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Baptism as a Means of Grace

August 14, 2019 2 comments

From one of the earlier Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals’ PCRT conferences (1981) on “How to Grow your Faith” comes an interesting lecture from Robert Godfrey, on Baptism as a means of grace.  It’s a subject I’ve been considering lately, the scripture and reasoning for paedo (versus believer) baptism, and this lecture fits in along with other online articles I’ve come across.

In this post I want to look at this sacrament, baptism, as a means of grace (regardless of whether paedo or believers’ baptism); and a lot of the material comes from John Calvin’s writing in the Institutes, and referenced in this lecture.

Church history has shown two extremes to be avoided – first, the superstitious “magical” view of the Roman Catholicism, that the Reformers responded to in their day.  The current day evangelicalism – and just as true if not more so than in 1981 – has tended to the other extreme, of viewing the sacraments (sometimes called ordinances due to over-reaction again the Roman Catholic view of sacraments) as of no value, something to be neglected, as an “appendix” and an after thought.  There are the churches that only observe the Lord’s Supper once a quarter (every 3 months), or even once a year.  Then, too, are the cases of unusual practice, that remove the significance of the sacraments, where people don’t think about the symbolism and the purpose of the sacraments:  a church observance of the Lord’s Supper in which the bread is put into the bottom of the plastic drink cup and people “drink” the bread from the cup into their mouth; or, a church that wants to be culturally relevant and so refers to baptism as “coming out”–complete with online postings of testimonials from young believers who talk about their life and past problems and then they came to Jesus (more focused on the person’s experience than about the triune God and what He has done for us).

Yet as pointed out in Godfrey’s lecture (back to Calvin), the main point regarding baptism is not about us—but it is something that God has done.   Baptism should first be viewed as God’s pledge and promise to us as individuals, as a part of the “visible word” to us as individuals.  After all, sermons are given generally, to everyone in the audience, but each person has their own baptism experience to look back to.  Baptism is not to be seen as just a one-time event at the start of the Christian life, and then we go forward and forget about it; properly viewed, it is something we look back to, in relation to God’s purpose for me, something that brings assurance (as do the other means of grace).

Martin Luther referred to baptism in this way, that his baptism was something that told him he was a Christian:  not thinking of baptism in a legalistic way as though the baptism itself is what saves someone, the error of baptismal regeneration – but in this “means of grace” view, thinking about what God in Christ has done for us, of baptism as God’s sign of the covenant relationship with Luther as an individual.  Godfrey agrees that baptism also serves as a testimony of our faith, of each of us being one of God’s people.  Yet this is a secondary purpose, and we must never forget the primary purpose and meaning of baptism.

Martin Luther quote:

No one should be terrified if he feels evil lust or love, nor should he despair even if he falls. Rather he should remember his Baptism and comfort himself joyfully with the fact that God has there pledged Himself to slay his sin for him, and not to count it a cause for condemnation, if only he does not say yes to sin and remain in it.

Godfrey’s lecture used the “P” letter for the sermon outline – including the Prominence of the term baptism in scripture, then the Pledge and Promise of God, and the People (recipients) of baptism.  One section does address the Presbyterian-view scripture reasons for the paedo view, an informational part done with respect—observing that people rarely heard actual discussion about the paedo Baptist view in Presbyterian sermons, referencing even the Presbyterian scholar Charles  Hodge as one who said he had never heard a sermon on paedobaptism.

Godfrey’s lecture is very informative and helpful, a Reformed look at the sacrament of baptism and how baptism can be thought of in terms of our sanctification and assurance.  It is part of a set from the 1981 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and soon I’ll be listening to the other lectures from this conference.

Revisiting the So-Called “Spiritual Disciplines”

November 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Several months back I posted about the problem with spiritual disciplines, including excerpts from Bob DeWaay and links to his articles about it.  More and more I see the term “spiritual disciplines” showing up, even in local churches that supposedly hold to the Reformers’ beliefs — such as a Sunday School class in which “spiritual disciplines” is being taught — perhaps from a more biblical view than the extent to which some take the idea, yet the term is still being used.

Last week the Sunday School topic was about meditation, and “is meditation a spiritual discipline?”  A handout included several Bible verses about people who meditated, and a “checklist” for people to look through, counting up how many hours per week they spend on various activities, of which work/business, sleeping, eating, reading, doing laundry, and even Facebook and texting, were on the list — and the suggestion to look at one’s priorities and what they spend time on.  Again I am reminded of Bob DeWaay’s point, that the problem with spiritual disciplines is that it conveys the idea that we can become holy by “doing” these things, rather than focusing on what God has promised and using “the means of grace.”  The checklist and verses (just single verses, not passages) certainly promotes that attitude.

