Jonathan edwards served as a missionary-pastor to the Mohawk and Mohican Indians from 1751 to 1758. Despite the numerous challenges of ministry in the northeastern frontier, the New England pastor was not fixated on contextualization or man-centered methods of mission and discipleship. Rather, like the Apostles, Edwards was devoted to gospel proclamation through the ordinary means of grace (Acts 2:42).
saving power through appointed means
Edwards believed that the word of the cross (i.e., the gospel) is the operative power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18). Moreover, he believed that Christ’s saving power is mediated through divinely appointed means. In other words, salvation comes to us ordinarily through the means of Word, sacraments, and prayer in the context of the local church. Despite his foreign context and contrary to all human wisdom, the Colonial missionary placed his confidence in what God promises to use and not what man thinks might work. He carried out the ministry on God’s terms, not man’s devices. Through the means of grace, God’s elect receive Christ and abide in Him through faith.
The example of Jonathan Edwards punctuates the essential point that the context of ministry must never determine the means of ministry. Geography and culture must never determine theology and practice. Whether laboring in the sophisticated environs of Northampton or the wilderness surroundings of Stockbridge, Edwards modeled an unflinching commitment to the proclamation of Christ through Word and sacrament. He stood firmly in the Reformed tradition. Believing the Westminster Shorter Catechism to be “an excellent system of divinity,” Edwards believed that the
outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (WSC 88)
In other words, it is through the ordinary means of grace that the ascended Christ, by the Spirit, saves, sanctifies, and comforts His chosen ones. The means of grace are the effectual tools that Christ has promised to use to build His church (Matt. 16:18; 28:18–20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 1:18–2:5; 4:1; 2 Tim. 4:2–5). Of course, it’s not in the tools alone that Edwards placed his confidence but the saving power of Christ operative in and through them. Religious and liturgical formalism was an abomination to Edwards. It should also be to us.
god’s strategy is the means of grace
Edwards’ example of fidelity to the means of grace serves as a strong reminder to pastors and churches alike not to exchange God’s means of grace for the world’s strategies of growth. Too often in churches today, even among the Reformed, faithful preaching gets eclipsed by man-centered, sociology-driven, moralistic homilies. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper often receive little attention compared to praise teams and church programs. Prayer gets pushed to the margins of worship and congregational life. The vanishing of Lord’s Day evening worship further accentuates the need to recover God’s strategy for Christ-centered discipleship in our churches. Pastors are called first and foremost to be “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). Those mysteries of God are the Christ-instituted means of grace through which He gives us Himself.