The Most Disobeyed Verse in the Bible?

An admission is in order: this post’s title has a fair amount of tongue in its cheek. Countless texts compete for the title’s reward. I mean for the title’s cheekiness to provoke examination—particularly among pastors.

“What Verse,” You Say?

The text I have in mind is Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Its twin is Ephesians 5:19, where Paul commands being filled in the Spirit, which means—in part—”addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”

For this post, I’m leaving aside historical arguments that “hymns and spiritual songs” are also references to biblical psalms. I’m not urging exclusive psalmody, but I am arguing for inclusive psalmody. I am simply stating, on the basis of Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, that God expects His churches to sing the psalms from His word. What do you think? Is that a fair declaration? I believe so.

Yet, how many evangelical churches today sing the Psalms?

The Lay of the Land

I recently saw a pastor of a massive and influential church say, “Let the Psalter the be the soundtrack of your life.” However, ne’er is a psalm sung in his church’s gathered worship.

The pastor’s declaration and his church’s reality reveal two things I see in evangelical churches today.

First, we have seen a genuine resurgence of devotion to the Psalms. Praise the Lord! I first began to notice this when, in 2008, Union University (a Baptist institution, mind you) hosted a conference on psalm-singing. A few years later, B&H (a Baptist press, mind you) published the addresses as Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming the Psalms for Christian Worship. As is often the case, developments in the academy take a few years to seep into ordinary churches. The much-voiced call for restoring lament in the church’s life (e.g., Rejoicing in Lament) is a consequence of the revived focus on the psalms. So too is Donald Whitney’s work Praying the Bible, which exhorts Christians, “when you pray, pray a passage of Scripture, particularly a psalm.”

Second, precious few churches today sing the Psalms in corporate worship. I’m optimistic that more and more churches will start singing psalms. My experience and observation are that precious few churches are doing so at the moment.

I live in a bastion of the Bible-belt. “Evangelical” churches occupy many corners in my community. There are three mega-churches within five minutes of my home and another dozen smaller congregations. You’d never expect to sing a psalm at any of them on a Sunday.

Lest you think I’m only pointing the finger at other ecclesiastical traditions, let me turn it back on myself. The church I pastor is a member of the PCA. More than anything else, Redeemer’s identity in the presbytery and community is that of a traditional-liturgical church. Any person who knows anything about the history of Presbyterian worship knows that psalm-singing is among our most distinctive features. I attended Redeemer consistently for eight months before being called as senior minister. Although it had a history of sporadic psalm-singing in the past, we never sang a psalm over those eight months. I wonder many Presbyterian churches today likewise have forgotten our biblically-informed tradition.

One of the first adjustments I made to our worship at Redeemer was reintroducing the Psalms for singing. We now sing at least one psalm every week, and it is a delight to hear God’s people sing God’s word.

A Sad Irony

In our zeal against exclusive psalmody, perhaps we have inadvertently promoted exclusive hymnody—or as one brother I know put it, “exclusive chorusody.”

Too many of our churches today are ignoring God’s hymnbook, which has been at the heart of every major branch of Christianity’s worship tradition. Let us repent of loving to sing our words more than God’s words. Let us pray for the ample and regular singing of psalms—along with Scripturally-sound hymns—in our gathered worship services.

Resourcing Recovery and Reform

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” John Chrysostom, that golden-mouthed preacher, asked,

Do you wish to be happy? Do you want to know how to spend the day truly blessed? I offer you a drink that is spiritual. This is not a drink for drunkenness that would cut off even meaningful speech. This does not cause us to babble. It does not disturb our vision. Here it is: Learn to sing Psalms! Then you will see pleasure indeed. Those who have learned to sing with the psalms are easily filled with the Holy Spirit.

Every gospel pastor longs for Christ’s word to dwell deeply in his church. Every pastor prays for Christ’s spirit to fill the church. Singing psalms is one of God’s ordained means for both blessings to grow in your congregation.

Here are some resources pastors can use for further study:1

Some shorter pieces encouraging the singing of Psalms in corporate worship:

  • Terry Johnson’s essay in honor of James Montgomery Boice, “Restoring Psalm Singing to Our Worship” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship demonstrates that even the Presbyterians can have difficulty using the Psalter in worship. Johnson’s concern for Bible-saturated worship is commendable to the People of the Book.
  • Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham answers the question of his chapter titled “What Are We Doing Singing the Psalms?” in his book The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. In a few short pages, he ranges over the Bible, church history, speech-act theory, and finally back to the Psalms themselves as he attempts to coax the Christian reader into a psalm-singing frame of mind.


