Sunday, June 13, 2010

Spiritual Disciplines or the Means of Grace?

We've all heard of the various methods that are supposedly the keys to hastening our sanctification. We are people of the new nature, the Christ nature, and we want to be conformed more and more into the image and likeness of Christ—a Spirit-wrought desire. But these methods, the ones we have come to know as spiritual disciplines, are they really the means to the receiving of Christ's enablements? The most famous of these "disciplines" is the proverbial "quiet time" wherein one purposefully sets aside an appropriate amount of time each day to spend in private prayer and Bible study. Now, times of private devotion are commendable and even necessary, but I would venture to say that when the "quiet time" becomes one's chief "means" of the attainment of Christlikeness, as what medieval monasticism and more recent pietism advocate, then we have a problem.

If faith is the way by which we are united to Christ, then we must ask how the Spirit, the Person of the Trinity tasked with the progressive transformation of our characters, creates and strengthens this faith in us. The historical, confessional, Reformed church (another way of saying the church that holds to apostolic doctrine) has always recognized that the Spirit quickens faith through the means of grace. What are these means? No, not journaling, blanking out the mind, or even fasting; they are the Word, the sacraments, and prayer.

It is quite easy to see how the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments cannot be effected in the privacy of one's room when one is alone, and even less appropriately in one's pajamas! This is because the Christian life was meant to be corporate, in the context of the local, visible church. Sanctification will not progress if one is not a member of a local church and receiving the preached Word and sacraments. Times of solitude, though needed sometimes, is not particularly more "spiritual" than being faithful in attending to the means of grace—and attending to the means of grace is not possible without being concomitantly faithful to keeping the Sabbath holy in church attendance.

It really seems to me that if more of us would disrobe ourselves of our monastic habits (def. robe of a monk) and instead put on our best Sunday church clothes, then more Christlikeness would be apparent in us.

"Consider how William Perkins (1558—1602), the father of English Puritanism, described the Christian life. In his 1558 catechism, The Foundation of the Christian Religion Gathered into Six Principles, he made it clear that conversion is not ordinarily a momentary or epochal experience and certainly not chiefly a private religious experience, but rather and ordinarily the result of the prevenient grace of justifying faith which comes through the hearing of the preached gospel and the consequent grace of sanctification received in the means of grace administered in the church. In the first part of the Foundation, Perkins summarizes briefly the six principles. Under the fifth principle he asks,

Q. What are the ordinary or usual means for obtaining faith?
A. Faith cometh only by the preaching of the Word and increaseth daily by it: as also by the administration of the sacraments and prayer.

This is virtually identical to the language of HC Q.65. The only difference between the HC and Perkins is that the latter added prayer as a means of grace, a position later taken up by the Westminster divines in the WCF 14.1.

Many years later, in his 1586 A Treatise Tending unto a Declaration, Perkins addressed the question of how sinners, who are part of Christ's visible church, which is composed of believers and unbelievers, can know that they are in fact Christians, that is, 'in a state of grace.' There can be no question whether Perkins was zealous that Christians have a deep and healthy experience of communion with Christ through His Spirit. Nevertheless, the place where Christians find their assurance in the gospel is in the hearing of it preached and in the administration of the sacraments. Perkins wrote at length about the inward work of the Spirit in convicting sinners of their need for a Savior and the 'benefits of Christ' that accrue to believers, but he always connected these operations of the Spirit to the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. The empirical evidence to which Perkins appealed was not a peculiar emotional or heightened state of religious experience, but a joyful reception of God's Word preached, regular attendance to the means of grace, and condemnation of those who do not attend to the means of grace" (R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2008), 334—335).

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