The Doctrines of Grace: Thinking About Application, Part 2

Why do some pastors so strongly emphasize the “means of grace” or God’s “ordinances”—God’s word, the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and prayer? It boils down to this: humans are dead in their sin, wholly corrupted in their soul, and the only source of life—God—has given to his church his word by which his Spirit raises the spiritually dead and renews them in this new life. One of the practical implications and applications of the biblical doctrine of total depravity is that because humans have no ability in themselves to bring others out of their spiritual death the church must use the only power for life in order to be fruitful in multiplying and filling the earth (Gen. 1:28). There is only One Who is Life and he both resurrects and renews the spiritually dead by his Word and Spirit (Titus 3:5).

God creates his covenant community the church by giving eternal life to deadened sinners, calling them (not a barren invitation, but an effectual calling) out of darkness into his marvelous light (1Peter 2:9). Strictly speaking, though, it is God’s word that is the fundamental means of grace. Both prayer and the sacraments are only known to God’s church as “means” of grace, or God’s ordinances, because God revealed them to the prophets and apostles by whom we have God’s written word. And so the Westminster Confession of Faith’s (WCF) Larger Catechism (LC) Q. & A. #154 affirms: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”

You will note that God’s Word, the sacraments and prayer “are made effectual,” they are not in themselves automatically effectual. Thus, no mere human is able to simply use these means and thereby get the results desired from them. It is why LC Q. & A. #155 credits the Spirit of God with making these means effectual for salvation. But it is quite important to note that the writers of the WCF explain more completely this matter of the Spirit’s effectual application of salvation, and this ought to direct pastors in their understanding and implementation of biblically faithful ministry. 

The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.       

It is a further application of the doctrine of total depravity to recognize, then, that just as God sovereignly controls who has life through his word and Spirit, so too is God sovereign in terms of how he ministers his word and Spirit to and through his church. And so, the Spirit of Truth blesses those in whom he dwells with various gifts to varying degrees for the administration of his Word of Truth by human words and deeds (1Cor. 12:1-31; Eph. 4:11-16; Romans 12:3-8). And so it is not given to all God’s people to administer God’s word in the same way to the same degree. This is why the WCF LC Q. & A. #158 affirms: “The Word of God is to be preached only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.”

You will perhaps have noticed that these truths are not merely the practical implications and applications of other truths revealed by and in God’s word, but also specifically stated in God’s word. In other words, God’s word is both self-consistent and teaching us how to think and act, or how to extend out and express its truths. One sees this repeatedly in Paul’s writings, especially in Romans, although I would argue that it is abundantly present in all the biblical writers. Truths are stated and then the great “Therefore” follows. But even when not stated specifically, the “Therefore” is present implicitly by how the event or word revealed is confirmed or expressed by another word or deed that amplifies or applies the previous. God’s word came and continues to come in human history and one day the knowledge of God and his glory will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). The seed has been sown and bears fruit and more seed is sown and bears more fruit. All this is God extending and expressing his own life or himself. Thus, the true Christian is God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus, or the Word made flesh, for good works (Eph. 2:10; John 1:1-4).   

  Through God’s Word administered by God’s Spirit we have God’s power and knowledge for doing his will. As it turns out, those pastors who emphasize these God-given means of grace whereby God’s Word and Spirit are called upon and applied are the most practically-minded pastors. Those pastors and congregations that emphasize new schemes and strategies for a new time and different place are impractical fools who have fashioned their own idol and abandoned the only means of life for the methods of the world. They have the appearance of godliness but they deny God’s power (2Tim. 3:5). Thus, the antithesis of this are the faithful and true people of God and their teachers and preachers, who know what God’s word is and what it does, and therefore they preach and teach it, and receive it humbly and joyfully (2Tim. 3:16-4:5). Receive and use God’s means for life.   

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.   


David Smith