Among the most prominent distinctions within Protestantism is the primacy of preaching. As such, it should come as no surprise that our history is replete with men who excelled in this discipline. One might think of such notable giants as James Montgomery Boice, John Stott, or D. Martyn Lloyd Jones. Of course no list of legendary pulpiteers would be complete without mentioning the Prince of Preachers himself, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, as well as two of the Great Awakening luminaries: Jonathon Edwards and the highly revered George Whitefield (a.k.a. George Whitfield).
However, despite his immense popularity amongst those in Reformed circles due to his Calvinistic soteriology, and at the risk of upsetting the new young Calvinists, it must be conceded that Whitfield’s ecclesiology left much to be desired. As an itinerant preacher who employed methodologies akin to revivalism, he placed an inappropriate amount of credence in his events and their supposed results. For Whitfield, the emotionalism that most often accompanied such events was perceived to trump that of the otherwise normative methodologies of the church; namely the means of grace.
While I am not opposed to the possibility of genuine, God-ordained revival, I am opposed to revivalism (by revivalism I am referring to that which is driven by man-centered efforts to conjure emotion, which would then be interpreted as evidence of genuine conversion). However, assuming agreement amongst my readership, the primary focus of this article will not be to present biblical support for the means of grace in opposition to revivalism or its methodologies, but rather to simply delve into the means of grace themselves; considering both their purpose and application.
Before delving in, however, an initial caveat must first be addressed. While the term Spiritual Disciplines has come to be applied in reference to the means of grace, it is a fairly new term and one that can cause some confusion. A spiritual life, that is a life lived in response to the monergistic work of regeneration whereby we are made alive in Christ and are thus empowered to live according to God’s word, is a disciplined life indeed. However, it is not a discipline that merits salvation, but instead a discipline that evidences genuine reception of the gift of salvation. In light of the potential confusion that such distinctions can cause, this article will instead use the historical Protestant designation: the means of grace, since it more clearly conveys the all-important point that these are in fact God’s appointed means by which to access his grace, specifically his sanctifying grace.
The idea of God’s means acting as the access point to his grace can be further illustrated by using the experiential language of David Mathis found in his book, Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. Availing ourselves of these appointed means is, “not about twisting God’s arm or controlling his blessings, but about readying ourselves for consistent saturation in the roll of his tides” (Mathis, 21). In other words, the discipline of employing the means of grace revolves around the effort to avail ourselves of God’s free gift of grace, that is to expose ourselves to it for our sanctifying benefit. It is not a discipline that can be employed by a non-believer in an effort to become a believer, but rather a discipline employed solely by believers in order to endeavor to work out their salvation and to make their calling and election sure (Phil.2:12-13/2 Peter 1:10). Again, this is a labor that only those who are already believers can genuinely embark upon. With this all-important caveat addressed, we can now consider both the purpose and application of the means of grace.
The Purpose of The Means of Grace
While the above prose labors to clarify that under no circumstances can the exercise of the means of grace be translated into any form of merit or favor before God, it must also be stated that their application will only produce fruit in direct correlation to the effort exerted. In other words, the term means must never be perceived to infringe on the free nature of grace in any way. Rather, we must rest in the tension that exists between the free nature of grace and our responsibility to expend effort in the exercise of the means of grace. Consider texts like 1 Tim 4:7. Here Paul calls Timothy to train (or “exercise” in the KJV) himself for godliness. Another example, one that is even more compelling, comes from 1 Corinthians 15, a chapter famous for its discourse on the centrality of Christ’s resurrection. Immediately preceding that discourse Paul writes:
9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me [emphasis mine].
Notice that Paul asserts both his superior work ethic and God’s grace. It is not an either/or for Paul and it must not be for us. If we are to work out our salvation––and we are only able to do so because it is God who works in us (Phil 2:12-13), then…
The way to receive the gift of God’s empowering our actions is to do the actions. If he gives the gift of effort, we receive that gift by expending the effort (Mathis, 28).
