November, 2017

Ordinary Means of Grace – The Spirit’s Effect

We have seen that the outward and ordinary means of grace work in tandem with the inward graces of faith and repentance. But how are these two connected? This connection is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Westminster Larger Catechism #155 asks:

How is the word made effectual to salvation?

The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

The Holy Spirit uses the ordinary means of God’s Word to effect the inward graces in our lives. The Larger Catechism helps explain a little bit about how this happens.

The Word of God is used by the Holy Spirit to effect salvation. God has revealed himself most clearly to us through the Word. It is through the Word that we are able to come to a knowledge of who God is and what God has done for us. It is in the Word that Christ is revealed to be the Redeemer of God’s People. The Word reveals God to us. We can understand why this is the case when we consider that man is, by nature, spiritually dead in his sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1). This means that man will not, and in fact cannot, seek out God. Paul quoting Ps 14 declares, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom 3:10b -11). But God seeks after man. God is at work in man converting to and convincing of the Gospel. This conversion and convincing comes through the Spirit’s work in the reading and hearing of God’s Word.

In Acts 8:27-39 we have the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. He is riding back to Ethiopia in his chariot and reading the scroll of Isaiah. God sends Philip to explain this written word to the Ethiopian. Both the reading and the hearing of God’s Word results in the convincing and converting of the Ethiopian in the faith. In Acts 17:11-12, the Berean listened to Paul’s explanation of the Gospel. Then they “examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). They read and heard the Word of God, and the result is that many of them believed.

The catechism makes the case that the “reading, but especially the preaching of the word” is an “effectual means.” Why does it highlight especially the preaching? Romans 10:15-17 gives Paul explanation of the message of salvation. In this he explains the manner in which that message is communicated. Primarily, that message comes through hearing. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without some preaching?” (v. 14). In summary, Paul declares, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (v. 17). “Especially” the preaching of the Word is effectual. This doesn’t mean it is the only way. The Reformed Heinrich Bullinger was largely converted through a personal study of the Scriptures and the reading of Reformed theology. But generally salvation comes through the preaching of the Word.

This emphasis on the preached word is practically displayed in our regular Lord’s Day worship. In the center of a Roman Catholic sanctuary, you will find an altar. The pulpit where the Word is read or preached will be off to the side. In the center of our sanctuary, you will find a pulpit. The Word is central to our worship. The greatest amount of time in our worship service is dedicated to the preaching of the Word. We have a table for the Lord’s Supper. It is up front, but below the pulpit. The administration of the sacrament is under the Word of God. The preached Word is central, because it is the primary means through which God effects salvation.

The Word is central because it is with that Word that God “enlightens, convinces, and humbles sinners.” We become aware of our sin and our need for redemption through the Word. We are “driven to Christ” in the Word. Calvin describes the Law as a mirror that reveals our bespotted face and compels us to wash ourselves. For the Christian, the Word is also a guide which reveals to us how we are to “conform to the image of Christ.” We are strengthened by the preaching of the Word to withstand temptation and corruption. We are pushed toward holiness and comfort because of the salvation secured for us by Christ. All of these benefits are revealed to and effected in us through the Spirit’s use of the Scriptures in our hearts, minds, and wills.

The Means of Grace – The Outward and Ordinary Means

The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms help explain more about the function and purpose of the outward and ordinary means of grace. The benefits of the redemption we have in Christ are possessed by us through faith. Faith is the instrument of our salvation. As the Holy Spirit, by God’s grace, works faith in us, we are led to repent of our sins. The odiousness and heinousness of our sins becomes unbearable but the beauty of and grandeur of Christ’s sacrifice for us becomes resplendent. By repentance and faith, we escape the wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law (WLC 153). Repentance and faith are the inward graces of the Gospel. All who are saved by the Lord Jesus Christ repent and believe by faith.[1]

But how is this good news outwardly communicated to us? God has ordained that we will come to a knowledge and understanding of this redemption through his outward and ordinary means. These outward and ordinary means are the word, sacraments, and prayer. These means are God’s method of revealing Christ to the elect. When the outward means of grace meet with the inward graces of repentance and faith, there is redemption with all the benefits of justification, adoption, and sanctification, along with assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, increase of grace, and perseverance to the end (WSC 33-37).

