Receiving Christ

by Dr. Michael Horton

(from his out of print book In the Face of God)

God not only takes it upon himself to save us from our guilt; he takes it upon himself to restore us to life and to bring us to faith. In doing so, the riches of Christ, secured at the cross, become ours.

We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us….All that Christ possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. 1

In other words, if there were no subjective work of the Spirit in our hearts, all that we have considered up to this point would remain beyond our reach. Christ’s redemptive work in history, objectively won for us, would nevertheless be of no use apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.

When we are united to Christ, we are immediately made heirs of his righteous life. His thirty-three years of complete consecration and total surrender to the divine will become our identity before God. By his circumcision, we are set aside from the domination of sin and made children of God. By his godly life and victory over temptation, we who constantly fail and falter are regarded as holy and acceptable. This is what it means to be identified with Christ’s life.

But there is a subjective aspect as well. In this union, Christ’s life is not only his active obedience imputed, but his holy life imparted. “I am the true vine, and my father is the gardener.” said Jesus (John 15:1). “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine: you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5).

Just as we are declared righteous in justification, we are steadily made righteous in sanctification. We do not look for the one in Christ and the other in something or someone else, even if that someone is the Holy Spirit. For all of our gifts are found in Christ. They are given by the Father, in the Son, through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

We are not baptized into the Spirit, but into Christ by the Spirit. We do not participate in the life of the Spirit, but in the life of Christ by the life-giving power of the Spirit. All of the Spirit’s activity has Christ as the reference point, and where the Spirit himself is given center-stage, we can be certain that it is not the Holy Spirit who is active in such settings. (John 15:26). We bear the “fruit of the Spirit” only as we are in union with the Vine.

Our justification is perfect, complete, and instantaneous. Sanctification, by contrast, is imperfect, incomplete, and progressive throughout the Christian life. No believer can ever say that he or she has achieved victory over sin, although Christ has accomplished this on the believer’s behalf. His victory is imputed perfectly and instantly, while it is experienced in the believer’s life only in perpetual conflict with our still-sinful hearts. Thus, our union with Christ in the likeness of his life means that we who once were at peace with our sins are at war with our sins. We who were once satisfied with ourselves are now locked in perpetual battle with our own wickedness and rebellion.

The objective work of Christ would profit us nothing unless it were subjectively received. The historic events of our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection which secured our salvation must be effectually applied by the Holy Spirit working in our hearts. But how is this union secured? If it is not a matter of the soul’s direct and immediate access to God’s Spirit, how can we possibly cross the infinite chasm between Creator and creature?


Sure, God has come in human flesh, but that was two thousand years ago. How does he come to me, today? That is the same as asking, with the Philippian jailer, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And what did Paul and Silas reply?

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At the hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and his family were baptized.  - Acts 16:30-33

In this response there were two “means of grace” which the apostles employed for the salvation of the jailer. The first was the word.

As we have seen in previous chapters, the Word is divided into two parts – law and gospel. Everything in the Bible that tells us how to live and issues threats for failing to conform to those commands is “law.” Everything in Scripture that promises us eternal life on no other basis than the free gift in Christ is “gospel.”

We can also express this in the biblical language of “covenant.” In the beginning, God promised Adam and his posterity eternal life on the condition of perfect obedience, of which Adam was then capable [i.e He was not yet in bondage to the corruption of nature]. Having violated that covenant of works, however, Adam lost his power of free will [i.e. left to himself, apart from the Holy Spirit, he refuses to believe]. Since then, every human descendant has been spiritually dead, guilty, and incapable of fulfilling God’s law or covenant of works (I Cor. 1:20-21).

After Adam’s disobedience, God established a covenant of grace, promising Adam and all of his posterity who would trust in his promise that a Mediator would cover their shame, just as the animal’s skin had covered Adam’s nakedness. The covenant of works promises, “Do this and you shall live,” while the covenant of grace promises, “Live and you shall do this.” In the covenant of works, God demands perfect obedience. Christ fulfilled the covenant of works as the Second Adam (Rom.5:1-21) so that sinners could be received into God’s family through a covenant of grace.

