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 their salvation. (Westminster Larger Catechism #154)
The quote above is well worth considering. It seeks to address how the grace of God is conveyed to his people. In other words, how does God usually make his gifts in Christ stick for his people. In the first place, notice the emphasis on two things: outward and ordinary. The former indicates that, whatever is about to be described, the discussion is focused on the external workings. Faith and repentance are worked in the heart of a man, but those cannot be observed. These outward means are the tools God’s Spirit uses externally to effect the inward change only he can. The latter qualifies our observations to the vast majority of cases. God can, and at times has, used unusual ways to show his people the benefits of being in Christ, but the discussion in WLC #154 centers around the most common outward methods, or means.
In the second place, these external ways that God uses in the majority of cases to convey the benefits of Christ’s mediation to his people are his ordinances. The word “ordinances” is not commonly used in conversation today, but it simply means religious rites, ceremonies, or practices. So all the religious practices assigned by God are used by him to accomplish his purposes of making plain the benefits of our salvation. However, there are three particular ones that are singled out for emphasis. The reason this is done is based on Acts 2:42 which describes the religious practice of the apostolic church in its earliest formation: the apostolic teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers. In other words, the apostles focussed on the Word, sacraments, and prayer.
In the third place, that early practice should not lead anyone to suppose there is some superstitious benefit given by simply listening to sermons, participating in the sacraments, and saying rote prayers. These are only the outward means God uses to impart the benefits of Christ’s work. The emphasis must be on God and his internal work. He is the One who makes these external practices effectual, or causes them to have an effect in the heart of man. God regenerates his elect, chosen people giving them a new heart. He converts them giving faith in Christ and repentance over sin. And these changes and gifts make the proper receipt of these ordinances possible. God uses Word, sacrament and prayer with real effect…for those in whom he works faith.
To think preaching, the discipline of prayer, or the administration of the sacraments will effect change on their own is superstitious. However, to fail to recognize God’s work through these external means is to minimize the significance Scripture assigns to them.
Questions to consider:
- In your own words define the following terms: outward means, ordinary means, and ordinances.
- How is God’s internal work necessary for the effectualness of the outward means?
- Do you hold the ordinary means of grace (the Word, sacraments and prayer) in high esteem?