The Ordinary Means of Grace
by Ray Ortlund
True awakening or revival is a glorious season in the life of the church when for His glory alone, God causes the ordinary means of His grace to make an extraordinary impact on many people.
This idea of “the means of grace” answers these questions: How do I, as a believer, access the grace of the Lord for my many needs? Where do I go, what do I do, to connect with the real help He gives to sinners and sufferers here in this world? I know I am saved by His grace alone. But Jesus said,
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28–30)
I believe that. I want that. But, at a practical level, how do I come to Him for His grace?
Our gracious Lord is not playing “catch me if you can” with us. He wants us to be sure of Him, come to Him, and draw strength from Him so that we can live fully for Him. But He does not give Himself to us in any way we might devise. He has made Himself knowable and accessible in specific ways of His own wise choosing. His appointed avenues of blessing are the means of grace. We are profoundly thankful to our Lord for providing open avenues of grace for us as we walk through this world, crowded as it is with enticing means of “anti-grace” pressing upon us every day.
Westminster Shorter Catechism question 88 asks, “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” The catechism’s answer is,
The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates 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.
God does not limit Himself to His wonderful means of grace. Jesus said that the wind of the Spirit “blows where it wishes” (John 3:8). But if we are wondering where we can be sure to find the Lord, the answer is His standard means of grace, made effective by His own living presence. His chosen means are not intended to restrict His availability, but the opposite. His chosen means identify where He has concentrated His availability, like a gushing fountain of mercy for sinners who are so desperate that they are finally coming to Christ on His terms.
The Means of Awakening
Awakening or revival occurs when these ordinary streams of divine blessing flow out with unusual power, and the benefits of the gospel pour out upon us with wonderful impact that is clearly of God and not at all of ourselves.
If we long for our churches to experience more of this awakening power in the gospel, the remedy is not to invent our own delivery systems for God’s grace. The remedy might be found in correcting our neglect or misuse or corruption of God’s age-old means of grace. We do not need to improve on God’s methods. We might need to engage with God’s methods more reverently and humbly than we ever have before.
Westminster Shorter Catechism question 85 asks, “What doth God require of us that we may escape his wrath and curse due to us for sin?” The answer is:
To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.
The catechism thus wisely urges upon us “the diligent use of all the outward means,” that is, coming before the Lord with a heart of faith and a purpose of repentance, setting no preconditions on Him but welcoming His lordship over the whole of our lives.
Zacchaeus did something like this, when he climbed that tree in order not to miss Jesus as He passed by. He could not force Jesus to pay attention to him, but he did place himself in the Lord’s path. Jesus was pleased to visit him, and Zacchaeus entered into a whole new life:
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9–10)
We do not always seek the Lord with that spirit of openness. Sometimes we even make poor use of His wonderful means. The people of God in the Old Testament corrupted their worship. They treated His means as their mechanics, as if God’s grace could “work” in an automatic way, like putting a coin in a gumball machine. Isaiah, for example, denounced the worship of God’s people, though their form of worship adhered to the book of Leviticus and their participation in it was full to the extent of being lavish. But God said through Isaiah, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isa. 1:15).
God’s people were misusing God’s means, and He would have none of it. What were they doing to offend the Lord so intensely? They were compartmentalizing. They were brutal toward one another, with human blood on their hands. Then, without seeing the horrible irony of it, they went to worship at the temple and spread out those bloody hands before God in prayer. But God saw. And God said their unexamined lives were not ready for His blessing. The people were treating God’s means of grace as a way of evading costly obedience rather than as a way of inspiring fuller obedience throughout the whole of their lives.
The people of God in the New Testament also misused the means of grace. Members of the church in Corinth were receiving the Lord’s Supper “in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor. 11:27), that is, in a divisive and arrogant manner, which is opposite to the dying love of Jesus proclaimed in that very sacrament. Their selfish abuse of His sacred gift turned it into its opposite, namely, a means of judgment:
For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor. 11:29–30)
If we treat the means of grace as the mechanics of grace, as if we were in control, God is offended. But if we bring to God’s clear “findability” our own total availability, the Lord will gladly bless His means to our hearts.
Humility and Sincerity
How awakening it is when we come before the Lord through His means with the humble faith and sincere repentance that the gospel calls for. The early church was living proof of the power of the ways of God:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… . And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42, 47)
The striking thing about the early church here is how simple their pattern of life was, and yet how compelling it was. How do we account for that? To use the language of Jonathan Edwards, these early Christians were laying themselves “in the way of allurement,” that is, they were joyfully placing themselves in the path of Christ’s promised power. No wonder the early church flourished.
Charles J. Brown, a minister in the Church of Scotland during a season of revival, quoted an eyewitness account of the power of God’s grace in the churches at that time:
“It was a common thing, as soon as the Bible was opened, after the preliminary services, and just as the reader began”—here, you will observe, it was the simple reading of the Word without preaching. Yet such was the power upon the minds of the people that “it was a common thing, as soon as the Bible was opened, after the preliminary services, and just as the reader began, for great meltings to come upon the hearers. The deepest attention was paid to every word as the sacred verses were slowly and solemnly enunciated. Then the silent tear might be seen stealing down the rugged but expressive countenances turned upon the reader. The Word of the Lord was precious in those days.”
There is awakening power in God’s means of gospel grace. What more do we need?