Means of Grace

The Means of Grace & the Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.3)

This is now the third post in a series of posts going through what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us about the church (chapter 25). Why is the visible church so important? What is it about the visible (and so the local) church that makes it so needful for us as believers?

The answers to those questions are found, at least in part, in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which says,

“Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.”

There are at least five (5) things that this statement teaches us about the means of grace in the church:

The first thing that we should take notice of is the origin or source of the means of grace. The Confession says that these things (i.e. “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) are things that “Christ has given” to the visible church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 defines the “visible church” – see here.)

This is similar to the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11-13, where he writes,

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . .” (ESV, italics mine)

He (the Lord Jesus Christ) is the one who gave those gifts/offices/officers to His church for the building up or edification of the body. They were not the invention of man. That being the case, whatever Christ, as the only head of the church (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6) has instituted and ordained for His church (i.e. “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) ought to be at the heart of every Christian church’s ministry. We in the church do not have the right to disregard or downplay what Christ Himself has ordained and instituted for our good.

The second thing we see in the Confession’s statement above is the identity of the means of grace in the church. What is it that the Confession says was given by Christ to His church? The “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” And what do those things refer to? The “ministry” is the ministry of the gospel, the offices that He has ordained for the church, especially the ordained ministry of the Word and Sacrament (i.e. the pastor or teaching elder).

The “oracles” of God refers to the Scriptures, which are the church’s “infallible oracle and rule of faith and practice” (A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p.313). Now that is not to downplay or ignore the importance of the Scriptures in the daily lives of individual Christians, but there is a sense in which the Scriptures are especially given to the visible church, and not just to individual believers. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says elsewhere,

“The Spirit of God makes 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” (Q.89, italics mine).

Even the New Testament epistles themselves are almost exclusively addressed to churches, and not just to individual believers. And even those epistles of Paul that are written to specific individuals are written concerning the church (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) or at least with the church in view (“To Philemon our beloved fellow worker . . .and the church in your house” – Philemon 1:2, ESV).

Lastly, the “ordinances of God.” This refers to the means of grace (or outward and ordinary means of grace) in particular. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines them as follows:

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.

So the “ordinances of God” are those “outward and ordinary means” by which Christ Himself communicates or gives to us the benefits of redemption. And those are the Word, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. This is speaking of the things found, first and foremost, in the public worship of the church.

The third thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is their purpose. Christ has given them to His church “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” In other words, they are given for evangelism and discipleship (not that those two things are entirely mutually exclusive).

The “gathering” of the saints refers to bringing sinners to faith in Christ. As Shorter Catechism Q.89 (cited above) puts it, it is “especially the preaching” of the Word that is “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” Do we think of the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s day in the church that way? Do we see it as something that God especially uses in evangelism? We should. And so inviting your unbelieving loved ones, friends, and neighbors to join you for worship on a Sunday should be seen as a key part (even if not the only part) of evangelism.

The “perfecting” of the saints refers to their edification and growth in grace (i.e. “building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” – WSC Q.89). Are you neglecting the gathering together of the saints (Hebrews 10:25)? Then, frankly, it should come as no shock to you if you are not growing in grace. For in neglecting the gathering together of the saints in worship on the Lord’s day, you are also then neglecting the outward and ordinary means of grace – the “ordinances of God” that He has given for your growth in Christ.

The fourth thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is their perpetuity – that they are given for the gathering and perfecting of the saints “in this life, to the end of the world.” The outward and ordinary means of grace always seem to be going out of style in the eyes of many, but we must hold to them as Christ ordained them for us. These things are how the Lord Jesus Christ has seen fit to build His church, and it is only through fidelity to Christ in these things that we can be assured of His blessing. We must devote ourselves to doing God’s work God’s way. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, ESV). And what was the result? Their lives and fellowship was transformed, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v.47)!

The fifth and final thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is that their true power or efficacy lies in the presence and Spirit of Christ Himself – that they are made effectual only “by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise.” Word and Spirit must go together. It is the Spirit of Christ which makes the Word effective in us. It is the Spirit who alone causes the Sacraments (baptism & the Lord’s Supper) to be a means of grace. We must not think of the means of grace as if they were a mechanical thing, or as if they worked through a kind of mechanical process. Going through the motions (even the “right” motions) does not guarantee the communication of grace.

I hope that you have found these studies in the Confession of Faith to be helpful. Lord willing, our next post will be on what it has to say (in 25.4) about the marks of the true church.

