How is it that we get the benefits of what Jesus accomplished on the cross? By what means do those benefits flow to us today? This is a valuable question to ask and a crucial one to answer. After all, the events of the cross (death, burial, resurrection, ascension) took place long ago and far away. Two thousand years have passed. Most of us must cross oceans and/or land masses to get to the place where the redemptive acts occurred. How do His benefits cross all that time and all that space to get to us today?
The biblical answer is the grace of Christ is communicated to us through the God-ordained “means of grace.” God has given means through which He imparts the grace of Christ. He doesn’t ordinarily call out to us from heaven or zap us with grace directly, though He did in the case of the Apostle Paul. No, ordinarily (a favorite word among Reformed Protestants) He uses means. He uses human agency. He provides spiritual tools for spiritual work.
What are those means? We have touched on this already, but now is the time to give this question focused attention. Most anything can be a means of grace. Marriage, for example, may be a means. So also may divorce. I know a man whose divorce led directly to his conversion! Events and relationships along the whole spectrum from adversity to prosperity may be means of grace. “It was good for me that I was afflicted,” the psalmist recognizes (Ps 119:71). Our concern, however, is with the primary means. What are the central, the crucial, the core and ordained means that God uses to save and sanctify His people?
The traditional answer is the word, sacraments, and prayer. There are three and only three primary means. We may also refer to these as the promised means. God promises to use His word (in its various forms: read, sung, prayed, and especially preached), the sacraments (understood as visible words), and prayer. Through those three primary means, God saves and sanctifies His people.
Keys of the kingdom
Where primarily are the primary means operative? What is the sphere in which they primarily function? The biblical answer is in the church. God imparts His grace through the ministry of the church. Jesus gave to the church the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:19). These keys unlock the closed gates of heaven.1 Traditionally they have been understood as the aforementioned means of grace. The word, verbal and visible, is the key. Through the gospel word, those dead in trespasses and sin are born again (1 Pet 1:23-25), spiritual babes are fed (1 Pet 2:1ff), and saints are sanctified (Jn 17:17). Faith comes by “hearing the word of Christ” (Rom 10:7). Christ has placed the word, the key, in various forms, therefore keys, into the hands of the church.
Consequently, preachers must be “sent” if unbelievers are to hear. Note, they don’t merely go. They are sent: Who sends them? The church.
14bAnd how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15a And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom 10:14b-15a)
The church assesses the qualifications of leaders (1 Tim 3; Titus 1). The church ordains, authorizes, and sends preachers, as with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4). The church places the keys into the hands of those called to preach.
Moreover, the church baptizes new believers into the fellowship of the church. This is crucial because the church has the keys to heaven. “What shall we do?” those convicted of their sins cry out (Acts 2:37). The answer of Peter is surprising for those thinking along narrowly individualistic lines. “Repent and be baptized,” he urges (Acts 2:38). This is the consistent pattern. Baptism, like circumcision before it, is the rite of admission into the community of the people of God (Col 2:11; Rom 4:11). Those who believe are baptized and added to the number of the church (Acts 2:41, 47). The Samaritans (8:17), Ethiopian eunuch (8:36, 38), Saul of Tarsus (9:18), Cornelius (10:47, 48), Lydia and her household (16:15), and Philippian jailer and his household (16:33) are all baptized into the membership of the church. It is accurate to say that the book of Acts does not recognize churchless Christianity. To be a Christian is to be a member of the church. To be outside of the church therefore, is still to be in the realm of darkness (Col 1:13). Those removed from the church are said to be “deliver(ed) to Satan” (1 Cor 5:5), to the “god of this world” who blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor 4:4). Outside the church the keys are unavailable.
Want to be admitted into heaven? The church has the key that unlocks the door. Jesus is the door (Jn 10:7), but the church has the key. The health, the well-being, the growth of every believer is dependent upon the ministry of the church. Joining the church should never be considered dismissively. Actively participating in and contributing to the life and ministry of the church should never be considered optional. Because Jesus has committed the keys of the kingdom to the church of God, every believer must go to the church to receive that ministry which will feed and sustain his or her soul.
Someone may object: I get more out of my Bible study group than I do the ministry of the church. Another may object: I get more out of my quiet time than I do out of church. Still others may object: I get more out of listening to my favorite preacher online than I do out of church. All three objectors may then wrongly order their priorities according to their perceptions, abandoning the local church in the process. All three may conclude that the church is expendable in light of the greater utility of their preferred alternative.
Our answer? It’s not the same, whatever our perceptions may be. The sacraments are not available online. Neither are they of secondary importance to the well-being of our souls. We also need the preaching and teaching of those called by God and authorized by the church. We need as well the prayers of the two or more offered in the assembly of the church which Jesus has promised to answer. We need the oversight and accountability provided by church leaders. God is sovereign and may bless His word outside of the church. Undoubtedly He has done so. Yet shouldn’t our commitment be to that organization and the ordinary means by which He has promised to bless His people?
For a recent exposition of the meaning of the “keys,” see Gary Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2011), 13-16.