|> Sermon Archive > Sermons by Author > Rev. Reuben Bredenhof > The Spirit Works Faith through the Means of Grace||Previous Next Print|
Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Reading – Hebrews 4; 1 Peter 1:22 - 2:3; Canons of Dort 3/4:17
Sermon – Lord’s Day 25
Beloved in Christ our Saviour, if ever there was something hard for us to explain or define, it’s that thing in our hearts called faith. For what does it really mean to believe? And how did this faith get into my heart? Faith comes from God, of course, but we still wonder: How does He produce it within us?
We’re not alone in wondering these things. Think of Nicodemus in John 3, where even that leader among God’s people struggles with the thought of being born again: “How is such a thing possible?” he asks Jesus, “How on earth will God help me to believe?” And then comes the Lord’s explanation: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v 8).
“The wind blows wherever it wishes…” We’ve all experienced that, how one minute the wind is breezing gently from the west; the next minute it’s whipping in from the east; and two minutes later the wind has completely died down—but not for long. From what Jesus says in John 3, it seems that the source of faith through the Spirit is just so mysterious and unpredictable. You just never know when it’s going to happen. Also if your faith feels weak for a time, it’s impossible to say why that is: it’s all so random.
Yet is that really true? When the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, does He blow just as unpredictably as the wind? From John 3 we need to take this truth: the Holy Spirit is sovereign. He works in the way He pleases, when He pleases, in whatever heart God has chosen. The Spirit doesn’t need to match our expectations or timetable—that’s all true.
But stay with that image of the Holy Spirit as wind a little more. Think of how today there are people who study the wind. They watch it carefully with satellites, and measure it with gauges and meters. And though they certainly can’t predict the wind’s every move, they recognize that there are patterns in the wind. They discover what direction the wind will generally flow at certain times of the day and of the year.
In a similar way, we can recognize how the Spirit of God moves. We can see how He normally flows, and what patterns He always follows. We can even know what instruments the Spirit uses to perform his miracle in our hearts. And once we know that, beloved, we can work with these things! We can use them to bring others to faith, and we can use them to strengthen our own faith. This is our theme from Scripture and Lord’s Day 25,
God the Spirit works faith in us through the means of grace:
- their identity
- their vitality
- our responsibility
1) their identity: There’s a phrase in the theme that we should define, “the means of grace.” You might’ve heard that term before in other sermons, or maybe in Catechism class. A means is basically a method of doing something, it’s a mechanism, a process. Through a “means,” we’re able to do things like receive something from another source. For example, the means by which we get power for our homes are those wires, connected to the grid and coming into our house. Power lines (you could say) are the “means of electricity.”
In a similar way, we get the regenerating grace of God through certain means. God the Spirit transmits his power to us through special channels or connections. Faith comes from being linked to these things, “the means of grace.”
This is what the Catechism asks about, “Since then faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does this faith come from?” And this is the answer given, “From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments” (Q&A 65). The Spirit uses the gospel and the sacraments to cause us to be born again, and to believe in the true God.
This is also the focus in that section of the Canons of Dort we read, under the heading “The Use of Means” (3/4: 17). It begins with a general statement, “The almighty working of God whereby He brings forth and sustains this our natural life does not exclude but requires the use of means.” Here we’re speaking about the physical side of life, our body and all its parts: muscles, nerves, limbs, brain and lungs, and so on. “This natural life,” the Canons is saying, “requires ongoing nourishment.” So even while God has powerfully created us, and while He has promised that He’ll maintain our natural life, this doesn’t mean we should skip out on meals, or go outside without proper clothing. The LORD takes care of us through his gifts of food and drink, shelter and clothing. They are the means of life.
Then comes the comparison. “So also the… supernatural working of God whereby He regenerates us, in no way excludes or cancels the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul” (3/4:17). If your physical life needs sustaining, your spiritual life needs it too! Sure, it’s a miracle that God works in us; it’s a supernatural event when a person comes to faith. But it doesn’t mean that God uses no tools and resources to bring it about. If you’ll continue growing in faith and developing in holiness, you have to take in “food for the soul!” And lots of it.
