More Than a Shibboleth
It has become increasingly common for pastors in Reformed churches to speak of the importance of an “ordinary means of grace” ministry. Many ministers find it deeply reassuring when they meet other ministers who professes a commitment to the ordinary means of grace. After all, many (perhaps most?) local churches in North America are committed to what we might call, “the extraordinary means of human innovation” ministry. However, is it sufficient to profess adherence to an ordinary means of grace ministry? I would suggest that it is not. While professing a commitment to the God-ordained means of grace is right and good, it is altogether possible for pastors to neglect vital biblical nuances concerning the administration of the ordinary means. It is obligatory for us to be committed to a right administrationof the ordinary means of grace, and not simply that we are committed to them. By neglecting to emphasize the right administration of the means of grace, we may allow error to fly under the radar of what becomes a mere Shibboleth.
When addressing the subject of how the ordinary means should be carried out, we do not wish to focus on the forms by which the elements of worship are carried out (e.g., kneeling when praying or stretching out hands when receiving the benediction). Nor do we have the length or structure of a sermon in view. Rather, it refers to the content, context, and connection of the word, sacraments, and prayer.
It is equally possible for ministers to affirm an ordinary means of grace commitment to the sacraments while not carrying them out in accord with Scripture. One can speak of the importance of prayer while being redundant, flippant, or overly ritualistic in public prayer. How we minister the ordinary means of grace is every bit as important as confessing our commitment to them in the context of public worship.
The Word of God
In every church that acknowledges the importance of an ordinary means of grace ministry, there will be ministers who preach and teach the Scriptures. However, it is altogether possible for ministers to affirm the ordinary means of grace with regard to the ministry of the Word of God while misrepresenting the central message of Scripture. All Scripture points to the Person, work, and reward of Christ. The apostle Paul confessed that he determined not to know anything among the churches except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Whatever subject the apostle Paul addressed, he related it to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We can inadvertently deny the “gracious” nature of the ordinary means if we fail to proclaim and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross in our preaching and teaching. It is possible to emphasize the ethical teaching of Jesus in our preaching and teaching, in such a way as to give our hearers the sense that they can do what they are called to do apart from the saving work of Christ. Geerhardus Vos raised this warning over a century ago, when he wrote,
“It is possible, Sabbath after Sabbath and year after year, to preach things of which none can say that they are untrue and none can deny that in their proper place and time they may be important, and yet to forego telling people plainly and to forego giving them the distinct impression that they need forgiveness and salvation from sin through the cross of Christ…. This does not mean that every sermon which we preach must necessarily be what is technically called an evangelistic sermon. There may be frequent occasions when to do that would be out of place and when a discourse on some ethical or apologetic or social topic is distinctly called for. But whatever topic you preach on and whatever text you choose, there ought not to be in your whole repertoire a single sermon in which from beginning to end you do not convey to your hearers the impression that what you want to impart to them, you do not think it possible to impart to them in any other way than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ, because in your own conviction that alone is the remedy which you can honestly offer to a sinful world.”
The right preaching and teaching of God’s Word will keep things in proper biblical perspective. We will employ the requisite exegetical, systematic theology and biblical-theological aspects into our exposition of whatever text we preach. A truly biblical ordinary means of grace ministry will emphasize the right preaching of the Word and not simply that supposed expositions of the Word are preached. The apostle Paul charged Timothy with the following admonition: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching . . . . Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:15). And, in his second letter to Timothy, Paul wrote, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Just as someone can profess an ordinary means of grace ministry while preaching a deficient message, a minister can misrepresent the sacraments in the worship service. This can occur by investing the sacraments with more or less significance than Scripture gives them.
It may be safe to conclude that most churches have improper views of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace. On the one hand, many churches have too low a view of the Supper. This is demonstrable from the infrequency with which a church partakes, the casualness with which it is observed, and the lack of teaching about it as a means of grace for those who partake of it by faith. In such churches, the practice of fencing the table is frequently neglected. A right administration of the Supper involves a biblical explanation of its meaning, a call for believers to engage in self-examination, and a reminder of the promises and warnings attached to it (1 Cor. 11:17–34). On the other hand, there are churches that place too high a view on the sacrament. I have heard ministers speak of the Supper as the most important element in the worship service. Perhaps driven by overreaction to a downplaying of the importance of the Supper, certain ministers begin to treat the Supper as if it is more important than the ministry of the Word of God. In fact, as a means of grace, the Supper is dependent on the Word—and not vice versa. Vos explained this when he wrote,
“The Word is the beginning, middle, and end. If necessary, we can think of Word as a means of grace without sacrament, but it is impossible to think of sacrament as a means of grace without Word. The sacraments depend on Scripture, and the truth of Scripture speaks in and through them.”
A proper view of the Supper as a means of grace will manifest itself in the centrality of a biblical exposition about its meaning and the right way to approach it. It will highlight the fact that there is real spiritual benefit to partaking of it by faith; and, it will result in a seriousness with which the warnings annexed to it are taught.
Prayer is also a means of grace, and, as such, should have a central place in our worship services. Many Christians are unaccustomed to a pastoral prayer in worship. Too many Evangelical churches relegated prayer to a discussion about the role it ought to play in a believer’s personal life. However, in worship services, the briefest, most casual, and hurried prayers are offered. Samuel Miller, the second professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote a book titled, Thoughts on Public Prayer, in order to address the way in which ministers should approach prayer as a means of grace in the context of public worship. Among the numerous practical advice he offered, Miller stated, “Avoid too much rapidity and vehemence.” Miller explained that “words ‘few,’ ‘well considered’ and ‘well ordered,’ are the inspired characteristics of a good prayer.” He went on to note that when men pray too quickly or with too much excitment, it becomes a distraction to those he is trying to lead. Whatever else we may conclude about prayer as a means of grace in worship, of this much we can be sure—it ought to be evident that we are seeking to call the divine blessing down from our Father in heaven. To do anything less is to send a message that we can lay hold of the blessing of the means of grace in our own strength.
In all that we do in ministering the means of grace, we must remember that we are to be seeking the Christ of the means of grace and not the mere external administration of the means of grace. Richard Sibbes put this so well when he wrote,
“If a man trust God in the use of the means, his care will be to keep God his friend by repentance and daily exercises of religion, by making conscience of his duty. But if he trust the means and not God, he will be careless and weak in good duties, dull and slow.”
The heart of Pharisaism was to trust in rituals—even God-ordained, biblical rituals—rather than in the God of the ritual. In one sense, the Pharisees were committed to the ordinary means of the Word of God; however, they perverted the teaching of the Word by denying the Christ of the Word. They were committed to fasting, praying, and giving; however, they did those things with self-righteous hearts and motives. They strictly observed the Passover while rejecting the One who was the true Passover Lamb. May we not fall into ritualistic, Christless, and imbalanced approaches to the means of grace in our churches. How we minister the means of grace in the context of public worship is more important than simply professing to be “an ordinary means of grace church.” May the ordinary means of grace be more than a Shibboleth to us.
*This post was first published at the Gospel Reformation Network on August 19, 2020.