The Ordinary Means of Grace

Not open for further replies.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
{This article was originally written as a series of articles for the Faith PCA Newsletter. It is included here in whole for your edification}

The Ordinary Means of Grace
by Rev. Bruce Buchanan​

In a recent sermon, I mentioned “the ordinary means of grace.” I said, “we are an ordinary means church.” Someone afterward asked me about that description, and I responded that “ordinary” meant “God’s basic.” It occurred to me that it might help to revisit this topic in a few newsletter articles. So, I wish to introduce the topic by defining the term.

First, however, what don’t we intend? Well, we don’t intend to speak of grace like a substance or a force. When we speak about the means of grace, we are not talking about a container or method that holds or dispenses grace as if it were found in a cookie tin, or accessible through a wall-outlet. You may be familiar with the Roman view that treats of spiritual matters in this fashion. Rome attaches grace to all kinds of things, both sacramental and otherwise. Just think of the holy places and things, pilgrimages, bones and other assorted relics, to which Rome attributes virtue. The scandal in modern Protestantism generally is that non-Roman churches are adopting this view of spirituality, while simultaneously giving up on the true and ordinary means of grace.

Likewise, the Roman view also teaches that the church—by virtue of her being the church—does, in fact, dispense grace through her sacraments. Grace is objectively doled out, like scoops of ice cream, when baptism is administered, or when the consecrated elements of the mass are consumed, or when last rites are given, etc. This version of events is known as ex opere operato, a Latin phrase meaning “worked according to the working.” In other words, by participating, the church gave you a little piece of God’s grace, whether or not you had any honest share in it or spiritual faculty of reception for it. This too is essentially false. No grace is ever received by anyone who does not have faith.

Then, second, let me state what we do intend by “the ordinary means of grace.” To begin, here is the Shorter Catechism answer 88: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth 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.” I will unfold this answer in later articles, but for now, note the following: 1) by “grace” we intend the benefits of redemption; 2) only the elect are beneficiaries; 3) the benefits are communicated to the elect, by which we mean that they are appreciably received, for true communication cannot occur in ignorance; 4) the means are instituted by Christ, they are his ordinances; 5) there are three principal means: the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer; 6) by “salvation” we mean not merely the cross of Christ or our individual justification, but the whole work that begins in election and concludes in glorification. The means are of use subjectively, and not all at once, and most extensively in sanctification.

Apostolic in Origin

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth 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.”
Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer 88​

In this second installment of this series on the means of grace, I want to begin again by restating the comment that prompted this study: “we are an ordinary means church.” As the New Testament church came into existence, we read in Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” On this verse, Calvin writes: “Luke is recording those things which constitute the form of church visible to the public eye” (Commentary, loc. cit.). Breaking down the description, there are three distinct parts:

1. The apostles’ teaching and fellowship—the key point here is the close connection of the church to the persons of the apostles. These men were identifiable as those who “had been with Jesus” (Acts. 4:13). The new Christians then attached themselves to these men inseparably. Above all else, first they were “devoted” to the Word of God as it proceeded from the apostles’ mouths.

Closely related to this was their attachment to the apostles’ fellowship. Having been together with Jesus, these men were a brotherhood like no other. They were the nucleus of a new social organization, a new community, a new culture. If you did not devote yourself to their fellowship, conforming to it in both style and substance, then evidently you were more interested in forming your own fellowship. But the principal way the apostles’ fellowship was plainly distinguishable from any other gathering was by their doctrine, by the Word of Christ which they taught.

And so it is today. We define the closeness of our fellowship with other believers, with other churches, as far as we agree on what constitutes biblical faithfulness, or conformity to the apostles’ teaching. The closer we are to full agreement, the more diligently we seek united, organic fellowship. The apostolic fellowship (the church organization) is not “a means of grace;” it only forms the social context for the ministration of those means.

2. The breaking of bread—this language specifically denotes the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:16). That is, it was a mark of the church that they adhered to the sacramental ordinances of the Lord as well as his teachings. This repeated practice naturally follows from the first point, as an aspect both of the apostolic doctrine and fellowship. Neglecting the Lord’s Supper for months or years (or never celebrating this sacrament) is an indication that Christ’s commandment is being despised.

