Over the last few years, I have given increased thought toward God’s ordinary means of grace. That designation itself is worth reflection, by which I have recently come to be thoroughly amazed.
First, the means are God’s. They belong to him and are used by him for his purposes concerning us. God creates faith, grants life, provides assurance, and works sanctification by being the primary agent at work in his means of grace.
Second, they are ordinary. Our generation is obsessed with excitement and entertainment, making the ordinary sound boring. All the same, most people do not want their search for food to be truly exciting, as if the outcome were unsure. You want to walk to the fridge or go to the restaurant and know food will be available. Even when someone goes on an outdoor experience, very few want their food supply for an indefinite and unknown period of time to be truly dependent on their skills, nor especially on their fortunes in the supply chain of animals or fauna suitable for food. Most of us do not want that sort of excitement. We should learn to think the same way about God. We should not want to have to go on a mystical quest for a place to meet the Lord. We should not hope to need to linger in the woods or find the right mountaintop to find God. Rather, we should be glad—even excited—that God has promised to meet us in his ordinary means of grace.
Third, they are means. God uses these things to accomplish something. They are not the thing in themselves but instruments, tools, and channels that God has promised to bless.
Finally, they are means of grace. God uses these instruments to apply his favor to us, namely his favor for us in Christ. So, to attend to the use of these means is to drink of Christ and to have him applied, communicated, and granted to us in new and increasing measure.
Perhaps what has most significantly affected my thinking on this issue was writing a book on covenant theology. My early academic research focused on the history of the covenant of works. Writing a systematic treatment of that doctrine was cathartic in some ways, as a mind-clearing exercise. Writing about the covenant of redemption was clarifying as I refined how to make sure my understanding of this doctrine accounted for precise theology proper, especially in light of the explosion of attention on the recovery of classical theism. But the most heartwarming aspect of that project was to give exposition to the covenant of grace, learning more and with much greater depth so that I might write about how God uses the features of our life in the church to apply the virtue, efficacy, and benefits of Christ’s mediation to us. It renewed and strengthened my joy in the pastoral task, seeing with new clarity how reading and preaching the Bible, instituting and distributing the sacraments, and praying publicly and privately were ways that God uses me—even me of all people—genuinely to apply Christ to his people. What an amazing task I have been called to do: to give Jesus to God’s people by the means God has assigned to us.
As a way to encourage others in their understanding of the means of grace, this piece surveys some recent accessible literature on God’s ordinary means of grace. This does not include academic treatments, but rather fairly short works that any Christian can pick up to get a quick survey of how God’s means of grace work in our lives.
- David Strain, Expository Preaching (Blessings of the Faith; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2021).
David Strain’s short book on preaching is in some ways one of a kind because it describes preaching’s use and value to the person in the pew rather than the man in the pulpit. This book is a great overview of why Reformed churches prioritize the Word in our worship services. Strain’s pastoral experience is clear as he walks through practical conversations, obviously grounded in hearing and counseling many concerned newcomers to Reformed churches over the years. He shows readers how the Reformed practice of emphasizing God’s Word read and preached as the heart and soul of worship, that it is actually what is best, most comforting, and fulfilling for believers. Strain’s book is perhaps the finest thing in print for the purposes his aims to achieve and will help church members and encourage pastors. Everyone should read this brilliant contribution.
- Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019).
Vanhoozer’s little volume is admittedly meant for pastors but still accessible enough to profit church members as well. He argues that Scripture, namely Scripture properly taught in Christian doctrine, is God’s appointed way of shaping his people in the life of discipleship. His point is that theology displaces the world’s narratives, replacing them with the true gospel narrative.
This book is somewhat philosophically oriented or at least communicates in the philosophical register by drawing on some paradigms of social analysis. In this respect, it is less accessible that Strain’s book but should still be readily usable for pastors and some church members who are more attuned to cultural critique or philosophical categories. It takes a while to get to the meat of VanHoozer’s point, but his metaphors are thought-provoking, and the premise should call pastors to consider the seriousness of their task concerning how to use God’s Word in church discipleship.
