THE MEANS OF GRACE; GENERAL VIEW; THE WORD.
SHORTER CATECHISM, 88-90; LARGER CATECHISM, 98-99 AND 153-160; CONFESSION OF FAITH, XIX.
For two chapters the discussion has been almost entirely upon the ground of the Confession, but this chapter carries the exposition over to the Catechisms. It is only in an indirect way that the Confession treats of the means of grace, for while it discusses, in part, some of the same topics, it does not deal with them in their bearing upon the means whereby the Christian life is guided and advanced. The Catechisms, however, do this in a direct and formal manner.
The field now to be traversed in this exposition is quite extensive, so that four or five chapters will be required to explain properly what the Standards teach concerning the means of grace. It is believed that the exposition now to be made will go far to show that the Standards give due prominence to the personal and practical sides of the Christian life; and in doing so they unfold one of the most complete ethical systems, on a purely Christian and scriptural basis, that the world has ever seen. It is well to keep this fact in mind, for the objection is sometimes made against the Standards that they give too much attention to abstract doctrine, and not enough to the practical duties of the Christian life. In this connection it may be safely asserted that the Standards, taken as a whole, present doctrine and duty in their proper proportions, and in their correct relations. Sound doctrine is made the basis of correct life, and true Christian ethics in life is seen to be the product of a gracious experience in the heart. This relation between doctrine and duty, between dogma and life, is one of vital importance.
The Standards divide the means of grace into three branches. These are known as the word, the sacraments, and prayer. Each of these branches must have due attention given to it. Speaking in a general way, all divine ordinances are means of grace, so that in addition to the three things just mentioned there are others, such as providential dealings of blessing or affliction, and the fellowship which believers have with each other, which would have to be taken into account in a full exposition of the means of grace. The Standards suggest this when they state that the outward and ordinary means of grace are the ordinances of God, and then go on to say, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer, and then proceed to give a full exposition of these three main branches of these means. This chapter will begin the explanations to be made concerning the word of God as an important means of grace, and it will set forth some general points in relation thereto, so as to prepare the way for the exposition of the ten commandments in two subsequent chapters.
These means of grace just mentioned are called outward and ordinary. This means that the reading and preaching of the word, the observance of the sacraments, and the exercise of prayer, are the usual and external means by which Christ and the benefits of grace are conveyed to the believer, so that his spiritual life is purified and expanded thereby. The word outward indicates the relation of these means of grace to the believer, and suggests the contrast with the work of the Holy Spirit, and the exercise of the believer's faith, which may be termed the inward means of grace. The term ordinary relates to the fact that by these means in general the work of sanctification is usually furthered, and the contrast is here suggested with unusual means of grace which are occasional in their nature, as may sometimes be seen in the dispensations of providence, or growing out of the intercourse of believers with one another. These are temporary means of grace.
It is worthy of further remark that the term means has a well-defined signification. As means of grace the word, the sacraments, and prayer, are mere channels through which grace is conveyed by divine appointment. In no proper sense are they agents, or are they possessed of inherent efficiency in themselves. The real agent in sanctification is the Holy Spirit. He it is who uses the word, or the sacraments to the spiritual benefit and growth in grace of believers, but these ordinances are in themselves ineffectual to this end. And on the believer's part the exercise of faith, which itself is due to the Spirit's work, is the condition of the spiritual efficacy of these means. There is no inherent virtue in any of these means, as will be seen more fully later on. The Spirit's work and the office of faith are needed.
The Catechisms present these means of grace from still another point of view. The question is raised as to the things which God requires of men that they may escape his wrath and curse due to them for their sins. The answer is threefold. They must have faith in Christ, repentance toward God, and a diligent use of the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ gives to them the benefits of his mediation. From this point of view they are means of salvation, in the full sense of the term. But, without further delay, the general exposition of the word as a means of grace must be entered on.