It is this covenant of grace, or “gospel,” that the apostles presented to the Philippian jailer. This gospel is “the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:12). It is God’s primary means of grace, linking the believer here and now with the historical events of Christ’s saving work.

The apostles did not provide steps. They did not explain how to appropriate God’s grace. They did not describe how to “make Jesus Savior and Lord.” This all would amount to “law” –something for them to do toward the attainment of their salvation, something for which they could claim at least partial credit. The apostles’ message is simply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” The household was even included because, as in the Old Testament administration of this covenant of grace, God still saves families and not merely individuals.

But there is a second means of grace that the apostles appealed to in the conversion of the jailer. Not only did the jailer need the Word to link him here and now to the saving events of history; he also required the sacrament of baptism: “Then immediately he and all his family were baptized” (v. 33). Throughout our discussion of union with Christ above, the repeated references to baptism cannot be lightly dismissed. Gnostics of all ages have insisted that this is not a literal baptism with water, but a spiritual baptism. After all, if the Spirit works directly, why confine his work to such base, earthly elements as water? Don’t rituals just get in the way?

The Gnostics preferred the “word” directly spoken to the heart or spirit to the “dead letter,” and they twisted Paul’s words to imply that the Bible was the “dead letter.” And as for the sacraments? Those were rituals of a carnal institution, standing in the way of the spirit’s direct communion with God.


A theology of glory rejects the weakness of preaching and the foolishness of the gospel. Recently, a number of Christian campuses have reported revival. As I have read case after case, one theme running throughout is the “testimony” that the Spirit was working directly in these meetings. Students and faculty alike appeared to applaud the fact that there was no preaching involved. “There wasn’t even a preacher,” one student exults. “The Holy Spirit was doing it, not some preacher.”

What is the assumption in such a comment? It is that the Holy Spirit working directly and immediately (i.e. without means) was superior to the Holy Spirit working through means. By circumventing the Word—and especially the preached Word—the Holy Spirit was perceived more intimately and powerfully involved.

Historic Protestantism has always emphasized the preaching of God’s Word as sacramental. That is, it is not merely the communication of information, but the effectual means of producing conversion. God alone is the cause of the New Birth, but he calls women and men to himself through the weakness of preaching.

Nowhere in Scripture do we find a pattern of evangelism or revival in which individuals respond to the gospel by simply being “zapped” by the Spirit. They are always responding to the preached Word. It may be one-on-one, or in an assembly, but it is the Word proclaimed that gives life to those spiritually dead. Furthermore, even after they are converted, believers do not grow in their walk, deepen in their Christian experience, or learn new truths by the direct activity of the Spirit apart from God’s ordained means.

Apart from the Word, there is no salvation and no activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people. Where the Word is rightly preached, the Spirit is active in power. Where the Word is not rightly preached, the Spirit is not active in power. It is impossible to have a place in which the Word is preached clearly (as the proclamation of Christ), where the Spirit is absent in his power and saving strength. It is equally impossible for the Spirit to be actively present if the preaching of Christ is not the central focus.

The Reformers faced “the enthusiasts,” who were heirs to many of the tendencies of the ancient Gnostics. They believed that they knew a better way, a higher path, a secret tunnel of the Spirit that was a short-cut. Luther, for instance, in a sermon on Luke 2:22, warned of “those noxious spirits who say: a man acquires the Holy Spirit by sitting in a corner, etc. A hundred thousand devils you will acquire and you will not come to God. God has always worked with something physical.”