Despite the fact that there is indeed a component of effort on our part, it is necessary to clarifying two points. First, although effort is required, it is not what determines our eternal status before God, and second, we do well to consider the rather infinitesimal nature of our effort in the big picture of God’s grace at work.
While the first aspect of the above tension is self-explanatory, the second calls for further clarification. Our infinitesimal effort refers to the brief span of time that is our lives. God’s grace has acted in eternity past to call a people out of a people that did not yet exist. It acted in the course of space and time in creation and providence, which culminated in the incarnation, perfect sinless life, and atoning death of Christ on our behalf, and it acts in the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the application of Christ’s atoning work upon the lives of his people throughout history.
As James tells us, our life is but a vapor, and for most of us, our awareness of God’s grace in our lives occupies but a portion of that vapor. As such, the role of our effort is in fact infinitesimal; being but a percentage of our vaporous, momentary lives and having utterly no impact either before said vapor is given existence or after it fades away.
Yet having labored to point out that our lives are, indeed, very short in the big picture; experientially they often feel very long. We can mentally ascend to considerations about eternity, but we have no experiential knowledge of it. We trust the Bible when it tells us that our lives are but a vapor, but it feels like––to cite a few contemporary idioms––that time often stands still, or that it drags on forever. And if life becomes a grind, then the practice of the means of grace can easily slip into drudgery.
With this in mind, the purpose of the means of grace becomes an essential component for us, if we are to avoid such drudgery, and instead grow in Christlikeness by accessing his grace. Therefore we must see that the purpose of the means of grace is not the mere exertion of some effort to modify our behavior or even to employ some form of selfless devotion to God. Such efforts boil down to works. Instead, they are but a means, and not an end in themselves. By way of example, the end goal of memorizing scripture is not the mastery of the bible, but rather the deepening of our relationship with our Triune God.
Donald S. Whitney wrote a classic work on the Spiritual Disciplines entitled: Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In his introduction he explores the question of purpose as concerns these disciplines or means of grace. In his efforts to flesh this out, he tells a story. In brief, the story is about a young boy who was forced to practice his guitar instead of playing baseball with his friends over the summer. Whitney gives his readers some details to help paint the picture of the boy’s drudgery. We are told that he begrudgingly practiced his scales as he looked out the window at his friends playing ball in the field. Suddenly, and admittedly employing a great deal of theological license, an angel appears. The angel whisks the young boy off into the future and seats him at Carnegie Hall for a concert given by a guitar virtuoso. Not surprisingly, the young boy is quickly enthralled. He is captivated by how easily the notes leap off the fret board with crispness, clarity, and emotion. He is, simultaneously, acutely aware of the rather sharp contrast between his playing and that of this virtuoso. At this point the angel asks him if he recognizes the skilled musician. The boy says no, to which the angel responds by informing him that the guitarist is, in fact, none other than the young boy himself in the future. Ushering the boy back to his present situation, seated in front of the window watching his friends play ball, Whitney asks his readers if now the boy’s efforts are but pure drudgery, or a means to an end. In other words, does the boy practice with no sense of purpose, or does he instead possess a clear picture of the end goal in his mind? Clearly it is the latter. He no longer practices scales merely to master them, but instead to make music. So it is with the means of grace. We do not employ them merely to master them, but instead to vivify our relationship with Christ––to fan into flames the embers of our faith. We do not engage the means of grace merely to learn about Jesus, but rather to glorify and enjoy him forever, which is our very purpose (W.S.C. 1).
The Application of The Means of Grace
There are no shortage of books on the subject of the means of grace, though a great deal of them use the above-mentioned term––The Spiritual Disciplines. Many of them present rather lengthy lists of the various “disciplines” that we can practice. Others offer unique headings under which they are listed. Dallas Willard, for example, categorizes them under either Disciplines of Abstinence or Disciplines of Engagement. Still others offer numerous additional categories for consideration. However, many of these sources list practices that they determine to be rightly classified as disciplines, yet may well not be distinguished as such in scripture.
