The Ordinary Treasure
A Series on The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 154-160
Editor’s Note: This is part 1 of a 10 part series on Westminster Larger Catechism Question and Answers 154-160.
I once read a story about a wealthy man who was being pitched an investment in a gold mine. The salesman described the mine as so profitable that you barely have to dig, you can just pick up gold nuggets from the ground. But the rich man doubted the mine could be so good. So, he quipped that bending over would be too much effort.
This anecdote illustrates a perennial problem of ministry: people doubt that there is much benefit in the things of God. They doubt it so thoroughly that they ignore the ordinary treasure that is right in front of them.
But what is the benefit? And where should we look? A short series of questions from the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) engages with that question. Questions 154–160 discuss the benefits of Christ’s mediation and the means by which Christians can experience them. Future articles in this series will explore and unpack the following questions in the Larger Catechism. For now, we will look at WLC 154.
Westminster Larger Catechism Question 154:
Q.What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?
A.The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.
The benefits of Christ’s mediation are nothing less than that which makes the gospel good news. They are redemption, justification, adoption, sanctification, union with Christ (see WLC Q. 57, 65, 66, 69). So, the benefits are there. But where should we look for them? How do we pick up this treasure?
One sadly popular option is to believe that the greatest benefit will be some individual, inward and extraordinary experience. Actually, the catechism––and the Lord Jesus––says the opposite.
It may be helpful at this point to focus upon the words “outward” and “ordinary.” The catechism uses these words to express the typical things God uses to save and bless. By “salvation” the catechism isn’t narrowly talking about just a person’s conversion. Instead, as much as I am capable of sinning and withdrawing from God’s gracious work or presence in my life, even as a believer, my salvation is still in process (cf. 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15). Put another way, as long as my body remains in this world of sin and darkness, and as long as I can choose to act like my formerly dead and lost self (Rom 6:6; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9), I am still being saved. We all are.
Sure, God has the power to save and bless in whatever way he chooses. He could choose to fill a person with his Spirit in utero (cf. Luke 1:15, 41), but most people are saved in the normal and ordinary way of hearing God’s word and responding in prayer (Rom 10:17). Almost always (i.e., “ordinarily”) people begin their experience of God’s saving in the same way that they continue to experience God’s grace.
Many of the benefits of Christ’s mediation are dynamic, meaning that believers can benefit sometimes more and sometimes less from them. When the catechism talks about using the means of word, sacraments, and prayer “all of which are made effectual for salvation,” it is teaching a principle about where we can find spiritual gain. The means of grace are the main and ordinary way any Christian can approach God and benefit from knowing and being reconciled to him. They don’t get us any more grace, but word, sacraments, and prayer are the places God has promised to meet us. That is one of the reasons they need to be the central building blocks of our worship services.
We may well ask ourselves, Why? Why these and not something else? A humble answer is that God––in his perfect wisdom––chose these. Jesus made the power of word and sacrament clear in the Great Commission. He told his apostles (and us, by extension) how we should minister, saying:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, [by] baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20[by] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you… (Matt 28:19–20).
Both “baptizing” and “teaching” are adverbial, they demonstrate the means of making disciples. And, if we return to where we left off the verse above, the benefits are that Christ communicates himself through them: “…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b). He is with his people through the means by which he makes us (and sustains us as) his disciples.
In the previous paragraph I raised the question as to why the word, sacraments, and prayer are special. Why would God have chosen these things and not others (say, puppet ministry or dance)? I think thankful obedience is the best answer (cf. Rom 9:20). After all, he called us to be stewards, not inventors. However, it makes perfect sense that word, sacraments (the word made visible), and prayer (our response to the word) would be the appropriate means of communicating to us that we belong to him. Christ, the living word, died to reconcile us to God (Rom 5:1, 10). Now, he continues to meet with his people in the same way. We meet him through his word; we see him in the sacraments; we respond to him in prayer. These outward and ordinary means are the basic building blocks of relationship; Christ’s mediation is all about knowing God because we belong to him.
Let’s not be so foolish as to ignore the treasure that is before us because it seems ordinary.