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Ephesians 6:1 on Children and Public Worship

In many evangelical churches it has become increasingly common for the little ones to be excluded in one way or another from attending public worship with their families.

We have the nursery for infants, separate programs of various kinds for the younger children, and some churches even go so far as to have a separate meeting(s) for the youth (i.e. junior and senior high school students) during the worship service.  It would almost seem that in some churches a child could practically go from infancy all the way through graduation from high school without ever actually attending the public worship of their church! (And we wonder why so many children leave the church when they move away to college – they were never really in the church in the first place!)

Now this post is not intended to be an argument against churches having nurseries or cry rooms available to their members who have little ones. (Nor is it an argument against youth ministry in general.) Parents sometimes worry that their noisy infant or toddler might disrupt things or distract others from worship. Such concerns are understandable. (As a father of three younger children myself, I know what it is like to have one of our children crying, wiggling around in their seats, or generally making noise of some kind.) But some churches actually go so far as to openly discourage parents from keeping their little ones with them during the service.

That should not be the case. Parents in our churches should not be discouraged from having their little ones sit with them during the worship service. More than that, I believe that we should do what we can to make children (and their parents!) actually feel welcome in the worship services of our churches. Might that lead to more noise and distraction? Sure. But I think the benefits (especially to the children) over the long haul far outweigh any apparent short-lived negatives that might be involved in having them sit in with the rest of the church during worship.

Not only that, but I believe that we actually have scriptural warrant for such a practice. In Ephesians 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul quotes and applies the 5th commandment, saying,

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

Notice that in his epistle to the church he gives an imperative or command to children. And he does not just give this command to them through their parents, but rather addresses it to the children themselves – directly. In other words, he doesn’t say, “Parents, make sure that your children know that they should obey you in the Lord, for this is right,” but rather “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (v.1, italics mine)

That should get our attention. Paul, the great apostle and evangelist to the Gentiles, did not see himself as above teaching children; he did not view them as unworthy of instruction along with the rest of the church. Even more importantly for our purposes here, we should take note that he clearly presupposes the presence of children in the public worship services of the church, where his epistles would no doubt have been read and taught to the church.

This also implies that in our preaching we ought to bear in mind the presence of children, and even address them directly at times, when applicable. This also means that our preaching should not be aimed so far over their heads that they cannot even begin to understand anything that is being said.

And let us never forget the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who said,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, ESV)

The Prayer Meeting as a Gauge of the Spiritual Life of the Church

Elder DicksonPerhaps the only thing rarer in the church these days than the Sunday evening worship service is the prayer meeting. And even when there is a regular prayer meeting, it is surely often one of the most sparsely-attended gatherings of the church.

Why is this the case? Did our Lord Jesus not say (quoting Isaiah 56:7) that “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46)? The church, then, should be characterized by (among other things) prayer.

Now, it is certainly possible that a church can be a praying church without necessarily having a weekly prayer meeting. But it sure helps, doesn’t it? If your church has a regular prayer meeting, even if  it is not well-attended, take heart. Don’t give up on it. Great things often come from small beginnings.

In his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) makes the following observation:

“In a country village of which we know, there has been a prayer meeting conducted now for more than a hundred years. That place has been blessed three or four times with a revival of religion – shall we not say in answer to these prayers? This interesting fact was also told us: that when the tide of blessing was about to come in, the numbers began unaccountably to increase till the place was too strait for them; even outside the door there were many earnest attenders. The people knew that the tide was far out when the number fell to five or six. Then they began to pray again for a turning of the tide, and a spring tide came. Alas! in many of our congregations the tide is far out, if we are to judge by attendance at prayer meetings, which are a kind of gauge of spiritual life; yet let those who attend them continue to pray on.” (p.79)

That observation may be somewhat anecdotal, but it certainly strikes me as true. I have long been convinced that we will know that something really special is happening in the life of our church when our weekly prayer meetings start being strongly-attended.

Is the “tide” far out at your church? Maybe so. But who knows what the Lord may do (or when) if His people just continue to pray on together. If attendance at prayer meetings is a “gauge” of the spiritual life of the church, and if that gauge shows that our churches are in need of revitalization and revival, let us continue to pray together for a turning of the tide. Let us watch and pray for the spring tide to roll in.

