On Sunday afternoon at the dinner table the scene is predictable. All the children have gathered around the table and the parents are at the ends of the oblong table, and sometimes there are guests interspersed between the children or an extra table is pulled up to accommodate the overflow from the dinner table. There is the usual serving of differing foods, pouring of drinks, rumbling of voices, and the movement of chairs as everyone readies themselves for a feast. With the prayers having been said the feast begins and the usual expressions of enjoyment and delight meet the cook(s) through expressions of thanksgiving. Then the anticipated question comes from the end of the table, “How did the Lord use his means of grace this Lord’s Day in your life?” The answers and discussion then are focused upon the earlier feast that occurred at church in worship by faith around God’s Word and Sacraments. This is an ordinary Sunday afternoon at our home.
However, what is ordinary is based upon an extraordinary ongoing work that God does in the lives of his children through his means of grace. The grace of God is poured out into the lives of his children through certain means. God does work immediately upon the sinner through the finished work of Christ by the operation of the Holy Spirit to give the fallen sinner all the grace of salvation in a new life. However he has chosen to work by his special ongoing grace in the life of the redeemed sinner by certain means. Therefore the means of grace are the ordinary elements that God has chosen to use to communicate his grace to his redeemed sinners to bring them to their final salvation in Christ.
What are the ordinary means of grace? In a strict sense the Word of God and the sacraments are the ordinary means of grace. God uses his church, providence, gifts of his saints, conversion, faith and prayer working through the Holy Spirit to gather the elect and build up the body of Christ to salvation in justification, sanctification and glorification in Christ. However, all these cannot be properly considered as the ordinary means of grace. As Louis Berkhof says, “Only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace.” Therefore, though everything is from him, through him and to him for his own glory (Romans 11:36), God has chosen to use objective ordinary means in his church to bring his children to completion in Christ. This is evidenced by the early church in Acts 2:42 when we see them gathered together daily around the Word of God taught by the apostles, prayer and the breaking of bread.
The Presbyterian and Reformed confessions also agree with this understanding of the ordinary means of grace though differently in their wording. The words of the Shorter Catechism in Question 88 asks: “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?; Answer: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth 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.” Here the ordinary means of grace are defined as God’s Word, sacraments and prayer. The Westminster divines include prayer in the similar question and answer in the Larger Catechism 154. This opening of the ordinary means of grace beyond Word and sacrament to include prayer goes beyond the “objective channels” as stated by Berkhoff. However, he is not saying that God does not use prayer to communicate his grace, but that in the strict sense of the ordinary means it should not be included. The Heildelberg Catechism echoes this thought in question 116 in the section on gratitude when it asks: “Why is prayer necessary for Christians?”; Answer. Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us: and also, because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them.” The catechism does not ask this question in the grace and salvation section on the Word and sacraments but in the Christian living section on gratitude. The Westminster divines were using the term “means of grace” more broadly, but we can conclude that the ordinary means of grace are the Word and sacraments that God makes effectual to his children through the Holy Spirit to bring them to salvation in Christ.
Therefore the ordinary conversation on an ordinary Sunday afternoon at our home is in the context of the ordinary means of grace. By faith we are expecting God to work extraordinarily in our lives through the Holy Spirit to bring us to completion in Christ through his ordained means.