It’s Not Community
There’s a lot of talk in the church today about growth, and often when we have that conversation, we’re talking about numeric growth. When the Scriptures talk about growth, though, they’re not talking about numeric growth, although by all means the Scriptures get excited about people coming to faith in Christ. They’re talking about a spiritual growth.
What does that growth look like? The ultimate end of Christian growth is to be conformed into the likeness of Christ, which is just another way of saying holiness. There’s really no other holy pattern that we are striving after or being conformed into other than the holiness of Jesus Christ himself. That is the ultimate end of every believer. That’s pretty exciting, because God says he’s going to do that in all of his people.
Romans 8 makes this very clear when it says God has started this process. He’s called, he’s elected, and ultimately he’s going to do everything he needs to so that we’re all conformed into the likeness of Jesus. So that’s what God’s up to.
What I’d like to ask is, how do we participate in that? Are there practices that we can and should be engaging in to participate in what God’s doing to conform us into the likeness of Christ?
It’s a question I often ask on this campus. Sometimes when I’m interviewing people for a job in student development, I like to ask, “At the most basic level, how do people grow spiritually?”
I get some good answers, but probably the most common answer is that community is how people grow. Sometimes that even comes from Covenant grads, and that’s something we talk a lot about here. But I want to say very clearly that community is not the fundamental answer to the question.
Community in and of itself accomplishes nothing related to spiritual growth. You know the number one reason that westerners say they convert to Islam? Community. To experience the global community of Islam. And there’s a lot to say that that community is real. Part of the parlance of our culture now is the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual community, and that is a very strong community. Community in and of itself only ratifies and strengthens whatever the group wants to be about. There’s nothing about community that necessarily makes us more like Jesus.
What kind of community, then, will make its members more like Jesus? What are the practices that that community has to cultivate and develop in order to actually grow together? I want to suggest to you that the Reformed tradition has used a little phrase that captures the core disciplines that are at the heart of the growth of all Christians. Maybe this is a new phrase for you, in which case I want to introduce it to you. If it’s a very familiar phrase to you, I want to remind you of it and continue to commend it to you, and it’s this: the ordinary means of grace.
The Reformed tradition has said these are the foundational ways that Christians grow. These are the practices that you must give yourself to in order to grow as a Christian. The ordinary means of grace consist of three things. This is going to really shock you. The ordinary means of grace are the Word, prayer, and the sacraments.
It’s important to understand that these are presented to you as means of grace. We need to understand that what the Bible says is that our salvation, from first to last, is all a work of grace. In that same Romans 8 passage, it starts with God choosing us and electing us before the foundation of the world, and it starts with him glorifying his people. From first to last it’s all God’s work, so then Ephesians 2 can say that it’s by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It’s the work of God, so that no one can boast.
Now this is important because what we are going to talk about here are things that we do, practices that we should cultivate, but what we need to understand is that these are practices of grace. It’s important because I think a lot of times we implicitly start to think we’re saved by grace, we become Christians as a result of God’s grace—to use more technical language, we are justified, forgiven, declared righteous as a result of grace—but a lot of us, functionally, believe that we grow—become sanctified—through our work, our discipline. “Thanks, God, for bringing me to this place of salvation, and now I’ve got to take it from here.”
The Bible says no. Even when the Bible calls us to work (as Paul does in Philippians 2:13, when he says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”), it comes right alongside to say even that work is because God is at work in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure. That’s important to remember when we talk about spiritual disciplines, so that we can experience and celebrate and learn more about God’s grace.
That’s what prompted the great hymn writer John Newton to say, “’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” I assure you this, when we get to heaven and come up to God and say, “We give you praise and honor and glory. It all goes to you, for you have saved us from first to last,” God will not interrupt and say, “Whoa, you’re giving me way too much credit. I couldn’t have done it without you. We kind of met in the middle, remember? I got things started, but you brought it home, man.”
Just as an aside, if that does happen, I will come to all my Armenian brothers and sisters and say, “My bad. I just thought God was greater than he turned out to be.” I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we’ll get there and say, “We said it was you from first to last, but we had no idea of the marvelous character of your grace.” As we give ourselves to these practices, we have to keep that in mind.
The second thing I want to emphasize in this phrase is that these are the ordinary means of grace. They’re ordinary. Try packing out a stadium with this cool conference theme: Christians need to read their Bible more and pray. We’re like, “Come on, man. You got something better for me than that, right? Something more amazing, something more sophisticated. I mean, we’re, like, in college now.”
No, that’s it. Can God do unbelievably extraordinary things? He most certainly can. The Bible is full of miracles, and sometimes those miracles accomplish great good. Paul is on the road to Damascus and he sees a vision of the risen Christ that blinds everyone around him and completely changes his life. That’s extraordinary.
God is not limited to the ordinary, but the Scriptures are very clear that we are not to live a spiritual life that pursues the extraordinary, depends on the extraordinary, and in some ways even demands the extraordinary. One passage that makes this so clear is in Luke 16, of Lazarus the poor man and the rich man who ignores Lazarus, and then the rich man dies and he’s in hell, in torment, and he cries out, “Father Abraham, send someone from the dead to visit my brothers so that they will not have this same fate!” What’s the reply? “They have the Word. They have the law of Moses. Tell them to look to the Word, and they will find what they need to find.” The rich man answers, “That’s not going to work. That’s not good enough. You need to send an angel, or something amazing. You’ve got to blow their minds.” Here’s the response: “If they will not listen to the Word, they will not listen even if someone should rise from the dead.” Of course someone has risen from the dead, and people still don’t listen.
