I recently had the privilege of delivering a sermon dealing with the subject of preaching as a means of grace. You can download or listen to the audio of it here. Below, I have posted the written version, which is a bit shorter than the audio, as I was able to expand a bit and use some illustrations which I hope were helpful. I pray my readers will find the content edifying.
The Grace of the Preached Word of God
Redeemer Presbyterian Church
This morning we are not going to be focusing on only one particular section of Scripture. Instead, we’re going to be diving into many passages of God’s Word, and we’re going to try to piece together what God has to say about his Word, and in particular, the preaching of his Word. We’re going to see how preaching is a means of grace. First, we’ll take a look at the word grace and how Scripture describes it, and then we’ll inquire as to how we can receive that grace. We’ll see specifically how God, in his Word to us, works to bring about our salvation and continues to strengthen and build us up in our faith.
The first thing I want to do is present a bit of review. In August of last year, I was given the opportunity to preach on the subject of the Lord’s Supper, with a focus on how the Supper is a means of grace. We began by asking the question, What is grace? Grace can be simply defined as unmerited favor. It’s something good that is given to us that we don’t deserve. We haven’t earned grace; in fact, it’s impossible to earn or deserve grace, by its very definition. When we speak of God’s grace, then, we are talking about the gifts that God gives to us out of his love for us.
Eph 2:8-9 – For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
Some people teach that grace is like a substance of its own that can be given out or dispensed. For example, if I have a jar of honey, and I give one spoonful to you, and two spoonfuls to you, and another one to you. They think of grace like this, but that is not how Scripture speaks of grace. Grace is a category which includes other things, the actual benefits or gifts which are given graciously. Specifically here, we are talking about the benefits of redemption that Christ earned for us by living a perfectly righteous life and dying a cursed death in our place. It is in Christ that we find grace!
Eph 2:4-9 – But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.
So if Christ has earned these benefits, how do we get them? How do they come to us? How does God make us alive and raise us up and make us sit in the heavenly places? The fundamental question we’re asking is how does God save sinners? There are many aspects to this question. We could speak of Christ’s life on earth in obedience to the law, or his death to pay the penalty for sin. But today we are going to focus primarily on how God applies these saving benefits to his people. He does this through the use of means, what theologians have called the means of grace.
The Means of Grace
The Baptist Catechism of 1693 echoes the Westminster Shorter Catechism when it lists the ordinary means of grace in the Baptist Catechism’s question and answer 93:
Q. 93. What are the outward means, whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means, whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his Ordinances, especially the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; all which means are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
A means is a tool or process used to accomplish something. I can pick up a phone and use it as a means of ordering a pizza. The restaurant then sends a delivery boy out as a means of delivering the pizza. I then use money as a means of paying him.If I want mail a letter to you, I have to use the postal service as a means. The means of grace, then, are the delivery systems God has chosen to use in order to communicate the benefits earned by his Son, to his people, by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit creates faith by means of the written and preached Word of God, the Scripture. This is the primary means by which we are united to Christ – by believing his gospel as told by Scripture.
God’s Word as a Means of Grace
The first means of grace listed by the Catechism is “especially the Word.” Scripture speaks of itself in this way in many places.
Psalm 19:7-8 — The law of Jehovah is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of Jehovah is sure, making wise the simple; The statutes of Jehovah are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of Jehovah is pure, enlightening the eyes.
Acts 20:32 — So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
Romans 1:16 — For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…
1 Peter 2:2 — …as newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby…
The Bible is God’s chosen method of revelation. It is how he communicates truth to us about himself, about us and our fallen, sinful condition, and about how he has provided a Way of salvation through his Son, Jesus Christ. Look at your Bible. This is not simply words on a page. This is not just leather and paper and ink. It’s not just a collection of stories or ethical teachings or a presentation of ancient history, although it does contain those things. This is the very Word of God! When you open this plain-looking little book and begin to read, you are reading God’s explicit message to humanity, written with you in mind. Sometimes I think of that and wonder, Why would we want to read anything else?
Preaching as a Means of Grace
But it does not stop there. God has not said, “Okay, now you have these Scriptures, so spend all your time printing and binding new copies and passing them out. Just fly over foreign countries in a plane and parachute boxes of Bibles down, and that’s it.” Of course giving out Bibles is a great thing, a necessary and important thing. God can certainly open people’s eyes by the simple reading of Scripture. I do not want to minimize that by what I am about to say.
