What is an “ordinary means of grace” ministry?

Sinclair Ferguson & 5 others
6 Min Read

FERGUSON: An ordinary means of grace ministry is the thrill, from the point of view of those who share in that ministry, of the exposition of Scripture in different ways and at different levels and watching the Word of God work.

I’ve become more and more convinced that the default among us evangelicals is that we do the work and the Word helps us. And perhaps that’s an indication that in our churches we see far too infrequently what it’s like when the Word of God, preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, itself does the work and changes people’s lives.

If you read through the Acts of the Apostles, it’s interesting how on occasion the Word of God almost becomes like a person who does things. The Word of God increases, the Word of God prevails (Acts 6:7; 12:24). Paul speaks to the Thessalonians about “the word of God, which is at work in you” (1 Thess. 2:13).

My own feeling is that even if we speak about means of grace ministry, we may not have caught sight of that vision of what’s it like when God’s Word does its work—when it floors us, prostrates us, transforms us, gives dignity to our lives, and means that what happens under the ministry of the word becomes visible in the community in the days that follow. We long for that, and for that we need to, as Acts 6:4 says, “give ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

LAWSON: It’s a Word-centered ministry, and that’s saying the same thing in a slightly different way.

When we say “Word-centered,” we’re talking about the written Word of God in the canon of Scripture. We preach the Word, we teach the Word, we sing the Word, we pray the Word, we see the Word in the signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We live the Word.

It’s a Word-centered, Word-driven ministry. So, just to succinctly state what that is, it’s the written Word of God ruling in the life of the church, and we’re not looking for alternative strategies or other ways of doing ministry. There is no reason for the church to ever come together except the word being the very center of it.

PARSONS: I think that’s very helpful. Talking about the ordinary means of grace, our confession speaks of these outward and ordinary means of grace being the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. And these outward and ordinary means are really the warp and woof of the life of the church and of our lives.

As Dr. Lawson said, that means that in trusting God and believing that God is sovereign, we’re believing not only that God ordains the ends of all things but also that He ordains the means of all ends. So often people claim to believe that God is sovereign, they believe in the sovereignty of God, but they’re not trusting the means that God has ordained to build His church, to grow us up, to make us mature as disciples of Jesus Christ.

And so, in ordaining the ordinary means of grace, these are the means by which we grow. These are the means by which we worship Him, and these are the means by which He carries out His Great Commission to the ends of the earth and in His mission. And so, it’s trusting them.

It means we’re not technique-based, we’re not method-based. We don’t have to constantly drum up new techniques and programs—no gimmicks. It means we trust God’s way to build and to grow and to reach and to revive and to reform His church, and that’s what the Reformers did. They were relying on the Word of God, relying on the Spirit of God through the Word of God in prayer and the sacraments to do what God promised they would do.

So we need to trust God and believe that He’s sovereign, not only in some ethereal way, some theoretical way, but really, where it really counts in the life of the church.

NICHOLS: I think there are two things in Luther that can be very helpful for us.

When you think of the ordinary means of grace, and you think of Scripture and the Lord’s Supper, I think in our day it’s more about feelings. We’re very tuned in to “Do I feel joy?” or “How am I feeling today?” Luther has this great hymn of God’s word. He says that we don’t trust in feelings. He says, “For feelings come and feelings go, and feelings are deceiving. My warrant is the Word of God; not else is worth believing.” And there’s a solidity there. There’s soundness there to Luther and his emphasis on the Word of God. And that’s really at the center of our worship; it’s the center of the Christian life.

The other is the Lord’s Supper. You don’t have to agree with Luther’s view of the Lord’s Supper to appreciate what he has to say about it. And I think especially in American Evangelicalism, we’re very much influenced by a Zwinglian memorial view. And probably for most American Evangelicals the Lord’s Supper does not rank very high in their list of things they need to live the Christian life. Luther, of course, advocated the Lord’s Supper every week, and in his larger catechism he says that we are locked in a battle for our souls. The devil is out to get us every week. And so on Sunday, we come for the nourishment of the body of Christ.

And there’s something to that. You don’t have to be Lutheran in your view of the Lord’s Supper to appreciate that we need to take the Lord’s Supper very seriously as a gracious gift of God for us and how we live the Christian life.

GODFREY: This is really beautifully summed up in the Heidelberg Catechism where question sixty-five asks, “Where does true faith come from?” And for every preacher, for every Christian, that’s a vital question. “Where does true faith come from?” And the Catechism says, “True faith is worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the holy gospel and confirmed unto us by the holy sacraments.”

What a beautiful summary that is of Christian ministry by the work of the Holy Spirit. But I like particularly “through the preaching of the gospel”—it’s the good news of Jesus Christ that the Spirit uses to work faith in our hearts and then confirms it through the gospel sacraments.

THOMAS: Steve Lawson reminded us last night of that wonderful story of Lloyd-Jones at the beginning of his ministry in Sandfields, in South Wales, that the first thing that he did was to nail the pulpit to the floor. So I’ve been thinking about that ever since I was reminded of it last night. Just the image of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones with a hammer and some nails, and hammering this pulpit into the floor. It was a demonstration of the centrality of the Word.

Wasn’t it Lloyd-Jones who also said that the way to fill Westminster Chapel was to announce that he’d be preaching in his swimming trunks the next week?

PARSONS: I think it might also be helpful to say that regarding these ordinary means of grace (if we can borrow some of the language of the ordinary marks of the church) that it’s only when a church is concerned, as Calvin said, for the pure preaching of the Word of God and the right administration of the sacraments—and subsumed within that is the right and consistent use of church discipline—that if a church isn’t carrying these things out consistently and wisely and graciously, they’re not a true church.

FERGUSON: I’m not a great fan of the expression “means of grace,” but I think we shouldn’t miss out from this the pattern of, for example, Ephesians 4 with its emphasis on the ministry of the Word in what it actually produces in the life of the church—where it produces a community in which each part is doing its work properly and upbuilds itself in love.

We’re not just a teaching institution. The Word of God creates a new kind of community. And so the preaching of the Word without the creation of that new kind of community ordinarily does not make the same evangelistic impact on the world around. But the creation of that community helps people to see that the Word that is preached has illustrations in the life of this new community that are beyond contradiction.

Often one finds that people who think little of the gospel find that they cannot contradict the reality they experience when they come among God’s people. And it’s that reality that begins to work in their hearts to open their ears to listen to what the Word is actually saying.

When we speak about the means of grace and the importance of the preaching of the Word, we’re not saying that all we need is more ministers, or even all we need is more preaching, but what is produced by that.

That is one of the griefs about the United States: there has been so much evangelical preaching that has changed nothing. Those of you who know James Davison Hunter’s books or David Well’s books, the deficit between the amount of preaching there is and the amount of transformed living that there is is absolutely colossal. We need preaching that closes that deficit, prayer that results in the closure of that deficit, and new gospel communities that give illustration of the power of the gospel. That’s a huge need, I think, in the Christian church today.

Lightly edited for readability, this is a transcript of Sinclair Ferguson’s, Steven Lawson’s, Stephen Nichols’, Burk Parsons’ and Derek Thomas’s answers given at our 2017 National Conference. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email ask@ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.