This is really the third time in the course of these expositions that the Word of God has been up for discussion. The first time was in the third chapter, where Holy Scripture was considered as the rule of faith and life, and as the only authoritative source of Christian doctrine. The second time was in the nineteenth chapter, where the law of God in various aspects and for several uses was expounded. And now, in this chapter and the two following ones, the word of God is to be viewed as the means used for the expansion of the spiritual life of the believer. This supplies, also, the rule of Christian ethics.
The duty which God requires of man is obedience to his revealed will. The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law. This law was first written in man's moral constitution, and is implied in the fact that he is a moral agent. It was afterwards more clearly and definitely revealed in the Scriptures, wherein the great principles of the divine law and moral government are unfolded. This moral law is again summed up in the ten commandments, and it is from this point that the present exposition of the Standards takes its departure. But before the commandments are explained in order, there are several important things, based chiefly upon the Larger Catechism, which may properly occupy the remainder of this chapter.
I. The Word and its Use may be first Defined.
The word of God is, or is contained in, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Larger Catechism says that the Scriptures are the word of God, while the Shorter says that the word of God is contained in the Scriptures; and this difference of statement has given rise to a good deal of controversy. The Confession virtually settles the debate in favor of the view which makes the word of God and the Scriptures virtually identical, when it says, after giving a full list of all the books of the Bible, that they are all given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life. The Scriptures, therefore, are the inspired word of God. It is called Holy Scripture because it is in written form; and it is profitable in furnishing the man of God unto all good works.
The summary of the moral law is given in the ten commandments, four of which announce man's duty to God, and six his duty to his fellowmen. Our Lord, in a matchless manner, condensed these ten commands into two. The first is to love God with the whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and the second is to love our neighbors as ourselves. On these two commands, says our Lord, hang all the law and the prophets; in other words, the whole of the Scriptures. This twofold form of the moral law is all-comprehensive, for if a man love God supremely he will keep the first four commands, and if he love his neighbor as himself he will observe the duties laid down in the second table of the law. Thus love is seen to be the fulfilling of the law, and that if men love God they will keep his commandments.
The Larger Catechism adds that though all are not allowed to read the word publicly to the congregation, yet all sorts of people are bound to read it apart by themselves, and with their families. The obligation thus rests upon all men, and great responsibility is incurred if this private and domestic reading of the Scriptures is not attended to. To repudiate the obligation does not free any man from the duty. In order that the word may be read intelligently by all men, it is to be translated out of the original languages in which it was written into the common tongue of all the peoples of the world. This teaching is opposed to the practice of Rome, which, to a large extent, discourages the reading of the Scriptures by the common people. This is one of the strong contentions of the Protestant against the Romanist. The Scriptures are to be in every man's hand in his own common tongue, so that he may read the will of God and be made wise unto salvation thereby.
The preaching of the word in a public manner is only to be done by those who are sufficiently gifted, and are duly approved and called to the office. This relates to the official proclamation of the word, and of the gospel message thereby. Those who would discharge this holy service are to have suitable gifts, not merely intellectual, but, above all, spiritual; and these gifts are to be so expanded and cultivated in the knowledge of the Scriptures that they may instruct and edify others. The call of God's Spirit and providence must lead them to seek and enter the office, and the approval of God's people, not merely in their individual capacity, but also in their corporate capacity, as constituted into what is called a church court. Such only are to preach the word. It is worth while observing, at this point, that the Standards give no favor to preaching by women. Even the comparative silence of the Standards upon this subject cannot be adduced in favor of this practice; for at the time when they were drawn up the question of women preaching was not even raised. Hence, the supposed silence of the Standards upon the matter is no argument in its support.
The last remark to be made under this head is one which has been hinted at already in a general way. The word is made effectual to the elect for salvation only by the blessing of the Holy Spirit thereon. It is the Spirit alone who makes the reading, and especially the preaching, of the word an effectual means of grace and salvation. Here, again, as so often, the Standards emphasize the necessity and efficacy of the Holy Spirit for all true religious experiences.
