Yesterday, I blogged about my friend Bill's struggle to be faithful to his quiet times and if you read the post you will see that I tried to divert his attention from himself, his performance and his failures to follow the law of the quiet time to think on the merits of Christ on his behalf. My hope in that dialogue was to free Bill from the sense of guilt he brings with him to the reading of the Word of God and prayer, so that he could bask in the goodness of God and hopefully develop a desire to read the Word and pray instead of being driven by some kind of performance objectives he needs to live up to, or conversely, fear that if he fails to have quiet times that God is going to get him.
Having said that, I left an incomplete picture in that post. The truth is that all of the things I shared with Bill to try to alleviate his guilt and show him the grace of Christ, all came from the Word of God. I would not have those things to share with him had I not received them from the Word of God. It is essential that we be in and under the Word of God at all times if we are to know and experience the grace of God. Prayer, based upon the Word of God is a wonderful means of access to and communication with the God of the Word.
So in what follows I am offering an apologetic, or reason for getting into the Word of God and prayer under the heading of using the means of grace. As I wrote the words below it became too wordy and I'll split it up into another post. As I wrote the words below the post kind of evolved into an apologetic for hearing the Word of God and I think I'll just go ahead and let it stand on that. We get very wrapped up in the private reading of the Word and private prayer, when the big deal is public worship, preaching and corporate prayer. The public use of the means of grace sets the stage for the private use of those means so I hope that what follows helps you understand and appreciate the most important aspect of the means of grace. Tomorrow or next week I'll go ahead and let this flow into some more thoughts on the private use of the means of grace.
1. The Word of God and Prayer are gifts, graces, not law.
As Scott Clark says here " The private devotional life is not a law, it is a grace. It is not a metaphorical whip with which to prod Christians to godliness, it is the natural outgrowth of union with Christ."
2. The language of "spiritual disciplines" is not the best, it should be replaced with the older language of "means of grace."
Here I'm showing my love for our fathers in the faith and I'm just offering the natural outgrowth of Clark's comment above. When our forefathers called these things "means of grace," the emphasis was on receiving what God has done for us in Christ. We've gone to calling these things "spiritual disciplines" and that puts the emphasis on what we must do for God, not what He has done for us. Thus a new burden is placed on us. The burden of being what God wants us to be is now placed on our shoulders.
If we see the Bible and prayer as gifts for us I think our hearts, or affections if you want to use Jonathan Edwards terminology, may be more inclined toward the use and appropriation of them than if we see them as tasks to accomplish.
3. The corporate and public takes precedence over the personal and private
I think this is a big overlooked issue in our day. It has almost become self-evident, needing no explanation or defense, that the our personal and private devotions are the most important thing in the Christian life. Even though this seems self-evident to us today it has not always been this way in the church.
David Clarkson has an old sermon that we all ought to take more seriously called "Public Worship to be Preferred before Private." In the article I referenced above by Scott Clark he points out that this preference for the private over the public is the legacy of pietism. Clark is defending the reformed tradition against pietism, rightly I believe, but even those who aren't reformed ought to be aware that this preference for the private over the public is a newer and more novel belief that can rightly be challenged from the Scriptures, as Clarkson does so ably.
The good news in all of this is that if you go to a church that preaches the Word of God in it's integrity, meaning it rightly preaches law and gospel, and that offers the sacraments in their integrity, then you have come within the circle of God's means of grace. Think of the means of grace as a water sprinkler - as the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered they are like water going out from a sprinkler and every blade of grass, or individual, who falls within the circle of that preaching and administration of the sacraments gets dripped on and soaked by the grace of God.
Now, you may be wearing a raincoat when you come to church, doing your best to make sure the water doesn't get you wet. But that doesn't change the fact that the grace of God is being poured out.
4. Let's remember that in the Scriptures, the Word of God enters mainly through the ear gate.
One of those weird things in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that I think most people pass over is question #89 which asks "how is the Word made effectual to salvation?" The answer is:
The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.
I checked and John Piper even lets that question stand as-is in his baptist catechism. That statement is actually quite startling if you think about it - that the preaching of God's Word, and I would assume that includes the hearing of God's Word on the part of those to whom it is preached, is more important than reading it.
I think this point is worthy of some extended discussion. Romans 10:17 says that faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the Word of God and Romans 10:14ff identifies that as the Word which is preached. In James 1:22ff we are accountable to the Word we have listened to. I'm pretty sure that, since the invention of the printing press, we have just assumed that the reading and hearing of the Word are interchangeable. Now that we have the Word of God in a format that we can take home with us we don't need to hear it in public from the lips of a preacher. I know that, for the longest time I approached things that way.
But I wonder if there is more to these verses in the Bible on hearing than we ordinarily think. Our forefathers who wrote the confessions and catechisms lived in a time when the Bible was being printed and distributed to the common man and they rejoiced in that, it was one of the great victories of the reformation. Yet still, even in a time when the Bible could be placed in the hands of the common man who could read it for himself, they seemed to think that the Bible itself taught that God works more effectively through public preaching of the Word than private reading.
Getting back to my friend Bill and his struggles with the quiet time, this may seem like I have chased a rabbit and gotten off track and am missing the issue he is struggling with. But I raise this to say that maybe Bill is the one who is off track and worried about the wrong thing.
And it may in fact be that there is a huge blessing that Bill is missing here because he has imbibed the pietistic spirit of the age. If Bill is like most folks he goes to church and patiently endures the sermon, and is only half-engaged with it, if at all. If Bill is like many folks I meet his main concern for the sermon is that it not be too long and that it be very practical and doesn't make him think too hard. And this is ok in Bill's mind because it is not necessary that he engage with the sermon because he's got his bible back home that he can study in private, and after all, that's what God really wants him to do.
But what if Bill awakened to the fact that the gathered worship and the Sunday morning sermon is where the action is in the Christian life. What if Bill were like the Ehtiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26ff, who possessed a copy of the Word of God, yet realized that he needed a guide to understand it. What if Bill realized that God gave him a church and a pastor to help him understand the Word of God? What if Bill engaged with the preached Word of God the way he keeps hoping to engage with the Word of God in private, though he never seems to attain that kind of engagement? If Bill took off his spiritual raincoat when he went to church and really let the grace of God soak him through the reading of the Word, the corporate worship and the preaching of the Word, he might get so soaked with grace that it would take him a week to dry out, just in time to get soaked again.
Having said all of that I'll stop here for now and plan to start another post dealing with the private use of the means of grace. We are uniquely blessed to live in a time when we can not only hear the Word of God we can take it home with us and read it. Unfortunately, many have embraced a mode of living where the private reading of the Word takes precedence over the public hearing, and the church suffers for it and so do those of us live this way. I put myself in that "us" in the last sentence because that has almost always been my own mode of living.
However, if we can get these things in order, the priority of the corporate and public to the personal and private, the personal and private part of our lives can become a source of joy for us. It is an amazing privilege to be able to take the Word of God in written form home with us. Most of our brothers and sisters throughout history could never do this and a good number of our brothers and sisters who are alive today can't do this. But this Word of God is a gift, not a guillotine, it is intended to be a blessing, not a burden to us. The same goes for prayer. We'll talk about this more next time.