Sinclair Ferguson on the Preaching of the Word

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315How important is the preaching of the Word of God in the lives of God’s people? How does its importance rank in comparison to things such as personal Bible reading or devotional study? Or small group Bible study?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation:

“Although set at a discount today by comparison with participation in either personal Bible study or more particularly group Bible study, neither of these, valuable as they may be, can substitute for the transforming power of the preached word.” (p.49)

Now Ferguson is not denying or downplaying the benefits of personal or group Bible studies. Far from it! But he is saying something that seems to go against conventional wisdom in many church circles today. What he is arguing for is the centrality of the preached Word of God in the life of the church.

If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, personal Bible reading and study are very good things. So is small group Bible study. But there is something special about the preaching of the Word of God. This is also the teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 89) which speaks of how the Word of God is made effectual to salvation in the lives of believers:

“The Spirit of God makes 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.”

Another way of putting it would be to say that the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God in the lives of believers. And He certainly uses our own personal reading and study of the Word. But it is “especially the preaching of the Word” that He makes effectual in the lives of God’s people!

So if you are a believer in Christ and desire to see the Holy Spirit at work in your life, making you grow in grace and transforming your life more and more in the likeness of Jesus Christ, make it your practice to diligently attend upon the preaching of the Word in public worship. There is simply no substitute for the preached Word in the lives of God’s people!

How to Listen to a Sermon

1710_largeA lot of hard work usually goes into preaching a sermon (if it is done properly). The average  expository sermon that goes for maybe 30-45 minutes might take anywhere from 10-20 hours of preparation time, depending on the pastor and the particular circumstances of his church or situation in a given week. (Many pastors will not be able to allocate 20 hours of study/prep time, of course.)

But what about listening to sermons? Is there anything that goes into that other than simply showing up and listening? The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this question:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached? A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives”

So there are some things that are actually required from the listener (not just the preacher) in order to get the most out of the preaching of God’s Word on the Lord’s day. What are some of those things?

First, we must “attend upon it with diligence.” Show up for worship on Sundays, and do so consistently & regularly. Make it your habit and priority to be there every Lord’s day (morning and evening, if applicable). Show up and listen. Real listening takes some effort. Focus on and pay attention to the sermon, and do not allow yourself to be distracted by other things (e.g. put you cell phone away).

Second, attend upon it with preparation. What would you say if I were to tell you that to a large extent what you ‘get out of the sermon’ (to use a common phrase) depends upon what you do before the sermon ever starts? In fact, the way that you spend your Saturdays will largely influence the quality of your time spent in worship on Sundays. Do you get enough sleep, as much as depends upon you to do so? Or do you stay up or out too late at night? (It is difficult to attend diligently upon the preaching of the Word of God if you are half asleep.)

Do you read through the sermon text prior to worship? Not just five minutes before the service, but during the week, or even the night before the service. This, of course, requires that one actually know what the sermon text will be ahead of time. In many churches, especially in those where the pastor(s) preach expositionally straight through entire books of the Bible, this is not at all difficult to do. So make it a point to spend some time reading the sermon text in advance. Think about what the passage means, and the many ways that it might apply to your life.

Thirdly, do all of this with prayer. Do we prayerfully prepare for worship? Do we prayerfully read through the sermon text ahead of time, asking the Lord to give us understanding? At the end of the day we must pray, because we must be taught by the Lord if we are going to understand His Word rightly, and apply it rightly as well.

The next thing we are instructed to do is to examine what we hear by the Scriptures. This, of course, is based upon Acts 17:11 which says, “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so“(ESV). They received the Word of God “with all eagerness.” What a great picture of the disposition that God’s people should have toward the preaching of the Word of God! And their eagerness to receive the Word of God led them to examine whatever they heard by the Scriptures! If they could do that when they heard the Apostle Paul himself preaching (and be considered “noble” for doing so!), how much more should we who hear the Word preached today make it a point to examine what we hear by the Scriptures!

And the last thing(s) that Q.160 mentions is that we must then “receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.” In other words, once we have prepared, prayed, carefully listened, examined what was said in the sermon, and found it to be true to the Scriptures, we should receive it as the very Word of God! That means receiving it “with faith” (believing/trusting it), love, and humility. That means meditating or thinking upon it, discussing it, memorizing it or keeping it in mind, and applying or obeying it. After all, James 1:22 tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (ESV). Hearing the Word is a good start, but it is only the beginning!

That sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it? That’s a lot of work for the listener! But that is the right way to approach listening to the faithful preaching of the Word of God. By God’s grace, seek to make this your practice, and you may strangely find your pastor’s preaching inexplicably getting much better (even when his actual preaching has not changed)! Even more importantly, you may find the Word of God bearing much fruit in your life, to the glory of God!