II. The Effects of the Word as Read, Preached, and Made Effectual by the Holy Spirit may be Next Noted.
To a certain extent what was said in the nineteenth chapter is repeated here, in regard to the uses of the word or law of God to all men, and to the unregenerate and regenerate, respectively. First, By means of the message of the word, made effectual by the Spirit, sinners are enlightened, convinced and humbled. These are three important factors. The mind is enlightened in the knowledge of itself, the conscience is convinced of its sinful, guilty state, and the sinner himself is humbled in the sight of God, as the message of the word comes to him. Next, the result of the message of the word is to drive sinners out of themselves, and draw them unto Christ. This is an admirable statement. By means of the truth of God the sinner is led to feel and see that he cannot do what is necessary to redeem and save himself, and he is also led to see that in Christ all that is needful has been provided and secured, so that he abandons all efforts to save himself, and turns, with penitent heart and ready feet, to the Lord Jesus Christ, to find peace by believing on him. The third result of the word is that sinners, having been led to Christ, are by means of the word conformed to his image, and subdued to his will. The nature of the believing sinner is made like that of Christ, and his will is brought into harmony with that of his Master. A further result of the word is seen in the fact that believers are thereby greatly strengthened against temptations and corruptions. The word becomes a means of defence, even as Jesus found it to be in his wilderness temptation. And, finally, the crowning result of the word as a means of grace is that believers are built up in grace and knowledge, and are established in holiness and comfort, through faith unto salvation. They are sanctified through the truth, the word of God being that truth. Thus, every step in the believer's experience is marked out distinctly, under the operation of the Spirit working by and with the word in his mind and heart. Here there is conviction, faith in Christ, likeness to Christ, spiritual defence, and complete salvation in the end.
III. A Third Practical Question Relates to the Way in which the Word is to be Read, Preached and Heard.
The Catechisms both speak upon this point, the Larger expanding the statement of the Shorter considerably. The points here are now noted in order. First, There must be high and reverent esteem for the Scriptures. This esteem is necessary to lead men to give heed to the message which they contain. If men have not a high regard for the Scriptures they are not likely to pay much heed to what they utter. Then, Secondly, There is to be a firm persuasion that the Scriptures are the very word of God, and that he alone can enable us to understand them. Here there are two related things. On the one hand, the word must be read and heard with the firm conviction that it is a message from God, and not merely a human voice; and on the other hand, it is to be kept in mind that only he who gave the Scriptures by the spirit of inspiration can enable men to understand them by the spirit of illumination. Thirdly, The reading and preaching of the word must be attended to with a sincere desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God therein revealed. Hence, all idle speculations, or mere literary or philosophic aims, are to be set aside, and there should be an earnest desire to find out the will of God for present duty, by the reading and the preaching of the word of God. It is instructive to note the force of the three stages in these results of the word of God. There is knowledge of, then faith in, and, last of all, obedience to, the will of God. And they are mentioned in their proper order, for the end of both knowledge and faith is to obey the will of God, and so fulfil the end of our being. Fourthly, The word must be diligently heeded, by giving attention to the matter and scope of the Scriptures. This enjoins an intelligent, thorough and comprehensive study of the Scriptures. The importance of this is evident, and need not be insisted on. Finally, the word is to be preached and heard with meditation, application, self-denial and prayer. The Shorter Catechism sums up this point and the preceding one by saying that the word must be attended to with diligence, preparation, and prayer. The Larger Catechism under this last head sets down four words of much meaning. There is to be meditation of a serious and devout nature, application of an earnest and painstaking sort, self-denial, if necessary, of time and comfort, and, above all, prayer for that Spirit of all grace which alone can make the word effectual unto salvation. Thus, the word, dwelling in believers in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, causes them to grow up in all things after the likeness of him who hath called them to glory and virtue.
IV. This Chapter at this Point may Briefly Set Down a few things which the Larger Catechism Mentions for the Benefit of those who are to be Preachers of the Word.