  1. The comments on each resource are adapted from Ray Van Neste’s Read, Pray, Sing.

Sermon Preparation as Thanksgiving

Sermon Preparation as Thanksgiving

Pastor, have you ever thought of sermon preparation as a weekly Thanksgiving holiday? Let’s just briefly consider how the work of sermon prep is high octane fuel for gratitude.


If you get illumination into the text’s truth – give thanks.

If you receive heart-searching application to give to your congregation – give thanks.

If you understand how your text organically points to Christ – give thanks.

If you gain a deeper understanding of God’s character – give thanks.

If you have a sermonic structure that’s memorable and persuasive – give thanks.

If you see how your text uniquely heralds the gospel to an unbeliever – give thanks.

If your affections for God’s glory in Christ increase through the preparation – give thanks.

If your heart is moved to confess sin in light of your text – give thanks.

If you gain helpful illustrations or metaphors to adorn the passage – give thanks.

We could go on and on. If we see sermon preparation as a powerful means of grace, what type of people ought we pastors to be but those “always abounding in thanksgiving?”

Have a Plan

The Pastor and His Bible

Faithful preachers are Bible men. When they answer questions about spiritual things Scripture begins to flow in the most natural manner. When they prepare sermons a repository of truth is available at a second’s notice. Like Bunyan, you merely need to poke ’em to see their Bibline blood.

Because assumptions are dangerous and I have no empirical data to render the brief encouragement moot, let me say this: every pastor must read his entire Bible at least once every year.

“New law!” you cry. No, that’s probably just the Worm talking. Psalm 119-esque delight in God’s word is at the heart my exhortation. The longevity of your ministry, in a very real sense, depends on your faithfulness to daily saturate your soul in the whole counsel. Sure, you can minister for a long time and disregard my exhortation, but I’d have no reason to expect those decades to be healthy.

Very early in pastoral ministry I read an old copy of the Doctor’s Preaching and Preachers and my ministry has never been the same. He said,

Read your bible systematically. The danger is to read at random, and that means that one tends to be reading only one’s favorite passages. In other words one fails to read the whole bible. I cannot emphasize too strongly the vital importance of reading the whole Bible. . . . One of the most fatal habits a preacher can ever fall into is to read his Bible simply in order to find texts for sermons. This is the real danger; it must be recognized and fought and resisted with all your might. Do not read the bible to find texts for sermons, read it because it is the food that God has provided for your soul, because it is the Word of God, because it is the means whereby you can get to know God. Read it because it is the bread of life, the manna provided for your soul’s nourishment and well-being. (183-184)

I found great wisdom in that advice, printed off M’Cheyne’s reading plan, and read the whole Bible systematically. The practice has become life and light for my soul. I bet it would do the same for you. Tolle lege!

3 Truths About the Lord’s Supper


In Mark 14:22-25 Jesus gathers with his disciples to eat the Passover meal just hours before the pawns of darkness convey a criminal court to silence Jesus.

In God’s great providence, the silence of the cross became the means by which God’s salvation would be shouted to the ends of the earth. God loves to use small whispers to shout His glory and what we get to look at tonight is that most blessed of whispers, the Lord’s Supper.

What was formerly a celebration of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt will become a remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ new-exodus deliverance of his people from the power of sin and Satan. And it’s in that transformation we see this truth: The Lord’s Supper shouts forth the grace of our Lord’s sacrifice.


When traditional food of the Passover meal was brought in – unleavened bread, bitter herbs, fruit, greens, and stewed lamb – was brought in the youngest person would ask the traditional question, “Why do we eat these foods on this night?” In reply the father would recount the story of God’s grace in the Exodus. After singing Psalms 113-115 and just before the meal itself, the plate of unleavened bread was lifted up, a prayer of thanks was said, and then the bread was distributed.

This bread was normally eaten in silence, but notice how Jesus interrupts the tradition in 14:22 and says, “Take; this is my body.First, we see that the Lord’s Supper is a gospel announcement. He is saying, “I am the Passover bread,” feed upon me and live! Roman Catholics have historically believed that in the Lord’s Supper Christ is literally re-sacrificed for sin, but that misses the point of the text. Jesus is saying that when we take the bread, we hold in our hands not a literal sacrifice, but a symbol of His body that was sacrificed on our behalf.

