Overlooked Answers

Bill Smith

“What must I do to be saved?” “How may we enter into, remain in, and at last come to the fullness of salvation?” That is the subject addressed in Question 85 of the Shorter Catechism: What does God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin? The answer is: To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption (emphasis added). Faith and repentance we know, of course, are the responses to Christ’s saving work by which we are saved. But what about this “diligent use of all the outward means”? What is that all about?

The Catechism goes on in Question 88 to ask: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? It answers: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer (emphasis added), all of which are made effectual for the elect for salvation

This article originally appeared on reformation21.org. It was published ca. August, 2005.The use of the word ordinances should cause us to perk up our ears. The Confession tells us in ch. XXV that Christ has given the ordinances of God to the visible church for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world (emphasis added).

If we read on in the Catechism we find that it is the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, which make the Word a means of grace. The reading of the Word may in recent centuries take place in private. (Through most of history believers have not had Bibles and had to go to Church or consult memory for Bible reading. Can you imagine what the “No Bible, No Breakfast” rule would do to a Christian living in, say, the 4th century after Christ?) All the directions of the Catechisms are for its public reading and hearing. Mention of preaching makes it clear that we are dealing with something that church does, for the Larger Catechism (Q. 157) tells us that preaching may be done “only by such as are sufficiently gifted, and also duly approved and called to that office.” 

The sacraments, too, are not private or familial means of grace, but a part of the worship of the church. Baptism is a sign of the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church (WCF XXVIII: 1) and may be administered only by a minister of the gospel, lawfully called thereunto. The Lord’s Supper again is a church ordinance. Only ministers are to perform all the sacramental acts and are to give bread and wine to none who are not then present in the congregation (WCF XXIX: 3).

What about prayer? Prayer is the one means of grace that throughout history has been available to private use and the Confession clearly expects private and family prayers will take place (XXI: 6). At the same time it sets prayer in the context of the church’s public worship (WCF XXI, WLC Q. 179). Luke is describing the corporate life of the church in Acts 2:42 when he tell us the post-Pentecost believers devoted themselves to… the prayers.

The sustained emphasis of our Confession and Catechisms on the outward and ordinary means of grace and the role of the visible church is consistent with the teaching of the Reformed Reformers and the earlier Reformed confessions and challenges the way many evangelicals think about what it means to become, be, and live as a Christian. The Reformed faith binds the whole of the receiving of salvation to the church and its administration of the means of grace. 

The common evangelical mindset is that salvation is a private affair between the soul and God, and that while the church may have a useful role, it has no necessary one. To use the old Bill Cosby “Noah” routine, the evangelical view is: “It’s just you and me Lord.” This view is pervasive, even among those ordained to the ministry. I once asked an already ordained man during a presbytery examination if he believed, as the Confession says, that outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. He answered honestly, “No.” Needless to say, at that point that individual, who in my opinion represents the majority evangelical view and the view of not a few Presbyterian ministers, is at odds with the Confession and Catechisms. The Confession and Catechisms may be wrong (though I think them not) in which case they need to be amended, but their view is clear and clearly different from the prevailing opinion.

How do we expect that our covenant children will become Christians? How do we expect that the unconverted will become believers? If we are confessionally Reformed we will say it is by the diligent use of the outward means of grace that are given by Christ to the church for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, means that will be made effectual to all the elect. As individuals, parents, and a community we will put our confidence in the means of grace and faithfully administer and diligently use them.

How do we go about living the Christian life, persevering in the faith, and growing in grace? Most evangelicals would say that the primary transactions with God are personal and private in what is often called “the devotional life.” But, while we would do nothing to discourage private Bible reading and prayer (though we would discourage the legalism that often attaches to it), we would emphasize the centrality and indispensability of the corporate life and worship of the church. If we understand and believe this, we will come to church expectantly and with faith that something will happen – not usually anything spectacular, but something eternally and savingly significant as God works through the means of grace which the church alone can give us.

What must you do to be saved now and forever? Go to church. Receive the means of grace. By the work of the Holy Spirit these will create faith and repentance that last a lifetime.


Bill Smith

This article originally appeared on reformation21.org. It was published ca. August, 2005.

Bill Smith