It is important here to clearly distinguish between God and the instruments used by God. In the Roman Catholic church and any other denomination that teaches baptismal regeneration (a belief that the sacrament of baptism, in and of itself, actually confers salvation to the recipient by virtue of the authority of the church as a storehouse of God’s grace) it is held that all who are baptized are ipso facto saved. In this scenario the instrument of God is confused and conflated with God. Paul argued against this view, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:28, 29). The sign of circumcision or baptism does not confer the grace of God ex opere operato, that is “from the work worked” meaning that executing of the sacrament grants the grace of God. The inward and outward grace of God work together but must remain distinct.

The opposite error must also be avoided. The inward and outward graces must remain distinct, but they cannot be separated. Those denominations that would ignore or diminish the sacraments, prayer, or the Word deny the outward means of grace in favor of some mystical or spiritualized form of religion. Modern American spirituality where the person is “spiritual but not religious” would be an example. They have eschewed any outward means of God’s grace and assume that they can still receive God’s inward grace.

There is an inseparable connection between the outward and inward. OPC pastor GI Williamson warns, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”[2] This union between inward and outward, while they remain distinct, explains why those who regularly hear the Word preached are usually those who truly believe. It also explains why some hear and do not believe (e.g. Simon Magus, Acts 8).

We cannot, therefore, underestimate the importance of the outward means of grace. If the Church fails to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, or pray, then the people of God will be harmed. Since these means are given to us through the Church, this highlights the incredible importance of the local church in the life of the believer.

We should also note that these are described in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as “ordinary.” We live in a celebrity culture where we tend to believe that some people are able to tap into more of the power of God than the regular and ordinary pastor of God’s people. Yes, some men are gifted communicators and are able to express truth in a clear and helpful way. But they possess no more power from God than the regular minister. In fact, the diligent and regular preaching of God’s Word by ordinary and faithful pastors has an incalculably greater effect than any celebrity speaker. Believing that some special speaker will bless us more than the regular and ordinary preached word is to conflate and confuse the instrument of God’s grace with God himself. God’s grace is found in the ordinary means of grace. We are called to seek the inward grace of repentance and faith by the diligent use of the outward means of grace.


[1] Elect infants who die in infancy and the elect with mental disabilities which would preclude them from repentance and believing would be a small exception to this.

[2] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes, 2 edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 2003), 284.

The Means of Grace

God created all things out of nothing. He was dependent upon no one and no thing when he created. God had no need to create. He was not compelled, coerced, or forced to create. It was all from freedom. All that God created came as an outflow of the all-satisfying and sufficient love among the persons of the Godhead. Everything that was created was simply for the celebration and glory of God. It is for these reasons, among others, that we can look at all of creation and say it was by grace. Creation was not merited or deserved, but it was simply because God in his gracious nature desired to create. All good things come to man on account of God’s gracious character.

The graciousness of God is also seen in God’s dealing with Adam in the aftermath of his sin. The punishment that Adam had merited for all mankind in the Garden was not fully and immediately meted out. If it had been, then mankind would have been immediately and completely eradicated. Instead, the graciousness of God was demonstrated in that God shows both his wrath at sin and all that opposes his righteous rule while also revealing his patience and sovereign plan of redemption for mankind. Though they deserve death, God’s blessing makes the woman fruitful and causes her to eventually give birth to the one who would crush the head of the enemy and conquer the power of sin. The promise of redemption and salvation flows from the graciousness of God. God’s relationship with man has always been marked by grace.

The question that has arisen throughout the history of the church has been whether or not, in the communication of this grace, God uses means. That is, are there things that God uses to communicate his grace to us? When we talk about the “Means of Grace,” we are talking about the instruments by which God communicates his grace to us. There have been a variety of answers to this question. Mysticism has held that the grace of God, even salvation, is simply Christ in us, an inner guiding light, or some spark of the Divine that makes grace available to man. There are no means, God’s grace and blessedness is just in us and the task of the believer is simply to recognize, realize, or actualize that grace. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, sees God’s grace as bound to means. The visible Church as sustained by the invisible Spirit, is the actual means of grace. In their view, the Church is Christ on earth, and the grace Christ merited is administered through the sacrament by the priest. This means, as the Council of Trent articulates, that the grace of justification can only be obtained through the priestly administration of the sacraments, or at least a faithful desire for them.