Sometimes God works immediately. When I say God works immediately I’m not talking about God working quickly or right away without delay. I mean there is nothing mediating, nothing standing between him and his work, no tools. God worked immediately in Creation by simply saying, “Let there be light,” and so forth. We can’t ask how God created light, because there is no how; he simply created light. Now, God could, if he chose, simply zap people’s minds, enlightening them to the truth about himself and his salvation. But in his wisdom, God has chosen to reveal himself through a book, a collection of books written by men who were preserved from error in their writing of them. A book which perfectly and appropriately reveals truth to mankind. But along with supplying his Word, he has also ordained that the Word be accompanied by preaching.
The next question and answer in the Baptist Catechism goes as follows:
Q. 94. How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God makes 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.
Preaching is not a popular word today. It carries a picture of a condemning minister who rambles on, saying, “Do this; don’t do that,” etc. and is generally self-righteous and looks down on other people who don’t measure up. And there are certainly preachers out there who are like that. But true, biblical preaching is when the Scriptures are opened and expounded, that is, their meaning is explained and their principles are applied to the lives of the hearers. Preaching is not the opinions of the preacher; it is the clarification, explanation, and application of the truths found in the Bible. No more, no less. And it is through preaching that God further communicates the truths of Scripture.
Acts 26:16-18 — But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
This is an excellent example of the purpose of preaching. Through the preaching of his Word, God opens eyes, turns people from darkness to light, delivers them from the power of Satan, and communicates to believing sinners the forgiveness of sins and inheritance earned by Christ himself.
1 Corinthians 1:21-24 — For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Preaching is counter-intuitive in the eyes of the world. It does not make sense to spend great amounts of time dedicated to examining a book and then instructing groups of various sizes about its contents. Preaching is often an exhausting, thankless job. You can spend all week prayerfully preparing a sermon, carefully choosing the best words to explain a passage of Scripture to your hearers, and afterward it seems like there was no effect whatsoever. Nobody seemed interested, let alone challenged by what was said. The world looks at the preacher as an oddity, an outdated fool who employs an inconvenient way of communicating and centers his life around doing it week in and week out. But,
1 Corinthians 1:25 — …the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
The message of Christ crucified preached is the power of Almighty God to turn wicked souls to himself and save his people from every tribe, tongue, and nation on earth. Sinners who are spiritually, hopelessly dead are brought back to life. God shows a picture of this in Ezekiel 37, when he instructs Ezekiel to preach to a valley of dry bones, and then as Ezekiel preaches, the bones grow flesh and are brought to life.
When the Word of God is preached, that is, when a preacher faithfully and accurately teaches the doctrine contained in Scripture, God speaks to his people in a special, unique way. He speaks in a way that he has ordained from the beginning. The preacher, like the Old Testament prophets, is to be the mouthpiece of God. The only difference is that the New Covenant preacher today does not bring new revelation, but rather expounds and explains the already-completed Book of Scripture. The preacher is not infallible, which is why the doctrine he teaches must always be checked by the Bible. But so far as his preaching accurately reflects the meaning and application contained in God’s Word, preaching is a means by which the Holy Spirit communicates truth to the salvation and preservation of believing sinners. This places an incredible burden of responsibility on the preacher – not to make sure people are being saved by his smooth talking or clever, intelligent speech, but to always, always, always remain faithful to the Word of God in his teaching. It is by the Word that people are converted, that minds are changed and souls saved.
I have heard of one church that, thinking baptism to be an outdated and irrelevant practice, has replaced all traditional modes by filling up a bunch of water pistols and having a water fight in the church parking lot. I’ve heard of another church that replaces the elements of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper with candy bars and soft drinks. Most will agree that these practices cannot be equated with the ordinances instituted by Christ. I want to stress the point that when so-called preachers stand behind a pulpit and substitute their own ideas, hobby-horses, and personal agendas for the Word of God revealed in Scripture, it is every bit as a departure as these examples. If you find yourself somewhere where this is the preacher’s standard practice, I advise you to stop attending. It’s not a church.
Preaching as a means of grace is seen in 1 Corinthians 3:5 when Paul describes himself and Apollos as “ministers through whom you believed.”