While I highly recommend Whitney’s classic book mentioned above, one unique aspect of Mathis’ shorter, easier read, is its streamlined categorization of the means of grace, borrowed from John Frame’s work, Systematic Theology. Mathis offers no multitude of categorizations, no endless lists of disciplines for his reader’s consideration. Instead he offers a simple delineation of three headings:
1. Word (Hearing God’s Voice)
2. Prayer (Having God’s Ear)
3. Fellowship (Belonging to God’s Body)
In what remains of this article, I will offer a concise look at each of these categories.
WORD: Hearing God’s Voice
Although this is the first of only three categories under Mathis’ rubric, all evangelicals recognize the centrality of scripture as a means of grace. Whitney refers to it as Bible intake, which serves to clarify that when we come to the bible there are various means of taking it in. In fact, most writers of this subject address five different sub-categories to consider here. They are:
We begin with hearing God’s Word because in many ways it is the easiest of the disciplines. However, it is nonetheless a discipline, and one that has a purpose to it. We must keep in mind that we are not promoting drudgery here, but discipline with a purpose (remember Whitney’s young guitar virtuoso). So what is the purpose of hearing God’s word as a means of bible intake? Luke gives us some insight here. In chapter eleven of his gospel we read these words…
As he [Jesus] said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Thus, the goal of hearing God’s Word is simply to keep it. We must do more than merely listen. James clarifies this when he writes, …be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
Another important text to consider as regards hearing God’s Word is Romans 10: 17. It tells us that faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Of course this verse is not saying that hearing the Word is the only way that faith comes. We might rightly inquire about the hearing impaired or the mentally incapacitated person, not to mention those countless converts who came to faith through reading the bible. However, hearing God’s Word is indeed biblically mandated.
So while hearing is not the only means of bible intake, it is a very important one for those who are able to do so. And of course the most common and biblically appropriate way to accomplish this is to regularly attend a church that preaches the gospel.
Moreover, we are blessed to live in a time in which technology can significantly aid us in this effort. It was not all that long ago when we were blessed to be able to listen to sermons on tape, but today we can listen to them online. We can also access any number of lectures, podcasts, and other teaching tools at the click of a mouse, and the church has taken advantage of these resources; making them readily available. Today we have a plethora of teaching tools to enrich our audible exposure to the Word of God. As such, we are without excuse in the call to avail ourselves of these resources; thus producing more than mere hearers, but also doers––keepers of God’s Word.
Every Christian has heard ad nauseam, that as a Christian, you have to read the bible. Most Christians believe very deeply that the bible is the Word of God. Most believe that it is the most important book ever written, yet most can simultaneously hold these convictions and nevertheless neglect this all-important form of intake; namely reading.
There has been lots of research on this subject and the results are alarming. A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals demonstrated a minimal superiority in their knowledge of the New Testament over that of professing atheists. According to George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli, pollsters and researchers on religion in the United States, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it.’’ The Barna Research Group also made an unsettling discovery in 2012. Their research confirmed that evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees over the teachings of Jesus. Of course this was not a direct admission, but rather the culmination of the assumed biblical presuppositions of confessing evangelicals who do not read the bible.
Irony notwithstanding, in order to explore the unacceptability of this behavior, some Bible reading is required. The scripture itself testifies to its need to be read. Therefore, let us consider what Jesus expected of professing believers:
· Matthew 19: 1-4
· Matt. 21: 12-17
· Matt. 22: 23-33
· Mark 12: 1-11
· Luke 6: 1-5
What you will notice, if you looked at these verses, is the theme of Jesus’ surprise at those who had not read. Whitney rightly asks, how can man live on every word of God, if they’ve not at least read every word?
