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The Means of Grace

October 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I just recently learned the phrase “means of grace,” as a Christian expression that goes back at least several hundred years in Christian history.  A recent BibChr post highlighted both terms in its reference to another blogger who considered whether private devotions were more of a “spiritual discipline” instead of “means of grace.”  As Dan Phillips and others observed, it’s really a “both / and” rather than one aspect (public worship) being more important or “higher level” than the other.

I had recently come across the words in a few places, such as J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, but through the above blog and related conversation I became aware of the “definition” status of the phrase.  From reading on the subject since, I tend to agree that the older term, “means of grace,” is to be preferred over the modern, more limited idea of “spiritual disciplines.”  As with other new “key terms” I come across, I also googled the phrase in the transcripts of several Christian preachers, and found it used by J.C. Ryle, C.H. Spurgeon, S. Lewis Johnson, and John MacArthur.

Here is a good definition from J.C. Ryle (Holiness, chapter 2: Sanctification):

Sanctification depends greatly on a diligent use of scriptural means. The “means of grace” are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshiping God in Church, wherein one hears the Word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. . .  They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man.

Other general definitions on the web agree, that the “means of grace” are the “means” by which God gives us grace in our daily lives:  Bible reading, prayers, devotions, listening to sermons, and public worship including participation in the Lord’s Supper.

As for the “private versus public” issue, I would agree that both are needed.  In my own experience, the private Bible reading, study, blog writing-extension, and reading and listening to good sermons has been more helpful than “mere” corporate worship.  Certainly, though, in the years when my personal time with God was more limited, to a cursory, once-a-year reading through the Bible, the twice a week church service had little effect on my overall life.  I certainly did not grow in the knowledge and grace of God during those years, but more easily lapsed into the daily cares of the world during the week.  I cannot do anything about my current corporate worship situation — obviously God has His purposes in keeping me here — but continue to greatly benefit from the wisdom (and very practical advice) of great saints such as Spurgeon and J.C. Ryle.  Even this week, I learned from Spurgeon  (#147, The Sound in the Mulberry Trees) the importance of not doing anything to impede a weaker brother:  do not verbally criticize a sermon, as the person who hears the criticism may well have been moved by something he found good in that sermon.  Say, rather, that “Well, it was not the sermon for me.”

Another great Internet resource on the topic of “Means of Grace” is  Bob DeWaay’s  article, “Means of Grace: God’s Provision for Our Salvation and Sanctification.”  Along with a discussion of the public and private means of grace is the following gem of insight concerning communion:

what should be true whenever we receive communion. 1) We receive it in faith, trusting not in the act of taking communion, but in the finished work of Christ. 2) We do so in remembrance of the Lord, thus being linked with all of the redeemed who have done likewise since the Last Supper, sharing a common hope. 3) We receive communion as a proclamation of the gospel hope, publicly declaring the reason for our hope. 4) When we receive communion we are longing for the Lord’s return to physically share that fourth cup with us. 5) When we receive communion we are expressing our hope in the future kingdom of God in which all true people of faith are reunited with their Lord and recline in table fellowship together.

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Studying Isaiah, Understanding Prophecy and Good Theology

September 17, 2010 Leave a comment

As I now work through a chapter-by-chapter Bible Study in Isaiah, with S. Lewis Johnson (up through Isaiah 8), the following words from Horatius Bonar concerning the prophets again come to mind:

To attach a general meaning to a whole chapter, as is frequently done, shows not only grievous irreverence for the Divine Word, but much misconception of the real nature of that language in which it is written. Yet such is often the practice of many expositors of prophecy. They will take up a chapter of Isaiah, and tell you that it refers to the future glory of the Christian Church; and that is the one idea which they gather from a whole chapter, or sometimes from a series of chapters. Their system does not admit of interpreting verse by verse and clause by clause, and affixing an exact and definite sense to each. Bring them to this test, and their system gives way. It looks fair and plausible enough, so long as they can persuade you that the whole chapter is one scene, out of which it is merely designed that one grand idea should be extracted; but bring it to the best of minute and precise interpretation, and its nakedness is at once discovered. Many prophecies become in this way a mere waste of words.  What might be expressed in one sentence, is beaten out over a whole chapter; nay, sometimes over a whole book.

These expositors think that there is nothing in prophecy, except that Jew and Gentile are all to be gathered in, and made one in Christ. Prophet after prophet is raised up, vision after vision is given, and yet nothing is declared but this one idea! Every chapter almost of Isaiah foretells something about the future glory of the world; and every chapter presents it to us in some new aspect, opening up new scenes, and pointing out new objects; but, according to the scheme of some, every chapter sets forth the same idea, reiterates the same objects, and depicts the same scenes. Is not this handling the Word of God deceitfully?

In teaching from Isaiah 6, S. Lewis Johnson brings out some important lessons concerning the value of good theology, as illustrated in Isaiah’s experience:  his sin,  cleansing, and commission.  Isaiah understood both sides of truth, the balance between two extremes.  On the one hand, we have total acceptance with God, yet we must also maintain a moment-by-moment relationship to God.

If we so stress our total acceptance with God that we forget the other, then we leave ourselves open to license.  If we so stress the necessity for this relationship moment by moment with God that we forget our acceptance with him, we come to the place where we are morbid, where we are unstable because we are not sure that we really are accepted with God.  That is the value of theology, because we do not go to extremes.  We know both sides of the truth.

