Dear Church Family,
Next week, June 8-12, is the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America which will be held in Chattanooga, TN. My family and I will be traveling to General Assembly – and from there, we will be departing for vacation to visit with family. Please pray for the work of our church at the General Assembly; we would also appreciate your prayers for our family’s travel, as well.
While I am gone, the ruling elders of our church will be preaching in our Sunday morning worship services. This is a good opportunity for them to proclaim the word of God in fulfillment of their duties as elders in the church. Sometimes, we have had guest preachers who are ministers (or teaching elders) in our denomination come and preach; however, I am grateful that we have elders in our congregation who are willing and “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2).
Because of the polity of our denomination, however, this means that our congregation will not be partaking of the Lord’s Supper for a couple of weeks (dispensing the ordinances instituted by Christ is restricted to teaching elders, or ministers, in the PCA (BCO 8:5)). In some churches, that might not even be noticeable, but since we partake of the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis, it would be hard for its absence to go unnoticed. I’ve previously written about some of the reasons why we practice weekly communion, so I won’t get into that here.
Prioritizing the Means of Grace
However, since our congregation will not be partaking of communion for a couple of weeks in June, I thought this might be a good time to reflect upon how we ought to properly think about, and prioritize, the means of grace. When we speak of the means of grace, we are talking about the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption as defined in our confessional standards. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, these ordinary means of grace are “the word, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer (WSC 88). [I’ve previously written about why we call ourselves an ‘ordinary means of grace church’ here.]
I find it interesting that when I talk to people about how we partake of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, one of the typical responses that I get from those who don’t practice weekly communion is, “Aren’t you worried that it will become too common place if you do it so much?” My usual response to such a question is two-fold: (1) Are you worried that preaching, singing, or praying will become too common place? (2) Actually, I’ve found that the opposite is true. Having served as the pastor in two congregations that have practiced weekly communion, I find that people come to value the Lord’s Supper more than they ought.
Let me quickly say that I know that that statement sounds odd. How could the people of God over-value such a wonderful gift as the Lord’s Supper? So, let me clarify. It’s not that I think we may tend to over-value the Lord’s Supper for what it is (a wonderful means of grace – communion with the Lord and with one another); rather, I think we may tend to forget how we ought to prioritize the ordinary means of grace.
Here’s where our confessional standards are helpful, again. In chapter 14 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of Saving Faith,” we are given a priority concerning the means of grace:
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word: by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. (WCF 14:1)
Here we learn (or are reminded) of the biblical teaching that saving faith is the work of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of the elect (John 3:5-8; 2 Corinthians 4:13). We also are taught that this saving faith is ‘ordinarily wrought’ (usually created) by the ministry of the Word (Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:5). The next phrase in this paragraph sometimes throws people because of how the pronoun ‘which’ is used: “…by which also [that is, ‘also by the ministry of the Word], and the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it [faith] is increased and strengthened” (1 Peter 2:2; Romans 4:11).
Putting that altogether, we have basically two points: (1) The Spirit of Christ ordinarily uses the ministry of the Word to create faith in the hearts of the elect; (2) The Spirit of Christ ordinarily uses the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer to increase and strengthen that faith in the hearts of the elect.
Thus, we see a prioritization of the means of grace. The sacraments and prayer are not the ordinary means which God uses to create faith in the hearts of His people, but He does use them to increase and strengthen that faith which is already present. The ministry of the Word is that means of grace which God uses to both create faith, as well as increase and strengthen that faith. I’ve sometimes put it this way: God uses the ministry of the Word in both a justificational and sanctificational sense, while the sacraments and prayer are only sanctificational.
Sometimes people will say to me upon returning from a vacation or an out of town visit, “We visited a good church while we were away, but we missed the Lord’s Supper.” I rejoice that the common meal of the Lord’s people has become something for which we long – and rightly so! At the same time, when I hear this comment, I usually respond, “Did you hear the Word of God preached? If so, then you had the privilege of partaking of the primary means of grace.” After all, as our shorter catechism also teaches, “The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, and effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (WSC 89; 1 Corinthians 14:24-25; Acts 20:32).
It is good that we grow in our appreciation and longing for the Lord’s Supper; the Table of the Lord is a wonderful gift providing spiritual nourishment. More so, however, let us like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it we may grow in respect to salvation (1 Peter 2:2) and see more people come to saving faith through hearing the word of Christ (Romans 10:8-17).
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch