Today there is little understanding of the public means of grace, what they are and how they impact our lives. This is especially so in the realm of Christian nurture: children and adults are properly encouraged to read the Bible and pray but public worship is omitted. How can there be growth and revival in the nurture of our children and our own lives if we ignore mother church and the public means of grace? It is my prayer this series will help remedy this defect.
I. Understanding the Means of Grace: What Are They?
In today's Christian bookstores you can barely find one book on the subject of the means of grace. Indeed, many Christians are not even sure what that phrase entails. Furthermore, these means of grace are either ignored (think of the many Christians wandering from church to church without a regular diet) or taken lightly (think of the lack of proper preparation). Hopefully, in this upcoming series the significance and proper place of the public means of grace will be explained in a useful fashion for all of us.
The Larger Catechism summarizes exactly what these means of grace--"outward means"--are:
Q154: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?
A154: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation. [Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:42,
Just as exercising and eating helps create a healthy body, so, too, spiritual exercise, using the means of grace (both private and public), helps us grow our spiritual body. Many Christians intuitively understand this fact. Thus, they strive for a five-step plan toward better living, or seek after forty-days of a purposeful life. Yet, examining the Bible shows a more simple approach to spiritual growth: the Word, sacraments and prayer. The proof texts used above show that continuing in the truths of the Bible (Acts. 2:42 "apostles' doctrine"), partaking of the sacraments ("breaking bread", v. 42; baptism in Matt. 28), and exercising prayer endorses a healthy church: "And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved." These "outward means" are used by the Spirit of God to grow the church. This is proper church growth. Again, many Christian friends of ours intuitively understand this fact and attend weekly worship.
In the Reformed faith we distinguish between public and private means of grace. Such a distinction is implied in the above Catechism answer when it differentiates between "all his ordinances" and "especially the word, sacraments and prayer."
As used in theological works and the Confessions, the means of grace are strictly limited as public and official elements of public worship. It is not simply any such action of a believer that is a means of grace in this stricter sense, but only the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments and prayer. It can be argued that there is also a broader, private or unofficial means of grace in the lives of the Christians: Bible reading, study and memorization, daily prayers, fellowship, and private and familial worship. Although neither public nor official, the reason these could be called "means of grace" is found in the fact that they are tools used by the Spirit for spiritual growth--it is inconceivable that Reformed communities would downplay the significance of private and familial worship let alone Bible reading, Bible studies or private prayers. Thus, there must be some sense in which these are means of grace.
The importance of this distinction is discovered in the balance that it presents. If the public ordinances are emphasized to the neglect of the private ordinances, an unnatural Christian life develops. Amongst other problems, believers more readily become mechanical in their worship and less spontaneous in their private devotional lives. On the other hand, with a neglect of the public ordinances through a disproportionate emphasis on the private means (as especially demonstrated in contemporary Evangelical circles), the public ordinances are regulated to a position between tradition and irrelevance. In short, both sets of means are needful for a healthy Christian life. They must be properly integrated. (excerpt from Words of Life, Mathis)
Christ does not call us to be spiritual couch potatoes. Rather he calls us to an active life of faith and obedience through the power of the Spirit and the tools He fashions for our benefit. Most Christians grasp the private means of grace. So, it behooves us to take seriously the public means of grace.
Next: the Word.
Understanding the Means of Grace Series:
I. What Are They?
II. Passion for the Word
III. Benefits of the Word
IV. Power of God
V. Foolishness of God
VI. What is a Sacrament?
VII.The Initiatory Rite