What about baptism? The nature of baptism is that of an “initiation” rite. Baptism is non-repeatable for each individual. The church doesn’t devote itself to “baptisms” in the ongoing way it does to the communion meal. Going an extended period of time without a baptism, while nothing to be boasted of, it is not alone an indicator of a church’s commitment to keeping Christ’s sacraments. Nonetheless, as baptism is a requirement for admission into the visible church (see the immediately previous verse, Acts 2:41), it too is included in this principle.

3. Prayer—sometimes so neglected in our own day as to be forgotten, prayer was the third identifiable mark of the early church. Its inclusion here is evidence enough that the church, “gathered for prayer” after the manner of the apostles themselves, was a corporate as well as individual habit. Indeed, it is the very first corporate practice of the apostles mentioned in the book of Acts (1:14). It was in the context of the prayerful apostles that the Spirit fell.

Prayer is our seeking intimacy with our God. As Dr. Reymond points out (Systematic Theology, pp. 912 n.1, 973), prayer is a “fruit of grace” (after Berkhof), and the “first expression and exercise of faith” (after Jones). Yet, “because of ‘its instrumental function in progressive sanctification and perseverance,’ it is thus ‘coordinate with the Word and sacraments as means of grace.’”

So, when we at Faith PCA call ourselves an ordinary means church, we are saying that what was good enough for the first century church is good enough for us. When we are told, “Your church doesn’t grow more, because you won’t do theatrical dramas in your worship, or liturgical dances, or burn incense, or have a “praise band,” all we want to know is: if the apostles came in and sat down with us for worship, would they recognize our church as being devoted to their doctrine and fellowship, in both style and substance, and to the same sacraments as they practiced in their day? And if they looked at our bulletin, or asked any of you when our church meets for prayer, would they find a clear answer?

We desire the answer to those questions be, “Yes!” The truth is that the apostles do not come to us to worship, but we go to heaven and worship God there (Heb. 12:22-24). Turning worship into a Broadway show, or a sensational or emotional carnival ride (get in, go around, come off), or a ritualistic formula laden with mystery, is to turn back to Old Testament shadows, or worse—to adopt heathenism. The “glory” or dazzle of some earthly worship gatherings completely eclipses any real heavenly vision. When we worship, we neither need nor want a blizzard of blinding, unauthorized distractions that keep us from seeing and hearing Jesus!

According to Heb. 8:2, Jesus is the heavenly “worship leader” (minister, liturgist, Gk. = leitourgos). All that we do in worship must be according to his direction. Our decorum is an example to the angels, whom though we cannot see them, are nevertheless impressed for better or worse by our behavior (1 Cor. 11:10). How shall we keep our way in worship pure? Only by ordering it “according to thy word” (Ps. 119:9).

Dear friends, we may call the Word, sacraments, and prayer “ordinary” means, but by that we don’t mean common or boring. God gave us these things for the purpose of being transmitters of his grace to us, if we by faith will appropriate and use them! If we gave them up so that we might replace them with things that are “more exciting” or “more relevant,” what would that say about the “ordinary means?” It would say nothing at all about their power or their relevance, but it would say a great deal about our lack of confidence in God.

Ordained by Christ

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth 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.”
Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer 88​

In last month’s article, we looked at Acts 2:42, and saw from that text the outward form of the church in its original apostolic purity. The Word, sacraments, and prayer were the defining characteristics of the church. In the churches of the Reformation the crude accretions which had come to overlay and obscure the divine ordinances were stripped away. Our forefathers wanted only those things that were apostolic in origin kept in the church, for only by adhering to this rule could worship be kept “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24).

But, in order to realize our purpose of appreciating the ordinary means, we need to take an additional step back to see not only that these means are the natural face of the infant church, but that they were so at the express direction of Jesus Christ, the head of the church.

1. The Word—John 20:21 reads: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’” Jesus came to preach the good news of the kingdom, for he had been “sent” by the Father for that purpose (Lk. 4:43). So, it came about that as Jesus finished his earthly ministry, having suffered, died, and risen, he commissioned his disciples to act as the ambassadors of his new reign. For he was ascending to sit on his throne and commence his rule. Theirs was essentially the same message as Christ’s own, with the addition of the facts of his completed work and instatement.