In 14:23 He takes a cup, gives thanks, and then hands it to the disciples and look at what Jesus says in 14:24, “This is my blood of the covenant.Second, the Lord’s Supper is a covenantal announcement. That phrase “blood of the covenant” would have been engrained in the brain of every Jew. It comes from Exodus 24 where Moses instituted the first covenant by throwing blood upon the people. Luke 22:20 records Jesus saying that this cup “is the new covenant in my blood.” The New Covenant prophesied in Jeremiah 31, where God promised to write His law upon His peoples’ heart, to open their eyes in the knowledge of Him, and forgive all their sins, and Jesus says this covenant is about to dawn through His death. Just as God ratified the Old Covenant through a meal with His people in Exodus 24, He ratifies the New Covenant through a meal. The covenant is realized and sealed by Christ’s blood, which 14:24 says, “is poured out for many.

If you’ve read the entire Bible you’ve likely noticed how blood runs over almost every page. Our faith is a blood-bought and blood-wrought faith. Those who escaped Egypt in the first Exodus only did so if the blood of a lamb was smeared over their door. Throughout the Old Testament blood literally flowed out of the Temple as animals were sacrificed to pay the penalty for the sin. Jesus tells us He is the fulfillment of all the blood-sacrifice shadows of old; His blood was about to be shed once and for all to pay for sin and deliver His people in the new-exodus. The gracious blood is symbolized in the cup of the Lord’s Supper.

Maybe you are reading this and are not a Christian, you need this blood of Christ to cover your sin. It’s only through faith in this blood that your sins, which are now leading you to eternal death and judgment before a righteous God, can be washed away. His blood was spilled on the cross so sinners like you and me might be restored to relationship with God. Will you trust in His blood today? The old hymn has it right:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Finally, the Lord’s Supper is an eschatological announcement. Yes, I know that’s a big word, but oh how good it is! Look at what Jesus says in 14:25, “Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” The cup announces that a time is coming when Christ will finally establish His eternal kingdom and feast forever with His bride, the church. This is why Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11 that when we take the Lord’s Supper we proclaim His death until He comes back. So in the Lord’s Supper is satisfyingly unsatisfying. These are just tastes, spiritual rations of the feast we wait for and long for.


I recently watched the movie Gravity, which is almost entirely about one astronaut suspended in space and trying to make it back to earth safely before time runs out and she dies. The movie’s plotline was sufficiently tense, but what really captured my attention was the stunning pictures and sights of our planet just hanging there in outer space. Maybe you are like me and such sights stir your soul in fresh ways to appreciate the grandeur of God’s creation. And stir it did, for about eighteen hours. At some point the next day the toils of life were quenching out that fresh wonder at God’s power.

Isn’t our awe at the majesty of Christ displayed on the cross much like this? There are periodic times where we get a fresh glimpse of His powerful love, but so often the cares of life quench out the amazement. But oh how kind our God is! He knows our weakness and gives us the means of grace to continually refill our souls with astonishment at His glory. The Lord’s Supper is one such means. It is a visible sermon, one that preaches the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. This is why we take it every single week, because we need to be reminded of the gospel, Christ’s covenant with sinners, and the news that He is coming back.

What a meal this is! Do you see its wonder and importance? Do you plan your week in such a way to make sure you can come to this Table? Families who love each other are families who regularly eat together. Do you feel a sense of loss when you are not with the gathered church in this act of worship? It ought not to be possible for Christian to miss the corporate worship of God and not miss the corporate worship of God. Can we be honest and acknowledge that we often have a small view of this Supper’s power? That we so often delight more in the trivialities of this world and so will forgo a meal with Christ. I have prayed this week that God would elevate our love of Christ and longing for Christ to such a degree that we move heaven and earth to commune with Christ through the word, prayer, and Supper each Saturday night.

– This post is adapted from my recent sermon, “The Savior’s Passover“, on Mark 14:12-31.

Of Melody and Music Part 2

A Singing Church Slider

Yesterday I wrote our church’s desire to be “A Singing Church.” The desire is rooted in the truth that singing mirrors the character of God and is a mark of obedience. We sing because He first sang over us.


Another question worth pursuing on the topic is, “What singing does singing actually do?” If we long for a culture of singing in our churches, what kind of culture are we longing for? Among the myriad of things singing does, I believe there are four worth particular mention.

