The heart of Pharisaism was to trust in rituals—even God-ordained, biblical rituals—rather than in the God of the ritual. In one sense, the Pharisees were committed to the ordinary means of the Word of God; however, they perverted the teaching of the Word by denying the Christ of the Word. They were committed to fasting, praying, and giving; however, they did those things with self-righteous hearts and motives. They strictly observed the Passover while rejecting the One who was the true Passover Lamb. May we not fall into a ritualistic, Christless, and imbalanced approaches to the means of grace in our churches. How we minister the means of grace in the context of public worship is more important than simply professing to be “an ordinary means of grace church.” May the ordinary means of grace be more than a Shibboleth to us.
It has become increasingly common for many pastors in Reformed churches to speak of the importance of an “ordinary means of grace” ministry. Many ministers find it deeply reassuring when they meet other ministers who professes a commitment to the ordinary means of grace. After all, many (perhaps most?) local churches in North America are committed to what we might call, “the extraordinary means of human innovation” ministry. However, is it sufficient to profess adherence to an ordinary means of grace ministry? I would suggest that it is not. While professing a commitment to the God-ordained means of grace is right and good, it is altogether possible for pastors to neglect vital biblical nuances concerning the administration of the ordinary means. It is obligatory for us to be committed to a right administration of the ordinary means of grace, and not simply that we are committed to them. By neglecting to emphasize the right administration of the means of grace, we may allow error to fly under the radar of what becomes a mere Shibboleth.
When addressing the subject of how the ordinary means should be carried out, we do not wish to focus on the forms by which the elements of worship are carried out (e.g., kneeling when praying or stretching out hands when receiving the benediction). Nor do we have the length or structure of a sermon in view. Rather, it refers to the content, context, and connection of the word, sacraments, and prayer.
It is equally possible for ministers to affirm an ordinary means of grace commitment to the sacraments while not carrying them out in accord with Scripture. One can speak of the importance of prayer while being redundant, flippant, or overly ritualistic in public prayer. How we minister the ordinary means of grace is every bit as important as confessing our commitment to them in the context of public worship.
The Word of God
In every church that acknowledges the importance of an ordinary means of grace ministry, there will be ministers who preach and teach the Scriptures. However, it is altogether possible for ministers to affirm the ordinary means of grace with regard to the ministry of the Word of God while misrepresenting the central message of Scripture. All Scripture points to the Person, work, and reward of Christ. The apostle Paul confessed that he determined not to know anything among the churches except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Whatever subject the apostle Paul addressed, he related it to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We can inadvertently deny the “gracious” nature of the ordinary means if we fail to proclaim and exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and His finished work on the cross in our preaching and teaching. It is possible to emphasize the ethical teaching of Jesus in our preaching and teaching, in such a way as to give our hearers the sense that they can do what they are called to do apart from the saving work of Christ. Geerhardus Vos raised this warning over a century ago, when he wrote,
“It is possible, Sabbath after Sabbath and year after year, to preach things of which none can say that they are untrue and none can deny that in their proper place and time they may be important, and yet to forego telling people plainly and to forego giving them the distinct impression that they need forgiveness and salvation from sin through the cross of Christ…. This does not mean that every sermon which we preach must necessarily be what is technically called an evangelistic sermon. There may be frequent occasions when to do that would be out of place and when a discourse on some ethical or apologetic or social topic is distinctly called for. But whatever topic you preach on and whatever text you choose, there ought not to be in your whole repertoire a single sermon in which from beginning to end you do not convey to your hearers the impression that what you want to impart to them, you do not think it possible to impart to them in any other way than as a correlate and consequence of the eternal salvation of their souls through the blood of Christ, because in your own conviction that alone is the remedy which you can honestly offer to a sinful world.”