True Christianity is not gained by sitting in a corner, watching and waiting to be filled with heavenly revelation. Rather, as we sit with other sinners in a church, hearing and believing the Word of God, God comes to his people in intimate communion, self-disclosure, and redemption. John Calvin declared, in his commentary on I Thessalonians 5:20,

It is an illusory belief of the enthusiasts that those who keep reading Scripture or hearing the Word are children, as if no one were spiritual unless he scorned doctrine. In their pride, therefore, they despise the ministry of men and even Scripture itself, in order to attain the Spirit. They then proudly try to peddle all the delusions that Satan suggests to them as secret revelations of the Spirit.

Our own day is filled with examples of contemporary enthusiasm, or what we would today call mysticism. Defending the Keswick “Higher Life” vision of spirituality, a popular minister and writer asserts, “Sermons are not God’s primary method for reaching people. People are his method for reaching people.” However, it is not any kind of person the writer has in mind, but “people who have discovered the wonderful Spirit-filled life.”2

Although the author defends the importance of the Bible toward the end of the book, he urges, “God’s method for reaching this generation, and in every generation is not preachers and sermons. It is Christians whose lifestyles are empowered and directed by the Holy Spirit.”3


Scripture declares that “faith comes by hearing the message” (Rom.10:17), since “it (the gospel) is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom.1:12). But those in our day who emphasize the “higher life” in the Spirit often look for more immanent, direct encounters. This is not a question of the inerrancy or importance of Scripture. At the end of the day, one can hold a high view of Scripture in principle, and still replace its sacramental power with other means of grace.

The underlying premise of such remarks is the notion that relationships are more are more important than preaching the apostolic truth. But to whom are we introducing people, to Christ or to ourselves? Is the “Good News” no longer Christ’s doing and dying, but our own “Spirit-filled” life? More sobering still, this implies that instead of the Word as a means of grace, “victorious Christians” are themselves mediating divine grace through the example of their own holiness. That makes us sacramental, rather than the Word. This is not Good News, but this is what we get whenever we stray from the preached Word as God’s means of grace.

Must we come to Christ and be united to him through the earthly elements of ink and paper? It is not as if the Bible were made of magical material. It is not its ink, paper, binding, and gilded edges that distinguish it from any other literary classic. It is the message that is miraculous. By the working of the Holy Spirit, the law actually brings people to psychological, spiritual, and sometimes even emotional exhaustion. It instills fear of God’s righteousness, holiness, and wrath, and it strips us of all confidence in ourselves and in our own performance. The law slays us so that we can be made alive in Christ.

Having left us stripped of our own fig leaves; the law is followed by the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation,” that Word of the cross that banishes our fear of death and wrath. When the Word is preached, the Holy Spirit effects the New Birth through it. Furthermore, when the minister is faithfully proclaiming the text, drawing on his careful study of the original languages, possible alternative interpretations, and other tools of pastoral scholarship, he is addressing Christ’s people in the voice of God himself. The preached Word is the very address of our Judge, Redeemer, King and Friend.

Far from denigrating the preached Word over the Spirit’s direct “whisper” to the heart, the biblical accounts of conversions link the Spirit to the Word in every case. For instance, in the gospel accounts, people respond either in outrage or faith to Jesus’ teaching. This preaching of the Word is the Spirit’s means of bringing whole crowds to Christ. In fact, this is why Luther said it is difficult to preach the gospel to ourselves.

Scripture is an announcement from God, and therefore requires a messenger outside of us. Our tendency is to twist what we read and deny its impact on our lives. But when we hear it preached by someone else who stands outside our experience and the doubts and fears of our heart, it has a far greater impact. Calvin agreed with this argument. He surmised from the Scripture that it is more important to hear the Word preached in church than to read it by oneself, although both are essential. After all, it was not for nothing that Paul said, “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.”

In Acts 2, it is in response to Peter’s sermon that “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (v. 41). In fact, the whole purpose of Pentecost was for the Spirit to empower his disciples to be Christ’s witnesses. It is that same Word that brings individuals to Christ one-on-one. Lydia, a businesswoman from Thyatira, was converted in the same manner as Peter’s crowds: “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home” (Acts 16:14-16).