From the biblical view, this is the wrong approach.  Instead we recognize the “means of grace,” and the public and private “means of grace” spoken of by the great preachers of the last few centuries:  the things through which God gives grace, as promised in His word.  Meditation is not an end in itself, something we do to become more holy, in which we decide to spend a certain amount of time “meditating” and looking up specific Bible verses and thinking, “what does this mean to me?”  Meditation always has as its object God’s word; in reading and understanding God’s word we are promised blessings, as specifically mentioned in Revelation 1:3 as well as in the book of Proverbs.  We spend time in God’s word, reading it and studying it, pondering what it means — not just certain verses (often out of context), and not according to some set scheduled discipline, but throughout our daily lives as we read, pray and listen to or read sermons.  Meditation is part of that overall studying process, as we think upon the things that God has revealed to us in His word — rather than something forced and planned.

FInally, some observations from J.C. Ryle, concerning the “means of grace” (not “spiritual disciplines”):

From Holiness, chapter 6

One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man must use by himself alone, and no one can use for him. I include under this head private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self–examination. The man who does not take pains about these three things must never expect to grow. Here are the roots of true Christianity. Wrong here, a man is wrong all the way through! Here is the whole reason why many professing Christians never seem to get on. They are careless and slovenly about their private prayers. They read their Bibles but little and with very little heartiness of spirit. They give themselves no time for self–inquiry and quiet thought about the state of their souls.

and (from Holiness, chapter 2):

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.

The Problem With “Spiritual Disciplines”

March 21, 2011 1 comment

Several months ago I briefly looked at the terms “means of grace” and “spiritual disciplines,” mainly to understand the definition of the expression “means of grace.”  Now for a follow-up and more detailed look at the trendy idea of “spiritual disciplines” and what it’s really about.
A friend recently sent a link to a “Bible meditation” plan, asking what I thought of it.  The plan referenced “spiritual disciplines” and suggested specific ways to meditate on God’s word, including “relax your body” and “use your imagination to picture the truth when appropriate.”  (I explained what I thought of this, and the friend noted that I had confirmed the doubts she had about it.)
Bob DeWaay’s “Critical Issues Commentary” has been helpful for further research, as with these two articles:

The proponents of “spiritual disciplines,” such as Don Whitney, go beyond what the Bible itself defines.  Bob DeWaay said it well, that the “Means of grace are defined by the Bible and attached to God’s promises.  If we come to God in faith according to the means He has defined, He has promised to graciously meet us.”

However, the “spiritual disciplines” add many specific things to “do” in a subtle type of works-religion:

To summarize the directives in the chapters of Whitney’s book: spend more time reading the Bible, memorize more scripture, have a Bible reading plan, obey the Bible more, apply the Bible more, pray more, do more evangelism, make more plans for evangelism, serve more, use your gifts more, work harder at serving, use more time for spiritual things and less for wasteful things like entertainment, give more, fast often and regularly, spend time daily in silence and solitude, learn to hear the inward voice of God and then obey that inward voice, keep a journal, discipline yourself to write in a journal daily, study more, persevere more, and so forth. In fact, one could summarize, “think of whatever appears to be spiritual and godly and then do more and try harder.”

Many of these things are harmless in themselves, but with the teaching of “spiritual disciplines” they have become associated with the idea of becoming holy through disciplining oneself, as though by doing these things we could become more spiritual, more like Jesus.  For instance, “keeping a journal” is based on an idea only loosely connected to scripture, that since David penned the Psalms (inspired writings), our journal-keeping of thoughts and feelings is on the same level.  But back to the definition of “means of grace,” such a “blessing” for keeping a journal is not something that God promises — and inevitably sets us up for disappointment when such measures fail to give that extra blessing.

Bob DeWaay’s remarks about keeping a journal reminded me of something I remember reading years ago from C.S. Lewis, that keeping a journal was something he quit doing after becoming a Christian:  journal keeping was too self-focused, a very selfish activity that detracts from making us useful for God.  If by journal keeping we mean, keep notes about new things we discover in God’s word, fine — and I do that in fair measure, notes from certain Bible verses I read, or notes from various sermon series with commentary opinions.  But the “spiritual discipline” of journal keeping is the very thing C.S. Lewis also rejected, as too much self-centeredness.