Not surprisingly, the purpose of all those statistics and bible verses was not only to demonstrate how biblically illiterate contemporary Christians are, but also to issue a call to read, and to do so with regularity.The British preacher John Blanchard in his book, Enjoying Your Bible explores the question of frequency in bible reading. He writes…
Surely we only have to be realistic and honest with ourselves to know how regularly we need to turn to the Bible. How often do we face problems, temptations, and pressure? Every day! Then how often do we need instruction, guidance and greater encouragement? Every day! To catch all these felt needs up into an even greater issue, how often do we need to see God’s face, hear his voice, feel his touch, and know his power? The answer to all these questions is the same: Every day (Whitney, 28)!
The American evangelist D. L. Moody once wrote…
A man can no more take in a supply of grace for the future that he can eat enough for the next six months, or take sufficient air into his lungs at one time to sustain life for a week. We must draw upon God’s boundless store of grace from day to day as we need it (Whitney, 28).
So how often should we be reading the bible? Every day! Here is where heeding the counsel of many is not only wise, but also very practical. There are three basic principles to follow.
First, find the time! Not just some time, but a specific time, and preferably the same time every day. It can be intimidating to undertake the reading of a book as large as the bible. My main bible is just over 1,000 pages long. That’s intimidating, so a specific and repeatable time is your best chance of making headway.
As a side note, I also believe that having a specific bible to read is helpful. I have lots of bibles, but only one bible that I read from devotionally. So have a specific bible and choose a specific time. It has also wisely been suggested that your time should not be right before bed, since it is not likely a time when you will be best able to remember what you read.
The second principle is to have a plan––that is a reading plan. Providentially, bible-reading plans abound, and without one it is a good bet that you’ll fail to read through the bible. So having a reading plan is critically important to bible reading success and there is no excuse for not having one since they are plentiful.
The third and final principle is to meditate on some small portion of your reading. Meditation on scripture will be discussed in more detail later on, but for now let me just say that if you become intentional about highlighting one verse or phrase of what you have just read, you will be far more likely to take something fruitful away from your reading. No matter how diligent you are in reading, if there is no meditation, you will likely forget what you just read. So single something out and meditate on it. Contemplate it. Allow it to marinade in your mind. If you do, your insight into scripture will deepen significantly. You will find yourself far better able to make real life applications of God’s Word, and as a result you will become measurably more like Jesus.
Studying the bible compared to reading the bible has been well illustrated with the following picture. Reading the bible is like cruising across a lake on a motorboat. It allows one to survey the landscape and get the big picture. But studying the bible is like taking the same trip in a glass bottom boat. Here one not only gets a lay of the land, but they also get to peer underneath the surface. Imagine it this way: if you stood on the shore of that lake you may be inclined to look over the lake and appreciate the beauty of it all, but you would also know that there is a whole world, and entire ecosystem, underneath the surface of that lake, with many wonders that your current vantage point cannot see. So study affords us a means of more deeply engaging God’s Word.
Let us consider some scriptural examples of both a heart to study and a reverence for God’s Word. Among my favorite passages here is Ezra 7:10, where Ezra sets his heart to do three distinct things pertinent to our current subject.
First he sets his heart to study the Law of the LORD. Second, he sets his heart to do it, and third, he sets his heart to teach it. Ezra demonstrates a rather holistic approach to both bible intake and bible application. He not only desires to study it, but also to live it, and then, and only then, to teach it.
A second example comes from Acts 17:11-12. Here we are introduced to the Bereans, who exercised diligence in searching the scriptures. They were not content to merely hear it, but to read it for themselves and to study it.
A third examples is found in 2 Tim. 4:13. When Paul is able to make requests from prison he asks for three things: his cloak, his books, and his parchment. Many have hypothesized that Paul wanted a cloak to warm his body and his readings to warm his heart. And while there is some division as to the certainty of what the parchments were, most hold that they were some portions of we now refer to as the Old Testament.
