If you read and study about the health of the church for any length of time, you will run across the phrase, “ordinary means of grace.” The theologians of church history and many of our contemporary scholars, theologians, and pastors are all pressing the importance of clinging to the ordinary means of grace. What exactly does this phrase mean? In an age of cultural relativism, how can a church become extraordinary by being ordinary?
The Meaning of the Phrase
The phrase, “ordinary means of grace” is communicating something specific, and we must avoid two big misconceptions from the beginning. First of all, the phrase is not intending to mean that grace is earned in any way by participating in certain acts of worship. Secondly, grace is not ordinary in the slightest degree. Grace is God’s gift to fallen, guilty, and wretched sinners who do not deserve anything other than God’s wrath. So, with that being said, what exactly does the phrase mean?
In the Scriptures we are given an opportunity to look behind the curtain into the life of the early Christian church community. In Acts, immediately following Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the church grew from 120 in the Upper Room to over 3,000. In Acts 2:42-47, we see the church meeting together for worship and fellowship. In those meetings, we see three primary things happening (other than the fellowship) in their worship. We see the ministry of the Word, the practice of the ordinances, and prayer.
Throughout history, preachers, scholars, theologians, and groups of Christians have sought to highlight the profound simplicity of the early church’s worship. In doing so, we see statements like the following one contained in the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q: 88):
Q. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. 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.
In a similar vein, we find the following statement in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (chapter 14, paragraph 1):
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 baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened. ( 2 Corinthians 4:13; Ephesians 2:8; Romans 10:14, 17; Luke 17:5; 1 Peter 2:2; Acts 20:32)
Once again, it should be noted that it’s not through the media gratiae (means of grace) that a person earns salvation in any way. It’s through the ministry of the Word that grace comes (Rom. 10:17). It must likewise be noted that once a person is converted, grace is needed on a daily basis. The grace of God is not a one time event, but a daily need from the point of conversion until we all stand in the presence of Christ. Therefore, it’s through the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, and prayer that the Christian continues to be strengthened in the grace of God.
The Purity and Health of the Local Church
Today’s local church culture has, in many ways, lost what it means to be an ordinary means of grace church. In an attempt to grow, expand, and do radical things for God, in many cases the local church employs methods and strategies that minimize the ministry of the Word, the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. You can see my recent article titled, “The Church Is Not Six Flags over Jesus” for more on that subject.
The evangelical landscape is littered with many different methods for reaching the modern culture. We see everything from the “seeker sensitive” model to the “purpose driven life (and church)” model. The evangelical church has toyed with ideas such as the emergent church methods and other relevant strategies geared to reaching a post-modern (or post-post-modern) culture. Many Christians who focus on the cultural landscape are saying that we are living in a post-Christian era and that in order to reach people today the church has to do more than preach the Word, observe the ordinances, and pray.
Before we buy into that type of thinking, it would be wise to consider the landscape of Jerusalem at the time of Peter’s confrontational sermon at Pentecost. It would also be extremely informing to explore the city of Ephesus with all of the idolatry and self exaltation and then consider the words of Paul to Timothy—”Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2). If an ordinary means of grace method of ministry could reach Jerusalem in a post-resurrection era and if that same type of church could reach a sin saturated “Vanity Fair” city named Ephesus, why must we change directions and commitments in our present day?
If we’re honest, the early church was powerful and earth shaking in their mission as they were led by the Holy Spirit. However, in all honesty, they were rather ordinary, simple, and straightforward in their approach to ministry. If the early church was extraordinary by remaining ordinary in their obedience to the Lord, why would we seek to become extraordinary by abandoning the ordinary means of grace?
The extraordinary church focuses on the ministry of the Word, the ordinances, and prayer. The ordinary church is really extraordinary. When people ask you to describe your church, you may consider a long list of glowing adjectives as a description, but don’t underestimate ordinary.