Results tagged “ordinary means of grace” from Reformation21 Blog

Worship and the Christian's True Identity

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The whole of the Christian life can be summed up in these two little words (favorites of the Apostle Paul): "in Him." Our union with Christ is the definitive aspect of our salvation and our status before God and others, and therefore our identity must be found in Christ. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the world desperately wants us to find our meaning and purpose in passing fads and vain pleasures. It takes work and intentionality to live out the reality of being in Christ. Claiming we don't find our identity in the things of this world is meaningless unless we actively and intentionally find our identity in the things of God. Decrying and denouncing the culture around us isn't enough--we need to immerse ourselves in a counterculture.

Thankfully, God offers us that counterculture every Sunday in corporate worship. Regular, faithful participation in Biblical worship is the primary way we can ensure we are living out the reality of our union with Christ. Worship is where those who have union with Christ can experience soul-enriching and life-transforming communion with Him as well. In corporate worship we receive what are called the "means of grace"--which Westminster Shorter Catechism defines as the means by which Christ communicates Himself to us (88). These ordinary means are the word, the sacraments, and prayer.

We can easily get caught up in certain so-called Christian disciplines and practices or spiritual exercises as a means of "finding God" or communing more deeply with Him. While these may be at times appropriate and beneficial, it must be emphasized that it is through these simple, unremarkable, ordinary means of grace where we can know we are communing with Christ, who is consistently confirming and deepening our identity in Him. Let's look at each of these briefly in turn.

Word

We begin to understand how the Word of God can deepen our communion with the Son when we remember that Jesus himself is the Word Incarnate. All of the truth, majesty, glory, and goodness that we find in the Bible is in Jesus Christ. The Bible is a book by Him and about Him (Luke 24:27). Because the Bible is the Word of God it is "living and active" (Hebrews 4:12) and when we read it we are drawn into a living and active relationship with the Savior.

Interestingly, the Westminster Shorter Catechism makes a point to say that while Christ communicates Himself through the reading of His word, He especially communicates Himself and communes with His people through the preaching of His word (WSC 89). Jesus says as much when He prays to the Father for the souls of those who will be united to Him through the preaching of the apostles: "I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in us" (John 17:20-21). Paul says that it was God's plan to use something as foolish as preaching to give us something as glorious as Christ: "it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

We go throughout the week with competing claims for our affections, told a pervasive narrative about who we are and what really matters. We are constantly being fed a false "identity gospel": follow your dreams, "just do you," pursue your happiness at whatever cost, listen to your heart and you'll be content. But then we come into corporate worship and we hear the proclamation of the gospel and we are reminded of our identity in Christ. Michael Horton expresses it beautifully:

Even if we are lifelong Christians, we forget why we came to church this Sunday until it all happens again: We come in with our shallow scripts that are formed out of the clippings in our imaginations from the ads and celebrities of the last week, only to be reintroduced to our real script and to find ourselves by losing ourselves all over again.[1]

When we receive the Word by faith, and particularly the Word preached, we are being placed back into that better narrative. We are being placed into Christ.

Sacraments

Contrary to prevailing notions in mainstream Christianity, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper) are not primarily a statement of our dedication to Christ or an act of our commitment to Him. They are the exact opposite. Through the sacraments Christ claims us as His own. By means of water, wine, and bread Christ is confirming to us that we do indeed belong to Him. For John Calvin, the whole point of the sacraments is tied up with the doctrine of union. Union "is the aspect of the gospel that the sacraments are chiefly designed to present and represent."[2]

Baptism is the outward sign of the inward, spiritual reality that we belong to Christ. Hence "as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Galatians 3:27). It is God's public declaration that we are united to Christ, that we are part of His body, the church. That is why baptism is called a "solemn admission" into the church, because it is the sign that God has united us to His Son (WCF 28.1).

We need to reclaim the language of the Reformers, who often spoke of "looking back" to their baptism as a way of strengthening their faith and dispersing their doubts. It truly is a sign and a seal (Romans 6:4). For Martin Luther, the knowledge of his baptism was the remedy against the devil's taunts. Truly, rather than saying "I was baptized" we should say "I am baptized"--while it happened once, it continually seals us into Christ.

