My guess is that you don’t need my help to uncover a saddening situation you encountered this week– maybe something with our nation, your family, a career, health diagnosis or financial concern is weighing you down this morning.
Perhaps you may have lived through these experiences personally or are walking alongside someone close to you. It took every ounce of energy you had to get out of bed to come here. Or, perhaps, life is going okay for you right now. Sure, it has its bumps, but otherwise your life is pretty stable.
Wherever and however, you sit this morning, we feel deeply the sin and misery in this life and need for the gospel. Some experience it more intimately than others. Some observe it from a distance. Some will experience it eventually. Unfortunately, this is the condition we find ourselves in—we are corrupted in our being, we sin against God and neighbor constantly, we suffer in this life.
But praise be to God who has come and redeemed all things and has reigned, continues to reign, and will always reign as King over all things. Our pain, suffering, and sin will not have the final victory, it will not have the final laugh. God, even in this very moment, is making all things new and will one day restore all things to perfection.
But what are we to do in the meantime? We know Jesus reigns supreme now, but we’re still bogged down by sin and misery. God, knowing that we are “dust”—that we are frail and are in need of his help—gave us means (or avenues) of grace. I think WSC88’s definition provides us a helpful summary of what the means of grace are: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, [and they] are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” You see, God has taken things in his creation—water, bread, wine/juice, words, language—and has assigned a meaning to them in a specific use to help us grow more in Christlikeness, to endure the sins and misery of this life with his help.
And this is where I want us to focus our attention today. Today, we will answer the following questions: “What exactly are the means of grace, and how can they help us in our daily lives?”
Devotion (Acts 2:42)
We begin with Acts 2:42-47 as the foundation of understanding the means of grace.
Just prior to our passage, the risen Savior has ascended up to his Father to sit at his right hand. The apostles are now left in waiting in Jerusalem for 50 days, awaiting the outpouring of the Spirit. The Spirit did descend, and Peter delivered perhaps one of the greatest sermons known to God’s people on Pentecost. This event was one of the catalysts for the sudden growth of the church. No longer was God’s Word confined to a specific language, but all people could hear God’s Word in their own tongue. About 3,000 were saved after that sermon. So, what we see in the text that follows the Pentecost account is a summary describing the basic functions and duties of the church. In short, the means of grace.
As the Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes, the main avenues of God’s means of grace can be summed up in “the Word, sacraments, and prayer” accomplished in community.
A crucial piece to our faith is understanding what we are to believe and why. This small, but growing band of new followers of Christ are so captivated by the gospel, that they cling to every word the apostles say. Why is this? The only Scriptures they would have was the Old Testament. Some letters will start to circulate in the church later. Either way, they did not have God’s Word in their hands like we do today. Instead, if they wanted to learn more about their new faith, they had to listen to the apostles’ teaching from them directly, or ministers of God’s Word.
The primary way we learn today is through God’s Word preached and taught. We do have the additional benefit of having the Word of the Lord in our hands—whether physically or electronically—that the early church did not have. We can access his Word at any time on our own and learn more about our faith and how we are to live it out. This does not mean other ways of learning are invalid. But this does mean that on Sunday mornings, when the minister proclaims, “this is the Word of the Lord,” we are taking in the deep riches of God’s grace through his Word. The early church devoted themselves to this Word because they knew it had transforming powers and they could only hear it for a limited time. They cherished every word they could hear from the Scriptures. If we have perpetual access to God’s Word today, how much more so should we be in the Word and cherishing it?
How in the world do you remember a sacrifice that took place 2,000 years ago? It seems so distant and vague to us, yet it is so near and clear to us. We remember Jesus’ work in the Lord’s Supper.
We remember Jesus’ life—more specifically his work of redemption in his trial, death, burial, resurrection, ascension—in the Lord’s Supper. Although not explicitly mentioned in this passage, commentators believe that the article in front—the—points to a specific type of “breaking of bread.” Namely, the Lord’s Supper. While many of us tend towards a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper—that by partaking of the bread and wine/juice, we remember Jesus’ sacrificial work—that is only part of the story.
We read in John 6:54-56 (ESV) that, “54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” By partaking of the Supper in faith, we are doing more than mere remembering, we are actually “abiding” in Jesus. That is, remain in him, where he is at.
Now, we deny that Jesus comes down to us in the Supper, for we read in Colossians 1:15-20 that Jesus rules and directs all things. Later in Colossians 3:1, we read that “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.“ Thus, when we partake of the Lord’s Supper in faith, we spiritually ascend up to him where he is. We lift our hearts to the Lord. We can’t explain this or even comprehend this, for as John Calvin writes, “What, then, our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space.” What we can be sure of is this: that by partaking of the bread and wine/juice, we remember Jesus, are united to him by his Spirit, and our faith is preserved to the end.
Now, just to clarify, what I am not calling for here is a Roman Catholic understanding that the elements transform into Jesus’ actual blood and body, nor am I advocating for a re-sacrifice. What I am calling for is an awareness that we ascend to the throne room of God and partake of this meal with the whole company of believers spiritually—those taking it down the street, across the county, and around the world. We also enjoy presence with all those believers, those who have gone before us, and Jesus himself. That is one of God’s means of grace to his people. God uses these common elements to encourage us in the faith.
