The Means of Grace
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 88)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
When I was in elementary school back in the 1950s the Birds Eye company sponsored a promotional offer with the schools. We had to keep track of our breakfasts every day for what I think was about two weeks. We had to have orange juice (Birds Eye brand was obviously recommended), and along with that there was a list of good breakfast menus to use. We turned in a report signed by our Moms certifying that we had one of their recommended breakfasts every day. Birds Eye supplied rewards which I believe were little metal buttons with pins on the back, and a certificate. The school benefitted because they knew that a good diet to start the day made for more attentive students.
God made us so that we need a minimum daily amount of certain basic nutrients. Doctors, commercials, and cereal boxes tell us that our diet should include a certain daily amount of vitamins, proteins, calories, fiber, minerals, liquids, and such things.
What if few pills could be made to satisfy your intake need for the whole day? They would supply a daily dosage carefully measured to meet all your personal needs by a doctor. You just had to wash the pills down with a sufficient amount of water two or three times a day. You would not have to eat a single meal ever again.
How long would it be before you started to crave some tasty foods? Before long you would be remembering the joy of a good burger or pizza. Maybe you would long for a hot refreshing cup of coffee, or a warm breakfast roll. There would be haunting visions of hoagies piled high with the quality coldcuts, cheeses and all the other things that make it a favorite food. God enabled the body to taste, savor textures, and appreciate good aromas. We were created to enjoy eating, not just to be nourished.
What about our daily spiritual nourishment?
God has provided the means by which we receive what we need for our spiritual health. The answer to question 88 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “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.”
These provisions are often called the “Means of Grace.” They are the means God uses as channels for his grace to be poured out upon his children. They are not the cause of God’s grace, nor are they things we do to qualify for God’s care. Grace is always an undeserved and unmerited gift of the Creator to those he redeems through the Savior. It was the work of Jesus Christ in his life and death that merits our blessings. In those who are given this spiritual life, he stirs the proper use of these means by which he has ordained to dispense life, spiritual strength, comfort, and hope.
We see a brief summary of the early Christian church in Acts 2:40-47. This section shows what followed Peter’s sermon when the Holy Spirit came in a special way on the Day of Pentecost.
Acts 2:40-47, And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.
Notice the means God used in blessing his people in those early days of the Post-Resurrection church. The word of God was spoken, the Sacrament of Baptism was administered, the people formed a mutually helpful community of believers, and they prayed. The standards of the Dutch churches add church discipline to the means of grace which we list as three in the Westminster Standards. If we take that dicipline both as the work of the Elders in dealing with matters of sin, and as the continuing work of the body of Christ to be encouraging and admonishing one another daily, we can see how God uses this as another channel through which he builds up his children and directs his church toward purity. It is all worked in us by his unfailing grace.
The next set of questions in the Shorter Catechism deal with God’s Word (89-90), the Sacraments (91-97), and Prayer (98-99). The questions that follow are a detailed study of each part of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” In the lessons about the Lord’s Prayer the issue of discipline and care for one another in the church is touched upon. We will cover the details of these sections in our continuing studies of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
These means are to help us satisfy our spiritual nutritional requirements. Like our physical nutritional needs, there is far more than just a fast fix mechanically applied to get us through without giving it much of our attention. We are created and redeemed to enjoy the exercise of these Means of Grace.
When we feel deeply troubled we cannot simply take a quick spiritual prescription and expect the problem to be gone in the morning. Just grabbing a Bible verse, or saying a fast prayer, or a quick weekly visit to church on Sunday morning is not the way God made us to live.
Our fast modern life style centers around things like fast food, instant dinners, disposable utensils, and one-day surgery. We might come to think we can satisfy our spiritual needs with the same kind of simple-to-serve, easy-to-use, instant cure-all.
Man was made to be in fellowship with God, not just to be aware of him. The Bible could have been written as a simple devotional guide with a list of prayers and christian social activities to check off each day. But it was not designed that way. It was written to show us who God really is, and who we really are. It was written to show us how to have a living relationship with God to glorify him an all we do, and to enjoy him forever.