There is here given, in answer to a single question, an exceedingly complete outline of homiletical advice, to which ministers of the gospel will do well to give earnest heed. Little more than the headings can be set down here.
First, The word is to be preached soundly. All those who are called to labor in the ministry of the word are to preach sound doctrine. The mind of the Spirit as set forth in the word is to be declared, and cunningly-devised fables are to be avoided. And the whole truth, in its proper scriptural proportions, is to be preached. Secondly, The word is to be preached diligently. The preacher is to be earnest and active in his work. In season, and out of season, he is to sow the seed beside all waters, and then leave the result with him who sends him to preach. Thirdly, The minister is to preach the word plainly. He is to so speak that the people can understand the whole counsel of God in the matter of duty and salvation. He is not to use enticing words of man's wisdom and seek to gain thereby the praise of man, but he is to seek to so preach that his words may be in demonstration of the Spirit and with power. He is to be simply a herald. Fourthly, The word is to be faithfully preached by the minister of the gospel. He is to keep nothing back. He is to be faithful to him whose message he bears, faithful to those to whom the message is sent, and faithful to himself. This fidelity is a very important factor in the case. Fifthly, The minister must preach the word wisely. He is to have the wisdom of the serpent. He will thus seek to adapt the message to the condition and needs of the hearers, whether warning, rebuke, exhortation, invitation, or consolation. He will also seek to adapt the message to the capacities of his hearers. The learned and the ignorant, the young and the old, will all be thought of and provided for. Sixthly, The message of the word is to be declared zealously. The message is all-important, and it should be declared with zeal. This zeal should be begotten, not of a desire for personal fame, but of a fervent love of God, and a tender regard for the souls of men. This zeal will prompt to great earnestness. Seventhly, The word is to be preached sincerely. Selfish ends or aims are to be laid aside, and the glory of God in the conversion, edification and salvation of the hearers should be the controlling motive of the preacher. If thus preached, the word will be quick and powerful, and fruitful in the salvation of souls.
V. This Chapter may Properly Close with a Brief Statement of the Rules which the Larger Catechism Lays Down for the Interpretation of the Word.
These rules are of the utmost importance in their bearing upon the exposition of the ten commandments to be made in the two following chapters. There are eight rules, as follows:
1. The perfection of the law of God is to be kept in mind. As perfect, it binds in the whole man, and to full conformity, forever. The utmost perfection in every duty is required, and the least degree of sin is forbidden.
2. The spirituality of the law is also to be remembered. It is a law which reaches to the mind, will, heart, and all the other powers of the soul, as well as to words, works, and gestures. In the explanation of some of the commandments this is a valuable rule.
3. The relations of the commands in the law are to be kept in view. One and the same thing, in divers respects, is required and forbidden in several commandments. This must be carefully noted in all cases.
4. When a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbid den, and vice versa. When a promise is annexed, a contrary threat is implied, and vice versa. This is a very comprehensive rule.
5. What God forbids is never to be done. His command is always duty, yet every duty is not to be done at all times. This rule naturally opens the door for the casuist to enter with his subtilties.
6. Under one sin or duty, all of the same kind are forbidden or commanded, together with all the causes, means, occasions, appearances, and provocations connected therewith. This is also a far-reaching rule.
7. What is forbidden or commanded to ourselves, we are to seek that it may be avoided or performed by others, according to the duty of our several places and relations.
8. In what is commanded to others, we are bound to be helpful to them according to our places and callings. We are also to take heed not to be partakers with others in what is forbidden to them.
These important rules stated in the Larger Catechism show how complete the Standards are on the practical side. Just as in the previous section there was much sensible homiletical advice given to those who preach the word, so here there are useful hermeneutical hints in regard to the interpretation of the Scriptures. The hints bear partly upon the exposition of the doctrines of the gospel and partly upon the discovery of the whole duty of the Christian man. Let all who read the Scriptures seek to follow the hints these rules supply.