So what are these means? What’s in that pantry of spiritual food? Christian theologians have always spoken about a number of means of grace. God has granted several important “connections” from him to us, lines that link us to heaven’s power.
One such means is prayer. When we pray rightly, we’re actually entering heaven’s throne room and speaking with God our Creator. And it’s not a one-sided conversation. We offer up to God our requests for help, our thanksgiving for his gifts, our confessions of sin, our praise—and even at the same time that we’re forming those words, God sends down his peace and blessing. He answers us! Such is the power of prayer, that even the act of humbling yourself in the presence of God can work an intense confidence in his love: you know He’s listening. Through prayer, we’re assured that our God is gracious.
Prayer is a means of grace, and so is public worship. Now, we ought to come to church with all our thoughts directed toward God and his glory. Worship is about being in awe of the immense majesty of God, and giving him the praise that He’s worthy to receive. Worship must be God-centred, and yet it can also bring benefit to those who are doing the worshiping. Think of how worship is a powerful encouragement for the soul. How good it is to gather on Sundays with other believers! To join in prayers for one another, to sing psalms and hymns with joy and enthusiasm, to confess our undoubted faith, to hear the life-giving Word. Even as we give of ourselves in worship, God is giving to us. It’s a means of his grace.
Part of what we do on the Lord’s day is Christian fellowship. We greet one another, we try to have conversations about meaningful things, we visit in each other’s homes, we study the Scriptures. And this communion is another means of God’s grace. For in fellowship there’s a spiritual boost. We can be helped and encouraged. There’s a blessing in enjoying each other’s company, in speaking of what concerns us and about what gives us joy. Fellowship reminds us we’re not alone on this earth, but that we’re part of Christ’s holy body.
Prayer. Public Worship. Christian fellowship. What other ways can God work faith in us, and build us up in his grace? What if a person hears a voice speaking to him one night? What if you have a dream where the Lord appears to you and calls you to serve him? What if another person thinks she’s been given a sign from God, a message from above? Can things like this give us faith, or strengthen our faith?
Maybe such an experience would be wonderful: to hear a word directly from God, telling you what to do with your life, or encouraging you when you’re feeling down. It might be a real boost for our faith. Or it might not. For the problem is that it’s so temporary. What if we later start to doubt what we heard? Was it really God? Or my imagination? Or what if we go years without another experience like it? Is God then ignoring us? If we’ve based our confidence in one passing moment, one subjective experience, we’re on shaky ground.
For this reason, the Catechism mentions two means of grace, and the Canons of Dort adds a third. Notice how each of them is rooted in something unchanging and infallible: the Holy Scriptures. There is the preaching of the gospel, the use of the sacraments, and discipline. It’s the Word made audible (in the preaching), the Word made visible (in the sacraments), and the Word made practical (through the work of the elders).
Let’s speak about each of these. What is the Word, but God disclosing himself to sinners? It is a very ancient book, it is a very large book, but have no doubt, it’s a very personal message sent to you from God. No less personal than a voice in the night, no less direct, and far more reliable. With words written by human authors, and inspired by his Spirit, God tells us who He is. God tells us what He’s done for us, and He tells us what He expects from us. When we read God’s Word, and hear it, we’re connecting to that life-giving, life-changing power.
And though the Word is clear, God wants to make absolutely sure we don’t overlook the message. God knows that the best lessons are those we can see—and even taste and touch. So God also gives us the sacraments: holy baptism and holy Supper. “They were instituted by God so that by their use He might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel” (Q&A 66). The sacraments reinforce, intensify, and strengthen what the Word has told us. The sacraments are like a diagram that your teacher draws on the board to explain a difficult concept: a simple picture that suddenly makes it plain. The sacraments present God’s grace plainly to our eyes: “As surely as water cleanses the body, so Christ has cleansed me with his blood. As surely as this bread and wine sustain me, so Christ fills me and brings me joy.”
