(This is part three of a series entitled, “What God Requires of the Church.” The posts in this series include: 1. Individualism vs. Christ, 2. The Ordinary Means of Grace. 3. Participation. 4. Evangelism and Missions.)
Many churches design elaborate programs and creative ministries to edify the church and reach the community. Most of this church programming is very well-intentioned. But when churches shift their focus to methodologies not revealed in the Bible, they often neglect the primary things God calls them to do. Confidence in man-made methods can far too easily replace confidence in what God has required of the church.
At Morningview, we want to prioritize God’s revealed means of corporate sanctification, which are historically called “the ordinary means of grace.” That’s why our “Vision 2020,” which you’ll be hearing more about soon, will center on faithfully practicing these ordinary means of grace in Christ.
The “means of grace” are called “means” of grace because they’re the “ways” God chooses to distribute the graces of Christ to His people through the Spirit in the church. They’re called “ordinary” for three reasons. First, God “ordinarily,” or almost exclusively, uses these particular means to save and sanctify His people, though in His sovereignty, God is free to operate apart from these means, if He so chooses. Second, these means are called “ordinary” because they’re “ordained” by God in His Word. That is, God commands His churches to practice them in Scripture. Third, the means are called “ordinary” because there’s nothing spectacular or extraordinary about them. God uses the seemingly weak and pointless things to accomplish His great purposes of grace.
Morningview’s confession of faith, The New Hampshire Confession of Faith 1833, alludes to the “means of grace” in Section 12, “Of the Harmony of the Law and the Gospel”
“XII. Of the Harmony of the Law and the Gospel
We believe that the law of God is the eternal and unchangeable rule of his moral government; that it is holy, just and good; and that the inability which the scriptures ascribe to fallen men to fulfill its precepts arises entirely from their love of sin; to deliver them from which, and to restore them through a Mediator to unfeigned obedience to the holy law, is one great end of the gospel, and of the means of grace connected with the establishment of the visible church.
Rom. 3:31; Matt. 5:17; Luke 16:17; Rom. 3:20; Rom. 4:15; Rom. 7:12; Rom.7:7,14-22; Gal.3:21; Ps. 119; Rom.8:7-8; Josh. 24:19; Jer. 13:23; John 6:44; John 5:44; Rom. 8:2-4; Rom. 10:4; I Tim. 1:5; Heb. 8:10; Jude 20&21″
Acts 2 is one passage classically used to explain “the ordinary means of grace.” Some of the means of grace aren’t listed in this text, such as baptism, and some theologians suggest that the list in Acts 2 includes some activities that aren’t means of grace, but I think it’s wise to consider all of what’s here under the heading “means of grace.” After Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost, Acts 2:41 says that many “received his Word,” and after that, they “were baptized,” and then three thousand souls were “added” to the local visible church in Jerusalem. Notice that there’s a clear order of progression here. First, they received the Word of Christ. Second, those who received the Word were baptized. And third, baptized believers joined together in a local church.
Acts 2:42 goes on to tell us what the church members did when they gathered together as a church. It says, “They devoted themselves to the  apostles’ teaching, and  fellowship,  to the breaking of bread, and  the prayers.” The Greek word translated “devoted themselves” means that these early Christians were “strong and steadfast in giving constant attention.” They gave themselves to certain primary disciplines together in the local church. Let’s consider each of these “ordinary means of grace,” one at a time.
1. “The apostles’ teaching.” The context of Acts 2 shows us that the “apostles’ teaching” is the Word of God understood with Christ at its center. The Word of Christ is the most basic of all the means of grace. Preaching is the fuel and engine of the life of the church. Sinners are converted through the Word of Christ, and saints are nourished and sanctified, as the Word of Christ fills their minds and hearts through faith. In faithful local churches, the Bible is read, taught, sung, preached, and studied expositionally, doctrinally, thematically, and practically with Christ at the center.
The “apostles’ teaching” is a means of grace, no matter how we feel, what we’re thinking, or the degree of our faith. The Bible is absolutely God’s grace to us. All we must do is lean upon Christ, revealed in the Word, by faith alone. The “apostles’ teaching” is a rock for our weary and weak souls. If we will only cast ourselves upon Christ, speaking in Scripture, He will strengthen us when we’re weak, feed us when we’re hungry, protect us when we’re in danger, lead us when we need direction, and give us every provision of life we need in Him.
