Berkhof on the Outward and Ordinary Means of Grace


How does God normally work in the lives of sinners?  How does Christ communicate to His people the benefits of redemption?  How does the Holy Spirit usually cause believers to grow in grace?

In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof writes,

Fallen man receives all the blessings of salvation out of the eternal fountain of the grace of God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ and through the operation of the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit can and does in some respects operate immediately on the soul of the sinner, He has seen fit to bind Himself largely to the use of certain means in the communication of divine grace. The term “means of grace” is not found in the Bible, but is nevertheless a proper designation of the means that are indicated in the Bible. (p.604)

What are those “means of grace” that the Holy Spirit “has seen fit to bind Himself largely to” in the communication of the divine grace to sinners?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers that question in  the following way:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. 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.

If you think about it, that makes the public worship of the church on the Lord’s day very important, even central to God’s plan for working in the lives of sinners.  Yet that is a concept that seems downright foreign to many in the church today.

The “Word” (as explained in the very next question in the catechism – Q.89) refers to “the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word.” Private reading and meditation on the Word is good and necessary, but it is no substitute for the preaching of the Word. (And, no, listening to sermons online really isn’t quite the same thing.) The sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are not private ordinances, but are by definition a part of the public worship of the church.  And prayer? While we certainly would not downplay the importance of personal, private prayer (see Matthew 6:5-6), the kind of prayer spoken of as a means of grace is primarily corporate prayer in public worship.  This is what is being referred to in Acts 2:42 where Luke writes,

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

When Luke says “the prayers,” this is not just a reference to prayer in general, but specifically to prayer in public worship.  Indeed everything mentioned in Acts 2:42 (i.e. the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread [i.e. the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper], and the prayers) is corporate in nature – it is describing the church gathered together, not individual believers in private.

All of this has some very important implications for how we view public and private worship:

  1. If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, you must not neglect the public, corporate worship of the church on the Lord’s day.  Private devotions (reading & studying the Bible privately, spending time in prayer, etc.) are certainly good and commendable, but they are not sufficient. They were never intended to be sufficient (much less primary), for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.  Christianity is most certainly personal, but it is never intended to be private.
  2. Our churches simply must emphasize and rely upon the means of grace (the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer) if we truly want to see God at work in and through us.  The outward and ordinary means of grace may not be very flashy; they may not be exciting; they may not be very impressive in the eyes of the world (or in the eyes of worldly Christians for that matter!); in short, they may seem rather, well, ordinary.  But they are God’s ordained means of growing His people in grace and building His church.
  3. If you are a member or regular attender of a church where the means of grace are neglected, downplayed, or even absent from public worship, you should not expect to grow in grace there. Without the means of grace, all the bells and whistles in the world are just so much noise (even if well-orchestrated noise).
  4. Small groups, growth groups, community groups – whatever you call them – can be a good thing.  They can serve a vital purpose, especially in larger churches.  But small groups are not more important to the growth of believers than public worship on the Lord’s day.  Small groups are helpful, but they are not where the “real work” of ministry and growth happens.  This truth is contrary to much of what passes for conventional wisdom in the church today.

So we dare not neglect the outward and ordinary means of grace.  And that means that we must not neglect the public, corporate worship of the church on the Lord’s day.  It may not seem like much – it may seem all too ordinary, but where you find the Word, Sacraments, and corporate prayer – that is where you will find God to be at work in the lives of sinners, bringing life from the dead, leading sinners to saving faith in the Savior, and building them up in the grace of Jesus Christ.

See you on Sunday!

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