The gospels record (Mt. 10, Lk. 9, 10) that Jesus sent out his disciples all over the Jewish nation during his earthly ministry to announce the kingdom’s arrival. Luke records for us in Acts 8:12 the preaching of Philip the Evangelist as he preached the “good news about the kingdom of God,” in the early days of the church. Acts 6:4 describes the work of the apostles—the primary message bearers—as being dedicated to “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” The book of Acts closes (21:31) with Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”

Jesus was the living Word of revelation from God (Jn. 1:1). Jesus said to those whom he sent (Lk. 10:16) “He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me, and rejects him who sent me.” Whom do they hear? They hear the Word (Rom. 10:14).

2. Sacraments—Jesus ordained both New Testament sacraments. Mt. 28:19 shows Jesus dictating the permanent place baptism in his church, as well as the words of institution. John the Baptist’s use of water for baptism was brought over into the church (cf. Act. 1:5, 11:16, 8:36, 10:7). Similarly, Luke 22:19-20 records for us Christ’s words of institution for the Lord’s Supper, which we read again in 1 Cor. 11:23-26.

Some people object to the term “sacrament” because to them it sounds too “Roman.” This is not a sound objection. The term “sacrament” came into use in the old Latin church from earlier religious usage. The term is related to “sacred,” but also to “secret.” Thus, it came to have the connotation of “Christian mystery,” or something only understood by those initiated into the church. However, such use had dangerous consequences.

This idea is quite close to Gnosticism. There are aspects of Christianity that are only fully comprehended after one has become a Christian (1 Cor. 2:14). But the sacraments are not “mysteries” that way. When the Bible mentions a “mystery” of the faith, such language indicates the opposite of arcane or mysterious, but rather that what was unknown before is now being plainly explained. These things may be profound, but they are not irrational. The Christian religion has boundaries, but it is not a hidden faith.

The term “sacrament” had another ancient meaning. It denoted an oath, or a ceremony that laid an obligation. Roman legionaries took this kind of “sacrament.” It is in this sense of “oath” that the term “sacrament” is valuable. For the sacrament of baptism contains an oath marking our solemn “engagement to be the Lord’s” (WSC 94). And we renew that vow in the Lord’s Supper, risking “judgment” if we misuse it (1 Cor. 11:29). Our sacraments set up the boundaries that separate those within the faith from those outside it.

3. Prayer—Jesus also instituted prayer for his church. Not that the church from Abraham’s day, or even Adam’s day, had not been a praying church. Nevertheless, it is the Lord Jesus who instituted New Testament prayer for his church. Jesus’ disciples explicitly ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1). And thereupon he gave out the model prayer, which we know as “the Lord’s Prayer” (also Mt. 6:9ff).

Jesus introduces the church to explicit Trinitarian prayer. He advised his disciples to pray to "the Father," in both the Lord's Prayer and in the upper room. Then in Jn 14:13 he advises them to pray “in my name” to the Father, which does not refer to the “tag” at the end of our prayer (as confessional as that is) but rather to the authority of Jesus to command what wills; so it also includes submission to his will. In the following verse he also says “ask me.” We also have the church praying to Jesus in the following passages: Acts 1:24, 7:59, 9:10-17; 2 Cor. 12:8; 1 Thess. 3:11; 2 Thess. 2:16. Again, in the upper room, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, the Helper in all things spiritual (Jn. 14:16). Paul explicitly refers to the Spirit as helping us to pray (Rom. 8:26f; Eph. 6:18).

Handling Abuses

This month I am inserting an extra study into our series, for the sake of timeliness. Last month in this study we went “back behind” the description of the earliest New Testament church record (Acts 2), in order to find the institution of the ordinary means for the church in this age from the mouth of Jesus Christ himself. The fact of such explicit institution by our Lord is not merely of historic interest or pious acknowledgment. This Head of the Church, who gave these means, is still very much alive and is still present with his church. In fact we have a description of his nearness to and interest in his church in Revelation, chapters 2 & 3. Thus, we risk his evident displeasure if we take it upon ourselves to tamper with his ordinances.

This matter is of more than passing interest to us, as we note with alarm the further disintegration of mainline Presbyterianism. In what could only have seemed to our forbears (were they alive to note it) as an unseemly joke, utterly out of place in the church, our wayward ecclesial cousins at this summer’s Assembly authorized the use of “alternative” baptismal formulae. Instead of baptism in the Name of “Father, Son, and Spirit,” they suggested alternatives like “Mother, Child, and Womb” and “Rock, Redeemer, Friend.”