Singing glorifies God. Spirit-filled churches, according to Ephesians 5:19, are those that sing and make melody to the Lord with all their heart. The first function of singing is vertical, a harmonious declaration of all His wonderful works (1 Chron. 16:9).

Singing teaches. One way we teach one another is by “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). Singing is biblical and systematic theology set to meter and melody. Want to help your church understand sin has the two-fold effect of curse and corruption, and that Christ justifies and sanctifies? Have them sing good Mr. Toplady’s “Rock of Ages”:

“Be of sin the double cure, save from wrath and make me pure”

Singing encourages. The horizontal dimension of singing to “one another” (Eph. 5:19) means teaching and encouraging. They are closely related and functional synonyms, but it seems wise to distinguish them. Has a church member in your congregation recently lost a child through miscarriage? Help your church encourage them by singing “How Firm a Foundation”:

“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand”

Singing humbles. I don’t have an explicit reference for this, but I am increasingly convinced few things fuel humility like faithful singing. It is so common, isn’t it, for Christians to think, “If the music is just right, or is to my particular stylistic liking, then I will be able to sing along.” But the vertical and horizontal dimensions of singing compel us to praise even when the music may not be to our personal preference. We see that glorifying God and encouraging one another is more important than my hope that the musical glory of “Enter Your Favorite Band Here” invades the congregation.

This is why, if our churches are ever to be singing churches, we pastors must give our people a grand view of our majestic God. God’s majesty, not man’s music, must ultimately compel our singing. What unites us together in life and worship is not stylistic preference, but God’s majesty as revealed in Christ. Personal preference in man’s music can never truly unite a church in the bonds of peace, but prioritization of God’s majesty will. Pursue the majesty of God more than the music of men and find your church become a singing church.


I hope then it is clear why we pray for God to form us into “A Singing Church.”

            We want to mirror God’s character, so we sing.

            We want to be obedient to His word, so we sing.

            We want to glorify God, so we sing.

            We want to teach one another in truth, so we sing.

            We want to encourage one another in the Spirit, so we sing.

            We want to humble our hearts before God, so we sing.

By His power and for His glory, may He form all our churches into singing churches.

Of Melody and Music

A Singing Church Slider

When I first began the journey of planting a church one common refrain of encouragement from seasoned planters was, “Identify your church’s core values. Communicate them clearly and often.”

Now, this isn’t the place to quibble with whether or not mission statements and core values ought to be a “first order of business” reality in planting a church. When used rightly, just like church confessions, core values function as faithful identifiers of what a local church understands and treasures about its faith and practice.

So we came up with what we call at Imago Dei Church, “Things We Want to Be True.” Things that we hope would permeate our church’s life together and witness to the world. One of those things is that we would be “A Singing Church.”


Why have a specific desire to be a singing church? Two things come immediately to mind.

First, singing mirrors the character of God. Zephaniah’s only recorded sermon helped bring spiritual revival to God’s people after the long and disastrous reign of Manassah. For three chapters Zephaniah has detailed the “day of the Lord,” a day when he would, according to chapter 3, “Pour out upon them [His] indignation, all [His] burning anger . . . all the earth shall be consumed.” The picture is bleak. It’s as though God announces that His storm of judgment is coming and His people stare at a sky swelling with rolling and thunderous clouds. And just before judgment bursts forth in power, a single ray of sunshine breaks through and shines down. Zephaniah says sadness and depression isn’t the order of the day for everybody. The sun of salvation is going to burst upon the earth because “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zeph. 3:17) Our God is a singing God!

Faithful singing then is little more than a mirror of the great God who sings over His people. Our singing God creates and commands His people, which leads to the second point.

Second, singing is a mark of obedience. God not only creates His people, but commands His people and one command is that we sing. As best I can tell, there are some four hundred references to singing in Scripture and over fifty commands to sing. God’s salvation compels the commands of Zephaniah 3:14, “Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!” Did you notice from where our singing is to come?  “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” What matters most in singing is the state of our hearts. God is honored when our hearts sings unto Him in joyful humility and honesty.

This is why we sing, because it mirrors God is and is a mark of obedience. Said another way, “We sing because He sang first over us.”

Tomorrow I will look at “what singing does” and how those answers ought to fuel our desire for the church to be a singing church.