Although not mentioned in the passage, I would like to point you to another sacrament: baptism. Time does not permit me to dive into the specifics now but know this: through the washing of water physically, we are marked as God’s people. God uses every day means to encourage us in our faith. When we doubt our faith, we can point to our baptism. When we see baptism, we can take vows to train this newcomer in the instruction of the Lord.
The Word and Sacrament are not the only ways we commune with Jesus. By his Spirit, we can commune with him through our prayers—our direct conversation with him. He listens to us and takes our requests to his and our Father.
With the Word and the Supper, we are often passively receiving God’s grace—we are recipients that are listening and partaking of what God has given us. However, with prayer, we become more active. On our initiative, we speak to our God with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). We praise him, we petition him to act and guide on our behalf, to remedy our sins, and thank him for his continual previous of our life (Matthew 6:9-13).
Often, we think of prayer as a monologue—we speak, and God listens. We may get this idea from the fact we don’t hear him in our ears. However, our prayer is actually a dialogue—we speak, and God speaks through his Word and actions. Often, when we are in search for wisdom, we pray and ask God for it. While he may bring wise friends and mentors into our life, he also illuminates his written Word by his Spirit through our study and through the Word preached. Not only that, but if we petition him to help us in our life’s situations, he will act. His response may not be what we expected, but we can be confident it was for our good. Even when he doesn’t act, we can be sure that this apparent inaction was also for our good. Often, through our dialogue with God, he shapes our wills for life to reflect most closely with his will.
Lest we forget, one of the distinguishing marks of Christianity is this: our fellowship. All of these things—the Word, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer—are meant to be experienced in community. While we can study the Word individually (and indeed we should), we must study it corporally. The sacraments are not private in nature, but public and communal. And while we can pray individually (and, again, indeed we should), we should be praying with one another and for one another. This fellowship doesn’t have to be just relegated to Sunday mornings—in fact, it ought not to be. The fellowship we experience here and now should extend to the rest of our life with each other.
God’s Work (Acts 2:43)
The evidence of God’s work in our life is evident to those around us.
While verse 43 initially seems to be talking about the souls of Christians, it is actually referencing to all those around them. You see, as the church devoted themselves to the teachings, the Supper, the prayer, and each other, people around them began to notice that they acted differently. They didn’t take pleasure in the same things, they avoided certain actions and appearances, they talked about “Jesus” all the time. This puzzled everybody. The non-Christians were stunned how this one Jew from Nazarene, whom Rome killed, could have so much impact on their lives and why those people even cared. I’m sure the new Christians also surprised themselves by how much their life changed. This sudden transformation was God’s evidence that what he was doing in his people was actually unique, and they served as a light to all the nations that our God reigns supreme.
Fellowship (Acts 2:44-47a)
As a result of God using the means of grace to pour into our spiritual lives, we turn around and pour into the lives of others.
Selling, Dividing, Giving (Acts 2:44-45)
With the sudden surge of people coming into the church, their newfound faith and the means of grace transformed who they were. Rather than being isolated into their own niche communities, they integrated—with their varying looks, language, and interests. This massive group became a beautiful community. While they no doubt retained some of their cultural identity markers, nonetheless they shared this one thing: faith in Jesus.
Their first act as a newly integrated community was to serve those around them financially. Motivated by their love for God—who gave the life of his only begotten Son for redemption—and love for neighbor, they sold what they had (willingly) and shared with those who were in need. They realized that there was more to life than material possessions. Caring for those around them was more important than storing up treasures. By this I do not mean that we are go to out and sell all we have, but we should evaluate what we cherish in this life and how we can serve others, just like the early church. They can only do this because they had regular encounters with God’s grace.
Attendance and Meals (Acts 2:46)
Not only did they give to those who were around them, but they dedicated themselves to the apostles’ teaching by visiting the temple. It was in this place they could draw closer to the Lord and deepen their faith in the one, true God. Any chance they got, they would be with God’s people, learning more and more about their faith and how they should live.
During these times, they no doubt partook of the Lord’s Supper. As they feasted on the bread and wine in the temple, they would continue their feast with gladness in each other’s homes, continuing the sharing mindset they had by opening their doors and tables to each other. Not only did God’s people care for others financially, but they would provide shelter and sustenance.
This sharing and communal living was not seen as a burden to God’s people. Their whole disposition had been changed to gladness and generosity. They did not view gathering with God’s people as “I have to go to the temple today,” as if it were some sort of inconvenience. They viewed the regular gathering as excitement: “We get to go to the temple today! We get to fellowship with God’s people! We get to hear the Word of the Lord! We get to partake of his meal!” Additionally, they did not see God’s people or their neighbors with boredom. They saw them with care. Any chance they got to share their resources—possessions, finances, shelter, money, even the gospel—they would seize the opportunity and give generously.