Satisfying Christian living is never achieved by some easy formula. So then, what do we do when the “life” has gone out of our walk with Jesus? If we seemto be lacking spirituial power, and our Christian daily walk seems bland? What can we do?
Properly Making Use of the Means of Grace
As we make our way through the last part of the Shorter Catechism we will expand upon each one of the important means God provides. By way of introduction it serves as a good challenge to consider them first generally, and to make sure we are engaging in them regularly for our spiritual health.
1. We need a daily time for reading the Scriptures.
Acts 17:11 the believers in Berea were, “… more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
We need a plan that will get us into the Bible every day. It helps to have a set time and place, and to schedule your reading and study so that it takes you through the whole Word of God.
Considering our remaining imperfections in this life before our future glorification, we will not be able to accomplish this on our own. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh is weak and given to excuses, procrastination, and neglect.
To begin with, it is crucial that you are a born again child of God. The Bible will have no real value to those without Christ. You must come in faith admitting to yourself and to God that you are an undeserving sinner. You must be sure that you place your only hope of being made right with God through full trust in Jesus, as the Messiah, that he died to remove your moral guilt. Until you are “born again” you will not rightly understand what is so special about the Bible.
1 Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
2 Corinthians 3:15-16, “But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.”
If we remain spiritually dead we cannot rightly understand spiritual truth. Jesus told Nicodemus that unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)
Even after we become believers we will sometimes struggle with Bible study. We need to depend on the Holy Spirit when we read the Scriptures. Jesus told the disciples that He would send the Spirit for that purpose. In John 16:7 he said, “… It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.”
Jesus was about to finish the promised work of the cross. He was about to pay the penalty of sin for His people. When this work of atonement was finished, it was to be applied to the hearts of individuals by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus did not go away, then God’s justice would not be met. If there was no atonement made, then the Spirit would have nothing to apply in the conversion of God’s people.
They Holy Spirit is what brings conviction to our heart. Jesus went on to say in John 16:8, “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” Without the Holy Spirit, there is no personal sense of our own need, of the provision of the cross, or of the defeat of Satan at the cross.
The Holy Spirit is what leads us to learn truth. In the 13th verse of that same chapter Jesus said, “… when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; …” God’s truth for us is in the Bible, but it cannot be rightly appreciated or known without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We need to call for the Holy Spirit in prayer when we read or hear Scripture. Bible reading is not just a reading exercise. It is a spiritual matter. Without the attending guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit, we will miss the special value of the word of God.
Psalm 119:18 provides us with a good prayer to direct to God as we settle down to do our daily Bible reading. There the Psalmist prays, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”
We often prepare ourselves in outward ways when we sit down to read something. We take time to be sure we are comfortable, have enough light, and maybe have a snack or favorite drink while we make our way through our reading material. When you read God’s word, don’t forget to also prepare in prayer for the Holy Spirit to minister to you. Set your heart in full readiness expecting the instruction God the Holy Spirit. Prepare to have your eyes opened to behold wondrous things from God’s word.
2. We need a daily time of prayer.
The Bible itself is the best textbook on Prayer.
Matthew 6:6, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Psalm 5:3, “My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.”
What can we do to enliven our daily time of prayer and praise?
The same things can be said as for our Bible reading. Our private worship must be made effective by the Holy Spirit.
First, you need to be sure you are a redeemed child of God. Prayer and praise is a mockery and blasphemy if offered to a god of your own imagination. If you are not made right with the God of Scripture through faith in Christ, your prayer time will not have the power of the Holy Spirit. Your time alone with God will not be like walking with your own Heavenly Father.
Believers also need to depend upon the Holy Spirit during prayer. If your prayer time seems like just an empty exercise, then pray for you prayer time. Ask God to bless it to you. Call upon Him to be specially present with you and for His Holy Spirit to enliven your time with Him.
If you cling mechanically to prayer guides, lists, or formulas, but fail to make sure that your mind and heart are fully focused on the Person of our Heavenly Father, then the most important element is missing. Without consciously clinging by faith to the Triune God, Father, Son and Spirit you cling to nothing that can comfort you at all.
