Appropriating the Means of Grace | June 2020 Tabletalk

Now that it is the end of June I remember that I never did a post on this month’s issue of Tabletalk, Ligonier Ministries’ monthly devotional magazine. “The Ordinary Means of Grace” is the theme this month, and once again the issue is filled with edifying articles centered on that subject.

Burk Parsons says this in part in his introduction to the issue:

When it comes to our worship of God, too many Christians think that it doesn’t really matter what we do or how we do it because our sovereign God can use any means to accomplish His ultimate purposes. That, however, does not justify our using means that God has not given us. Nevertheless, many Christians and many churches believe that we may use whatever cleverly devised means we invent to bring about our desired ends.

If we actually believe God is sovereign, we must trust His sovereignly appointed means to bring about His desired ends. The means that God has appointed for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace are what we call the ordinary means of grace—namely, the Word, prayer, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and, necessarily joined to these, the church’s discipline and care of souls. These means are appointed by God, are empowered by the Holy Spirit, and point us to Christ, and they sustain us and nourish us in our union with Christ as we rest in the sovereign ends of our triune God.

One of the featured articles is by Dr. Ryan McGraw, professor of systematic theology at Greenville Seminary. In “Appropriating the Means of Grace” he treats the necessity of our using God’s appointed means for our preservation in faith and growth in grace. At the outset he ties this use of God’s means to the church:

The means of grace highlight the necessity of the church in the Christian life. The Lord has not designed us to live the Christian life alone. It has been remarked that believers are like hot coals. Alone they go out, but together they fan into a flame. Public worship is the place where we enter into the special presence of the omnipresent God (Pss. 113:4; 139:7). When the Father gathers His family together, Christ speaks to them through the preaching of the Word (Rom. 10:11–17; Eph. 2:17) as we offer our prayers by the Spirit and enjoy God’s presence in the sacraments. Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves (Heb. 10:25) means more than simply being with other Christians. The public assemblies of the church under its officers are where we receive means to sustain us in salvation. We must appropriate and use the means of grace by faith, preparing ourselves to receive them and studying their nature and use from Scripture.

And at the end of the article he shows what great things God accomplishes in our lives when we regularly use His appointed means:

…Just as we perish without food and water, we perish without receiving Christ as our spiritual food and drink (John 6:53). Though the means of grace are simple and at times seemingly unremarkable, God does great things through them. In our sanctification, we should expect slow and steady progress (most of the time). There are rarely quick fixes for sin, and giant leaps in sanctification are unusual. God delivers some people instantly from sins that are deeply set in their lives, but most of the time we need to fight to put to death the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13). The triune God uses the means of grace to kill sin in us and to lead us in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake (Ps. 23:3). Skipping church is like skipping meals. Each meal may not be spectacular, but all of them together keep us alive. We often do not learn how much we grow by the means of grace until we neglect or lose them.

The Lord uses the means of grace to nourish spiritual life in Christ. We should expect the Spirit to bless the Father’s chosen means by faith. We should prepare to receive the means of grace by study and meditation. We should trust in God to use means to bring us to the Savior rather than trusting in the means instead of the Savior. Let us look for the Lord in the means of grace to foster the work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope (1 Thess. 1:3) as we confidently endure to the end of our race (Heb. 12:1). Jesus is the pioneer and end of our faith, and He will place our feet in wide places (Ps. 31:8) as we use the means that He has appointed to walk with Him.

Good thoughts for us as we ponder our way in these spiritually dangerous times. Now as never before we need to be diligent in using God’s means of grace. For only by grace will we stand and persevere and thus enter our everlasting reward.

Source: Appropriating the Means of Grace | Tabletalk

A Prayer Said at the Lord’s Supper – John Knox

…O, Lord, we acknowledge that no creature is able to comprehend the length and breadth – the depth and height – of that Thy most excellent love, which moved Thee to show mercy where none was deserved, to promise and give life where death had gotten victory, and to receive us into Thy grace when we could do nothing but rebel against Thy justice. O Lord, the blind dullness of our corrupt nature will not suffer us sufficiently to weigh these most ample benefits; nevertheless, at the commandment of Jesus Christ our Lord, we present ourselves to this His table (which He hath left to be used in remembrance of His death until His coming again) to declare and witness before the world that by Him alone Thou dost acknowledge us Thy children and heirs, that by Him alone we have entrance to the throne of Thy grace, that by Him alone we are possessed in our spiritual kingdom, to eat and drink at His table, with whom we have our conversation presently in heaven and by whom our bodies shall be raised up again from the dust and shall be placed with Him in that endless joy, which Thou, O Father of mercy, hast prepared for Thy elect before the foundation of the world was laid. And these most inestimable benefits we acknowledge and confess to have received of Thy free mercy and grace by Thy only beloved Son Jesus Christ, for the which therefore, we Thy congregation, moved by Thy Holy Spirit, render Thee all thanks, praise, and glory, forever and ever.

collected-prayers-jknox-2019Taken from The Collected Prayers of John Knox, edited and introduced by Brian G. Najapfour (Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), pp.123-24 (found in the section “Prayers for Sacramental Occasions” and titled “A Prayer Said at the Lord’s Supper”).

This post was prompted by the fact that tomorrow in my home congregation (Faith PRC) we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I have been wanting to reference this new collection of Knox’s prayers, and when I saw this prayer, I knew it was a good time to point you to this wonderful little book and this beautiful prayer. It breathes the spirit of the true partaker: humble confession of personal sinfulness and thankful acknowledgement of God’s amazing mercy and grace in Jesus Christ. What a feast our Savior prepares for His own!

Receiving the Engrafted Word with Meekness

James 1:21 – Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

…We are therefore to receive into our hearts the preaching as the powerful word of Christ. We are to receive it by being swift to hear and slow to wrath. And we are to receive it as the word, ‘which is able to save [our] souls.’

The figure breaks down here. The soil where the seed is lodged and receives the rain and sunshine is passive. The soil of our hearts is passive in the initial work of God when he implants the seed of regeneration, but our hearts are then made active. The responsibility is ours to see to it that that seed grows, and we fulfill our responsibility when we receive that word.

The reception of the implanted word is not a work we perform by our own strength and ability, for it always remains true that God works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil.2:13). Nevertheless, God works his salvation in us consciously, and we have our calling in that work.

We are to receive that word with meekness. …The Christian virtue of meekness is the way in which we are to receive the word implanted in our hearts in regeneration. Meekness is much the same as humility. It is the gift of grace given to elect by which they submit themselves entirely to the preached word by confessing their unworthiness, acknowledging their total dependence on Christ and his grace, and realizing with profound awareness their total need for the word of Christ to live a life pleasing to him.

faithmadeperfect-hhanko-2015Quoted from Herman Hanko’s commentary on James 1:21, Faith Made Perfect (RFPA, 2015), pp.66-67.

Humble Yourself Before the Word

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Instead of responding angrily to God’s Word (v.19), James told his readers to receive the Word ‘in humility.’ This refers to a gentle and meek attitude that causes you to set aside your own preferences and opinions instead of stubbornly refusing to submit your will to God’s Word. Receptivity to God’s Word starts with humble submission to the authority of God’s Word. God told Isaiah, ‘But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word (Isaiah 66:2).

Jeremiah Burroughs described this submission to his congregation:

To have a congregation lie down under the Word of God which is preached to them is a most excellent thing…. God expects that you should submit your estates, your souls, your bodies, all that you are and have, to this Word. And that is another particular of the sanctifying of the name of God in hearing the Word, there must be a humble submission to it.

There is nothing better for your souls than to lie down under the Word; to lay aside your pride and any resistance and let the surgeon of Scripture work as it will (Heb.4:12).

[John] Stott writes ‘An essential element in Christian humility is the willingness to hear and receive God’s Word. Perhaps the greatest of all our needs is to take our place again, humbly, quietly and expectantly at the feet of Jesus Christ, in order to listen attentively to His Word.’ Mary serves as the model of one sitting at Jesus’ feet quietly, humbly, and submissively ‘listening to His word’ (Luke 10:39). Whenever you are listening to God’s Word preached, you should have the same humble, submissive heart as young Samuel who, when he heard God calling his name, responded, ‘Speak, LORD, for Your servant is listening’ (1 Sam.3:10).

Taken from chapter 6 of Ken Ramey’s book, Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word , (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010). This chapter treats James teaching to the first-century church in James 1:19-25 and is titled “Practice What You Hear” (pp85.ff.).

Being a Discerning Listener of the Preaching

expository-listening-ramey-2010It has been a few months since we posted from the book on listening carefully to the preaching of God’s Word. Let’s return to Expository Listening tonight by looking at some thoughts from the next chapter.

…In other words, like their evil master Satan, the appearance of false teachers is deceiving. They disguise themselves as true shepherds, pastors, teachers, elders, and leaders in the church.

If a hungry, ferocious wolf jumps the fence into a flock of sheep, all of them will notice and scatter. But if he walks through the gate impersonating a shepherd, it will be difficult for the sheep to tell it is a wolf. The only way the sheep can discern whether he is a shepherd or a wolf is by listening to his voice. Jesus said [here Ramey quotes John 10:2-5].

As one of Christ’s sheep, you need to have your ears trained to differentiate between the voice of a true shepherd and the voice of a stranger so you know whom to follow and whom to follow after. You must be able to recognize wolves when you hear them since they are disguised as Christian preachers and teachers, Christian authors, Christian counselors, Christian singers, etc., who are being used by Satan to deceive and devour Christ’s flock. It is both sad and scary that so many Christians today are naively following the voices of strangers and being led astray from the truth of God’s Word.

At this point the author shows how the same threats were found in Paul’s day and how he wrote to Timothy to instruct him in how to deal with these false teachers:

Paul urged Timothy to silence these false teachers by upholding the biblical truths they were seeking to undermine. In verses 3-11 of Paul’s first letter to the young pastor Timothy, he explains how to sift them out. What’s needed is a careful evaluation of the basis of their teaching, the result of their teaching, the focus of their teaching, and especially the gospel they are teaching. These are questions you can apply to any teacher you come across.

And these are the questions as he phrases them in the book:

  • Is their teaching based on the Word of God? Is it consistent with what the Scripture says?
  • Does their teaching produce growth in godliness? Is it unifying and edifying to the body of Christ?
  • Do they humbly seek to honor God and help others? Is it free of charge and free from financial appeal?
  • What is their gospel message? Do they explain it clearly and correctly? Is it works-based or God-glorifying grace?

Taken from chapter 5 of Ken Ramey’s book, Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word , (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010). This chapter treats Paul’s instruction to Timothy in 1 Tim.1:3-7 and is titled “The Discerning Listener” (pp.69ff.).

Important admonitions and applications for all of us who hear the Word and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Shall we be more aware of our calling to be discerning listeners?

Harrowing Your Heart to Hear God’s Word Preached

Jeremiah 4:3 – “For thus saith the LORD to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.”

“Harrowing Your Heart to Hear” (Chap.3 in Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), pp.35-49. We are currently taking time to read and draw on some of the author’s good thoughts concerning our calling to listen believingly to God’s Word proclaimed.

ExpositoryListeningIn this third chapter Ramey points to specific ways to ward off hardness of heart that leads to dullness in listening to and receiving God’s preached Word. Here are the points he mentions:

  • Read and meditate on God’s Word every day
  • Pray throughout the week
  • Confess your sin
  • Reduce your media intake
  • Plan ahead, and schedule your week around the ministry of the Word
  • Be consistent in church attendance
  • Go to church with a humble, teachable, expectant heart
  • Worship with all your heart
  • Fight off distractions
  • Listen with diligent discernment
  • Preparation of the heart and soul

Now, let’s consider a few quotations to help us for Sunday’s messages:

Reading the Word on a daily basis will develop in you a healthy appetite for God’s Word. You can’t expect to come to church on Sunday with a hunger for God’s Word if you haven’t been feeding on it throughout the week.

…You need to pray for the preacher. Pray that the preacher would preach with great liberty and boldness and clarity (Eph.6:19-20; Col.4:3-4); that God’s Word would run rapidly, transforming people’s lives for His glory (2 Thess.3:1); that God’s Spirit would empower the preacher and use him to help you grow in your understanding of God and His Word and accomplish His purpose in your life and the life of the church.

One of the simplest, most effective ways to prepare your heart for the preaching of God’s Word is to spend some time on Saturday night or Sunday morning to prayerfully examine your life and humble confess your sins to God. David’s example of confession in Psalm 51 serves as a practical path to follow in getting your heart right before God.

Listening demands a great deal of concentration and self-discipline. Augustine said, ‘To proclaim the Word of truth as well as to listen to it is hard work…. Thus, let us exert ourselves in listening.’ Jay Adams writes, ‘Many today drift into church with their minds turned off, slouch in the pew, and expect the preacher to do the rest. Examine yourself, brother or sister: have you been guilty of becoming a Sunday morning version of the couch potato?’