Isaiah’s vision changed his life forever when he realized that he was a sinner amidst a nation of lost sinners. After he was forgiven, he cried out, “Lord, here am I, send me!” Later he would write, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (Isa. 52:7).

Paul picks up on this language in Romans 10, making the preached Word essential for the Spirit’s work of regeneration: “How, then, can they call on the one in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”(Rom. 10:14-15).


God has determined to bring that Good News through specific means, and to involve us in this drama. God the Creator of matter is not the enemy of God the Redeemer of spirit. They are one and the same God, who uses the material things in his creation—human language, water, bread and wine, ink and paper—to effect miraculous spiritual transformation. He encounters us in words, and it is by the telling and retelling of these stories of divine redemption that people are reconciled to God and to each other.

The saving efficacy of this preached Word is illustrated in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones. The Holy Spirit brought the prophet to a valley filled with skeletons. God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”

I said, ‘O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these dry bones and say to them, “Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones. I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”’       -Ezekiel 37:4-6

Ezekiel did as God had told him, prophesying (i.e. preaching) to the valley of skeletons. Imagine how silly he must have felt, standing on the edge of a cliff, preaching down to a cemetery. Even if it was merely a vision, what a foolish vision! Yet, Ezekiel did as he was commanded. “And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.” Another sermon was required:

Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.”’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army. Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.” -Ezekiel 37:9-14

This is precisely what we are called to do. While ministers are appointed by God to prophesy to the dry bones in an official capacity, the priesthood of all believers requires us to prophesy, or preach, to each other. After all, we cannot preach to ourselves. Even the strongest believers find themselves looking away from the cross to themselves, leaving their first love, forgetting the depth of their depravity and the riches of God’s grace in Christ.

This is why we need someone outside of us, external to our hearts, to our experience, to our inner lives, calling us to look outside of ourselves to Christ. Even as Christians, we are tempted to begin trusting in ourselves again, thinking that we can save ourselves with God’s help. Either that, or we sink beneath the despair of ever finding peace with God because of our ongoing sinfulness. Through a preacher, we find God himself declaring his faithfulness to the covenant of grace.

Education—though it is despised by Gnostics who feel that they have access to direct revelations—is indispensable. We believe that the Holy Spirit will link us to Christ through the preached Word, so we come with expectations of divine activity. Israel had the Word of God, but it was the Holy Spirit who, through Ezekiel’s preaching, made that Word the active, energetic power behind the spiritual resurrection.

Too often, the preaching in many churches that emphasizes the Word but ignores the Holy Spirit as the divine agent is dry and dull. More like a lecture or a glorified Sunday school class, it lacks the power and authority that comes when truth is not merely explained but proclaimed. It is no wonder that many associated with the lecture-style rather than proclamatory approach become so parched that they begin to look for water in the mirages of popular spiritual fads.

And yet, as Jeremiah points out, there are also opposite dangers when separating the Word and Spirit. The “lying prophets” claim to receive special revelation.

Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. …But which of them has stood in the council of the LORD to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word? …I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied.  -Jeremiah13:16-21


Like prophet, like people: “This is what each of you keeps on saying to his friend or relative: ‘What is the LORD’s answer?’ or ‘What has the LORD spoken?’ But you must not mention ‘the oracle of the LORD’ again, because every man’s own word becomes his oracle and so you distort the words of the living God, the LORD almighty, our God” (vv.35-36). The prophet warns of divine judgment for those, whether prophet or people, who claim to hear from the Lord outside of his revealed Word.

This warning was given during a period of active revelation to prophets, when Scripture was still being written. How much more does it apply to us today, after God has spoken fully and finally in his Son (Heb.1:1)? If we are to see genuine awakening in our day, we must refuse to separate what God has joined together. The Word without the Spirit would be ineffective, and the Spirit without the Word is not the Spirit at all—but the lying delusions of our own imagination and fallible minds.