Feeding the Flock With a Slingshot? (Dabney on Polemics in Preaching)

dabney-eeFeeding Christ’s sheep is a common metaphor for the preaching and teaching aspect of pastoral ministry. When the risen Christ told Simon Peter to “feed my sheep” (John 21:17), He certainly intended Peter to understand that if he (Peter) truly loved Him, one of the primary ways that he was to show it was in feeding Christ’s sheep by ministering the Word of God to them faithfully.

The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), the writer of the book of Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12-14), and even the Apostle Peter (1 Peter 2:2) likewise all used imagery involving feeding (or eating) to describe the ministry of the Word.

And so a right view of the preaching and teaching ministry in the church will necessarily involve seeing it in some way as (among other things) feeding Christ’s sheep. That should have a profound influence on the way that we approach preaching in the church. True Christian preaching should be done for the glory of Christ, and for the benefit (even the spiritual nourishment) of the flock.

In his book, Evangelical Eloquence, Robert L. Dabney (1820-1898) offers a number of critiques and cautions about certain kinds of preaching that are not fitting in the church. One of those preaching styles or practices might be described as polemics-centered preaching.

What is polemics? It can be defined as the practice of refuting error by means of dispute or argumentation. It can rightly be thought of as at least one aspect of destroying arguments raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Certainly there is a place for that in the preaching and teaching of the church.

Nonetheless, Dabney had the following to say about the kind of preaching that focuses almost entirely on polemics:

“In [other pulpits] the Sabbaths of the people are wholly occupied with those polemics by which the outworks of Christianity should be defended against the foreign assaults of infidel philosophy; as though one would feed the flock within the fold with the bristling missiles which should have been hurled against the wolves without.” (p.39)

Now here he is not condemning any and all polemics in our pulpits – far from it! There is nothing wrong with polemics in the pulpit per se. There is most certainly a use (even a need) for it at times. Without it, the flock will be unprepared for some of the assaults from within or without that might threaten the doctrinal integrity and unity of the church. But not all polemical issues are relevant (or even accessible) to the flock.

Sometimes, as Dabney rightly points out above, polemical preaching can be aimed at the wrong audience. Sometimes the staff (or the “bristling missiles,” as Dabney puts it) that should be used with force against the wolves, ends up being misdirected at the sheep instead. Such preaching is surely no way to feed Christ’s flock.

So let us feed Christ’s sheep in all of our preaching and teaching in the church. And let polemics have their proper place in our preaching and teaching, to be sure, but not the central place, lest we mistakenly try to feed Christ’s sheep a steady diet of stones or “bristling missiles.” Let us be careful not to try to feed Christ’s sheep with a slingshot. It not only fails to keep the wolves away, but it also leads to a malnourished flock.

Becoming “Sermon-Proof” (John Owen on The Dangers of Sin)

mortificationofsinIn his book, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen notes (among other things) the importance and necessity of having “a clear and abiding sense” in our minds and consciences of “the guilt, danger, and evil of sin” (p.65). Without a clear, biblical understanding of sin for what it really is, we will be ill-equipped to “put to death the deeds of the body” by the Spirit (Romans 8:13).

There he points out a number of the many dangers that sin poses to us, the first of which is the danger of being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). He writes:

“This hardening is so serious that your heart becomes insensitive to moral influence. Sin leads to this. Every sin and lust will make a little progress in this direction. You who at one time were very tender and would melt under the influence of the Word and under trials will grow ‘sermon-proof’ and ‘trial proof.'” (p.68)

Sermon-proof. What a sobering phrase! It is bad enough that so many in our day simply avoid hearing the preaching of the Word in public worship altogether; but how much worse is the condition of those who, though they regularly attend the preaching of the Word, nevertheless have grown immune to its benefits.

Sermon-proof. That is a fitting description of the people of Isaiah’s day:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV)

To be sermon-proof is to continually hear, but not understand, to see, but not perceive. And what is the end result? A refusal to “turn” (or repent) and “be healed.” No wonder the writer of the book of Hebrews warns us of the “deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13)!

Are you sermon-proof? Do not content yourself with the mere hearing of sermons. Hearing sermons is certainly a good start, but it is not nearly enough. Hearing sermons, even on a regular, weekly basis is no firm evidence that one is not sermon proof. One can hear sermons until the proverbial cows come home, and yet do so with no benefit whatsoever.

Let us learn to attend the preaching of God’s Word in public worship “with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.90).

And, as the writer of the book of Hebrews puts it, let us “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV).