“These ‘ordinary’ means of grace are God’s ways of communicating his great salvation in Christ and by his Holy Spirit. The very fact, however, that the adjective ‘ordinary’ is applied to these means by which God works implies that they are not the only way he works. They may be normative, but they are not exhaustive.”
The idea of ‘the means of grace’ has undergone an encouraging rehabilitation in the life and ministry of many Reformed churches in recent years. This has come as a healthy corrective to pressure from the wider church to embrace ideas and practices that seem more effective vehicles for church growth. However ‘effective’ these alternative means may have seemed, it has been at the expense of a meaningfully biblical definition of the church. So, the widespread return to emphasising the Word, sacraments, fellowship and prayer (Ac 2.42) as the core components of a faithful and effective church has been welcome. These ‘ordinary’ means of grace are God’s ways of communicating his great salvation in Christ and by his Holy Spirit.
The very fact, however, that the adjective ‘ordinary’ is applied to these means by which God works implies that they are not the only way he works. They may be normative, but they are not exhaustive.
The men of the Westminster Assembly noted this in their treatment of Effectual Calling in chapter 10 of the Confession of Faith. It deals with the means by which the call of the gospel which is universal is made to be effective in the lives of ‘All those whom God hath predestinated unto life’ (10.1).
The divines open up what this entails and how it happens as being, ‘at his appointed and accepted time’ and by means of ‘his word and Spirit’ in order that they may be actually lifted ‘out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace’ (10.1).
They go on in the next section to explain this further: ‘This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it’ (10.2).
Here, then, are the normal means God uses to bring the spiritually dead to life, enabling them to turn in repentance and faith towards God as they rest on Christ alone for their salvation. But they are not the only means. The very next section goes on to make this clear in what it says about ‘elect infants dying in infancy’: ‘Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word’ (10.3). There are certain circumstances of life in which the ‘ordinary means of grace’ cannot function.
The Westminster divines reiterate this point in chapter 14, ‘Of Saving Faith’. There they state, ‘The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened’ (14.1) [italics added].
There are at least two reasons for drawing attention to the fact God’s grace has extraordinary as well as ordinary dimensions.
The first is pastoral. Infant mortality may not be as common in developed countries in the 21st Century as it was in those same countries just a few centuries ago, but the pain of loss and questions about life and destiny it raises are just as real. In some respects they are even more real for Christian parents who believe that ‘faith comes from hearing the message and is heard through the word of Christ’ (Ro 10.17). Knowing something of God’s extraordinary grace for such extraordinary circumstances can only bring comfort.
The fact the scope of this principle goes beyond ‘elect infants dying in infancy’ to ‘all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word‘ is also pastorally significant. Not least in terms of how the church regards and cares for those who are mentally incapacitated. At a very basic level the questions must be asked, ‘Can they be accepted as members of the church?’ and ‘May they receive the Lord’s Supper?’ If a church turns ‘the ordinary means of grace’ into ‘the sole means of grace’, the answer must be ‘No!’.
The other reason for raising this issue relates to the question Jesus was asked en route to Jerusalem: ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ (Lk 13.23). It is the question many have asked throughout the centuries. And it is significant that Jesus does not give a direct answer, but says instead the real issue is making sure we ourselves are in his kingdom (Lk 13.24).