SLJ spoke of a recent trend in his day (1968) towards emphasizing our total acceptance — without the need for daily confession of sin and repentance.  In my recent experience with Sovereign Grace, Reformed churches I have observed the opposite extreme of focus on the moment-by-moment relationship with God:  over-emphasis upon the need to confess our sins, remembering that we are creatures of wrath and God should have just stomped us out like a bug; and that God is still ticked off about the fall and Adam’s sin.  As SLJ said so well, such a view — that neglects teaching concerning our adoption, the great promises of the biblical covenants and God’s Divine Purpose — leaves us with overwhelming guilt and a lack of assurance concerning our acceptance before God.

One simple outline for Isaiah 6 is:  Woe, Lo, and Go.  The woe comes in verse 5, Isaiah’s sin, followed by “Lo” in verse 7 when Isaiah is cleansed, then “Go” in verse 8, Isaiah’s commission.

Another great excerpt from S. Lewis Johnson:

Now, I want you to notice that as Isaiah is cleansed he immediately hears the voice of the Lord.  One of the reasons we do not hear the voice of the Lord is because we have not bothered to be cleansed.  We have not cared for many others.  We have put our trust in Jesus Christ, and we know that our future is secure because of the cross and we like it that way and we do not really be want to be disturbed anymore.  We want to be sure that we are going to heaven and that is about as far as we want to go.  And furthermore, we even have some who say that it is hopeless to get beyond that.  It is hopeless to think about the growing in grace.  We do not want to become like the Pharisees and proud of our growth.  Of course not!  But our salvation is our means to grow.  We do not want to stay children all our lives, do we?  It is good to know the truth of the cross, that is where life begins — but that is the beginning of life.  It is not the end.

The Whole Counsel of God: The Abrahamic Covenant

July 6, 2010 Leave a comment

What great treasures in God’s word are missed by the casual Bible teacher or student, by those who limit their study of God’s word to only certain parts and do not teach the whole counsel of God — justifying their neglect of the Bible by the notion that the only important thing is Christ’s First Coming, remembering the cross and how much God did for us at the cross.  Such a one, who concludes from 2 John that “there’s only one doctrine, the doctrine of Christ” also dismisses some biblical teachings as less important, saying:  (others would say) “oh let’s talk about Israel in prophecy, that’s more fun,”  — but that’s not important and that distracts from what’s really important, what Christ did at the cross.  Such an attitude appears to show great spiritual superiority, yet completely misses the important things that God has chosen to reveal to us– including the significance that Israel does have in prophecy (a large section of the Old Testament plus many New Testament references), as an important part in exalting and glorifying Christ, praising Him for the wonders He will yet do in the Divine Purpose of the Ages.  As I mentioned in this blog, the New Testament writers placed great emphasis on Christ’s return, often mentioning the prophetic word; they did not just look back, but eagerly awaited and desired His return.

Now to an important part of the whole counsel of God:  understanding the Abrahamic covenant, and the relevant passages in Genesis chapters 12, 15 and 17.  I have come across this topic a few times during previous studies from S. Lewis Johnson, such as his Eschatology series, and now in the “Divine Purpose” series he again briefly touches on the subject (while noting that he had previously covered this topic in many other series and suggested that people reference the tapes from those previous studies).  To those who would say that the basic promises in the Bible have to do with the cross of Jesus Christ, S. Lewis Johnson points out the connection, why studying the Abrahamic covenant is important:

what Christ did on the cross is the outgrowth of the Abrahamic promises and the outgrowth of the Davidic promises as well.  So we are contending that the basic broad promise of redemption is the Abrahamic covenantal promises.  The story of the Bible, we have said, is the record of the path along which Israel moves toward the fulfillment of these great promises. …  it’s in harmony with this that at the last of the whole of the Bible, that is, in Revelation chapter 22 in verse 16, the Lord Jesus’ connection with the Davidic covenant is again set forth and it’s the next to the last word that Jesus says.  He says, “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches.  I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star,” and his final word is, “and surely I come quickly.”

One new (to me) interesting thing concerning the account in Genesis 15:  verse 12 describes the deep sleep that fell on Abram — and “dreadful and great darkness.”  This was a nightmare, and the fact that it is associated with the ratification of this covenant indicates the future judgment, the horror and terror that would be required for the actual fulfilling of the covenant, the death of Christ on the cross.  Again from S. Lewis Johnson:

the fact that the terror and the horror of great darkness is associated with the ratification of this covenant suggests the judgment that is bound up in the ratification of it in reality in the future when the Lord Jesus Christ represented by this covenantal ratification dies upon Calvary’s cross.  So the terror and the horror of darkness is designed to suggest that the ratification of the covenant in reality not in type or not in illustration is a matter that involves the most serious and most painful of the divine judgmental discipline.

It is also biblically accurate to say that if we are to get any blessings from God, we have to get them through Abraham.  God chose Abraham, that the promised seed would come through him.  All the blessings involved in Jesus Christ come from Abraham, for Christ comes as the seed of Abraham.

A final note from S. Lewis Johnson about the importance of the Abrahamic covenant:

In fact, one of my teachers once said a long time ago that the way one looks at Abraham’s covenant more or less settles the entire argument in eschatology.  So it’s important to have a concept of what is taught in the Abrahamic covenant, its unconditional character and also the Scriptures that have to do with its future fulfillment.