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.