It’s time we recovered our confidence in the Word and Spirit once again. We must refuse to accept any version of spirituality that seeks the Word without the life-giving Spirit or the Spirit without the actual proclamation, teaching and doctrinal clarity of the actual text of Holy Scripture. Apart from sound doctrine and lively preaching of biblical truth, the Holy Spirit is silent; when that Word is faithfully proclaimed, the Holy Spirit is at work. Then there comes a rattling sound, as the bones come together one by one, forming an army of the Lord in the valley of death.


It is one thing for an evangelical to believe that the Word is a means of grace. It is quite another to add that the sacraments are a further means of grace. Even the word “sacrament” sounds “Catholic” to many evangelical ears. In fact, it is a biblical concept and enjoys a remarkably high place, next to the Word itself, in Protestant confessions and catechisms. Observe the following classical evangelical definitions. From the Lutheran tradition we discover the following:

Our churches teach that the sacraments were instituted not merely to be marks of profession among men but especially to be signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us, intended to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. - The Augsburg Confession, Article XIII (1530)

The Reformed churches concur with this view of the sacraments. The Scots Confession of 1560 declares,

And so we utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted, and also that in the supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls. By this supper the Holy Spirit makes us feed upon the body and blood of Christ once broken and shed for us but now in heaven, and appearing for us in the presence of his Father. Notwithstanding the distance between his glorified body in heaven and mortal men on earth, yet we must assuredly believe that the bread which we break is a communion of Christ’s body and the cup which we bless is the communion of his blood.- Chapter 21

The Heidelberg Catechism agrees with these definitions, and the Westminster Confession adds that

“Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace.”    -Chapter 27

In every sacrament, two things are involved: the sign and the thing signified. The sign in baptism, for instance, is water; in the Lord’s Supper, bread and wine. The thing signified in baptism is regeneration; in the Lord’s Supper it is the body and blood of Christ. As the Westminster Confession puts it, “There is in every sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified, whence it comes to pass that the nature and effects of the one are attributed to the other.” (ibid).

In other words, the union between water and regeneration is so close in baptism that Scripture will often speak of both interchangeably, as if the water cleansed in baptism or as if the bread and wine in communion were truly the body and blood of Christ. Thus, Paul speaks of baptism as “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5-8), and says that communion with bread and wine is actually a participation in the body and blood of Christ (I Cor. 10:16-17).

When we are bound by this union of the Spirit with his means of grace (word and sacrament), we are truly engaged in a “signs and wonders” ministry. The signs are the written and preached Word, the water, the bread and the wine. The wonders are the supernatural activities of the Spirit that are attached to these signs.

The power or efficacy of sacraments does not lie in their own nature. The efficacy lies in the Holy Spirit who marries them to the spiritual treasures they signify. The same water that is used in baptism could also be used to wash one’s hands and there would be no difference in the substance of the water itself. Similarly, there is no change in bread and wine—bread remains bread and wine remains wine. But when the Word and Spirit join these common elements, God promises to be supernaturally present in order to bestow his gifts. Sacraments, therefore, are not chiefly pledges of the believer’s loyalty, but of God’s. This is why Calvin wrote, “In a sacrament, we bring nothing of ourselves, but only receive.” They do not testify to the earnestness of the convert, but to the earnestness of God in saving and keeping his people by his grace.

This was a difficult concept for me, since I was raised in circles where we believed that the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (indeed the sermon itself) was to stir us into response. In other words, it was the emotion or piety these actions elicited, not the heavenly gifts that God was giving to me through these means, that defined the moment.

Baptism meant, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” The Lord’s Supper meant, “I remember how much Jesus went through and how much I should therefore do for him.” Both the preaching and these ceremonies focused on my intense subjective experience and resolve to do better, rather than on God and his objective grace in Christ. These activities were little more than object lessons for my personal piety.