That Word is then brought to bear through the work of the office bearers. By their work among us, God wants to give support and guidance. That’s a good reminder for us at the beginning of the homevisit season. These men who come to your home are a “means of God’s grace.” They come to help connect you to the Lord. Not by their own words and wisdom, but through the Word of God applied to your circumstance. Article 17 mentions “discipline,” and also the “admonition of the gospel.” OK, no one wants to be admonished, let alone disciplined. But through this means too, we experience the kindness of the LORD. God can use the right word, spoken at the right time, to strengthen us in faith, or to warn us against sin, to help us on the path of life. Because the Word we hear has vitality!
2) their vitality: When you look at your life, you can probably see how God has used different ways to change and mould you. Other people can have a great effect on us: an excellent teacher, our parents, a good friend. Life’s circumstances can also be powerful in changing us—especially our hardships have an ability to transform us. A third way of change is probably the only one that we can actually control—those means of grace: worship, prayer, fellowship, the Word and the sacraments. When we connect to them, things will happen!
Think of that illustration of the power lines, which we called the “means of electricity.” Those lines have something else in common with the “means of grace.” They are “live!” There’s something running through them. For God’s Word is a living thing, and it can have a great effectiveness on those who receive it.
As the writer to the Hebrews says, “The word of God is living and powerful” (4:12). The Bible isn’t a collection of ancient scrolls, dusty old books that are best stored on a shelf. It’s not a book so big it should intimidate you into not picking it up. No, the Bible is alive—even powerful. It does things! When you really connect to the Word, it changes you. Challenges you. Comforts us. Convicts you.
Many technologies go out of date. Many ideas come and go. And yet, says Peter, the Word of God “lives and abides forever” (1 Pet 1:23). Its truth will never change. No matter how long it’s been around, no matter how many people plug into it, its power won’t drain: it’s always at 100%. As the Word is preached, as the Word is studied, as the Word is taught, God is at work. Through his Spirit, God gives us understanding of what we read and hear. Through his Spirit He gives us confidence in the gospel.
And then, we said, God confirms these things in the sacraments. If we’re paying attention, the sacraments give us a real, memorable picture of the gospel—something we can take home with you, and keep. Take baptism as an for example. Though we receive baptism only once, even decades ago, we can always be reminded of what it means. Though the water has long since dried from our foreheads, by it we know we’ve been set apart for the LORD, washed from all our sins. That’s powerful.
So what is it that gives the Word and the sacraments their vitality? What makes them so alive with these unfailing currents of God’s grace? It’s who they point to! Their meaning is in Jesus Christ alone. “The Holy Spirit teaches us in the gospel and assures us by the sacraments that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross” (Q&A 67). It’s all about him, our Saviour!
This is what Jesus himself said in John 6, explaining that He’s the one who can sustain us and give life forever: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (v 35). What He gives is better for us than any whole foods or organic produce or whatever else we care to eat. He came to fill our hungry souls, to fill them up forever. The means of grace have all their power and substance in him!
This is important to remember. Prayer isn’t good for you because it calms you down when you’re anxious, and makes you more self-aware. No, prayer is good because it connects you to God the Father through Christ.
Fellowship isn’t enjoyable because it surrounds you with like-minded people. It’s good because it links you with other parts of Christ’s body who can bless you with their gifts, and whom you can bless.
Reading and hearing the Word of God isn’t good for you just because it gives wisdom for life, or comfort in trouble. The Word is so rich because it is Christ’s Word, a message that is grounded in his perfect sacrifice of love.
Also the sacraments aren’t valuable just because every community need rituals and ceremonies. They’re valuable because they affirm the saving message of Christ Jesus.
Beloved, this is the way that the wind is blowing. It’s through these things that God works faith. Prayer, worship, the Word and sacrament, Christian fellowship and discipline—these place us directly into the path of the Lord’s grace. And we need them. We’re lifeless, apart from this power. But God has been so merciful. He’s performed in us a blessed work of the Spirit. By these means He connects us to our Saviour and gives us new life in him.