3 Books Every Pastor Should Read: On the Lord’s Supper

Books are some of the best friends a pastor can have. How to know which friends to have is quite difficult, for as the inspired Preacher said, “Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Every so often I recommend three books for pastors on a given topic, hoping the suggestions might hone your book budget.

Today I offer suggestions on books about The Lord’s Supper. One little known truth today about the Reformation is that the Supper was the most common topic of discussion. Yep, more than sola Scripture or justification by faith. Protestants and Roman Catholics alike spilled more ink over the Supper than any other aspect of Christian faith and life.

It must be a telling test, of some kind, that few notable books on the Supper have been published in recent memory. Nevertheless, here are a couple titles well worth your time.

415WJZ0RSZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread by Robert Letham. There is a lucidity in Letham’s writing that alone makes his work worthy of your attention. The volume is brief (75 pages), but it is not short on truth for feasting. Letham breaks down the topic into four parts: 1) Biblical Foundations of the Lord’s Supper, 2) The Lord’s Supper in Church History, 3) The Supper in Reformed Theology, and 4) The Lord’s Supper in Practice. The ordering seems the most natural way to go about it and the brevity ensures the work is free from undue monotony that can plague the older works. If you read only one work, start here.

087552186Xm Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith Mathison. In many ways this book is the anti-Letham. It’s long (over 350 pages), has a funky ordering, and the liberal footnoting gives it an undeniably “academic” feel. But patient reading will be rewarded. One cannot truly understand the various views of the Supper if he doesn’t understand the mediating position of Calvin, so this is a vital read. Part 3, “Theological and Practical Issues”, I think is the most helpful part of the book. Grab a copy, diligently chip away at it, and see if your view of this means of grace is not enriched.

0875526470mWhat is the Lord’s Supper? by Richard Phillips. I suggest this booklet in P&R’s “Basics of the Reformed Faith Series” because it is probably the one your church members would most likely read . Phillips lays out “the biblical institution of this sacrament, the theological issues surrounding it, and the pastoral considerations for administering and receiving it.” The argumentation is clear, attention to Scripture sound, and care to deal with common questions commendable. A useful discipling tool.


The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes edited by Schreiner and Crawford. Definitely the most extensive articulation of a traditionally Baptist understanding of the supper. Like all edited volumes, some chapters are better than others, but you can pick around according to personal interest and not lose out on much of the flow.

Incarnation and Sacrament: The Eucharistic Controversy Between Charles Hodge and John Williamson Nevin by Bonomo. What is this you ask? Quite possibly the most forgotten, yet significant, ecclesiastical debate of the 19th century. It’s impossible to understand the prevailing American view on the Supper today apart from this controversy. Seriously.

Check out my past suggestions in the “3 Books Every Pastor Should Read” series here.

Edwards on the Word and Prayer

Jonathan Edwards on The Means of Grace

On Wednesday I offered three biblical images or illustrations the venerable Jonathan Edwards employed to illustrate the nature of the means of grace. A necessary question that comes next is, “How did Edwards actually teach and apply the biblical truth on individual means of grace?”

Let’s use those two central means, the Word and prayer, as case studies.1


Edwards said, “The chief means of grace is the Word of God: that standing revelation of the mind and will of God that he gives the world, and it is as it were the sum of all means.” In the Word we are given the mind and will of God for us, so that our minds and wills might be fashioned and shaped after his image. Cooperation with the Spirit conforms our soul to the Word of God, bearing fruit keeping in repentance and have our hearts beat in rhythm with his.

The Word of God, as a means of grace, holds Christ before us, but not in a way that is efficacious. Without the Spirit’s illumination, what we see is just a good man. Edwards says, “The notion that there is a Christ, and that Christ is holy and gracious, is conveyed to the mind by the Word of God: but the sense of the excellency of Christ by reason of that holiness and grace, is nevertheless immediately the work of the Holy Spirit.” This is important for our us because reading the Word is often the easiest way to seem spiritual while living out of the flesh. Reading Scripture can come from a desire to sound theologically intelligent, curry God’s favor, or rid ourselves of guilt from low performance. To truly know God and his Word is to read the Bible with a humble frame, yearning for the Spirit’s work.

Because the Word is God’s primary vehicle to reveal His glory in Jesus Christ, it must thus be the primary means. To understand how to lead our families, pray, fast, and meditate we have to know God’s word. Strobel says, “Hearing and reading the Word of God is the bedrock upon which we faithfully practice the means of grace, because hearing and reading the Word are ground in Christ.” It is in the word that all the other means are understood.

