A soldier in Iraq emailed CIC a few weeks ago. His message exposes an alarming trend in evangelicalism: to replace the Bible with man-made programs. Here is a portion of the email:
I am currently serving in Iraq. I am in the Army National Guard. “A lot” of PDL [Purpose Driven Life] study groups have sprouted up at various camps around Iraq. The people in my unit have done the PDL study 3 times now! They started for 3 months, then again started again for 3 months, and AGAIN started the “same” study. (continuous back-to-back-to-back) At no time have I EVER seen one of them carry a bible into the study. …
I finally decided to join them on their 3rd study (I was given the book before we deployed on Dec. 1, 2003 and I have never looked at it until mid-August 2004)…I didn’t know anything about the book and I was the only one who brought their bible and used other bible passages that pertained to the chapter that day. It just seems like this “study” is sweeping quickly and people are replacing the ever-living Word of God for a man-made book. A good friend and I have been talking a lot about the principles and teachings of Rick Warren and his ‘light’ approach to the gospel. It seems no one is preaching the Word of God.
Critical Issues Commentary has received dozens of similar emails from around the world. These emails express alarm that “Bible studies” no longer study the Bible and that sermons are no longer based on sound exegesis of Biblical texts. Literally, the Word of God is too often being pushed aside in Christian circles.
This article focuses on the Biblical means God has provided for all Christians to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord. These means may not be flashy, popular, or trendy, but they will always be effectual when practiced in faith. The following are NOT God’s means of changing lives: mystical practices, self-help groups, Purpose Driven Life study groups, contemplative prayer, twelve step groups, or going to meetings where people are “slain under the power.” These and other popular programs are sad, unbiblical substitutes that eventually lead to spiritual impoverishment.
Means of Grace in Church History
Many evangelicals are not familiar with the expression “means of grace,” terminology that is common in Lutheran and Reformed theology. The reason many are not familiar with the idea of “means of grace” is that they have alternatives in their traditions like “spiritual disciplines” often billed as “secrets to a deeper spiritual life.” Unbiblical practices such as “contemplative prayer” have found their way into many churches under the ill defined banner of “spiritual disciplines.” Alternatively, since they are defined in Scripture, means of grace do not multiply as innovative spiritual practices are invented. We need to understand means of grace and see that they are God’s plan to provide for our growth in conformity to the image of Christ.
The Roman Catholic view of “means of grace” is the concept of sacraments that work “ex opera operato” (by the work done).1 The idea is to do the work according to the prescriptions of the church as administered by the priesthood, and thereby receive grace. The Lutheran and Reformed understanding of “means of grace” developed from the rejection of this idea. The reformers emphasized the Word and sacrament (in that order), and the necessity of faith. They limited the sacraments to baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Louis Berkhof explains: “With the Reformation the emphasis was shifted from the sacraments to the Word of God. Luther gave great prominence to the Word of God as the primary means of grace. He pointed out that the sacraments have no significance apart from the Word and are in fact merely the visible Word.”2 Some Reformed theologians like Charles Hodge added prayer as a means of grace.3 Hodge makes an important statement about means of grace: “All means derive their efficacy from the ordinance of God; as He has ordained the Gospel to be the means of salvation, it must be efficacious to that end.”4
John Wesley warned about people who despised means of grace because in church history so many had followed the outward signs only without a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit.5 Wesley defines means of grace: “By ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”6 Wesley held to the following as “means of grace”: “The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”7
For those who think “means of grace” are only the domain of Lutheran and Reformed theology, I suggest reading Wesley’s sermon.8 His understanding of sinners groaning under the weight of sin and alarmed by the wrath of God shows a far greater understanding of the gospel than is common today. He suggests to such ones that though God may providentially work in various ways, they should avail themselves of the means of grace: “And in the mean time, the sure and general rule for all who groan for the salvation of God is this, — whenever opportunity serves, use all the means which God has ordained; for who knows in which God will meet thee with the grace that bringeth salvation?”9 Wesley certainly did not hold to the “say this little prayer after me” version of salvation.