no gimmicks or pizazz, no central personality or rock-star leader. The Word did the work.
3. Remember: they are a means of grace.
Finally, we need to remember that our worship services ought to focus on the ordinary means of grace not only because they are ordinary, but also because they are a means of grace. In my judgment, the best way to understand how the Word, the sacraments, and prayer communicate to us the saving grace of Christ, is to focus on the way the Word works. Hebrews 4:2 speaks of the fathers of Israel who derived no benefit from the Word preached because it was “unmixed with faith” or, as some versions have it, because they were not joined by faith to those who believed the Word. Either way, the point is the same: benefitting from the Word requires faith. Faith takes hold of the grace on offer in the Word.
The sacraments are “visible words,” as Calvin said, echoing Augustine. And they work in the same way. We receive them, believing the gospel they depict—and by believing, we receive the grace they offer. Similarly, prayer takes God at his promise and offers up “our desires unto God for things agreeable to his Word” (Westminster Shorter Catechism 98). Prayer is a pleading of the promises of the Word back to God. But the Word is the main thing.
And when we put the main thing at the heart of all we do, we put ourselves on the road toward blessing, toward the grace of God in Jesus Christ. So why would we look elsewhere when we know that God has promised to meet us here, in the Word, in the sacraments, and in prayer?
So then, when we gather, let’s not mess around with our own homespun techniques. In faith, let us read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, and see and taste and touch the Word. As we do, surely the grace promised in the Word will be ours to the glory of the Triune God.