Grace Conferred by Means of Admonitions (1): God's Use of Means
Reformed Free Publishing Association
The following is Part One in the series "Grace Conferred by Means of Admonitions" by Martyn McGeown. Want to know about future posts in the series? Subscribe to our email list to be notified of new blog posts, sales, and upcoming book releases.
As the almighty operation of God, whereby he prolongs and supports this our natural life, does not exclude, but requires, the use of means, by which God of his infinite mercy and goodness hath chosen to exert his influence, so also the before mentioned supernatural operation of God, by which we are regenerated, in no wise excludes, or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration, and food of the soul. Wherefore, as the apostles, and teachers who succeeded them, piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to his glory, and the abasement of all pride, and in the meantime, however, neglected not to keep them by the sacred precepts of the gospel in the exercise of the Word, sacraments and discipline; so even to this day, be it far from either instructors or instructed to presume to tempt God in the church by separating what he of his good pleasure hath most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is his work advanced; to whom alone all the glory both of means, and of their saving fruit and efficacy is forever due. Amen. (Canons of Dort 3-4.17)
Canons 3-4.17 was written in response to an Arminian objection to the sovereignty of God’s grace in regeneration and conversion. If, as the Reformed faith teaches, God saves man by working regeneration in him without his will, why is preaching necessary? To that the Reformed answer is and has always been quite simple: the sovereign God who ordains the end (salvation) also ordains the means (in this case, the means of grace, especially the preaching of the gospel).
This article of the Canons explains exactly that point.
The article begins with an analogy: “As … so also.” Since one thing is true, then the other thing equally applies. The analogy is between the physical and the spiritual. God uses physical means—food, water, air, clothing, shelter, and the like—to prolong and support this natural life; so also God uses spiritual means—the gospel with its exhortations and admonitions—to prolong and support the spiritual life of believers. In both spheres, the physical and the spiritual, God’s “almighty operation” is on display. By God’s almighty power in providence God causes the sun to shine, the rain to fall, and the crops to grow (Ps. 104:13-14). By God’s almighty power in providence God imparts to us health and strength so that we are able to perform our daily labors and to live before his face. In regenerating us from spiritual death to spiritual life, and in preserving us in spiritual life and in causing us to grow in grace, God’s “supernatural operation” is evident.
It would be immensely foolish for a man to say, “Because God is able by his almighty power to preserve me without food, I will not eat” or “Because God is able to supply my needs, I will not work but wait for manna to fall from heaven without any activity on my part.” Similarly, it would be immensely foolish for a Christian to say, “Because God is able to preserve me in faith and life without means, I will not read, pray, or attend worship to hear the gospel; and I will not take heed to the admonitions and exhortations of God’s Word.”
The Canons say about both operations of God that they “require the use of means.” About our spiritual life the Canons say, “The… supernatural operation of God … in no wise excludes or subverts the use of the gospel” (Canons 3-4.17). To subvert is to undermine, to overturn, or to reverse. The preaching of the gospel is not undermined by the supernatural grace of God. Rather, the supernatural grace of God uses the gospel. The gospel is “the seed of regeneration and food of the soul” (Canons 3-4.17).
The same article of the Canons goes on to describe the work of preachers in the church. Since the apostles and those teachers who succeeded the apostles, including faithful pastors and teachers in the church today, understood and understand this connection between means and ends, they were not neglectful in teaching the people, and our pastors today must not be neglectful either; and our elders must see to it that neither the pastors neglect to preach and teach, nor the people neglect to hear and obey the Word that is preached and taught.
To attempt to separate the means from the end is “to presume to tempt God in the church.” Tempting God is a serious sin, one to which the devil attempted unsuccessfully to lure Jesus (Matt. 4:5-7) and one of which the hypocrites Ananias and Sapphira were guilty (Acts 5:9). To tempt God is to try to get God to do something which he has revealed that he is not pleased to do. For example, Ananias and Sapphira tempted God to deny his omniscience, to act as if he did not know their hypocrisy, and to deny his omnipotence, to act as if he could do nothing about their hypocrisy. We tempt God when we sin in secret and tell ourselves that God cannot see us 1 and that God will not do anything about our secret sins. We provoke God to expose our secret sins and to bring us to shame before others. We provoke God to chastise us. A man would tempt God if he starved himself and still expected God to preserve his life; or a man would tempt God if he neglected the gospel and expected God to preserve him spiritually. Could God do that? Yes, God could! Is God pleased to do so? No, he has revealed in his Word that he is not.
The sovereign God is pleased to use means.
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