The Reformation held a position in between these two poles. There are means but these means are not identical with the visible church. There is no Mediator between God and man. The church is the communion of the saints, but she does not mediate salvation. Instead, the Word and the sacraments alone can be viewed as means of grace. These means are external, humanly perceptible actions, and signs that Christ has given his church and with which he has linked the communication of his grace. Westminster agrees with this when it asks:

What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemptions?

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation (WSC #88).

The Word is primary as a means of grace because it is the clearest revelation of Jesus Christ. It is also through the Word that we are instructed in the nature and practice of the sacraments. The Word is primary, but the sacraments are a means whereby Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is communicated to the elect by faith. Geerhardus Vos comments, “Accompanying the spoken word, the sacrament is a word contained in an image and intended for the eye” (Vos, Reformed Dogmatics). Calvin adds, “Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith” (Calvin, Institutes).

The Word and sacraments are instruments or means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit presents Christ to his elect. They are inseparably attached to one another. The Word of God giving shape and direction to the sacrament. The sacraments are, therefore, impotent without the Word. And both would be fruitless without faith. But as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is by faith revealed and set before the believer.



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The Reformation Wrap-up

Martin Luther was a man prone to sharp bursts of emotion. On particular occasion Luther was feeling overwhelmed by the temptation of the devil. To reject the temptation, he yelled out at the devil and hurled his inkwell at the wall. His students would later look at the ink spot on the wall of Luther’s study and retell the story of Luther’s outburst. It became something of a legend. Over the years as the ink spot began to fade, his students would retouch the spot, perhaps even embellishing it. It is so easy for the temptation of relics to re-emerge.

The worst way possible to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to celebrate the men and women who brought about the Reformation apart from the work of God in and through these people. Luther, Calvin, and others would be aghast at the notion that much would be made of them and not of their God. The goal of Reformation is the glory of God. This is man’s chief end (WSC #1). And yet, when we make the celebration, study, or remembrance of the Reformation an antiquarian practice, we end up elevating men and their efforts and not the glory of God. We are guilty, in a very real sense, of promoting the use of religious relics for our sanctification. Luther might hurl his inkwell at us!

It was likely in response to the apparent ease with which our hearts slip back into idolatry that the Dutch Reformed theologian Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-1677) coined the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is “the church reformed, always reforming.” Van Lodenstein was a part of the “Further Reformation” movement (Nadere Reformatie) in the Netherlands. Their concern was to prevent the church from lapsing back into darkness and error. They strove for further purity in their worship, practice, and doctrine. This movement was mirrored by English Reformed Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames.[1]

This phrase, semper reformanda, has encountered a great deal of abuse in recent years. The Mainline Protestant churches have a tendency to latch onto this idea (i.e. always reforming) as license to continually change the church. Often it was used to justify a moving away from purity in worship, practice, and doctrine. In 1967 the Presbyterian Church (USA), under the misguided use of semper reformanda, rejected the historic Reformed confessions and adopted a position that denied the nature of Scripture as inerrant and infallible. They saw the doctrine of the church as always in need of being changed to accommodate itself to the times. The doctrine, worship, and practice of the church needed to evolve in order to be relevant. This, of course, meant a rejection of sin, judgment, the miraculous, and anything else that might be distasteful to the modern and post-modern mind. It was not a desire to see our belief and behavior brought into conformity with God’s Word, but a desire to manufacture divine approval for unbiblical belief and behavior. Instead of being a guard to protect us from wandering from the faith once delivered, the phrase became the justification for it.

The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is now often appended with secundum verbum Dei, “the church reformed, always reforming…according to the Word of God.” The Reformers were catholic (small “c” meaning universal) in their views. They would never have imagined that sola Scriptura and semper reformanda would be used to create greater disunity and less purity in their orthodoxy. But our hearts easily slip back into idolatry.

If the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is to be anything other than a history lesson that simply engages the mind, then we need to allow our hearts to be quickened by the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of God’s Word. The Playmobil Martin Luther toy has sold over 1 million units. It is the #1 selling Playmobil figurine of all time. But if the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is about trinkets and stuff, then we’ve sadly missed the whole point. Our reflection on the Five Solas of the Reformation, on the key persons of the Reformation, on the doctrines of the Reformation, and on the errors of that time must bring us back to a deep desire for the glory of God alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Word of God alone.


[1] See R Scott Clark’s article Always Abusing Semper Reformanda,

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