The question was put to me, “What difference do the words we use make? If we make too much of them, aren’t we turning a formula into an incantation?” In short, no, insisting on the words of Jesus’ institution is no punctilious prescription. Beside the fact that he himself is present to administer his baptism by his Spirit, and visibly through his minister, and has told him what to say, there are at least two other issues.

First, there is the matter of the body of Christ. It is non-geographic, and it is non-temporal—that is all members of this body regardless of their home of origin or time of earthly life are presently living members of the body of Christ. All believers have always been obliged to unite themselves visibly to the church. This is the function of baptism. The same words used to unite the Apostle Paul to the church were used to unite Augustine to the church and Luther to the church and you and me to the church.

There are more issues than simple verbiage involved, of course; yet regarding the outward appearance, all who have desired to clothe themselves in the identity of the church, to experience both her joys and her sorrows, have for two-thousand years set an absolutely unchallengeable precedent, founded upon the clear command of Jesus. Into what body are those baptized into “Mother, Child, and Womb” baptized? No one knows for sure.

But what of “Rock, Redeemer, Friend?” Isn’t the use of such scriptural language an admissible option? Well, the New Testament tells us that Jesus was “the spiritual rock that followed” the Israelites in the wilderness (1 Cor. 10:4). He is called the “friend of sinners” in Matt. 11:19. So, what clear Trinitarian truth is being expressed in this alternative expression? But the offering is really just a smoke-screen anyway. It is an act of a willful heart bent on doing things differently for the sake of doing it.

Second, history teaches that churches are reluctant—sometimes for good reasons, other times not so good—reluctant to question the “validity” of baptism performed by another communion. The question is: “Do we recognize this body as a true church, at least to the degree that the baptism they administer is “recognizable” as Christian baptism?”

One period in history where this question was asked in a pointed and pertinent way was the age of the Reformation. Whether all the issues they dealt with and the answers they arrived at are applicable in the same way in our own day as in theirs, we can agree with them on this:
Baptism in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (in water) is an objective, visible, quantifiable characteristic of Christian baptism, and where it is missing we can say unambiguously that such baptism has not occurred.
We don’t need to scratch our heads, or debate about whether or not a church has passed a point of doctrinal declension so as to be “a synagogue of Satan.” We don’t have to wonder if their ministry is corrupted to the place that they have none, and so have no right administration of sacraments. They are rejecting even the outward costume of the Christian church.

The Word

Now, I want to look at each one of the means of grace individually. First we will examine the Word of God. But to begin with, I want to reiterate that in speaking of God’s grace, or the means of grace, we are not describing grace as though it were a substance or a fund of blessing that God or the church “dispenses.” No, in giving us grace, God gives us himself.

We don’t have a right to fellowship with God. Indeed, we owe him all obedience as our Creator, but we could not have any “fruition” (WCF 7.1) of him as our blessedness and reward if not for his voluntary condescension. And his gracious accommodation to us is his covenant with us.

Where do we encounter this covenant? In the Bible. In fact, if you open your Bible to the contents page you will no doubt find covenant mentioned in the first heading. Well, probably the term is different. If your Bible is like mine, it reads “Old Testament” instead of “Old Covenant.” But the principle is the same. The writers of the New Testament, using the language of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, used the Greek word for “testament,” or a unilateral (one sided) disposition or distribution. We also use this idea in our culture in a person’s “last will,” meaning his one-sided disposal of his worldly goods when he dies.

So, the Word of God to man is a covenant document. It not only contains information about the covenant mixed in with other information. No, it IS the covenant, as even the two major divisions indicate: Old Covenant, New Covenant. So, this is the first way that the Word is a means of grace to us. It is the communication of God’s will to us, for us, and about us, in the context of our relationship to him as Creator—and more, as Redeemer.

Secondly, the Word of God is our primary instrument for returning worship to God. WCF 21.5 explains it this way: “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart;… are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.” In other words, our worship is nothing less than the celebration of the terms of the covenant God has made with us, in the words of that covenant, in the glorifying of the God who made that covenant with us to bless us.

