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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.

Through the means of grace, God’s elect receive Christ and abide in Him through faith.
why ordinary?

Some might wonder why the means of grace are often referred to as ordinary. They are ordinary in that they do not possess the outward and visible glory of the signs, miracles, and wonders of the exodus, the public ministry of Christ, or Pentecost. The means of grace are simple, unadorned, and common. At the same time, the means of grace are quite extraordinary. Why? Because God has promised to work through them for the salvation of His elect, to bring guilty sinners into union and communion with Christ through faith. Therefore, to neglect the ordinary means of grace in the ministry of the church is not only to question the wisdom of God; it’s to disregard the saving power of Christ. This doesn’t mean, of course, that church ministry outside Lord’s Day public worship is never appropriate or beneficial to God’s people. Midweek church programs and various ministry activities can be a great blessing, but they must never overshadow the ordinary means of grace.

ordained tools for destroying satan’s kingdom

Finally, the ordinary means of grace are the tools through which God will gradually destroy Satan and the kingdom of darkness. In his famous History of the Work of Redemption, Edwards states that the destruction of Satan and his kingdom “will not be accomplished at once.” Instead, he explains that “this work will be accomplished by means, by the preaching of the gospel, and the use of the ordinary means of grace, and so shall gradually be brought to pass.”

Dear believer, sinners are saved and Satan is vanquished not through the visible glory of social activism, political victories, or cultural transformation. As beneficial as these pursuits might be to improve society, the saving power of Christ is not mediated through them. In fact, it’s one of Satan’s tactics to make us believe that it is. Rather, the saving power of Christ is operative, by the Spirit, through God’s chosen instruments of salvation: preaching, prayer, water, bread, and wine. Administered by lawfully ordained ministers of the gospel, the ordinary means of grace form God’s chief strategy for making disciples. God creates and confirms faith through them, and not apart from them. In the tradition of the Reformers, Edwards believed that an ordinary-means-of-grace ministry is a gospel ministry focused on the person and work of Christ and filled with the saving power of Christ. May we believe it as well.

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From the March 2023 Issue
Mar 2023 Issue