Our fourth example comes from 2 Tim. 3:16. It seems reasonable to conclude that in order for scripture to become profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, it must be more than merely read, it must be studied, memorized, meditated upon, and applied.
I would add one final example of scriptural encouragement here concerning the degree of reverence that we should place on God’s Word. It comes from 2 Peter 1: 16-21. Upon reading this text, we soon see that Peter elevates God’s Word above his own experience; and Peter’s experience––here referring to what has come to be known as the Transfiguration––trumps all of our experiences.
At this point we have endorsed and briefly explored the practices of hearing, reading, and studying, but if you are one who employs these practices you know from experience that they alone do not produce genuine application and deeper conformity to Christ. For that we need to enact the remaining two disciplines of memorization and meditation.
While it is true that all of the means of grace are woven together, these last two illustrate this most significantly. In addition, they provide the catalyst to our next major category: prayer.
Hearing and reading the bible can be compared to planting the seeds of God’s Word in our hearts and minds, while study waters those seeds; enabling them to take root, thus cultivating growth. But there are more things that we can do in addition to study to foster such growth. One of those things is memorization.
For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to the notion of memorization conjures nothing less than pure drudgery, if not dread. Memorization takes work. In this sense it is a discipline, and for many of us, we are quick to assume a poor memory. The normative response to this excuse is something akin to affirming our ability to remember phone numbers, but cell phones have largely eliminated that need. However, despite the advent of G.P.S. we still remember directions. After all, we do not normally plug in our route to work, or the grocery store. In addition, we all remember important names, we always remember to shower, to check our email, to get the mail, to pay our bills etc…
While R.C. Sproul attributes the virtual disappearance of the practice of memorization to pure laziness, Whitney, being a bit less abrupt, rightly observes that it is not so much about our ability, but rather our motivation. At any rate, the question to ask is whether or not the things that occupy our time are paying the dividends they promised. The things we find easier to do because we’re lazy, or the things that we are motivated to do other than bible intake tend to take precedence because they promise something. However, anything that draws us away from scripture will promise more than it can deliver. Therefore, the answer to the above question is no. Does television actually deliver the satisfaction that it promises? Does social media? The honest answer is no. Conversely, ask yourself if you can recall a time when you walked away from bible intake thinking that it was fruitless. While we must recognize that most times of reading and meditation will not always produce instantaneously tangible results, as Christians, we know that time in the Word is time well spent.
When the apostle Paul states that the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit, he is emphasizing its power as our spiritual weapon both offensively and defensively. When Whitney ties bible intake’s centrality to Jesus’ wilderness temptation, he describes Jesus as parrying Satan’s thrusts of temptation. It is not hard to image that a powerful weapon handled poorly is more dangerous than it is defensive. When Satan’s first effort to tempt Jesus failed, he upped his game by citing scripture back to Jesus. Here we see the importance of possessing an increasingly deep knowledge of scripture. Jesus understood that although Satan was quoting scripture, he was attempting to manipulate him into sinning. However, Jesus did not possess a cursory understanding of scripture, but instead a comprehensive understanding, thus enabling him to parry that deceptive thrust, with his own sword; citing Deuteronomy 6:16.
Although it is true that as fallen human beings we will never possess the understanding of scripture that Jesus did, it is also true that through our union with Christ we are able to grasp it, to treasure it in our hearts, to uphold it, to delight in it, and to meditate on it day and night as the Psalmist tells us the blessed man does in Psalm 1.
As important as memorization is, it must lead to something deeper, namely meditation. However, before endorsing meditation, a critical caveat must be asserted. Meditation has two rather diametrically opposed meanings. When the world speaks of meditation, it equates it with an attempt to empty our minds, while biblical meditation is the antithesis of this. Biblical meditation––that is meditation on the bible, is an intentional filling of the mind. We are not trying to empty our minds, but instead to fill them, specifically with the Word of God.