2. “Fellowship.” Many misunderstand “fellowship” to be any kind of friendship or conversation with other believers. But Acts 2 shows us that biblical fellowship involves wise and tangible acts of love and service. The word “fellowship” means “sharing” with one another in Jesus Christ. Fellowship is, therefore, very intentional, focused, and Christ-centered. It doesn’t happen accidentally or automatically. We “fellowship” by lovingly sharing our possessions with any brother or sister who has any need. We “fellowship” by bearing one another’s burdens, by listening to one another, by praying for one another, by exhorting, enjoying, correcting, counseling, and encouraging one another in the Word of Christ.
“Fellowship” is a means of grace as church members speak and act like Christ to one another. In this way, we experience Christ’s grace and His love through His people and because of their sanctification. We commune with the Image of God through His redeemed images. “Fellowship” is also a means of grace, when other church members sin against us and hurt us. We have the opportunity to die to ourselves, and so become more like Jesus in loving Christ’s people as He loves them and as we ourselves have been loved, no matter what they do to us. This also is a powerful and necessary means of grace to us.
3. “The breaking of bread.” The context shows that this phrase, “breaking of bread” refers to the Lord’s Supper, or at least to an early way of practicing the Lord’s Supper before it was formalized. The phrase “breaking of bread” is used frequently as a reference to the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16) as an analogy of the breaking of Christ’s body. The Lord’s Supper has three tenses. First, it has a past tense. It reminds us that Christ’s body was broken on the tree and that by His death, we have life. Second, it has a present tense. The Lord’s Supper is present communion with Christ as the Spirit takes from Christ’s work and brings it to our souls by faith, when we receive the Lord’s Supper together. Third, it has a future tense. The Lord’s Supper gives us hope as we look forward to dining with Jesus at the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb in the final state after He returns.
Michael Horton said that the Lord’s Supper is not a reward for strong Christians. It’s is a means of grace for weak and needy Christians. That’s all of us. The Supper is a picture of the bloody atoning death of Jesus Christ, which summons sinners to cast themselves freely and fully upon Him alone for salvation. It’s a means of grace as Christians remember that they bring nothing at all to the Table of the Lord, except their own hungry souls to be fed by Christ Himself. It’s a means of grace because in the Lord’s Supper, God bountifully feeds His people as they look, by faith, directly upon Jesus by means of the bread and cup. It’s a means of grace as God spiritually nourishes His people through the gospel, which feeds and strengthens the heart of every believer.
4. “The prayers.” These are corporate prayers of God’s people. We know these are corporate prayers of the church because “the prayers” are listed alongside of the other corporate activities of the gathered church. They’re “the prayers at designated times” prayed by the church when it met. When the church gathered together, it also devoted itself to praying together in the worship of God, for the needs of the saints, and for the advancement of the kingdom of Christ in this world.
While “the apostles’ teaching” is the most basic or foundational of all the means of grace, “the prayers” of the church are possibly the most ultimate of all the means of grace. Every activity of the church should be filled by the Word, only to overflow with the prayers of God’s people. The goal of preaching is faithful loving communion with Christ in prayer. Congregational songs are the prayers of the church sung to the Lord. When God’s people pray together, they’re fellowshipping, or sharing, in Christ together.
Prayer is a means of grace because through prayer, we come before God, not to give Him anything He needs, but to take what we need from Him: His graces, His bounties, His promises, and expressions of His love for us through Christ in the Spirit. Our prayers are not offerings of works to God. Rather, our prayers are the expression of hearts cast upon Him in desperation, with a sense of dependence, humility, desire, and need. Prayers are a means of grace because they come to God with open hands, pleading with Him, urging Him to make all of His means effective for the salvation and sanctification of His people. Apart from God’s effectual blessing through His Spirit, none of the means of grace would have any effect at all. Prayer, more than any other means of grace, acknowledges this.
For a larger discussion of corporate prayer, see “Why Have a Corporate Prayer Time?“
Because these are the “ordinary means of grace,” given by God to His churches, Morningview will seek to prioritize these things, organizing all of our activities around them, so that we will grow more and more into the likeness of the church of heaven, and summon His people out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, for the glory of our great Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For further information about the “Ordinary Means of Grace,” check out the following articles:
The Ordinary Means of Growth by Ligon Duncan
The Means of Grace in General by Louis Berkhof
Increase of Faith: The Ordinary Means of Grace in the Second London Confession of Faith by James M. Renihan ames M. Renihan