How to Grow Spiritually: Using God's Ordinary Means of Grace
There was once a powerful Syrian general named Naaman, who had contracted the dreaded disease of leprosy. At God’s instruction, Elisha promised Naaman healing if he would wash in the Jordan river seven times. Naaman was indignant. Dipping in the Jordan was too undignified an act for him, and it didn’t fit his definition of help. If not for the persistence of his servants he would have returned to Syria unhealed (2 Kings 5:1-14).
For the same reason, many people miss God’s simple, ordinary, plan for their spiritual growth, called the means of grace.
Means or Mystery?
Louis Berkhof defines the means of grace as the “objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church to which He ordinarily binds himself in communicating his grace.” “They are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, and all these are made effective in the salvation of the elect” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A 88). Believers use the means of grace by recognizing where God promises to bless, trusting him, and putting themselves in that place.
This pattern surfaces in the phenomenal growth of the early church (Acts 2:41-47). These first Christians turned the world upside down not because they discovered a trendy new way to “do church” but because of their striking conformity to Jesus. Notably, the church grew as it “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Because “steadfastness” seems to lack pizzazz, we tend to make spiritual growth more difficult than it is. But, with few exceptions, those who are growing in godliness are committed to preaching, sacraments, and prayer. Spiritual growth doesn’t require innovation because God doesn’t work erratically and irregularly (Mal. 3:6). We don’t have to “find God’s wave and ride it,” until he surges elsewhere.
Still, the means of grace don’t always seem to work. Maybe we’ve said “I come to church, partake of the sacraments, spend time in prayer, and I don’t seem to grow.” Assuming that we are diligently and believingly using the means we shouldn’t too easily dismiss the vital role they are likely playing in our lives. Imagine saying, “I eat three times a day but I don’t get any healthier. Eating must not be the answer.” What shape might we be in if we weren’t being fed by God through his ordinary means?
In our church, new members hear this admonition when they profess their faith in Christ: “…By the diligent use of the means of grace and with the assistance of your God, continue in the profession which you have just made.” Surely exercises like maintaining godly associations (1 Cor. 15:33), using edifying media, sharing our faith with others, engaging in works of service, making diligent use of time, and caring for our bodies will impact our spiritual wellness. But participating in preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer must regulate the routine of any healthy Christian. We use the means of grace because this is how God promises to feed us and make us his disciples (Matt. 28:18-20).
Passé or Omnipotent?
While the concept of the means of grace is not new, it is often misunderstood or misused.
In some circles, the idea of the means of grace is quickly dismissed as outmoded fundamentalism. This posture assumes several different forms, like: “We’ve tried that; it’s time for something new!” Or, “I feel far closer to God when I’m in nature than when I’m in church.” Or, “I can only connect with God through a certain style of music.”
You’ve heard the question, “Can’t God use something else besides preaching, sacraments and prayer?” That’s an odd question to ask about God. He once used a donkey to rebuke a prophet. (2 Peter 2:15-16). He could use total silence, or bankruptcy, or depression, or a murder (Acts 13:29). But instead of grasping at every passing straw, we should ask, “What has God promised to use?”
We will never outgrow God’s plan for our growth. Neglecting the means of grace can only result in spiritual loss. The sad irony is that those who neglect the means of grace, and spiritually deteriorate, are often unable to understand why they have so degenerated. They’ve become so spiritually anemic they no longer have the strength to rightly assess their situation.
Means “as” Grace
On the other hand, it is possible to conflate the means of grace with grace itself. This danger has been at the heart of the Protestant protest for half a millennium. The means of grace do not operate on the principles of mechanics. Baptism does not necessarily wash away sins. Nor does the Lord’s Supper automatically dispense the blessings of Christ. There is no guarantee that simply hearing sermons will make you godly. Going through the motions of prayer will not connect you with God. As G.I. Williamson has said: “The ordinances do not rule God; God rules the ordinances.” But he uses them because he pleases to do so. We must use the means of grace believingly, trusting the Lord, not the ordinances.
Naaman almost died a leper because he despised God’s means of healing. Some of us go through life unfilled, unhappy, and unholy because we have not learned to recognize God’s simple means for our salvation and sanctification. The greater tragedy is that many people go to hell disinterested in God’s means of grace.
Do you want to grow spiritually? Do something shockingly ordinary: Devote yourself to the preached word of God, habitually use the sacraments to direct your faith to Christ, and spend time in earnest prayer. If these means seem ordinary, then you understand God’s goodness. Spiritual growth isn’t a mystery. Trust God, use his ordinances, and expect him to provide the growth (1 Cor. 3:6).