But back to the idea of the grace that God gives to us as we partake of His means:  can I actually observe the blessings/benefits I receive from the “means of grace?”  Being honest with myself, I must admit, frequently I’m unaware of such — the process is gradual, and too often even when I engage in regular activity such as Bible reading, my mind is easily distracted or otherwise dulled and not as attentive as it should be.  Yet God has even told us that the reading of His word is a “blessing”  (Revelation 1:3), and that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”  (2 Timothy 3:16).  Often enough, I find at least daily encouragement to continue living the Christian life — as in recent readings in Hebrews, Psalm 119, and other parts of God’s word.

J.C. Ryle’s Holiness: Chapter 2, Sanctification

October 28, 2010 2 comments

This chapter has some great insights.  I have previously mentioned the “means of grace,” and this chapter contains J.C. Ryle’s reference to that term.

A few quotes I found especially helpful and comforting:

Sanctification is a thing which cannot justify a man, and yet it pleases God. The holiest actions of the holiest saint that ever lived are all more or less full of defects and imperfections. They are either wrong in their motive or defective in their performance and in themselves are nothing better than “splendid sins,” deserving God’s wrath and condemnation. To suppose that such actions can stand the severity of God’s judgment, atone for sin and merit heaven is simply absurd. “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified.” “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:20–28). … For all this, however, the Bible distinctly teaches that the holy actions of a sanctified man, although imperfect, are pleasing in the sight of God. “With such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13:16). “Obey your parents . . . for this is well pleasing unto the Lord” (Col. 3:20). “We . . . do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (1 John 3:22).  Let this never be forgotten, for it is a very comfortable doctrine. Just as a parent is pleased with the efforts of his little child to please him, though it be only by picking a daisy or walking across a room, so is our Father in heaven pleased with the poor performances of His believing children. He looks at the motive, principle and intention of their actions and not merely at their quantity and quality. He regards them as members of His own dear Son, and for His sake, wherever there is a single eye, He is well pleased.

and

True holiness does not make a Christian evade difficulties, but face and overcome them. Christ would have His people show that His grace is not a mere hot–house plant, which can only thrive under shelter, but a strong, hardy thing which can flourish in every relation of life. It is doing our duty in that state to which God has called us, like salt in the midst of corruption and light in the midst of darkness, which is a primary element in sanctification. It is not the man who hides himself in a cave, but the man who glorifies God as master or servant, parent or child, in the family and in the street, in business and in trade, who is the scriptural type of a sanctified man. Our Master Himself said in His last prayer, “I pray not that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil” (John 17:15).

I also liked J.C. Ryle’s explanation concerning the “passive graces”:

Genuine sanctification, in the last place, will show itself in habitual attention to the passive graces of Christianity. When I speak of passive graces, I mean those graces which are especially shown in submission to the will of God and in bearing and forbearing towards one another. Few people, perhaps, unless they have examined the point, have an idea how much is said about these graces in the New Testament and how important a place they seem to fill. This is the special point which St. Peter dwells upon in commending our Lord Jesus Christ’s example to our notice: “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps: who did no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth: who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:21–23). This is the one piece of profession which the Lord’s prayer requires us to make: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” and the one point that is commented upon at the end of the prayer. This is the point which occupies one third of the list of the fruits of the Spirit supplied by St. Paul. Nine are named and three of these, patience, gentleness and meekness, are unquestionably passive graces (Gal. 5:22, 23). I must plainly say that I do not think this subject is sufficiently considered by Christians. The passive graces are no doubt harder to attain than the active ones, but they are precisely the graces which have the greatest influence on the world. Of one thing I feel very sure: it is nonsense to pretend to sanctification unless we follow after the meekness, gentleness, patience and forgivingness of which the Bible makes so much.

This chapter also includes a helpful comparison / contrast between Justification and Sanctification:

a.  Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another, even Jesus Christ the Lord. Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree.

b. The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own, but the everlasting perfect righteousness of our great Mediator Christ, imputed to us, and made our own by faith. The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own righteousness, imparted, inherent and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit but mingled with much infirmity and imperfection.

c. In justification our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful. In sanctification our own works are of vast importance, and God bids us fight and watch and pray and strive and take pains and labor.

d. Justification is a finished and complete work, and a man is perfectly justified the moment he believes. Sanctification is an imperfect work, comparatively, and will never be perfected until we reach heaven.

e. Justification admits of no growth or increase: a man is as much justified the hour he first comes to Christ by faith as he will be to all eternity. Sanctification is eminently a progressive work and admits of continual growth and enlargement so long as a man lives.

f. Justification has special reference to our persons, our standing in God’s sight, and our deliverance from guilt. Sanctification has special reference to our natures and the moral renewal of our hearts.

g. Justification gives us our title to heaven and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our fitness for heaven and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.

h. Justification is the act of God about us and is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification is the work of God within us and cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men.

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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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