3) our responsibility: We’ve considered the identity of the means of grace. We’ve looked at their vitality. Now what? Consider it another interesting lesson from the Catechism? No, we have work to do. In a word, we have a responsibility: to use these means! Not to neglect them, but to employ them. To make sure our connection to the LORD is strong. You need to get yourself in the path of that onrushing wind. If you’ve been made alive by the Spirit, pray for his continued work on our heart, mind and will.
After telling us that we’ve been reborn through the Spirit, Peter exhorts us, “Desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (2:2). If we’re God’s little children, how will we grow? How do we develop? The Spirit says, “Desire the pure milk of the word.” You need to take in the things that’ll sustain you. Think of this: you would never willingly go a full day without eating or drinking. If you did, you’d soon get dizzy, and gradually become weak. So for the spiritual nourishment that God provides. We shouldn’t choose to go without, because to do so is dangerous. To do so can be fatal.
Here the Canons of Dort give us a direct warning, “Today those who give or receive instruction in the church should not dare to tempt God by separating what He in his good pleasure has willed to be closely joined together” (3/4:17). What is it that has God joined so closely together? The Word, and faith! The means of grace, and the very grace of God! “Don’t separate them,” say the Canons. “Don’t think you can neglect the Word, and still have a living, breathing, active faith.”
This is a needed warning, for in this age we can have a constant intake of information: we’re always connected, always in-the-know, always watching something new and exciting. I read somewhere that this “information overload” can result in something like “information obesity.” Like when you eat too much, more than your body needs. So there’s all the content that we’re eager to take in each day, but we’re just not able to process all of it. And when we’re stuffed full, we’re going to have no room left for the pure milk of the Word.
Now, it’s easy to complain about the state of things today. It’s also possible to make everyone feel guilty about not reading the Bible enough. Yet how do we get all the benefit we can from these means of grace?
Let’s begin with that most basic means, the Word of God. The Bible, we said, is living and active. But that doesn’t mean it jumps up and down on your shelf, calling you every night to pick it up. Its pages might stay unread for days or weeks at a time. Yet when we do read it, we soon discover what we’ve been missing. It is alive—only we have to work with it. For it takes time and effort to properly read the Word of God.
There’s no easy way to make this connection. A thirty-second reading of Scripture might give you a boost one morning, but not the next. It’s only a dedicated, focused use of this means that will enrich us. So find the right time for it. Maybe not before bed, when you’re already sleepy and you’ll remember little of it. Find a better time. And have a plan for it—not randomly reading, but making your way through one book, or a few different books of the Bible. And then meditate on it. Meditating isn’t some mysterious activity, but taking a word or phrase and just considering what it means, repeating it, praying to apply it.
Our responsibility also means gathering for public worship. Something happens when the Word is preached, for God is pleased to use this means to build up our faith. So again, if we’re making the effort to listen on Sundays—if we are focused and attentive, and the Word is open before us—we’re far more likely to connect to the Word’s living power.
This is what the Canons say: “Grace is conferred through admonitions, and the more readily we do our duty, the more this favour of God, who works in us, usually manifests itself in its lustre, and so his work best proceeds” (3/4: 17). That’s a complicated sentence, but the point about the means of grace is clear. “The more readily we do our duty… [the more] God’s work best proceeds!” If we’re seeking to promote the growth of our faith, and making use of the tools God gave, then his work in us will surely progress.
So are we making time to open God’s Word each day of the week? Are we worshiping with a right attitude? Are we being diligent in prayer? Are we seeking out Christian fellowship? Are we receiving the guidance and encouragement of the elders whom Christ gave us? And are we cherishing the gift of the sacraments—cherishing your baptism in the Name of God, and your place at the table of Christ?
Desire the pure milk of the Word, that you may grow! Let the Lord work in you through his Holy Spirit! Through these means of grace, build yourself on sure foundation of the gospel. For nothing is more true and valuable than this, that our entire salvation rests on the one sacrifice of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: http://frcmn.org/sermons/
(c) Copyright 2017, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
Please direct any comments to the Webmaster