Question: How is the word made effectual to salvation?

Answer: 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.

—The Westminster Shorter Catechism

One of the great hallmarks of evangelicalism has been its emphasis on personal piety. From its roots in the First Great Awakening to the present day, the evangelical movement has stressed the necessity of personal faith in Christ, the personal spiritual disciplines of Scripture reading and prayer, personal holiness, and personal evangelism and good works. Each of these emphases can be defended from Scripture, and taken together they help explain why evangelical piety remains so vibrant even in an increasingly secular culture. However, this personal focus, combined with the evangelical movement’s tendency toward theological reductionism due to its multi-denominational nature, has sometimes prevented evangelicals from fully appreciating the unique importance of the local church in the spiritual formation of God’s people.

If we push back further in history to the Reformation and post-Reformation traditions that preceded evangelicalism, a different picture emerges. Here, we find a more church-oriented spirituality. This can be seen especially in the Reformed emphasis on the “ordinary means of grace.” In 17th-century England, for example, the Westminster divines maintained that the elect receive the benefits of salvation through “outward and ordinary means.” Question 88 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism 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 of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

Unlike the Roman Catholic view, the Reformed view did not teach that grace was a substance that was channeled, irrespective of personal faith, through the sacraments. Instead, grace was defined in terms of the “benefits of redemption” (justification, adoption, sanctification, etc.) and was granted only to those who believe. And yet, this grace does not come to the elect in an immediate fashion, that is, not mediated through outward means. No, the Reformed confessions maintained that redemption is communicated to believers through the outward means of the Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. The Word, when combined with the Spirit’s regenerative work, creates faith, and the sacraments and prayer sustain this faith throughout the believer’s life. In this sense, redemption is mediated to the believer through the ministry of the church. John Calvin could cite Cyprian approvingly in this regard: “He has not God as his father who has not the church as his mother” (Calvin,  Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.I.1.)

Not Limited to Presbyterians

This “ordinary means” focus was not limited to the Presbyterianism of the Westminster Standards. In fact, the language of Westminster, including its teaching on the ordinary means, was also taken up in the confessional statements of the Baptists (the Second London Confession of 1689 and Keach’s Catechism) and the Congregationalists (the Savoy Declaration of 1658). Incidentally, the Wesleyan tradition also gave special attention to the ordinary means of grace (see Wesley’s Sermon XVI on “The Means of Grace”). Basic Christian spirituality, then, according to the Reformed tradition, was fundamentally a corporate reality. To be sure, Reformed spirituality did not denigrate the importance of personal piety. Indeed, it emphasized the need for “private exercises of God’s worship” among the people of God—in the form of both personal and family worship (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXI). But priority was given to the corporate worship of the gathered church. This priority can be seen in Question 96 of Benjamin Keach’s Baptist Catechism (Q89 in the WSC):

Question 96: How is the word made effectual to salvation?

Answer 96: 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.

It is interesting that the catechism places special emphasis on the formal preaching of the Word, which can only take place when the church is gathered together. It is often said that the corporate worship of the church is diminished when the individuals that make up the church have not been worshiping God in their daily lives throughout the week. Anyone who has ever had the responsibility of leading a local church in public worship can testify to the truth of this claim. But it seems to me that the opposite is true as well: If the church is not engaged in biblically ordered worship through Word, sacrament, and prayer, then it will be very difficult for its members to be equipped for their daily tasks of loving God and loving neighbor.

Not Incidental But Vital Gatherings

What the church does when it gathers on the Lord’s Day is not incidental; it is vital for the salvation and sanctification of God’s people. The Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer are, after all, Christ’s ordinances. Ligon Duncan, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi, explains the biblical basis for the ordinary means:

Ordinary means of grace-based ministry believes that God means what he says in the Bible about the central importance of these public, outward instruments for spiritual life and growth. God explicitly instructs ministers and churches to do the following things: “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13); “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2); “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19); “take, eat; this is my body. . . . which is for you . . . drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins; …do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (Matt. 26:26–28; 1 Cor. 11:25–26); “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made. . . . I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands” (1 Tim. 2:1, 8) —Ligon Duncan, “The Ordinary Means of Growth,” Tabletalk (October 2007).

The ordinary means of grace, then, are not the inventions of man; they are the institutions of Christ.  And if Christ is the one who instituted the ordinary means through his apostolic word, then we neglect them at our own spiritual peril.

Both Personal Piety and Gathered Church

Again, an ordinary-means focus would not entail a belittling of private and family worship. Indeed, if evangelicals once again oriented their spiritual lives toward Christ’s church and his ordinances, they would no doubt find their families and individual lives strengthened by the diligent use of these means of grace. We need not choose between personal piety and a strong emphasis on the gathered church. If we are diligent in the latter, then we will be strengthened in the former. Michael Horton has put it like this:

It is well worth exploring Christian piety as a cascading phenomenon. Reformation piety . . . rather than expressing Christian life as flowing outward from the individual to broader relationships (i.e., the church as the aggregate of the individually regenerate), sees it as cascading down from the church and the family to the individual. And, thus, authentic Christian piety never requires choosing between a personal relationship with God in Christ and a commitment to the duties of church and family —Michael Horton, “Reformation Piety,” Modern Reformation 11 (July/August 2002): 15.

The church is not merely an aggregation of individual believers; it is the congregation of those who are united to one another by a common faith and who are strengthened together Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day through the preaching of the Word, the observance of the sacraments, and the prayers of God’s people. So let us not neglect personal piety. But let us learn to orient our personal spiritual lives to the ministry of the local church and the ordinances of her Lord.