The Word of God created the world (Heb. 1:2; 11:13; Gen 1 “and God said….” And subsequently the Word of God created the church, or the called-out-of-the-world people of God (1 Pet. 1:23-25; Jas. 1:18). It is by the Word that the message of the gospel comes and the Spirit of God savingly works to seal the covenant promises of God to an individual by faith (Eph. 1:13; Acts 10:44). It is the Word of God that sanctifies the believer, and grows him in grace (Jn. 17:17; 2 Pet. 3:18). The Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among men (Jn. 1:14), in an ultimate act of loving condescension. And when we return ourselves to the written Word, we too “behold his glory,” we receive his grace, we receive him.

The Westminster Larger Catechism most fully sets forth the manner by which the Word functions as a means of grace, Q & A 155-60. I encourage you to read those doctrinal statements with appreciation, and study the Scriptural support given along with them.

In conclusion, as this congregation (through its search committee) labors seriously to seek and to call a minister of the Word for this flock, observe Q & A 159:
Q. How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?

A. They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.​

Nothing could be more serious than to ensure that the principal minister of this principal means of bringing God himself close to you will do that very thing, and do it well.


Last month I began to take us through the different means—Word, sacraments, and prayer—individually, that we might better appreciate each one in its distinct role. First we looked at the Word, the primary means of grace; primary, because without God speaking covenantally to us we would have no other means beside. Now we come to the sacraments, and since there are two of them, we shall look at one at a time. The papists include some five other sacramental ordinances, which so identified are purely the objects of their imagination.

Baptism is a ceremony. One dictionary definition of ceremony is: “a formal event to celebrate or solemnize something.” If we call baptism the door into the church, we don’t mean it serves as an initiation rite—the church is not a club. A person who is baptized is already within the bounds of the church. Baptism is the formal acknowledgement of that fact. Baptism should not be unduly delayed from its application to proper recipients precisely because a significant purpose for it is to boldly identify with the confessing, faithful church against sin and against the world.

Water baptism in itself is a merely human rite. It has no intrinsic efficacy as a means of grace, nor does the action by the minister or from church effect anything beyond the outward connection to the visible body. But to understand the church’s baptism truly, we need first to understand the spiritual reality behind the earthly. We need to understand the Spirit’s baptism.

Baptism by the Holy Spirit is a significant mark of the New Covenant age. It was prophesied in the Old Covenant (Joel 2:28ff) and Peter preached its fulfillment at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36). True messianic believers have always, from the beginning of history, been saved by the work of regeneration by the Spirit. But in the pre-Christian era the Spirit’s redemptive activity was much more limited. And his full-bore baptism, or his “coming upon” his servants, was only in special circumstances (see Jud. 13:25; 14: 6; 16:20; 1 Sam 11:6; 16:14; Ps. 51:11).

Jesus, speaking of the greater blessings of the New Covenant, stated that the least citizen of his spiritual kingdom was greater than the greatest Old Covenant prophet (Mt. 11:11). By which he meant not that you or I are superior to John the Baptist or David or Isaiah; but that if you are no more than a simple believer today, you have a richer spiritual endowment than any of them. Think of it this way: on average, the average poor American today has food, comforts, and conveniences that make the luxuries of kings and great men of olden time seem worthless. Simply put, you might enjoy their treasure, but you would not want to relive their days.

Baptism of the Spirit is not a “second blessing,” but is a product of the New Birth in this greater age (Jn. 3:5-8; Rom. 8). When he baptizes us, we are indwelt, as his temples (1 Cor. 3:16); and with his permanent presence he gives a unique composition of gift to every believer, not only to a select few (1 Cor. 12). Note well: this Spirit baptism is integral to regeneration. If he does not baptize, there will be no faith; and where there is no faith, he has not baptized. But baptism with water is not based on regeneration, which men cannot observe. We baptize whom God tells us to.

Water baptism, therefore, is not a picture of what we do, whether by faith or obedience. It depicts God’s monergistic (one-sided work) regeneration in his baptism. Baptism happens to us. When we are identified outwardly with Christ’s body, the church, we claim to be united to him. We claim full participation in his whole being and work. His death is our death (Rom. 7:4), his life our life (Gal. 2:20), his righteousness our righteousness (Phil. 3:9), his resurrection our resurrection (Rom. 6:4), his glory our glory (2 Thes. 1:10). Also, everything of ours becomes devoted to him—including our children. Baptism teaches God’s grace to the elect.