Although there certainly are emotional effects of receiving the assurance of forgiveness and adoption, the biblical texts make God’s grace, not my response, the big news. As the Heidelberg Catechism expressed it, the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts by the preached Word, and confirms it through the sacraments.

It was for this reason that the Protestant Reformers followed such great church fathers as St. Augustine in calling the sacraments “God’s visible Word.” The sacraments serve the same purpose as the Word itself, not only offering or exhibiting God’s promise, but actually conferring his saving grace by linking us, through faith, to Christ and his benefits.

Someone will doubtless ask, “But if we’re justified once and for all, why do we need to continue receiving forgiveness and grace through the sacraments?” It is interesting that we do not ask this question in relation to the Word. We know that we need to hear the gospel preached more than once in our lives, that we need to continually hear God’s assurance of forgiveness and pardon extended to us in our weakness and doubt. The sacraments serve precisely the same purpose.

When we receive Holy Communion, we are experiencing the joy of our intimate union with Christ just as surely as his disciples enjoyed Christ’s presence in the upper room. Here, in Word and sacrament, our ascended Lord is not far from us, but is himself offering us personal fellowship and all of the gifts he won for us by his ministry. We are so removed from the shores of ancient Galilee, so distant from that first Supper. Yet we are instantly joined with the disciples in the upper room, and all of the saints of all ages, as together we are united to Christ, sharing in his all-sufficient sacrifice.

Holy Communion is not private, but corporate; not merely spiritual, but physical as well; not just representational, but real. When eternity met time, God visited sinful flesh in the physical person and work of Christ. Now, whenever we eat the bread and drink the cup, we meet this incarnate Word and receive the benefits of his passion and resurrection.

We do not meet him by “walking with him and talking with him” in a garden of private devotion that we have imagined or conjured in our own hearts. We encounter Jesus by receiving him in Word and sacrament. In doing so, we are truly taken to heaven by the Holy Spirit, where he places us gently into Christ’s arms.


Of course, if there is a danger in saying that nothing is sacramental, there is an equal danger in saying that everything is sacramental. We often hear this, even in some evangelical circles which have been influenced by highly aesthetic forms of expression: “All of life is sacred,” or “All of life is sacramental.”

The Roman Church undermined the importance of God’s ordained sacraments by adding sacraments of their own. The Anabaptist enthusiasts undermined them by reducing the efficacy of the two sacraments Christ instituted. We see both extremes in our own day as well. In fact, many who would not be inclined to see baptism and the Lord’s Supper as actual “means of grace” would have no difficulty applying that designation to any number of other things that are never described as such in Scripture.

I recall hearing an evangelist associated with a group that does not practice the biblical sacraments referring to a short-term mission as “a means of grace.” Many of us raised in evangelicalism remember the altar call and rededication, or summer-camp resolutions in this manner. A particularly sinful week could be atoned for by rededicating ourselves in a public meeting to “start over” with Christ. This amounts to nothing less than a Protestant version of penance.

If we do not accept or sufficiently appreciate God’s chosen way of coming near to us, we set up scores of other “means of grace.” On this point, Karl Barth echoed the Reformation’s emphasis on the preached Word as God’s means of grace. “Does not God speak through nature too, through history, through Handel’s ‘Largo’, and all kinds of good art? And can we say that God does not speak directly to people today?” Barth replies, “No, we cannot, is the obvious answer.”4

While he was criticizing the temptation of German liberals to raise high culture to a sacramental level, we might just as easily charge evangelicals today with raising popular culture to a means of grace. An evangelical missions professor and popular author writes that organ music poses “a theological problem. God has chosen to come close. It is we who choose to push him away—with music, with pulpits, with stilted translations of Scripture, with preaching styles. Somehow, worship with guitars seems to bring him close again.”5

Imagine replacing “guitars” with “Word and sacraments,” in that sentence: “Somehow, worship with Word and sacraments seems to bring him close again.” Many evangelicals would consider this a practically Roman Catholic view, but they have no difficulty embracing other activities that have no command in Scripture as “means of grace.”