- Jason Helopoulos, Covenantal Baptism (Blessings of the Faith; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2021).
Jason Helopoulos’ book on baptism focuses on explaining how baptism blesses the covenant community. In this respect, although one aim is to present a Reformed view of the sacrament defensively against baptistic views, it emphasizes what is good for believers, believers’ families, and the church family within the covenantal understanding of baptism. The irenic and positive tone highlighting benefits that God’s people receive from baptism—whether receiving, witnessing, or more generally improving the sacrament (WLC 167)—makes this a very encouraging read, edifying us with pastoral discussions about the practical profits of our view of this means of grace that admits us into the visible church.
- Robert Letham, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Baptism: Water that Unites (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2012).
Robert Letham’s introduction to baptism is short but punchy. It links baptism to the biblical doctrine of the covenants and to churchly life. Letham’s presentation of the relationship of the covenant of grace’s Mosaic administration to its other administrations is not my own view but also is not detrimental to his overall argument (nor is it as specific as other places where he has addressed this issue). This volume’s great strength is in carefully formulating baptism’s efficacy, so to avoid both Roman ceremonialism and emptying baptism of all its theological meaning concerning what God does to and for his people in the sacrament. A surprisingly very helpful read with plenty of discussion of biblical texts and references to patristic writers.
- Guy M. Richard, Baptism: Answers to Common Questions (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2019).
Richard’s book aims, as the title indicates, to answer questions about baptism, doing well at gathering concise responses to issues that are often unclear to those new to the Reformed faith, especially if coming from a baptistic background. The book’s stance of answering questions makes it very accessible and useful because it does not start from the absolute beginning, taking a more direct approach of tackling the most typically raised issues. Although I think I would differ from Richard on his interpretation of Romans 9 regarding the Abraham community, this book is an excellent resource for a new member class, for those with questions about the Reformed view of baptism, or for those who want a clear and concise refresher about how to think through some of the issues where Reformed and Baptist theologies most overtly differ.
- Keith A. Mathison, The Lord’s Supper: Answers to Common Questions (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2019).
Mathison’s book on the Lord’s Supper is a companion volume for Richard’s on baptism, aiming for the same goal of answering questions that people often have when they have been around church to some degree and then come to a means-of-grace-focused church. The direct approach again makes this book highly useful and fast paced, moving from one topic to the next in good fashion. It raises the most important issues where Reformed theology differs from both Roman Catholic and generic evangelical theology. Mathison has clear and wise answers for some of the exegetical, theological, and pastoral issues surrounding the Supper that most need a response. This book is a must-read for everyone interested in the Reformed view of the Supper, from newcomers to pastors, and probably my new favorite book on the Supper.
- Guy Prentiss Waters, The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant (Short Studies in Biblical Theology; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019).
Guy Waters biblical theology of the Lord’s Supper is an excellent treatment of why we have a special meal as a means of grace in the new covenant. Rather than beginning directly with passages about the Supper’s institution and significance, he frames the issue in light of what God’s covenants are and how God has always appointed meals to use for fellowship with his covenant people. This book is a very helpful, accessible introduction to the Lord’s Supper, explaining why we expect God to have appointed this meal for us. The final chapter treating the Supper directly and outlining its meaning and practical significance is an enriching discussion that will help Reformed Christians appreciate it all the more when they come to the table.
- Guy M. Richard, Persistent Prayer (Blessings of the Faith; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2021).
Guy Richard’s little book reflects on ways that prayer helps believers in the Christian life. The main struggle that most Christians have in the area of prayer is simply doing it. Richard writes with a view to motivating readers to prayer. This book could have used more reflections on how prayer is a means of grace, since it focuses more on prayer as a duty. Nonetheless, there are few short Reformed books about prayer, and this one is a good entry point.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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