Generosity and Witness (Acts 2:47a)
You see, regularly experiencing God’s grace through his ordinary means revitalizes our souls. There is nothing terribly special about these things by themselves. But when God, your Savior, and the Spirit uses these avenues to grant you grace in your feebleness, in your sin, and in your misery, it changes us from the inside out. Sometimes it may be sudden. The lightbulb may go off in your head one day and the Spirit instills or rekindles the fire in your soul. Other times, it may take weeks, months, and even years to feel that zeal again. But I can assure you my friends, that when you regularly encounter God and his people, you will be changed. Again, it may happen suddenly, or it may happen slowly, but you will begin to change and people will notice. Your testimony will be a stronger and faithful witness to everyone around you—those sitting in the pew next to you, your family, friends, neighbors—that God is working in your life.
Growth (Acts 2:47b)
The 3,000 added to Pentecost was not the end of the growth of the church. Instead, it was only the beginning. You see, because of the gospel’s proclamation and the work of God’s people, more and more came to saving faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. However, this was not because of the will of God’s people. Instead, it was God who was calling people to himself through the proclamation and work of his people. We don’t build God’s church. God uses us to build his church, lest we think we have any pride in doing God’s work.
You see, through the teaching, through the meal, through the prayer, through the fellowship, God’s church was able to go out into society and proclaim the Gospel and serve those around themselves. Through the conviction and drawing of the Holy Spirit, the life of the church and the gospel proclaimed attracted many to the faith.
This is why the means of grace are so vitally important to our life together. When we are exhorted and built up, we are able to go out into the world with new energy and point to Jesus. As Jesus proclaims in Matthew 16:18, the gates of hell will not stand against God’s church, especially when we have experienced, heard, and tasted God’s grace in our own lives.
This leads us to our final consideration: what do God’s means of grace have to do with me today?
Unique Salvation History
This passage is unique for the way God unfolds his plan of salvation in history. First, he has started the church. And this is the same church that we are still in today. The God of the church in Acts is still our God, which means that his established means of grace then are for us now. We are called to partake of these means of grace as a sign of our common faith—that we all believe in the same God, who has redeemed all things, and that we love him with all we have and love those around us through service.
Subtlety, this passage calls the unbeliever to repentance through the observation of Christian life. As we see in this passage, God continually added people to his church day by day. Some days may have had more than others, but all equally as exciting. You see, through the life of the church, unbelievers observe that things are different for Christians. They see that they are devoted to a particular truth, to a particular meal, that they can talk to their God, and that they do all these things with each other. This will not entice everyone, but as the Spirit softens the hearts of unbelievers, our life together will help them to beg the question of what they are missing spiritually.
Christ is typed in this passage through the establishing of the community and the means of grace. Jesus has established his church and it will endure because of him. Jesus’ work is also instilled in us through the means of grace. While we don’t see him in this passage, the effects of his work are still observed. Remember, just prior to our passage today, Jesus poured out the Spirit on his disciples. What we read in this passage are the fruits of that outpouring on the people of God.
Unity in Diversity
The means of grace unify us under Jesus. As mentioned before, they begin to shape who we are and more into the image of Christ. We will begin to not see each other as enemies, but as friends; not as strangers, but neighbors, not as competitors, but collaborators. However, the means of grace do not erase our diversity. Each one of us has a unique gifting, calling, and life experiences. We should seek to employ our uniqueness for the benefit of others. This is not some sort of competition, and we shouldn’t try to have skill in everything. Instead, we should rely on others for what they have been gifted in when we are lacking.
The means of grace encourages us to do our work well. Throughout the week, our stress levels can be through the roof and things can seem meaningless. However, when we come to this place on Sundays, we are revitalized. We cast off our burdens at the feet of Jesus and ask him to equip us for every good work he has prepared for us through his Word, sacraments, and prayer. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:8:”And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.”
This is an opportunity for you to participate in our broader, spiritual family. Do not neglect sitting under the Word preached with others, the sacraments partaken of in the church, and praying together and for others. It can be easy in the hustle and bustle of life to abandon the fellowship of the saints, but it is vital to the Christian life, just as it was for the church in Acts.
Your Local Church
Friends, we are to model our life together after how the early church modeled their life together. We are to tend to each other. We are to tend to our communities. We are to give freely to those in need. We are to remain devoted to this Word. We are to regularly partake of God’s sacraments. We are to be in constant conversation with God. It is through these means of grace that God’s church through us—both individually and by drawing others—is built up. Do not neglect these means of grace. We so desperately need Jesus in our weakness.
Living as Exiles
The means of grace are God’s usage of normal things in life to encourage us. The primary means of grace are found in the Word preached, the Supper eaten, and prayer. These are to be partaken of together. As a result of God’s means of grace, we are able to engage those around us, and God will use us to build his church. May God, through his Son, by his Spirit continually equip us with his grace throughout these coming days, weeks, months, and years until the day we will see him face-to-face. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
This post was originally a sermon delivered at Jerusalem Church on July 18, 2021. It has been modified from its original version.
- Synthesis from Lethem, Robert. The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001. 28-9.
- Emphasis mine.
- From the Carolingian era of church history.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. Edited by John T. McNeill. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Vol. 1. The Library of Christian Classics. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. 4.17.10.
- Marshall, I. Howard. Acts: An Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 5. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980. 43.