Edwards calls the Word of God the “chief” and “soul” of the means of grace. As we hear and read God’s word we are invited to bask in the glory, beauty, and goodness of God.


If the Word of God orients the other means, prayer gives them life. Diligent use of the means never divorces on of these means from the other, because they are meant to go hand in hand. “Conversation between God and mankind in the world is maintained by God’s word on his part, and prayer on ours,” Edwards writes. “By the former he speaks to us and expresses his mind to us; by the latter we speak to him and express our minds to him.”

As with all means, faith is necessary for prayer to effectively communicate God’s grace to our soul. Edwards reminds us, “That which is necessary in prayer is necessary in faith; for prayer is the only particular exercise and expression of our faith before God.” Historian Michael Haykin has said, “The church as only one posture: prayer.” We are to read God’s word prayerfully, sing prayerfully, hear prayerfully, fellowship prayerfully, and pray even in our prayers (James 5:17).

Like Bible reading, prayer can be practiced in the flesh, but it probably is the least used means of grace to try and better ourselves. Edwards notes that many people leave off praying in secret because they can do so without anyone noticing. As we all know, prayer is difficult and comes with little obvious natural reward. Even though prayer seems clearly focused on God, it is often focused on anything and everything but God. To help us to faithfulness in prayer we must aim to pray from our hearts. Prayer from the heart is the prayer of faith, and anything else is empty talking. Edwards knows this to be true, for he says, “The true spirit of prayer is not other than God’s own Spirit dwelling in the hearts of the saints. And as this spirit comes from God, so doth it naturally tend to God in holy breathings and pantings. It naturally leads to God, to converse with him by prayer.”

Edwards taught that prayer brings us before God and sets our minds and hearts upon him. The prayer of faith is a means of grace because it leads us before God as he really is, creating the space to be with him as we really are. Ultimately, the prayer of faith longs for God and God alone. Without it, Edwards suggests, the Christian life is vain and lacks meaning.

  1. What follows is adapted from Formed for the Glory of God by Kyle Strobel, pp. 85-92.

Jonathan Edwards on the Means of Grace

Jonathan Edwards on The Means of Grace

One of the best books I read in 2013 was Kyle Strobel’s Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards.

Chapter 4, “Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Grace,” contains a very helpful discussion on the nature of the means.1 When Edwards speaks of the means often used three different biblical images to illustrate his emphases.


One of his more common illustrations is taken from John 5 and the story of Jesus healing a man at the pool called Bethesda. If you remember the story, a disable man constantly remains by the pool because angels stir the water. The thought at the time was the first person in the pool after an angelic stirring would be healed from his infirmity. The disabled man tells Jesus he has no one to lower him into the pool, so he never is first in the water. Edwards focused on the reality of this pool as a God-given gift of healing. Strobel says, “It’s important to note that there was nothing about the pool itself that was healing. But God had established this way as the way of healing, and therefore people were called to enter the pool with faith that God would heal.” The means of grace God gives to the church are not effectual in and of themselves. God has, in his mercy, given us established means to come to him that we may receive his grace, even though our coming does not bind God and force Him to be gracious. Our task is to simply come with faith.

A second illustration Edwards turned to was in John 2 when Jesus turned the water into wine. Our role in the Christian life is to “fill the water pots,” and Christ’s role is to turn our water into wine. The means of grace are ways to fill us with water, water that God can turn into wine. The means of grace Edwards uses with this illustration is preaching: “They can be abundant in preaching the word, which, as it comes only from them, is but water, a dead letter, a sapless, tasteless, spiritless thing; but this is what Christ will bless for the supply [of] his church with wine.”

A third image looks to the story of Elijah and his challenge to the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Elijah built an altar and put wood on it with an offering. He then prayed to God and God descended with fire to consume the offering. In light of the precious illustrations, the correlation of Elijah’s altar building encounter with the means should be clear. Our actions do not create grace; our actions cannot even create holiness, any more than Elijah’s building of an altar could create fire. We use the means out of faithfulness to God, trusting that he will descend with the fire.

These three illustrations narrate two specific realities Edwards hoped to convey . . .


First, we are called to specific actions – “means” – to receive grace. These actions are powerless in themselves to change the heart or make one holy. If they could the Christian life would inevitably become a self-help project. Instead, we are called to enact them and put our faith in God to do with them what He will.