If baptism is connected with the believer's initial union to Christ, the Lord's Supper is then connected with the believer's ongoing participation in this union. It would be hard to overestimate just how important the Lord's Supper is in terms of our union with Christ. It's in the name after all: Communion. While we might primarily think of it as being a communion with the body of believers--and it is that--it is also a communion with Christ. In fact, it would be best to give this "vertical" relationship the priority in the Supper. "For we must first be incorporated into Christ," Calvin says, "that we may be united to each other."[3]

In the Supper, we should see nothing less than the reversal of the fall. The fall brought separation and alienation between God and man. But in the Supper God invites us back to the Table. It's in this sacrament that we are reminded, in a profound way, that our identity is now as adopted children of God who have a seat at the family table. And at this table Christ repeatedly offers, not only a meal, but His very own self as the life-giving food.

Prayer

Prayer may possibly be the most overlooked of these three means of grace, and how sad since it is the one we have access to no matter where, when, or what. Prayer can seem tedious, boring, a chore, an effort in futility, or all of the above.

Why is prayer often so difficult for us? Maybe part of the reason is that we don't understand that it is a means of Christ communicating Himself to us. We deepen our union in the Son through prayer because we are actually participating in the very same activity of the Son. Prayer is the Son's primary business right now in glory (Romans 8:34). He stands at the Father's right hand, pleading our cause, presenting our needs. When we pray we join in that great work. The more we pray the more our will and words become aligned with His. And as we witness our prayers heard and answered our faith is strengthened and our identity further confirmed as belonging wholly to God.

Why do you think we conclude our prayer's with "in Jesus' name. Amen"? It's not just a sign-off, or an "in conclusion" way to wrap things up. We present our prayers to God in the name of Jesus because His is the only name that will get us access to the Father. We are unworthy. We are sinful. We are weak. We are broken. Yet His is the Name above every name (Philippians 2:9), and when we pray we remind ourselves that we are in that Name

Conclusion

Our identity in Christ must be experienced, pursued, cultivated, lived in. God has made a once-for-all declaration that we are in His Son. So what are we going to do about that? We must immerse ourselves in Him. As we have received Him we must also walk in Him (Col. 2:6). We must impress upon ourselves the reality of this new identity and frequently remind ourselves of the true narrative to which we belong. We need to denounce the false identity gospel that the world, and sadly sometimes the church, preaches to us on a daily basis. We must put on Christ and live out the identity He has given us. And in worship God has graciously given us the tools to do just that.

This article is adapted from The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019) by Jonathan Landry Cruse.

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[1] Michael Horton, A Better Way (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 52-53.

[2] Keith A. Mathison, Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin's Doctrine of the Lord's Supper (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 18.

[3] Calvin, Commentaries, 20:335.


Jonathan Landry Cruse (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor of Community Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Kalamazoo, MI. He is the author of The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019), and has written articles for numerous publications (including Modern Reformation, Core Christianity, New Horizons, and The Outlook). Several of his contributions to modern hymnody have also been published, some of which are included in the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (GCP, 2018).


Related Links

Worship: The Chief End of Man (Quakertown Conference on Reformed Theology 2019)

"Trusting the Good News in the Age of Fake News" by Jonathan Cruse

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

The God We Worship, edited by Jonathan Master

Reformation Worship Conference: Anthology

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The idea of 'the means of grace' has undergone an encouraging rehabilitation in the life and ministry of many Reformed churches in recent years. This has come as a healthy corrective to pressure from the wider church to embrace ideas and practices that seem more effective vehicles for church growth. However 'effective' these alternative means may have seemed, it has been at the expense of a meaningfully biblical definition of the church. So, the widespread return to emphasising the Word, sacraments, fellowship and prayer (Ac 2.42) as the core components of a faithful and effective church has been welcome. These 'ordinary' means of grace are God's ways of communicating his great salvation in Christ and by his Holy Spirit.

The very fact, however, that the adjective 'ordinary' is applied to these means by which God works implies that they are not the only way he works. They may be normative, but they are not exhaustive.

The men of the Westminster Assembly noted this in their treatment of Effectual Calling in chapter 10 of the Confession of Faith. It deals with the means by which the call of the gospel which is universal is made to be effective in the lives of 'All those whom God hath predestinated unto life' (10.1).