It is interesting the extent to which many contemporary churches regard music as a means of grace, and not only one sacramental ordinance, but the chief one. In fact, one leader of the church growth movement states, “Music is how to convert a collection of people into a community. It is the most powerful thing we do. That is one of the reasons the new wave of contemporary Christian music and new forms of worship have tended to be highly conspicuous.” This writer, in fact, hails the contemporary style that is “spontaneous” and “visual,” “freeing the preacher from the pulpit,” and “replacing the word ‘worship’ with the word ‘celebration’”6

Where in Acts 2 do we read that “music is how to convert a collection of people into a community”? We see Word and sacrament, but where is the sacramental efficacy of music? Yet the contemporary worship style, in which music plays an important part, is now viewed by many as the only means of grace. It is seen as the only way of reaching the lost and creating community. In other words, we create this community by our style, rather than by seeing God create it by his grace, working through his ordained means.

The very suggestion that matters of musical style or church furniture and architecture do not matter is Gnostic, ignoring the physical embodiment of the message. But Karl Barth was one theologian who recognized this danger in liberalism as we see it now in evangelicalism:

It has now become a most unusual consideration, common only in the language of edification, to say that people go to church to hear God’s Word—no, they go to hear Pastor So-and-So—or to say of the pastor that his task is to proclaim God’s Word—no, it is to offer his expositions, meditations, applications, and demands! I need hardly say that the devastating lack of tension and dynamic, the lukewarm tediousness and irrelevance of Protestant worship, is closely connected with this consideration.7

Preaching, Barth said, used to be God’s Word to his Church, but now it has become the preacher’s wit and inspiration for the customers. He explains why Reformed churches have high pulpits and related expressions of God’s “above-ness” and “other-ness”:

Preaching takes place from the pulpit (a place which by its awesome but obviously intentional height differs from a podium), and on the pulpit, as a final warning to those who ascend it, there is a big Bible. Preachers also wear a robe—I am not embarrassed even to say this—and they should do so, for it is a salutary reminder that from those who wear this special garment the people expect a special word. A formidable and even demonic instrument, the organ, is also active, and in order that the town and country alike should be aware of the preaching, bells are rung. And if none of these things help, will not the crosses in the churchyard which quietly look in through the windows tell you unambiguously what is relevant here and what is not?”8

How morbid is this Barth, not only binding preachers to high and distant pulpits with big Bibles and robes, but praising cemetery crosses which can be easily observed through the windows. Contemporary worship cannot even deal with death, so deeply entrenched is its Gnosticism. For instance, in the article cited above, Lyle Schuller approvingly explains,

The best illustration of this {shift from ‘worship’ to ‘celebration’} is that we used to have ‘funerals’.  Then we went to ‘memorial service.’ Now we have a ‘celebration’ of the life and ministry of the departed person. There’s a shift in the whole atmosphere of what happens during that period of time. It’s gone from pain, sorrow, grief and crying to celebration.9

Even in the face of death, which Barth pointed up as a reminder of our weakness and humanness, contemporary worship refuses to sober up and adopt a serious position. If death is an occasion for informal “celebration” and cheerful smiles, is there anything that will cause us to take the realities of this earthly existence seriously? Can nothing remind us that we are but dust—creatures—and sinful creatures at that? If there is no confession of sin anymore in the service, no declaration of pardon, no high and exalted Word, and no sacrament to visually confirm the Word, is it any wonder that so many either stop attending church altogether or seek other so-called means of grace?

So how do we bridge the gap then? If the service is to stress God’s distance, how will people be encouraged to get close to God? That is the point: We don’t bridge that gap, not by music, not by “celebrations,” not by signs and wonders, not by all-night prayer meetings. It is God who bridges the gap; it is he who comes close to us, and he does this as he reveals himself to us and dispenses his forgiveness through Word and sacrament. These are God’s activities, not ours. As such, the focus of our services ought to be on God and not on the celebrants.