Here we can cite an additional benefit of memorization, namely that it stimulates meditation. So we do not want to think of these means of grace as two distinct disciplines, but rather as two sides of the same coin. Consider an immediate practical implication of this for a moment. If you have done the work of memorizing a bible verse, you can meditate on that verse anywhere. You no longer need a bible in front of you to do so. This is what the Psalmist does. He writes in Psalm one, the blessed man delights in God’s law and on it he meditates day and night. And there are many other examples. Consider Psalm 119: 97, where we read, Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day, or Joshua 1:8 where meditation is a direct command from the LORD.
This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.
I will turn again to Whitney in his great illustration of the Word of God as the sword of the Spirit. He notes that we are not always able to carry a sword (bible) with us. So when we find ourselves faced with temptation, the Spirit will turn to the weapons armory of our mind. The question is what will he find? Is your weapons armory empty? Does it have but a few rusty old swords, say a rough translation of John 3:16 or the Lord’s Prayer? Maybe there is a poorly treated sword that might be helpful when facing the temptation to stay angry, or another when facing the temptation to lie. You know the bible says something about those things, but you don’t know exactly what it says, and you certainly don’t know where to find it in scripture.
Imagine how much better it would be if the Holy Spirit stepped into a weapons armory that was full of well maintained, battle tested swords. Imagine possessing swords with specific purposes; blades honed to precision; designed to cut through specific temptations and obliterate heresies. With an armory like that, all of us would most certainly walk in real victory. So meditation is critically important, and the bible calls us to this practice often (Ps.1:2; 38:12; 63:6; 77:3-6, and numerous places in Psalm 119).
PRAYER: Having God’s Ear
Whitney defines biblical meditation as, “deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purpose of understanding, application, and prayer” (Whitney, 46).
As we now move to consider the second category of the means of grace: prayer or having God’s ear, we need to observe this extremely important link or connection that exists between meditation and prayer. We have already covered several biblical examples of the importance of meditation, as well as its benefits, so let me now offer some scriptural support for prayer.
· Col. 4:2
· 1 Thess. 5:17
· Rom. 8:15/Gal. 4:6 (not a duty, but a privilege)
· Ps. 5: 1/19:14
· Heb. 4:16
· Luke 5:16 (Jesus himself prayed)
And he expects us to pray…
· Matt. 6:5-9
· Luke 11:9
· Luke 18:1
Even a cursory look at the above verses will show the central importance of prayer. The Puritans found the link between meditation and prayer invaluable. Thomas Watson once observed, “The reason we come away so cold from reading the Word is, because we do not warm ourselves at the fire[s] of meditation” (Mathis, 58). The British writer Peter Toon, summarizing the Puritan’s convictions in this regard wrote:
To read the Bible and not to meditate was seen as an unfruitful exercise: better to read one chapter and meditate afterward than to read several chapters and not to meditate. Likewise to meditate and not to pray was like preparing to run a race and never leaving the starting line. The three duties of reading Scripture, meditation, and prayer belonged together, and though each could be done occasionally on its own, as formal duties to God they were best done together (Whitney, 89).
So to put it another way, many of us reverence prayer, but discover that when we go to pray, we fall into the routine of praying the same old things about the same old things. We all fall into this rut from time to time, and many of us experience it often. We tend to apply certain phrases, and then move quickly to our list of needs.
The solution is to employ the connection that is so important between meditation and prayer. We memorize God’s Word, meditate on God’s Word, and then use his Word as our words in prayer. We pray the words of the bible––the words of God, back to him. There is a profound truth to be found in this practice and it is that praying the bible is the best way to practice prayer as conversation between us and God. Consider this for a moment. If God’s Word is genuinely the verbum Dei, that is, the voice of God, as the Reformers called it, then when we read the bible it is genuinely God speaking to us. We take that word, meditate on it, and then pray it back to God, thus fulfilling the requirements for authentic conversation. God speaks first, then we listen and contemplate, next we confirm what he said and talk to him about applying it to our lives and the lives of others. In this manner, prayer becomes real conversation, rather than a compilation of our various phrases simply uttered to God before we start asking him for traveling mercies and healings.
