The Extraordinary Ordinary
Theologians sometimes speak of the ordinary means of grace, a term that refers to the preaching of the Word, the sacraments (or ordinances, if you prefer, as most Baptists do) and prayer. These three means are to be the foundation of the church’s activity. They are simple measures and ones that can often be overlooked. We tend to encounter these means on a regular basis and for that reason these ordinary means of grace can really begin to feel, well, ordinary. Yet they are ordinary only in the frequency of their use and the fact that God provides them as the most common means by which He nurtures our faith.
In an article at the web site of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Ligon Duncan writes about churches that find their primary call to ministry in these means. “Sometimes I am asked, ‘what exactly do you mean by ‘ordinary means of grace-based ministry?’ Good question. Let me repeat and elaborate. The ‘ordinary means of grace’ are ‘the Word, sacraments, and prayer.’ These are the ordinances given by God with which spiritual life is nurtured. By ordinances we mean spiritual instruments of grace and growth in grace appointed by God in the Bible. So, when we say ordinary means of grace-based ministry, we mean a ministry that focuses on doing the things God says are central to the spiritual health and growth of his people. Hence, the key things that the church can do in order to help people know God and grow in their knowledge of God are: (1) emphasize the public reading and preaching of the Word; (2) emphasize the confirming efficacy of the sacraments; and (3) emphasize a life of prayer, especially expressed corporately in the church.”
The Baptist Catechism (as printed by the Charleston Association in 1813—a Baptist-friendly adaptation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) discusses the necessity and definition of these means, calling them the “outward means.”
Q. What does God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life (Acts 20:21), with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption (Pr. 2:1-6, 8:33 to the end; Is. 55:2, 3).
Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, baptism, the Lord’s supper, and prayer; all which means are made effectual to the elect for salvation (Mt. 28:19, 20; Acts 2:42, 46, 47).
According to Duncan, “Ordinary means of grace-based ministry believes that God means what he says in the Bible about the central importance of these public, outward instruments for spiritual life and growth.” These ordinary means may appear foolish to the world, but God chooses to use these to draw people to Himself and to strengthen people who have already experienced His saving grace.
Those of us who attend Grace Fellowship Church here in Toronto were privileged to experience each of those ordinary means of grace yesterday. In the morning service Paul, our pastor, preached from Colossians 2:13-14 in a sermon he titled “Dead and Debt-ridden: Made Alive and Forgiven!” He looked first at God’s Diagnosis of Men and taught that in our natural, fallen state we are dead and debt-ridden. He then showed from the text God’s Action to Save Men, teaching that God makes alive and that He forgives sin. It was, in short, a powerful, convicting presentation of the gospel in all its power and glory. I could tell, just from his demeanor and excitement in the pulpit, how much Paul enjoyed sharing this message with us. And God was pleased to work through his words. At the conclusion of the sermon we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, remembering together the body and blood of the Lord.
The church met again in the evening, this time to celebrate the baptism of four young men and women. Two of these people had been saved after growing up in the Roman Catholic tradition. The other two were the children of members of the church. We heard their testimonies about how God saved two of them primarily through the witness of their families and from the other two how they were saved by the witness of others. We saw the power and faithfulness of God in reaching His people through the witness of the Word. After they gave their testimonies we walked to a nearby pool and rejoiced together as they were baptized, publicly proclaiming their trust in Jesus Christ and their belief in His death and resurrection. Paul had the immense privilege of baptizing his daughter, rejoicing with her as she took this step of faith, showing that God had answered innumerable prayers on her behalf. As Paul raised Chloe from the water, she leaped into his arms in joy. I had to step outside to compose myself and couldn’t help but pray that God would allow me to soon witness the baptism of my own children. You may wish to read Paul’s poem written for this occasion.
After the baptisms we returned to the church and Paul again preached the gospel, primarily for the benefit of the friends and families of those who had been baptized. There were many unbelievers there to witness the baptisms and they heard the gospel preached briefly, but in power last night. After rejoicing together in song, the evening closed with a time of fellowship and celebration. It was a truly blessed day.
Yesterday we were able to participate in each of those ordinary means of grace. Is it any wonder, then, that I returned home last night both edified and refreshed? Is it any wonder that I found my faith stirred and my heart warmed with affection for my Savior?
The Catechism tells us how the Word is made effectual and how we are to attend to it.
Q. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation (Neh. 8:8; Acts 26:18; Ps. 19:8; Acts 20:32; Rom. 1: 15, 16, 10: 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; 15:4; 1 Cor. 14:24, 25; 1 Tim. 3:15, 16, 17; ).
Q. How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
A. That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence (Pr. 8:34), preparation (1 Pet. 2:1, 2), and prayer (Ps. 119:18); receive it with faith and love (Heb. 4:2; 2 Thes. 2:10), lay it up in our hearts (Ps. 119:18), and practice it in our lives (Luke 8:15; James 1:25).
It tells us also how the ordinances serve to become effectual means of salvation.
Q. How do baptism and the Lords supper become effectual means of salvation?
A. Baptism and the Lords supper become effectual means of salvation, not for any virtue in them, or in him that administer them, but only by the blessing of Christ (1 Pet. 3:21; Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 3:6, 7), and the working of the Spirit in those that by faith receive them (1 Cor. 12:3; Mt. 28:19).
Yesterday we were able to heard the Word preached and were convicted of sin and built up in our knowledge of the One Who saves from sin. We were able to listen attentively and prayerfully as the Spirit did His work. We remembered the Lord in His supper and celebrated His work in the lives of others through baptism. He added His blessing to these ordinances. He brought much blessing through these ordinary means.
We live at a time where these ordinary means are increasingly falling out of favor. Preaching is kept short and light, public prayer is forgotten (except immediately preceding the offering) and the sacraments are often de-emphasized or kept hidden. Ligon Duncan speaks a warning. “These are the main ways God’s people grow. We are saved by grace through faith, faith alone in Christ alone. But the instruments, the tools of God's grace to bring us to faith and grow us in grace are the Word, prayer and sacraments. Nothing else we do in the church’s program should detract from these central instruments of grace, and indeed every thing else we do should promote and coalesce with them.” And yet far too many churches allow other things to intrude into the life of the church.
It was just over a year ago that Aileen and I began to attend Grace Fellowship Church, evaluating whether it was a good fit for our family. I told her almost immediately that one of the things I liked most about the church was that it does not try to be sexy. This church does not allow whatever is the evangelical flavor of the day to detract from the church’s purpose. Ligon Duncan helped give me words to express this. I am privileged to attend an “ordinary means of grace-based church,” one that keeps the main thing the main thing. It is a church that sees the extraordinary power of the ordinary. And God is blessing this church, allowing it to be a powerful light in the midst of the great spiritual darkness of Toronto.