We need to be a people who say, “Give me the ordinary Word. Give me the privilege of speaking with God in prayer.” The Bible says that not only should we not need the extraordinary, but this is actually better than the extraordinary.
The apostle Peter says in 2 Peter 1 that he was on the mount of transfiguration and saw Jesus transform in his heavenly glory. That’s pretty cool. Who wouldn’t say, “That would help my walk. That would help if I could see the transformed, glorious, risen Christ.” But then Peter says something shocking. He says that you have something even more certain: the prophetic Word, which you will do well to pay attention to.
We need to be a people who live in these ordinary disciplines, because these are the means by which God showers his grace upon his people.
Jesus quotes Deuteronomy and says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, the Bible is his life. It’s his food. It’s what causes him to be nourished, and to live, and to grow. If that’s true for Jesus, the living Word, who depended on the written Word for the sustaining of his spiritual life, how much more is it true for us?
We could look at the countless verses in the Psalms that say, “Your Word is a light unto my feet. It illuminates my path. It’s because of your Word that I know where to go.” Just take the time to read through Psalm 19 and see the power of God’s Word to make his people holy. That’s not just because there’s content that we get; it’s because the Word itself is inspired by the Spirit of God. It is living and active, the author of Hebrews tell us. Isaiah writes in Isaiah 55 that the Word, when it goes forth, because of its dynamism and its spiritual power, never returns void, but always accomplishes all that the Lord has set out for it to do.
If we know that this is what God wants for us: conformity to Christ, and we know that God’s Word, in its spiritual dynamism, always accomplishes his purposes in his people, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to say we should be giving ourselves to that Word. Hopefully what you’ll learn at Covenant is better interpretive skill, so that you can increasingly recognize how any passage of the Bible ultimately finds it glory and fulfillment in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that you can read any passage and be nourished by the gospel. It’s a beautiful thing.
I want to tell you: there is no other way for you to grow into a mature Christian than to be a person of the Word. You say, “Well, I want to have communion with Jesus.” You can’t commune with Jesus apart from actually having Jesus speak his Word to you. You can’t have too much Bible in your life, so practically cultivate Bible disciplines. Read it on your own. Read it in groups. Come to chapel, because the primary activity of chapel is the reading and preaching of the Word. Find a church, and when you go to a church the first question you should ask is: does this church preach the Word? More important than whether you like the music, more important than whether you think the aesthetics of the building are cool, is this: does this church preach the Word?
The second thing: pray. Paul adjures Christians to pray without ceasing. If you look at the life of Christ, he did it. He prayed to the Father. Throughout his day he’s in conversation. He goes and carves out huge blocks of time to pray by himself. There’s no substitute for prayer.
How do you have communion with someone? They talk to you, you talk to them. I just want to offer you one word of encouragement on your prayer life. Pray alone, pray in community, but here’s one that you may not think of: I encourage you to pray the Scriptures. Sit down and pray with the Bible in your lap. Read a particular passage and then pray in light of that passage. Ask yourself, “What in this passage prompts me to praise God? What in this passage calls me to repentance and convicts me of sin? What in this passage makes me thank God? What in this passage makes me say, ‘I need that, God. Would you give that to me?’”
A lot of times we don’t pray with the Bible and we pray the same things over and over. I don’t know about you, but if I’m alone for ten minutes, my mind is gone. It’s wandering. I need focus. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who’s not there? It’s challenging. But to actually have a conversation where God is speaking to you and you’re responding to him based on that word—it’s the single most helpful discipline that I’ve learned in the last ten years. Pray about your sick grandmother, pray about your test that’s coming up, but talk to the Lord, and let his conversation with you shape your conversation with him.
Then, finally, the sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s supper. Why are these important? Because, as our Reformed confessions say (using the language of Scripture), the sacraments are signs and seals of God’s promises to us. They remind us of the truth of the gospel. They say, “Remember, Jesus died. His blood has washed you clean. His Spirit has regenerated you. Take this bread and remember that he died for you, for your sin, and his blood was shed for you so that you might have eternal life.”
The sacraments call us back to the gospel. They re-center us on the gospel, and spiritually, something happens when we commune with God’s people and celebrate. Christ is spiritually present with us, and he seals these truths to our hearts.
You may notice that we never celebrate the sacraments here on Covenant’s campus. So how do you do that? You get involved in the local church. For these four years, and for the rest of your life, remember you can’t grow into full maturity without participation in the life of the church. So, brothers and sisters, may these simple truths, these simple practices, these old paths, be a delight to you.
One final thing: I don’t do these things all the time. As an ordained minister, there are times I go weeks without cracking open my Bible. I go through seasons of utterly anemic prayer life. There are times when I’m battling dozing off while I’m in church, waiting for the bread and the cup to come. That’s wrong. It’s sinful to neglect the Lord’s grace in such a way, but you know what the answer is? To return to those things because it’s there that I actually find the gospel preached to me. I don’t just find the Word saying, “Do better next time, punk.” I find the Word and prayer with my Savior and the sacraments to remind me that I’m a sinner and that God gives grace to sinners. He saves sinners. He loves me.
We don’t do these so we’ll be super moral Christians. We do these because there’s no other way for us to live in light of God’s grace than to receive his Word, to give ourselves to prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments. May it be so for each one of us.
Rev. Messner served as chaplain of Covenant College from 2007 to December 2012. He accepted a call to serve as senior minister of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and began his role there in January 2013. This article is adapted from a sermon he delivered in chapel at Covenant at the beginning of the fall 2012 semester