How do we do this? While it is true that we can and should pray any and all scripture back to God, the best place to begin is in the Psalms. After all, the Psalms are literally Holy Spirit inspired prayers to God. So read them, meditate on them, and pray them back to God. If you do, you will be most confident that your prayers are pleasing to God, since they are in fact his Word offered back to him.
FELLOWSHIP: Belonging to God’s Body
In J. R. R Tolkien’s famous work, The Fellowship of the Rings, nine companions volunteer to ban together with a common mission: the destruction of the ring. They had a common perception of the ring, a common desire to be free from the ring, a common fear of the devastating power of the ring, and a common mission: to destroy it.
When we gather together to chit-chat over coffee and goodies in the “fellowship hall” in the back of our churches, and we call that fellowship, we assign a large misconception to the word. Mathis keenly observes that the word fellowship is “…dying the death of domestication and triviality.” Conversely, he writes, fellowship “…is an electric reality in the New Testament, an indispensable ingredient in the Christian faith, and one of God’s chief means of grace in our lives” (Mathis, 145). The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia, and it means commonality, partnership, a participation, or a fellowship. Mathis goes on…
The fellowship that the first Christians shared wasn’t anchored in a love for pizza, pop, and a nice clean evening of fun among the fellow churchified. Its essence was in their common Christ, and their common life-or-death mission together in his summons to take the faith worldwide in the face of impending persecution (Mathis, 145).
Acts 2:42 tells us that the first Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching (word), and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Scripture helps us to bring further clarity to this fellowship.
· 1Cor. 1:9––it was in Christ and in his Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14)
· Rom. 8:17/Eph. 3:6––it was grounded in familial language: they we’re all heirs.
· Acts 2:44/4:32––They had all things in common
· Eph. 2:19––they were fellow citizens of heaven
· Phil. 1:5––it is a partnership in the gospel, and a participation in grace (Phil. 1:7)
Genuine Christian fellowship, being in Christ, will never lose sight of three fundamental components that are the building blocks of the church. The first is the need for evangelism. The fellowship that is the church will never take its eyes off the superlative mission of sharing the gospel.
A hard question that every church must ask itself is this: is our love for one another a product of an inward vision or is it an outward obedience, and apologetic for the gospel in accord with Jesus’ words in John 13:35: By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. In other words, our love for one another is intended as a public declaration of our union with Christ. But fellowship is tasked with far more than merely evangelism; it is also tasked with discipleship. Let us consider two examples from the book of Hebrews.
The first is found in Heb. 10:24-25, a text normally cited to convict people that they need to come to church. However, we need to observe that the primary focus is on our need to consider others above ourselves. It is, in essence, a call to get close and personal. It is a call to be vulnerable and bold. It is a call to engage relationally with each other, to embrace our common fellowship as Christ’s disciples, in order to foster our increasing conformity to him.
The second occasion is found earlier in the book, where we read…
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3: 12-13).
Consider the command of these words. They call for the fellowship to take responsibility for the drifting individual. It is not the responsibility of an individual soul struggling against sin to find his or her way back to the flock, but it is the flock’s responsibility to look out for them, and to exhort them so that they would not be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
So far we have seen how our fellowship is called to evangelism and discipleship. But fellowship has one more rather significant component; namely worship, and by worship I mean specifically corporate worship. Our weekly endeavors to hear God’s Word, have his ear, and belong to his body; all culminate in our gathering together for corporate worship. The church or ekklesia in Greek; literally is the gathered or called ones. Paul says that we who are many are one body (1 Cor. 10:17). We were made for corporate worship. In fact, Revelation speaks of the universal church; an innumerable number of people from every tribe and tongue, gathering before the throne of the Lamb. Here on earth, this finds its greatest foretaste in the local church’s gathering each Lord’s Day.
