Tragic things happen when we exchange God’s means of grace for our own—or when we misuse his means. Just ask Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. While handling the sacred things in the worship of God, they rebelliously offered strange fire on the altar of God—a means of worship the Lord did not command. The result? God vaporized them in his wrath.
Cal Ripken Junior became an extraordinary baseball player by doing an ordinary thing: he showed up for work. He did it again and again and again, a record 2,632 consecutive times. The hall-of-fame third baseman first appeared in the Baltimore Orioles starting lineup on May 30, 1982 in a game against the Seattle Mariners and his name was next absent from it on September 20, 1998.
Barry Bonds became a footnote to baseball history by attempting to do something extraordinary: bending baseball’s rules. One of the most feared sluggers of the 1990s and 2000s, Bonds broke one of the game’s most hallowed records—Hank Aaron’s all-time home run mark of 755 homers. But Bonds did it by cheating. For the last several years of his career, he took drugs that artificially enhanced his performance—and inflated his home run totals—enabling him to pass Aaron. To many fans, Bonds is baseball’s Benedict Arnold.
Why begin a Founders Blog article with these baseball anecdotes? Because they illustrate well two different approaches to ministry—God’s way and our way. In the Reformed tradition, preaching, prayer and the ordinances—baptism and the Lord’s Supper—have often been referred to as “the ordinary means of grace” because they form the heart of worship and the main methods of ministry in a faithful, biblical church. They’re God’s means of transforming his people and ought to form the core of local church ministry.
But I fear, in our good and right desire to see disciples made and God’s church built, we get thrown by the term “ordinary.” Think Ripken here, not Bonds.
Grace is Not Ordinary
The phrase “ordinary means of grace” can be interpreted as suggesting that God’s work is dull and unspectacular, but there is nothing ordinary about God’s grace. God uses the public proclamation of a book that’s at least 6,000 years old in places and his Spirit to cause a gargantuan army of his enemies to love him and desire to join his family. What are the ordinary means of grace? The answer to question 95, Keach’s Catechism defines them as follows:
The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (Rom. 10:17; James 1:18; 1 Cor. 3:5; Acts 14:1; 2:41,42)
A few months ago, a man from my hometown told me he had planted a new church. I asked him to tell me a little more about it. As only a mountain man from north Georgia could put it, he said, “Well, it ain’t much. Just preachin’, prayin’, and sangin.’ I figure that’s plenty.”
When We Try to Use Extraordinary Means
It’s plenty because tragic things happen when we exchange God’s means of grace for our own—or when we misuse his means. Just ask Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. While handling the sacred things in the worship of God, they rebelliously offered strange fire on the altar of God—a means of worship the Lord did not command. The result? God vaporized them in his wrath.
Just ask Old Testament Israel who embraced the pantheon of deities worshiped by the nations around them and God used Assyria and Babylon—wicked nations—as instruments of judgment. Of course, God in his holiness, turned around and poured out his judgment on those nations for their sin as well.
Obeying God is always best. One of the often under-discussed principles of the Reformation was that of simplicity. That is, worship, ministry, and all the things that go with it (including the architecture of a church) should be simple. My north Georgia friend was on to something that we—even in our correct motives of seeing God’s people edified and sinners come to Christ—often forget: God performs his extraordinary work of spiritual awakening through ordinary people and ordinary things.