God is free to be or to do whatever he chooses, whenever he chooses, however he chooses, for whomever he chooses. This is the very essence of God’s character, which he revealed to Moses and to all generations through him. His mercy and his presence can never be presumed upon or ‘conjured” by techniques on our end, whether inspiring music or testimonies, moving altar calls or mass meetings of prayer, praise, fasting and confession. He answers the call neither of the organ or the guitar, but promises to be present in the weakness of preaching. Still less is he awakened and summoned to our meetings by odd phenomena of barking, laughing and roaring that somehow come to be identified with “revival.” God comes to us on his terms.


In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Quaker writer Richard Foster wrote an article on “the means of grace.”* Beginning with the title, “Becoming Like Christ: Further Up, Further In,” the author sees the means of grace as having to do exclusively with our spiritual and moral transformation. Thus, it is a subjective rather than objective ministry that these means perform.

“Further Up, Further In,” underscores the direction we have been arguing against throughout this book. That is not to say that we are not to set our minds on things in heaven, for we have already seen how this is where we are seated in Christ. Nevertheless, it is not the purpose of sacraments to lead us ever-higher until we finally experience something akin to the “Beatific Vision” known to mystics and monks in the Middle Ages. The whole purpose of sacraments is to drive us further out of ourselves, not into ourselves! They take our focus off of our own experience, performance, and imagination, guiding us to Christ’s cross.

In this article the author offers an abundance of “means of grace,” leading off with work. Although our work in the world is a gift of common grace and is shared by Christians and non-Christians alike by virtue of creation rather than redemption, Foster sees it as a channel of grace. Trials can be a means of grace, as are “movings of the Spirit.” Still other means of grace include the spiritual disciplines: “prayer, study, fasting, solitude, simplicity, confession, celebration, and the like.”10

The reality is, all of life is not sacred or sacramental. Still, that does not denigrate the common. God is as much the Lord and sustainer in our common daily activities as he is in the supernatural activities of Word and sacrament. We need not “spiritualize” that which God has already himself created, whether music, art, science, or any other cultural pursuit, for the common is as truly created and ruled by God as is the holy.

However, God is active in a different way when he meets us where he has promised. God is involved with our lives whether we are in church or at work, but his involvement is different in each case. We are to do all that we do—whether we eat or drink—to the glory of God. Yet such a common meal, graced with God’s pleasure and provision, is not sacred. It is common time, not holy time. It is a common place and a common activity, but supported by God and a meal in which he takes great delight.

We do not have to say that something is “sacramental” or “sacred” for it to be honoring to God. That is Paul’s point when he directs us to do all things to the glory of God. But in the sacraments, God promises to meet with us in a different way, separate from all normal, common activities of daily life, in saving grace rather than common grace. We must not doubt that his promise is true.

Can we really say that every time we have a meal we are receiving Christ’s body and blood? Surely not, for we have no promise from God that he will provide these gifts except as he has ordained. We do not receive God’s gifts whenever and however we choose, but must find them in the time, place, and manner that he has chosen. The Good News is that God has bridged the gap—not only in providing Christ for our salvation, but in giving him to us and applying his benefits in our lives here and now. He has come down to us—all the way down—and not left a single step for us to climb.



1. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.1.1

2. Charles Stanley, The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life, p. 5.

3. ibid.

4. Karl Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, vol.

    1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1990) p. 33.

5. Charles Kraft, Worship Leader magazine, April-May 1993, p. 7.

6. Lyle Schuller, Worship Leader magazine, July-August 1995, p. 34.

7. Karl Barth, op. cit. p. 31

8. ibid., pp. 31-32.

9. Lyle Schuller, op. cit. p. 34.

10. Richard Foster, Christianity Today, February 5, 1996, pp. 26-31.





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