However, this is where things start to get a bit tricky. Corporate worship is certainly, in one sense, the greatest means of grace, in that it is an avenue by which we are saturated in the roll of His tides, but in another very real sense, worship is no means at all. Worshiping our Triune God is not a means to something; it is the culmination of all things. If, as we noted in the beginning, the end goal of all the means of grace is to enjoy and glorify God, then genuine worship; worship that Jesus himself described as being offered in spirit and truth, is in fact the fruit of that purpose. It is the default response of delight and wonderment in the person and work of Jesus; the nature and power of God the Farther, the privilege of the gift of his Spirit from whom we gain access to these means, and the over all awe of our Triune God, that causes us to bend our knees and worship.
There are many things that distinguish corporate worship from both individual worship as well as family worship. Allow me to quickly list a few.
Corporate worship is public; it is not a private affair. It is a weekly event wherein a local expression of the body of Christ gathers to become one.
Corporate worship, rightly practiced, should be the place of spiritual awakening. This is true in our individual devotions, but while our propensity is to stay away from church when we feel spiritually repressed or lethargic, it is precisely those times that call for active pursuit of communion with the corporate body.
Psalm 73 provides some clarification here. The Psalmist begins by despairing over the prosperity of the wicked, but then we read verses 16-17…
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task…until I went into the sanctuary of God [emphasis mine].
Notice that corporate worship provided vigor to the Psalmist’s weariness. Corporate worship provides us with a corporate solidarity. We are united. Though the church is made up of individuals, we are joined together in a participation; a fellowship in Christ.
Corporate worship can also be a means of grace in that it places us in the pathway of growth in our sanctification in ways that are distinct from our individual devotionals. It consists in far more that distilling life application from the sermon, instead it calls for a transforming of our hearts, which is closely linked with the next point.
Corporate worship is significantly more structured than individual devotions. In the context of private worship, we dictate the terms. We determine when to start and when to finish. We determine what to read, what to sing, what to pray, and so on… But when we gather for corporate worship that freedom is taken away. In this context the order of service is dictated to us. We exercise no control over what bible verses we hear, what hymns we sing, or what words of confession we use. Here an aspect of our individuality––a highly treasured trait of modernity, is set aside.
Corporate worship has two central components: Word and sacrament. In corporate worship you sit in a passive mode when the sermon is preached; taking on a role of receiving. Then when you come to the table––the visible Word, you come as a baptized member in good standing, a member of the body of Christ. You come not as an individual, but as a piece of the mosaic that is the body of Christ. Partaking of the Lord’s Supper is definitively a public act––a corporate act. It is done as a fellowship.
It is important to observe that the sacraments are in and of themselves a means of grace, despite the fact that I have only briefly addressed them as a sub-category of fellowship. Baptism is an initiatory rite. It is a sacramental marker for our entrance into this fellowship, while communion provides our continual spiritual nourishment, calls us to self-examination, and commands us to both remember what Christ has done for us, as well as to look forward to the marriage banquet feast in heaven of which it is but a foretaste. Paul reminds us that in belonging to this fellowship we are one in Christ (1 Cor. 10: 17), and that when we come together to partake of the bread and wine we offer a non-verbal declaration of Christ’s death until he comes (1 Cor. 11: 26). Corporate worship accentuates our enjoyment of Jesus in ways that individual worship simply cannot. The primary reason for this is because we were designed to worship together.
So fellowship consists in three main expressions of the church: evangelism, discipleship and worship, and fellowship is one of three essential means of grace, the others being God’s word and prayer. All of these main means of grace are purposed to enable us to delight in Jesus Christ, to glorify him and enjoy him, not only in the context of our sanctification, but also for all eternity!
Soli Dei Gloria