Now, not everyone who is baptized with water is baptized by the Spirit. There are many outwardly baptized persons who made a false profession. Thus it is evident that when Paul states: “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27 ), he is assuredly speaking in terms of reality, and not of an outward ordinance. Thankfully, the grace God promises is demonstrated and given in his due time unto his elect; “the efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered” (WCF 28.6). So, both false professors who later become genuine converts; as well as elect infants who by faith, and in God’s time, firmly embrace his promise to them (Gen. 17:7; Ac. 2:39; cf. Col. 2:11f); are blessed by means of the sacrament.

The Lord's Supper

Last month we looked at the first of the two sacraments of the Christian church, baptism. This month we move on to the second, namely the Lord’s Supper, or as it is sometimes called in our Protestant churches, Communion. This is no “ordinary meal.” Like baptism, it is a ceremony. The fact that we participate in it is vastly more significant than how it fills our bellies. Think of it this way: if you received an invitation to the White House for a State Dinner, would you attend for the prime rib and abalone soufflé, or would you go simply for the sake of the host? (Lk. 14:16ff)

But let us begin again with some history regarding this sacrament. In Protestant history, there are many notable martyrs who chose to die rather than admit to the idolatry of the papal mass. What is this “mass”? The mass was the transformed rite that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper had become within the Roman church. This transformation had begun early in the Christian era, and certainly no later than the age of Augustin (354-430) had already become significantly corrupted with unauthorized elaboration. Nevertheless, at that time it still retained a degree of its simple dignity. But its thorough corruption came in the following centuries as the Scriptural understanding of the meal was replaced by philosophical and magical superstitions.

The coming of the Reformation involved a reinvestigation of the biblical meaning and performance of all church ceremonies. Thus, the Reformers quickly abandoned all elaborate ritual in connection to the Lord’s Supper, including the hideous adoration or veneration of the “host”, the special consecrated wafer that was “transubstantiated” (in Romish sacramentology) into the very body of Jesus—and hence, being God, invited obligatory worship.

So what did the Reformers do? They recovered a simple meal, of regular bread and wine, which was a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace in its New Covenant administration (Mt. 26:26-28), to be received by faith by worthy participants. Both names for the meal express or emphasize some aspect of it.

The “Lord’s Supper” is the most scriptural name for the sacrament, coming as it does out of 1 Corinthians 11:20. It is his meal, indicating that he is the host who has called the banquet, and spread the table. We go to heaven to eat with him. Certainly it is true that the Lord’s Supper is paralleled by the Passover Meal in the Old Covenant, the former meal of covenant remembrance. But there are some significant differences as well, including the fact that Passover was not strictly speaking a meal spread by the Lord, but involved sacrifice by the participants. In terms of a “Supper of Jehovah,” we should better turn to Exodus 24:
Then he said to Moses, ‘Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the LORD, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.’ Moses… took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and… took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant….” And [the God of Israel] did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.”​
Next, there is the name “Communion.” I can think of three different significations of this name. 1) It signifies fellowship with God. If the name “Lord’s Supper” teaches us who and what is important about the meal, “Communion” teaches us the purpose of the meal. A State Dinner at the White House might be for the purpose of boasting, or payback, or overawing. But God in Christ wants to spend time with his people. 2) It signifies the means-of-grace nature of this sacrament. In it “Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation” (WLC 154), which, as we have seen, is a giving of himself to us, as our understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of him is deepened. 3) It signifies “fellowship with each other, as members of the same mystical body” (WLC 168). We share with our fellow-believers a meal that depicts and reinforces our unity (1 Cor. 10:17). Truly, “you are what you eat,” and when you all eat the same thing, you are all getting the same nourishment. When “unworthy” or faithless partaking is involved, that person attacks the unity of the body, beside being guilty of “attempted robbery” (Mt. 22:11-13.)

What then of Jesus’ statement, “This is my body,” which we have in Scripture four times (Mt. 26:26, Mk. 14:22, Lk. 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24)? Well, since Jesus was sitting at the table in his body at the first Supper, he certainly didn’t mean he was handing bits of his corporeal essence to his disciples—his body was destined to die on the cross the next day for those disciples.

Calvin expressed it best, regarding the meal, when he said: believers partake of “bread in the mouth, and Christ in the heart.”


With a final (8th) article I bring to a close this series on the Ordinary Means of Grace. My desire has been that you would grow in your appreciation for the worth and the benefit of participation in God’s regular and non-flashy, non-gimmicky means of communicating with his people.