I once watched as a child absent mindedly let go of her mother’s hand in a crowd. The little girl was watching something that kept her mind off what she was doing. She fidgetted and in doing so she moved a little way from her mother but hadn’t noticed. While keeping her eye on what ever had attracted her attention, she reached out again to hug her mother’s leg. but it wasn’t her mother’s! The substitute leg was very similar and wore a dress something like the color of mommy’s, and the girl didn’t notice the difference. The other adult didn’t realize the mistake. She smiled gently, probably flattered thinking the little girl was just showing affection. As the girl got more and more fidgetty, something was wrong. Mom wasn’t comforting or correcting her as she was used to. Not suspecting what she would find the little girl glanced up, and saw an impostor. She didn’t just say, “oh, sorry. Have you seen my mother?” Instead she let out a horrifying scream and cut loose with tears that got everyone’s attention in the room. A confused, and somewhat disappointed stranger and a slightly embarrassed mother quickly got the child back to the right person. As suddenly as it all started, the tears ended with a long close motherly hug.
There is nothing as comforting as our own parent. No substitute, no matter how competent will do. There is also no substitute for the presence of the Living God for our comfort and security. As we come to him in prayer we must be sure we come to the right Person. If we have a wrong concept of God because we have not paid close attention to the teaching of his word, we come to no God at all. If we discover we are clinging to other hopes in our lives, to the false promises of a corrupted religion, we will find no satisfaction for our souls. We need to cry out to the true God to rescue us and to be near to us. This is one of the great promises of prayer.
That little girl may not have done what Emily Post would recommend for proper social conduct, but she settled the issue most efficiently. She cried out most urgently. She did not just hope that mom would happen by. She screamed with all she was worth and mom came immediately.
How seriously do we seek for the blessing of the Holy Spirit in our walk with God? Are we like the parable our Lord told in Luke 11:5-10? Do we come, even at midnight? Do we knock again and again without giving up? Do we make our hunger for His blessing known to the Lord again and again and again until He answers?
Enoch is a good example of one whose walk with God was personal. It tells us in Genesis 5:24 that he “walked with God.” His walk with God was not just ritual or a bland spiritual prescription. His walk did not begin with what he was doing, but with the One he was doing it with.
What if you need to grow in your prayer life and present spiritual weakness and can do no more than to call out to God for the blessing of His Spirit? Then so be it. Many examples in the Bible show us that you are in good company. Several of the Psalms center upon a crying out for God in times of broken-hearted need.
3. We need to partake of the Sacraments.
How can we improve our receiving of the Sacraments? Those truly redeemed in Christ need to understand what the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper mean. They need to appreciate the infallible promises God attaches to them, and come with confidence in those promises. We will examine these more closely when we come to that section of our study.
4. We need the regular ministry of the body of Christ
God placed the members of His church into intimate fellowship so that their various personalities and talents would meet one anothers needs and serve the cause of Christ. We encourage one another to do what God prescribes for us, and with the attitude that should attend those activities. We also need to lovingly and humbly correct one another when we disobey the ways God has told us to live.
Hebrews 10:25, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another …”
When we gather for worship, Bible study, fellowship, or Christian service our coming needs to be in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is his presence among us that makes our fellowship special. Not only is he there to seal us into the one true body of Christ, he is also there to create mutual encouragement and edification.
Philippians 2:1-2 “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.”
The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes God’s means effective.
To carry out what God calls us to do, and to be what he calls us to be, we need to rely completely upon the promises and power of our Redeemer.
Without the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit, our Bible reading may seem dead. Our personal prayer and worship time may seem empty. Our christian fellowship may seem shallow and unrewarding. Our corporate worship and partaking of the Sacraments may seem dull and routine. The promise of God is that there is something supernatural that ought not to be overlooked in the use of these Means of Grace.
The psalmist cried out in Psalm 42:2, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. …” In verse 8 of that Psalm God promises his blessing, “The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime, And in the night His song shall be with me — A prayer to the God of my life.” Remember what the psalmist began with? “My soul thirsts for God …”
What is the hope promised to those who beg for and call out to God in prayer? Isaiah 40:31 says, “But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.”
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)