(Rev. Herman Hoeksema [1886-1965] was pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan from 1920 to 1965. This sermon was preached after 16 years of labor in this charge.)
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 25, Question 65: "Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed? Answer: From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments."
Although I have no serious objection if outsiders take cognizance of the contents of the sermon hereby published, its publication is, nevertheless, chiefly intended for the members of my own beloved congregation, the First Protestant Reformed Church of Grand Rapids, Mich., in whose midst, after sixteen years of labor, I may still serve as minister of the Word of God with a joy and love which I am assured to be mutual.
The sermon was written in full before it was delivered on Sunday, March 1, 1936, and it is published without change.
Rev. H. Hoeksema
Today it is sixteen years ago that I commenced my labors among you as minister of the Word of God. According to an established custom I then preached my inaugural sermons, in the Holland service on a text from Colossians emphasizing the need of the Church to grow in the spiritual knowledge of the mystery of God the Father and of Christ; in the English service on a passage from Isaiah 40, calling attention to the summons of a minister of the Divine Word to preach constantly that all flesh is as grass and all the beauty thereof as the flower of the field, but that the Word of the Lord abideth forever.
Not unfitting I deemed it to call your attention to this sixteenth anniversary. The subject our Heidelberg Catechism demands us to discuss this morning rather naturally reminded me of the day when I began my labors among you. This subject is the means of grace. And the chief of the means of grace is always the preaching of the Word of God, an office which the Lord Jesus Christ in His abundant mercy instituted in His Church in the world in order that she might the more be established and grow in grace. There is, therefore, in the subject that demands our consideration this morning a natural, unsought for occasion for me to remind you of the great blessing which in this preaching of the Word the Lord bestowed upon us all these years and which we may still enjoy; and to our serious calling and great responsibility over against this marvelous blessing and institution of Christ. I will therefore, somewhat adapt my message to the occasion.
The Catechism in this twenty fifth Lord's Day begins a new subject, the subject of the means of grace, the lions share of which is devoted to a discussion of the sacraments, a subject that at the time when our Catechism was composed occupied a central place in controversial attention. This subject of the means of grace our Heidelberger, in harmony with its practical character, links up with the question of justification by faith. In the preceding chapter of our instructor the subject of faith, of saving faith, its nature and contents, had been explained in connection with and along the line of the twelve articles of our apostolic faith. The question now is: how does a sinner acquire this faith in Christ? And how is he sustained in this faith? How is the saving faith maintained and increased? To this the Catechism replies that the Author of this work of faith in us is the Holy Spirit; man does not have the power of faith by nature; it is a gift of grace. And the Holy Spirit works and sustains and nourishes this faith mediately, through the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments. These are, therefore, the means of grace. They are, together with the exercise of the Christian discipline, also the marks of the true Church; but our Heidelberger treats them in connection with the matter of saving faith and, therefore, from the viewpoint of their being the means which the Holy Spirit employs to work and strengthen saving faith.
I am called, then, to speak to you on:
The Means of Grace
I. Their Nature.
11. Their Relative Value.
III. Their Mode of Operation.
I. In order to understand the nature of the means of grace, it will be well to consider the general question first: what are means? And then we reply that means are intermediate agencies through which certain definite ends are attained, certain effects are accomplished. Narrowing down our inquiry to those means which God employs with respect to man, we may define them as created things adapted by God and employed by Him to have certain effects on the existence and life of man. They are agencies through which God works constantly, that is, He always works through them in the same manner, He always produces the same effect by them and He never produces that effect without them, the means and the effect produced through them are by God inseparably united. Thus it is in the natural sphere of life. Through the means of the soil, of rain and sunshine, God always and constantly causes the seed that is sown to sprout and to develop into the ripened ear and thus produces the crop, provides bread for man. If He departs from this constant method of producing bread, as in the case of the feeding of the five thousand and of the four thousand by our Lord, He creates a sign and forcibly brings to our attention that He performed a miracle. Thus it is through the means of bread that He constantly nourishes man's physical life. Without food and drink He will not ordinarily sustain the bodily existence and life of man in this world. Thus there are many means. Through the means of poison God constantly destroys man's life; through the means of certain medicines He effects a cure of some diseases; through the means of an anesthetic He constantly produces a state of insensibility to pain. Means, therefore, are agencies to which God has bound Himself to produce constantly the same effect. it is important to note this idea of means. For, from this it follows in the first place, that it is possible for us to employ those same means. Impossible it would be for us to appropriate and use these means if it were not positively certain that God through them will always work the same effect and reach the same end. If He would not constantly employ the means of food to nourish our bodies, if today He would use it to strengthen us and to-morrow to destroy our life, we could not possibly employ it. And, secondly, from this it also follows that God has bound us to the use of these same means as He has bound Himself to them. It is not a mark of great piety to ignore and despise the use of means, on the basis of the consideration that God is certainly powerful to sustain our life without them. On the contrary, this is sacrilege, a profane attempt to tempt God. For us it is not only the question what God as the Omnipotent is able to do, but no less what He is willing to do. And in all creation He loudly proclaims that He will sustain our life through the use of those means which He ordained for that purpose.