It is a characteristic of fallen human nature to be unsatisfied with ordinary wonders. The spiritual presence of God isn’t enough—we want visible hocus-pocus. Real contentment is a spiritual grace, in which God the Holy Spirit gives the believer eyes to see that his covenant love is “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). The infinite God is the one inexhaustible source of refreshment, who by his very nature cannot be boring.

But by the same token, this one source is not approachable from an infinite number of directions. In the first place men are not free to approach him at all unless he wills it, nor by their own designs, as if they were sovereign themselves or equal with God. The basic restriction on coming to God puts men in their place. And of course in the second place, men are not only creatures of God, but fallen rebels, and thus any approach to God must come through a Mediator, that they be “not consumed” (Lam. 3:22). “Our God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24; Heb. 12:29).

The following is a conflation of the answers to the Larger and Shorter Catechism questions “What is prayer?” “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit; with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (LC 178, SC 98). As much as it is discontentment to seek or demand a Word from God apart from the Bible, so too it is intractability that will not seek God’s face in prayer according to the will of God (Ps. 27:8).

So, how do men pray in ways that are not ordinary, not according to God’s will? They may insist on facing a certain direction, contrary to Jesus’ word to the Samaritan woman (Jn. 4:21). They may pray in an unknown tongue—be it Latin as the Romanists, or gibberish as the Pentecostals—contrary to Paul’s teaching (1 Cor. 14:14). They may spin wheels, thumb beads, or stuff paper into cracks in a wall—just variations on the “vain repetitions” that Jesus condemned (Mt. 6:7).

They may incorporate rituals into their prayers, believing that without them God will not heed (1 Ki. 18:28). They may perform even abominable sacrifices to ensure their prayers be heard, but which God never considered requesting (2 Ki. 3:27; Deut. 18:9-13; Mic. 6:7; Jer. 32:25). They may pray to dead persons or attend to priests and other “holy persons” to intercede on their behalf, since God, they think, is more likely to heed certain prayers, when Scripture teaches that God alone hears prayer and commands all men to pray (Ps. 65:2).

These, then, are some of the ways men attempt to make their prayers “special” or “extraordinary.” Such views consider God as some sort of cosmic vending machine or Santa Claus. They view him not as the Sovereign God, who delights in prayer and who has incorporated the prayers of his people into his eternal decree for his world. Prayer is among the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Thus, it is not merely the ends he has appointed, but also the means to the ends. And he has decreed that he should be moved in this instance and that instance by the prayers of his people to help them (Ps. 18).

We do not pray because we have a particular answer in mind that we must have, or God will incur our resentment. We are obliged to pray “if the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (Jas. 4:15), even as Christ himself prayed “Lord, not my will but thine be done” (Lk. 22:42). We pray in faith, believing God will only do what is best for us, because he loves his own (Rom. 8:28). That knowledge is motivation not only to pray to God, but to trust his answers are not only good, but the best possible (Ps. 84:11). Those who lose faith in God for “failing” them never had him for “the God of [their] righteousness” (Ps. 4:1) in the first place.

“Scientific” studies of prayer are useless, for God’s movements are not predictable outside of his promises, or reducible to actuarial statistics (Rom. 11:33). God seems to enjoy defying expectations of men (Is. 19:3). But the godly trusting in him and in his wisdom are not confounded (Is. 45:17).

Finally, do not forget that prayer is the most important activity on earth. In our bodily lives, we think that our most vital kingdom work is done in the flesh, the body. How mistaken! So, when you are laid low by illness, disease, frailty, or injury, take that time to be strengthened in the inner man, and to engage yourself with most exertion in the greatest labor of all—the spiritual (1 Tim. 5:5).
Dear friends, we may call the Word, sacraments, and prayer “ordinary” means, but by that we don’t mean common or boring. God gave us these things for the purpose of being transmitters of his grace to us, if we by faith will appropriate and use them! If we gave them up so that we might replace them with things that are “more exciting” or “more relevant,” what would that say about the “ordinary means?” It would say nothing at all about their power or their relevance, but it would say a great deal about our lack of confidence in God.

An excellent pamphlet, but I especially appreciate the thoughts quoted above, with particular emphasis on how our actions say something in relation to the means of grace. In the faithful and humble use of the means of God's appointment we are testifying whose we are and whom we serve. May God grant the spirit of Ps. 131. Blessings!
Not open for further replies.