Ordinary vs Only Means of Grace

One of my favorite professors at RTS Charlotte once quipped, “They are the ordinary means of grace…not the only means of grace.”

His point was that while the ministry word, prayer, and sacrament (is fellowship a means of grace?) are central to corporate worship and growing in grace, that doesn’t mean that is all there is to do in the Christian life or in the ministry of the church.

This comment in 2009 has stayed with me and has, I believe, balanced me on the discussion over the means of grace.


I think churches should have missional liberty as to how they intend to reach the lost, disciple their people, and be a light in their neighborhoods.  The Bible should provide the boundaries for any creativity and intentional ministry, but since the Christian life goes beyond Sunday, it should be acknowledged that God works his grace in our lives through tough conversations (hopefully undergirded by the Word), acts of service, fellowship, etc.  We grow in Christlikeness when we imitate Jesus.  So, even an evangelistic encounter may be a means by which God strengthens our spiritual gifts and grows us in grace.

Now, the response of some might be, “Yes, but only the Word, sacraments, and prayer have an objective promise attached to them.”

I am not sure if the word objective is being clearly defined, since it is the subjective faith of the believer that is necessary for such grace to be efficacious (Calvin’s ‘offer-reception’ model).

The confessional teaching about the ordinary means of grace are important to safeguard our Sabbath rhythm as a church, but let’s not have Sabbath monopolize the Christian life or the church’s ministry.


2 thoughts on “Ordinary vs Only Means of Grace

  1. Fascinating topic! It would be a great one for the next “missional-confessional conversation”. I’ll apologize in advance for writing so much but it obviously hit a nerve (in a good way) for me. Coming into a more robustly confessional tradition after 15 years in broad evangelicalism has made this topic one that I have mentally chewed on quite a bit. I’ll speak out of that experience and more to the chasm of practice that exists between broad evangelicalism and the more confessional wing of the Christian Church.

    I had never heard of the ordinary means until about five years ago when I first read it on the web and noted it in the catechisms. At that time I was serving part-time on staff at an EPC that gave lip service to the confessions but in actually they were not known or used in the life of the congregation. The WCF was mentioned literally once a year when it was time for elder candidate nominations and it was noted that those serving as elder would have to be in “general agreement” with the WCF. In reality, the churches most important sources of practice and piety came from Andy Stanely of North Point Church and spiritual formation thought from Renovare (Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, etc.). A case has been made, by people more cogent than I, that the tripartite stream of Mysticism, Pietism, and Revivalism were the most important sources of faith and practice in broader evangelicalism.

    If you ask the average evangelical Christian what the ordinary means of grace are they would have no idea what you are talking about. Similar to the way they probably can’t name the ten commandments from memory either. These are concepts that have not been mediated to them in their religious experience. They can tell you (all day!) how you need to “get in right relationship with Jesus” or how you need to “be born again” or how “transformed” they have been by their “love relationship” with God.

    Just because an evangelical can’t tell you what the ordinary means are does not mean that their tradition does not have ordinary means. In reality, the ordinary means in broad evangelicalism are the dramatic conversion experience, the daily quiet time, and participation in a small group. They don’t use the term ordinary means but these are the things that are implicitly pushed over and over again for spiritual growth and maturity. Participation in public worship is not even as important as these things. It’s assumed you will be in worship regularly but that can be as little as once a month and if you are doing these other things then you are not questioned. I’ve come to believe that the sources for these specific means in evangelicalism are mysticism, pietism, and revivalism. No time or space to go into that now.

    There are several dynamics going on that influence one’s understanding of the means of grace. Broad evangelicalism emphasizes individuality and customization of experience where confessional churches emphasis corporate participation and objective means. You see this expressed in the fact that stoutly confessional churches seemed to be most concerned about “what you know”. They are robustly intellectual and cognitive and operate on the premise that if you have the right understanding of a doctrine or teaching (brought on by the working of the Holy Spirit of course) then right belief/behavior/action will follow. Broadly evangelical churches put the emphasis on what you are doing/experiencing. Are you placing yourself in environments (North Point language) where you will grow via study of Scripture? Are you interacting with mature believers who will model and transmit proper beliefs/action (often called fellowship or relational discipleship that happens in a small group)? Are you becoming more like Jesus (a very simplified way to speak about Sanctification)? They too would assume that it is God the Holy Spirit who is at work but not just through the exposure to the written Word of God. They make room for much more mystical experiences through which God supposedly “speaks” through conversations with other believers or personal experiences like private worship.

    Neither tradition would deny the centrality of the Word and Spirit being the ultimate source of all these means. Both traditions are motivated to bring Glory to God by helping people to come to faith in Christ and to grow up into him who is the head over all things. They just disagree about the way to do it and put different emphasis on different types of piety.

    You’ve rightly noted that maybe we should not dichotomize individual vs. communal. One thing you wrote jumped out at me as being normative in the broad evangelical church. It is an idea that is unquestioned. It is implicitly elevated as being central to true Christian maturity. I say implicit because it’s never direct, though it is repeated continuously.

    You said, “We grow in Christlikeness when we imitate Jesus.” This is one of main messages/methods of spiritual growth in broad evangelicalism and has lead some churches to reorient their whole mission statement around that idea. One congregation I mentioned previously puts it like this:

    “Welcome who Jesus welcomed (people who’ve given up on church, but not on God).
    Love like Jesus (with grace and truth).
    Live like Jesus (always on the Missio Dei).
    Journey like Jesus (doing life together).
    Lead like Jesus (toward more and better disciples, leaders, and churches).”
    Source: http://lakeforest.org/our-story/mission-and-motivations/

    Now what could be wrong with this? We are called in the NT to imitate Paul as he imitates Christ; but it is not unfair to say that the broad evangelicalism probably overemphasis this. Again, I could be wrong but the imitation of Christ as articulated in broad evangelicalism seems to unintentionally mitigate against the uniqueness of Christ. You hear way more about how you need to be like Jesus than you do about the uniqueness of Jesus and his person and work on your behalf. I need to think more about this but there is something there that causes me to twitch. Again, it is probably the overemphasis that concerns me.

    I personally believe that the ordinary means spoken of in the historic confessions are primary while other ways of growing are secondary but not less effective. I’ve also come to believe there are inherent deficiencies in the means stressed by broad evangelicalism because of their origin in mysticism, pietism, and revivalism. While I say that, I also believe we should be cautious not to be hatefully critical or dismissive of broader evangelicalism approach. More dialog is needed on this topic that would benefit both sides. We can learn from each other. They could benefit from our theological acuity and precision and we could benefit from their passion and zeal to know God and to make him known.

    I share all this to say this is a great conversation to have and to shine light on the legitimacy of the confessionalist concerns that emphasis on other means has unintended consequences. One of those unintended consequences would be: churches that supposedly hold to a historic reformed confession while in practice drawing all their thinking from anabaptists and revivalists. Another unintended consequence is the death of the Lord’s Day Sabbath idea. It no longer exists in broad evangelicalism. If the word Sabbath is used at, it is used to speak about going on a personal retreat at the local Roman Catholic Monastery or retreat center for a day or the weekend. The concept that you would treat Sunday differently is no longer in existence among the broad evangelical church. Another unintended consequence is the overvaluing of subjective religious experience.

    1. We definitely need to have coffee. Great thoughts.

      Maybe a balance to would be to say “Worship like Jesus worshipped.”

      I also agree that the person and work of Jesus gets underemphasized, though not denied or never mentioned.

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