When you fail to plan ahead, Sunday morning ends up becoming a chaotic crisis, and by the time you get to church, you are frustrated and frazzled and your heart is in no condition to receive the Word. But when you plan well and are able to arrive in a relaxed, leisurely way, you will be in a much more receptive frame of mind.

Come to church with a spirit of anticipation, fully expecting God to speak to you through His Word in ways that will make a lasting difference in your life. …It should be that you can’t wait to see what you’re going to learn and how God is going to use His Word to convict you, correct you, comfort you, and change you.

It is required of those that hear the Word preached that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives. (Westminster Confession Larger Catechism)

Reformed Worship: Word and Symbol

God’s communication to Israel was chiefly verbal, which, we understand, is of central importance in the history of faith and in the life of the church. We have a high view of the importance of God’s verbal communication with us. This is why, in Protestantism, we put such an emphasis on the role and place of the Bible. We call the Bible the verbum Dei, the “Word of God,” or the vox Dei, the “voice of God.” We consider the verbal communication of God so important to Christianity that throughout history in most Protestant churches the focal point of the sanctuary has been the pulpit, because it is from that position, from that piece of furniture, that the Word of God is proclaimed.

…Like the Reformers, we must never underestimate the importance of the verbal element of worship, the preaching of the Word of God. But we must not forget that God, when He outlined His pattern for worship in the Old Testament, also mandated visible signs, tangible acts of drama that are not isolated from the Word or contrary to the Word but are married to the Word. That is why, for example, in most Christian churches, you are not allowed to celebrate the sacrament without some preaching to indicate that Word and sacrament go together. The Word is expressed verbally, and then that verbal expression is supported, corroborated, and reinforced by the drama of the signs and of the symbols.

taste-of-heaven-sproulThis is another post following our Sunday discussion groups this year at our home church (Faith PRC), which we hosted last evening for the last time this season. We are continuing a study of R.C. Sproul’s book on worship. It was originally published under the title A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity (Reformation Trust, 2006 – the copy I have), but has been newly published under the title How Then Shall We Worship? (David C. Cook, 2013, the Kindle version of which I also have). The above quotation is taken from chapter 5, “Symbolism in Worship” (pp.59-66).

Good Soil Hearers of the Word

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The good soil represents those who hear and understand and accept the preaching of God’s Word (Matt.13:23; Mark 4:20). They have an open, receptive heart toward the Word of God. Furthermore, they seek not only to understand what it means, but also to strive to obey it, to put it into practice in their life. They are not just hearers of the Word but doers (James 1:22). As a result, the Word continually produces results in their life. They experience true, lasting change as a result of the sermons they listen to.

The presence of fruit is the only thing that sets the good soil apart from the other three soils in this parable. Every true Christian will consistently bear spiritual fruit in their lives (Matt.7:16; Gal.5:22-23). …There is no such thing as a fruitless Christian. Granted, not all Christians are as fruitful as others. The issue is not the amount of fruit in a person’s life, but the presence of it. Jesus said, ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples’ (John 15:8 [NASB]). Does this describe your heart? Do you have a soft, receptive heart that produces the fruit of a true believer?

And then, after examining Jesus’ other teaching as recorded in Luke 8 – the entire context of the parable of the sower – the author ends with this:

In other words, the ultimate evidence that proves you are a Christian is that you hear and obey God’s Word. This entire portion of Luke was designed to emphasize the importance Jesus placed on listening to the Word (vv.8,18,21). Good soil yields the fruit of obedience from the Word of God. That fruitful life is a light that shines for all around to see, and it is the only real demonstration that you are spiritually identified with Jesus.

What kind of soil does the Word find when it falls on you? What kind of heart do you have for the Word of God?

Taken from Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), Chapter 2 – “Hearing with Your Heart” (pp.31-33). We are currently taking time to read and draw on some of the author’s good thoughts concerning our calling to listen believingly to God’s Word proclaimed.

How Can I Hear the Word Preached? Only Through the Holy Spirit!