The divines open up what this entails and how it happens as being, 'at his appointed and accepted time' and by means of 'his word and Spirit' in order that they may be actually lifted 'out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace' (10.1).

They go on in the next section to explain this further: 'This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it' (10.2).

Here, then, are the normal means God uses to bring the spiritually dead to life, enabling them to turn in repentance and faith towards God as they rest on Christ alone for their salvation. But they are not the only means. The very next section goes on to make this clear in what it says about 'elect infants dying in infancy': 'Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word' (10.3). There are certain circumstances of life in which the 'ordinary means of grace' cannot function.

The Westminster divines reiterate this point in chapter 14, 'Of Saving Faith'. There they state, 'The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened' (14.1) [italics added].

There are at least two reasons for drawing attention to the fact God's grace has extraordinary as well as ordinary dimensions.

The first is pastoral. Infant mortality may not be as common in developed countries in the 21st Century as it was in those same countries just a few centuries ago, but the pain of loss and questions about life and destiny it raises are just as real. In some respects they are even more real for Christian parents who believe that 'faith comes from hearing the message and is heard through the word of Christ' (Ro 10.17). Knowing something of God's extraordinary grace for such extraordinary circumstances can only bring comfort.

The fact the scope of this principle goes beyond 'elect infants dying in infancy' to 'all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word' is also pastorally significant. Not least in terms of how the church regards and cares for those who are mentally incapacitated. At a very basic level the questions must be asked, 'Can they be accepted as members of the church?' and 'May they receive the Lord's Supper?' If a church turns 'the ordinary means of grace' into 'the sole means of grace', the answer must be 'No!'.

The other reason for raising this issue relates to the question Jesus was asked en route to Jerusalem: 'Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?' (Lk 13.23). It is the question many have asked throughout the centuries. And it is significant that Jesus does not give a direct answer, but says instead the real issue is making sure we ourselves are in his kingdom (Lk 13.24).

This does not mean the question in itself is wrong, or that it is wrong to ask it. Interestingly it was taken up by several 19th Century Reformed theologians, among them Charles Hodge and W.G.T. Shedd, in their consideration of the so-called 'Larger Hope'.

In his book, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed - A Defence of the Westminster Standards, Shedd deals with this question (following chapters on 'Common and Special Grace', 'God's Love and Credal Proportion' and 'Infant Salvation as Related to Original Sin') in a chapter entitled 'The "Larger Hope"'.[1]

There he discusses this issue in light of the relation between God's glory and the number of the redeemed, but with cognizance of the extra-ordinary dimensions in the operations of grace.

Charles Hodge also addresses the issue, notably in his comments on Romans 5.18-20, where he says,
We have no right to put any limit on these general terms, except what the Bible itself places upon them...All the descendants of Adam, except Christ, are under condemnation; all the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved. This appears to be the clear meaning of the apostle, and therefore he does not hesitate to say that where sin abounded, grace has much more abounded, that the benefits of redemption exceed the evils of the fall; that the number of the saved far exceeds the number of the lost.[2]

This issue has had extensive coverage by Roman Catholic, Liberal Protestant and Evangelical Protestant authors from a range of differing perspectives and with correspondingly different conclusions. But all too frequently their concern has been to try to justify, at one end of the spectrum, 'sincere' faith in any religious context, or good works in all contexts as the basis of acceptance with God; or, at the other end, some form of universalism.
It is significant, therefore, that the issue was raised in the way it was by the Reformed theologians cited above and on the theological foundation they build with the inferences they drew from it, but also those they did not.

The questions are real but Scripture is noticeably silent on them. Nevertheless the men of the Westminster Assembly offer a judicious response in what they say in relation to effectual calling. They enable us to focus on what the Bible makes clear - that the church's duty is to 'go and make disciples of all nations' (Mt 28.19-20) - while at the same time acknowledging that 'the Judge of all the Earth' will most certainly do what is right (Ge 18.25).

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[1] Shedd, W.G.T. Calvinism: Pure and Mixed (Banner of Truth; Edinburgh) 1986 [first published 1893] pp. 92-131
[2] Hodge, C. Systematic Theology Vol. 1 (Scribner & Co; New York) 1872 p. 26

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Originally posted by Mark Johnston on PlaceforTruth.org.