Sinners are saved and Satan is vanquished not through the visible glory of social activism, political victories, or cultural transformation. As beneficial as these pursuits might be to improve society, the saving power of Christ is not mediated through them. In fact, it’s one of Satan’s tactics to make us believe that it is. Rather, the saving power of Christ is operative, by the Spirit, through God’s chosen instruments of salvation: preaching, prayer, water, bread, and wine. Administered by lawfully ordained ministers of the gospel, the ordinary means of grace form God’s chief strategy for making disciples.
Jonathan Edwards served as a missionary-pastor to the Mohawk and Mohican Indians from 1751 to 1758. Despite the numerous challenges of ministry in the northeastern frontier, the New England pastor was not fixated on contextualization or man-centered methods of mission and discipleship. Rather, like the Apostles, Edwards was devoted to gospel proclamation through the ordinary means of grace (Acts 2:42).
SAVING POWER THROUGH APPOINTED MEANS
Edwards believed that the word of the cross (i.e., the gospel) is the operative power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18). Moreover, he believed that Christ’s saving power is mediated through divinely appointed means. In other words, salvation comes to us ordinarily through the means of Word, sacraments, and prayer in the context of the local church. Despite his foreign context and contrary to all human wisdom, the Colonial missionary placed his confidence in what God promises to use and not what man thinks might work. He carried out the ministry on God’s terms, not man’s devices. Through the means of grace, God’s elect receive Christ and abide in Him through faith.
The example of Jonathan Edwards punctuates the essential point that the context of ministry must never determine the means of ministry. Geography and culture must never determine theology and practice. Whether laboring in the sophisticated environs of Northampton or the wilderness surroundings of Stockbridge, Edwards modeled an unflinching commitment to the proclamation of Christ through Word and sacrament. He stood firmly in the Reformed tradition. Believing the Westminster Shorter Catechism to be “an excellent system of divinity,” Edwards believed that the
outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (WSC 88)
In other words, it is through the ordinary means of grace that the ascended Christ, by the Spirit, saves, sanctifies, and comforts His chosen ones. The means of grace are the effectual tools that Christ has promised to use to build His church (Matt. 16:18; 28:18–20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 1:18–2:5; 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:2–5). Of course, it’s not in the tools alone that Edwards placed his confidence but the saving power of Christ operative in and through them. Religious and liturgical formalism was an abomination to Edwards. It should also be to us.