According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, there are three means of grace:
Q. 88. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
It may sound high-churchy, even Roman Catholic, to say that the word, the sacraments, and prayer are the means that Christ uses to communicate the benefits of salvation to us. But as Protestants we are able to speak this way because we believe that Christ uses the preaching of the gospel, by the power of the Spirit, to create faith in the hearts of the elect (i.e., “effectual calling”), and that he uses the continued preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments to further strengthen our faith and increase our assurance. And since our salvation doesn’t just have a beginning but a middle and an end, covering an entire life of faith from the moment of conversion to the day we die, it is legitimate to say that Christ uses the public ordinances* as means of grace. We may even say they are means of salvation, as long as we are defining “salvation” holistically to include the entire process that stretches from our initial response of faith to the gospel to our ultimate perserverance in faith to the end.
*(I refer to the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments as “the public ordinances,” since Christ has entrusted these things to the visible church for the edification of the saints in the context of public worship.)
Public prayer and the public ordinances
So far so good. But notice that I haven’t mentioned prayer yet. It would be easy, of course, to immediately begin talking about the official prayers offered by ministers and elders in public worship. I would venture to say that all Reformed churches offer up prayers before or after the preaching of the word (most do it both before and after) asking the Lord to bless his word to the conversion of sinners and the building up of the saints. All Reformed churches, probably all churches for that matter, offer up prayers in connection with the administration of the sacraments, praying that he would use the sacraments for our spiritual benefit. Such prayers indicate our dependence on the Holy Spirit, apart from whose presence and power the public ordinances would have no effect. We may hear the word preached, but without the illuminating power of the Spirit, it will fall on deaf ears. We may attend to the administration of the sacraments, but without the Spirit’s presence, the water of baptism and the bread and wine will only be outward signs devoid of the inward reality to which they point. So public prayer has a very important role to play in connection with the public ordinances.
Private prayer and the public ordinances
This is all well and good. But the question naturally arises, how does private prayer relate to the public ordinances? Perhaps we haven’t given much thought to this, but I believe the question is important. My thesis is that there is an important symbiotic relationship between private prayer on the one hand and the public ordinances on the other. From my own experience, I would say that we are more likely to receive spiritual blessing from the public ordinances when we are cultivating a healthy private prayer life throughout the week. Of course we invite everyone to come and hear the sermon, and we invite all professing Christians who are members in good standing to eat at the table, even if their private prayer life is in shambles - which is most of us, most of the time! We can still benefit from the public ordinances as long as we come in repentance and faith. Thank God we are invited to come as we are, not as we should be. But I find that the spiritual benefit of attending on the public ordinances is increased if we have been consciously enjoying our relationship with Christ in the context of our private prayer life during the week. This only makes sense, because faith is like a muscle — if we haven’t been using the muscle throughout the week, it will be harder (though certainly not impossible) to exercise it at church.
Private prayer and the Lord’s Supper
One thing that we don’t often discuss, but which I think is crucial, is that we enjoy communion with Christ through the Lord’s Supper. We are so focused on the debates over the metaphysics of Christ’s “real presence” in the Supper, that we forget the obvious: we do have communion with Christ in the Supper, and, by definition, communion involves communication or prayer. The risen Lord Jesus says to the church, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). We shouldn’t just sit passively during the sacrament and wait for lightning to strike. We must “open the door.” We must commune with Christ by addressing him privately, in our hearts, not just relying on the minister’s prayer of consecration at the beginning. Such prayers can also be in the form of hymns that are addressed to Christ — there are quite a number of such hymns, e.g., “My Jesus, I love Thee.” The point is, if we need to pray to Christ during communion in order to enjoy Christ’s presence, or at least to enjoy it better, then we need to learn how to pray to Christ during the week in order to prepare us to do so in a heightened way as we receive the sacrament.
Private prayer and preaching
Similar considerations apply to preaching. To understand how private prayer helps us benefit from hearing the word preached, we need to understand how private prayer helps us benefit from private, devotional Bible reading. I think it works something like this. When we are reading the Bible devotionally, some particular verse or pericope stands out to us, and we then turn it into prayer. Either we receive a certain comforting promise, which we then thank the Lord for. Or we are reminded of something wonderful about the person and work of Christ, which causes us to offer praise to Christ. Or we are called to some Christian duty or ethical imperative, and we ask the Lord to help us grow in personal holiness and sanctification. With this habit of prayerful reading in place during the week, we can then come to hear the word preached on Sunday and do the same thing. Having the habit in place during the week helps us to do it on Sunday.
The symbiosis of public and private
As we prayerfully attend on the public ordinances and receive the spiritual benefit that the Spirit promises to give us through them, we are then sent forth to our week to continue the symbiotic process. What we gained from the sermon and the Lord’s Supper can overflow into Monday and Tuesday as we continue our private prayers to the Lord, seeking to apply what we were reminded of in the sermon, seeking the Lord’s grace to fight against our besetting sins, or receiving his guidance as we face important decisions. And the more regularly we are drawing near to God through Christ to receive grace to help in time of need throughout the week, the more we will be spiritually prepared to take advantage of the even greater spiritual blessings promised through the public ordinances during Sunday worship.
Both public prayer and private prayer are critical to increasing the spiritual benefits that God desires us to receive from attending on the public ordinances. And this makes sense in light of my previous posts where I have argued that prayer is essentially an acting of faith. Since God promises to bless the public ordinances to our assurance and continued growth in grace only when we attend upon them in faith, it follows that we must attend upon them in prayer.