The moment we are born again, it’s as if we are given a new set of hearing aids or a new pair of glasses that enable us to hear and see in God’s Word what we couldn’t before. From then on, not only are we able to comprehend what God has said, but the Holy Spirit who now indwells us also convicts us about what God’s Word says and convinces us of it, as well as conforming our lives to it. That’s why whenever we are exposed to the Word of God, we need to remember to ask the Spirit to illumine our minds and hearts so that we understand what it means and how it applies. Who better to ask to help us accurately interpret and practically implement the Word than the one who inspired it in the first place?

So we can’t hear and obey the Word of God without the regenerating and illuminating of the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, we don’t receive the Holy Spirit unless we receive Jesus Christ, and we can’t receive Jesus Christ unless we receive the Word of God, and we won’t receive the Word of God unless the Holy Spirit opens up our ears to hear.

…So while it’s true that our ability to hear the word of Christ is the link between the revelation of God and the salvation of your soul, it’s equally true that we are completely dependent on God’s sovereignty for the outcome. Sometimes God sends forth His Word for the purpose of hardening and damning people rather than softening , saving, and sanctifying them (Isa.55:10-11; 2 Cor.2:15-17). That’s why we must urgently cry out to Him to open our ears so we can hear and heed His Word (Isa.50:4-5), particularly in light of the fact that our very life and eternal destiny hinge on it. [pp.20-21]

expository-listening-ramey-2010Taken from Expository Listening: A Handbook for Hearing and Doing God’s Word by Ken Ramey (Kress Biblical Resources, 2010), Chapter 1 – “Biblical Audiology: A Theology of Listening.”

We touched on the introduction in our first post and last time looked at another of the principles he sets forth in this first chapter. The quotation in this post comes from the section treating the third principle: “God grants us the ability to listen to and obey Him by His Holy Spirit, whom we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.” (p.19)

In the months ahead we will continue to draw on some of the author’s good thoughts concerning our calling to listen believingly to God’s Word proclaimed – an activity by which we receive God’s grace in Christ while also being entirely dependent on that grace to receive the Word and Christ found in it, as the above quotation makes plain.

Thoughts on Worship as Living Sacrifice – R. C. Sproul

…God’s feelings are not hurt by insincere praise, but neither is He honored by it. God is never honored by flattery. That is why true worship must be sincere.

…The central element of worship in the Bible involved honoring, blessings, esteeming, and reverencing God. A sacrifice was offered as an outward sign of a heart that was filled with awe, reverence, and respect toward God. When a sacrifice was not given in faith, it was nothing more than an external rite, a formal pattern of behavior that was not an expression of true faith that held God in the highest possible esteem and reverence. It lacked what the Wisdom Literature calls the fear of the Lord, that sense of awe by which the heart is inclined to adore and honor the Creator. The very heart of worship, as the Bible makes clear, is the business of expressing, from the depths of our spirits, the highest possible honor we can offer before God.

[In connection with Romans 12:1,2] …It is as if Paul said to the Romans: ‘Think of the gospel. What is your response to what Christ has done for you – Christ, who spared nothing, who gave His life for His people, who made the ultimate sacrifice for His sheep? How do we respond to that? What is the reasonable response?’ Paul said, ‘Here is your reasonable service or your spiritual worship.’

So we are to respond to the gospel with a sacrifice – not a sacrifice of money, of time, or of material goods, but a sacrifice of our lives. Paul said we are to present to God our bodies – that is, ourselves – as living sacrifices. …He is not asking for martyrdom or for us to give our blood. He wants something more. He wants our lives. The response of faith is a giving of oneself, body and soul, to Christ.

And then, finally, reflecting on the fact that none of us has ever given such a perfect sacrifice to God, he comments:

…He would tell me [on judgment day] that every sacrifice I have ever offered has been marred, sullied, and compromised by the sin I have brought with it. If He were to look at the sacrifice that I offered, even if I offered it in the name of Christ, He would reject it as radically as He rejected the offering of Cain. My only hope is the glorious truth that the offering I give to my Creator today is carried to His presence by the perfect Mediator, who takes our sacrifices of praise and presents them to the Father.

taste-of-heaven-sproulThis is another post following our Sunday discussion groups this year at our home church (Faith PRC), which met tonight. We are continuing a study of R.C. Sproul’s book on worship. It was originally published under the title A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity (Reformation Trust, 2006 – the copy I have), but has been newly published under the title How Then Shall We Worship? (David C. Cook, 2013, the Kindle version of which I also have). The above quotation is taken from chapter 3, “Living Sacrifices” (pp.39-47).