Second, if God chooses, he will endow the means we do in faith with his grace. God does this by His will and sovereign grace alone. Strobel writes, “Our call, in other words, is not to grow ourselves, but to present ourselves to God through the means He has provided. Means of grace are spiritual postures to receive God’s grace.” We would be wrong to assume that these practices are easy; in actuality they require hard work. Many of them, as we know from experience, are deeply trying. They are designed to put us in a spiritual frame that runs contrary to our fleshly dependence and worldly fascination. But they do not, and cannot, grow you. What they ordinarily do is open your soul to receive the grace that alone can transform and beautify.

  1. Everything that follows is adapted from Formed for the Glory of God, 75-77.

3 Reasons for Weekly Communion


“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” – Matthew 26:26-29

At Imago Dei we partake of the Lord’s Supper every single week at the end of our worship gathering. Our liturgy is somewhat unique in the DFW Bible-belt culture, but I bet it’s our weekly gathering at the Table that receives more positive feedback than any other liturgical element.

Although nothing in Scripture commands a church to weekly partake of the Supper, I do think that an increased understanding of the spiritual benefits received in Communion would lead a pastor to say, “Why not take the Lord’s Supper each week?” Here are three reasons why your church would benefit from weekly Communion . . .


First, the Supper is food for faith. The Supper is a gospel-banquet. Our Lord knows His children are often failing in their faith, wanting a sign of Christ’s love and care. And so he gave us a sign, the Supper. Rome says that we physically feed upon Christ’s body at the Table, but the proper view is that we spiritually feed upon Christ’s body. With tangible elements we are able to remind our soul that His body was broken for us and blood shed for us. By taking the elements together a church is able to show their unity in Christ, reminding poor hearts that they are not isolated in their pilgrimage toward heaven. Biblical faith is unmistakably forward looking, thus the Supper feeds weak faith by declaring that an eternal wedding feast is on the way. Through bread and wine the Spirit stirs the soul to expectant perseverance to see the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Second, the Supper demands examination. As Luther famously declared, “The entire life of believers should be repentance.” Weekly gathering at the Table serves Christians by calling them confession and repentance, for one cannot take the elements with such examination. Paul said a person must “examine” himself before coming to the Table lest he eat and drink judgment on himself. Sober self-examination seems to be an increasingly lost practice in American evangelicalism and Communion helps Christians be obedient to 2 Corinthians 13:5.1 Pastors would be wise to exhort their congregation to come to the Table after a time of unhurried examination. At our church I call each Christian to individual examination and then tell every husband and/or father to pray with His family before they take the elements. I can’t you the number of men that have told me they really never prayer with their wife until they were encouraged to do so before Communion.

Third, the Supper is a visible sermon. The Supper is a sermon! Thomas Watson said the Lord’s Supper was a visible sermon, a mirror in which to gaze on the sufferings and death of Christ. Every faithful pastor wants to proclaim the gospel in every service and the Supper provides a second moment of gospel proclamation. Through preaching the Gospel is proclaimed and then it is proclaimed again through bread and wine. As I lead our church in Communion each week I have the opportunity to say just why Christ’s body and blood had to be broken and shed. By saying the meal is only open to those who have “called on the name of the Lord” a pastor gets to again call the unconverted to faith. Also, the Supper is a wonderful opportunity for parents whose children are with them in service to pray for their child to have faith in Christ. I recently spoke with parents in our church who said, “What should we do when we get to Communion? Our child wants to take the elements, but he is not yet a Christian.” Praise God for the opportunity to shepherd sheep in how to speak with their children about the gospel!


Finally, I would encourage any pastor to do everything he can to let the time of Communion to be one of corporate celebration. At IDC we do this by having everyone come forward after examination and confession to grab a piece of bread and a cup. As an aside, resist the practice of intinction (dipping bread into the cup) because it individualizes the Supper in an unwise way. Once all our members have the elements and are back in their seats, I come up and lead the congregation in eating and drinking the elements at the same time. Then we all stand and sing a song that usually highlights the work of Christ on the cross.

The Supper can be taken in a variety of ways, so do what seems best for your congregation. Just ensure that it reflects the corporate prioritization called for in 1 Corinthians.


Given for You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith A. Mathison.

Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread by Robert Letham.

The Lord’s Supper by Thomas Watson.

This forthcoming work by Hughes Oliphant Old will surely be valuable for every pastor.

  1. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith.”