Romans 10:14, 17 — How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? … So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
Passages like these make it clear that God intended his written Word to be accompanied by sound preaching, by exposition, proclamation, and declaration of the gospel of Christ to sinners.
1 Peter 1:23-25 — …having been born again, not of a corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because ‘All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of Jehovah endures forever.’ Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you.
The Necessity of Attentiveness to Preaching
So far, we have seen that God has chosen specific means of giving grace to his people. This grace consists of the benefits of redemption earned for us by the living and dying of Christ Jesus on our behalf. The Holy Spirit uses the Word, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer as means of grace. This is especially and foundationally true of Scripture. Without Scripture, the other means would be empty pictures with no meaning. We have seen that the spread of God’s Word is to be accompanied by preaching, which consists of faithful explanation and application of the doctrines found in Scripture, and not the personal ideas or opinions of men. I have tried to show you the basis for this doctrine in Scripture, and explained it as best I can.
Now we must ask the question, How is this applied to us? Now that we know God’s purpose for the preaching of his Word, how does this knowledge affect me? After all, not all of us are called to be preachers. What is our practical response to the knowledge that God speaks through the mouths of preachers who faithfully preach from his Word?
Continuing the questions and answers from the Baptist Catechism…
Q. 95. How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
A. That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.
Here’s how the Word of God doesn’t work. It doesn’t work by osmosis; we don’t absorb its truth by just looking at the Bible on the shelf. We don’t display it prominently in our home and rub its cover for good luck as we walk out the door. It doesn’t work by our waiting until we have a problem in our lives, then we open it up at random and put our finger on a verse hoping for instructions on what to do next. Holy Scripture is not a Ouija board or magic eight ball.
Most people realize this type of superstitious approach to the Bible is wrong. But many people unknowingly treat preaching in a similar way. Preaching is obviously ineffective if we stay home and don’t hear it, but it’s just as ineffective if we take a shower, get dressed, drive to church, say hi to our friends, pick a seat, and then proceed to let our minds wander during the preaching of the Word. We don’t rack up divine grace points just by showing up to church on Sunday, just like our minds aren’t edified by carrying a Bible around but never opening it up.
As the Catechism says, we must be diligent in our attentiveness, not only to our private reading of the Word, but also to the hearing of the Word of God preached! We prepare ourselves for it by prayer, and we willingly receive it as a gift from God. We spend time familiarizing ourselves with passages and applying them to our lives. The benefits of preaching don’t stop once we walk outside the doors of the church.
Please do not misunderstand me as condemning anyone whose mind happens to drift off the sermon. I especially do not want to come across as coming down on parents who sometimes face a great deal of distraction because they’re trying to teach their kids how to behave in church. I’m talking about the general attitude we should have toward the Bible and preaching. We are blessed here at Redeemer to have a full-time Pastor who faithfully preaches the Word of God without adding a bunch of fluff to it like we see in so many other churches today. We should not take this for granted, and we should not neglect this means of God’s grace!
Psalm 119:9-11 — How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word. With my whole heart I have sought You;Oh, let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.
1 Timothy 4:13 — …give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.
Hebrews 2:1 — Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.
James 1:21 — Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
I also want to be clear that even when we diligently pay attention to the sermon and read our Bibles every day, we are not earning grace. “If I’m a good little Christian and I go to church every Sunday and post Bible verses on the internet and have my quiet time devotions every day, then God will be happy with me and give me grace.” That is not how we should view the means of grace. Rather, by obeying these Scriptures by giving our attention throughout the week to God’s Word, we receive these gracious gifts from Christ.
The benefits of redemption have been earned by Christ in his finished work. He freely gives these benefits to his people who believe in his name. The way he gives them to us is through the means of grace. By the means of the written and preached Word, the Holy Spirit creates faith in us, and by his Word, Baptism, Communion, and Prayer, this faith is strengthened and increased. I submit to you that these things are of the utmost importance in our lives as Christians who have been bought by the blood of Christ. As we sing Amazing Grace in a minute before we leave, think about the words of the song, about how grace isn’t just some mystical substance, but is actually the real benefits of our justification, adoption, regeneration, sanctification, and so on. It is our salvation, secured and given to us through faith by Christ himself.