It is no different with respect to our spiritual life. Also this He will work and sustain and nourish through the use of means which He has ordained and instituted in His Church for this very purpose. To this fact the Catechism calls our attention in this twenty-fifth Lord's Day. The question is: whence is faith? The Catechism is not speaking of the power or faculty of faith, but of that conscious activity of saving faith, whereby I may and do appropriate Christ and all His benefits, and am justified before God through Him. The principle, the power, the faculty of saving faith is wrought in the first moment of regeneration and is effected in the elect not mediately, but immediately, by the Spirit of Christ. Here the Catechism speaks of that work of God whereby He calls that power of faith into conscious activity, and whereby He sustains and strengthens it. It is speaking of that faith whereby "we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits." And with reference to it the Catechism asks the question: "whence doth this faith proceed?" And also of this conscious, Christ-appropriating faith it teaches that the Holy Ghost is the author. It proceeds from the Holy Ghost. All the work of salvation within us is His work. No part of that salvation is the work of man. It is God that worketh within us to will and to do of His good pleasure, Phil. 2:13. But the Catechism proceeds to teach that the Holy Ghost "works this faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments." This does not mean that the Word is used merely to work, not to strengthen, while only the sacraments are means to strengthen faith; for also the preaching of the Word is a means to build up the Christian in the most holy faith. But it does mean, that this divine work of faith in the heart of the child of God is wrought through means. God works saving faith in the heart of his people mediately.
What, then, are means of grace? They are, first of all, created things, things that belong to our world, to the world in which we live, with which we have contact. They, therefore, are adapted to us, they touch us and are able to influence us. We can hear them. We can see them. We can touch them. We can understand them, intellectually apprehend them. We can use them, eat them, drink them. Such, indeed, is the preaching of the Word; and such are the sacraments. The preaching of the Word means that Christ and salvation, which in themselves belong to another world than ours, to the spiritual, heavenly world, now are proclaimed to us in our language, in words we can hear and understand. The water in baptism can touch us, cleanse us physically; the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper we can see, touch, taste, eat and drink. These means are, therefore, created things, taken from the world in which we live and with which we stand in contact. In the second place, they are agencies which the Holy Ghost will use and constantly does employ to work and strengthen faith in the hearts of the elect. They do not work or effect anything by themselves, but only as the Holy Spirit uses them. And the Spirit always works the same thing through these means in the hearts of God's people, namely, faith, conscious, saving, justifying faith in Christ. And again, they are agencies without which the Holy Spirit will not work that grace of faith, neither nourish and strengthen it. The working and strengthening of saving faith is inseparably connected by the will of God to the use of the means of grace. And they are means that are instituted and given to the Church of Christ in the world, for her to administer and to receive. Means of grace, then, are created agencies, belonging to the world in which we live, used constantly by the Holy Spirit to work the same thing, the working and strengthening of saving faith; and instituted in the Church for her to administer and use unto the same end.
It follows, then, that the Church cannot with impunity refuse to administer these means of grace, and that the people of God cannot be saved without them. Without the use of the means of grace no one is ever saved, outside of those infants that are taken away by death before they can reveal any conscious activity of saving faith. To the practical importance of this I shall refer presently. But first I must call your attention to the relative significance of these means of grace.
II. There are two and only two of such means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments. This does not imply that God does not use many other means to lead His people to the ultimate goal of their salvation, for this is not true. In the broadest sense of the word all things are means unto that end. For, the Word of God assures us that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called according to His purpose. Heaven and earth unite in serving that purpose. And even the powers of darkness, though unwillingly and in spite of themselves, are but agencies to work for the salvation of the Church of Christ. It is well known how the Lord employs the sufferings of this present time as chastisements to cause His people to pluck the peaceable fruit of righteousness when they shall be exercised thereby. And not improperly has the devil been called the watchdog of Jesus' flock. But the term "means of grace" does not refer to these agencies which God employs in a general way; but only to those means which have been given to and instituted in the Church and which, therefore, we also use. And then there are two and only two: the ministry of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.
Of these two the preaching of the Word is always the chief means. By this confession the Protestant Churches distinguish themselves from the Roman Catholic Church. The latter has become a sacramental church. When you enter a Roman Catholic Church what strikes your eye first is the altar, symbol of the fact that the Eucharist occupies a predominant place. But when you enter a Protestant Church your eye is attracted first of all by the pulpit, crowned with the Word of God, and only in the second place do you discover the baptism font, and the table of communion. In these churches the preaching of the Word occupies the most important place. And this is as it should be. In the first place, it is evident that the Word of God is the sole means whereby the Holy Spirit first works conscious faith in the heart. The calling to faith is by the Word. The Sacraments could never serve this purpose. In the second place, it must be clear that the preaching of the Word is by far the most efficient means to strengthen and nourish, to develop and enrich that faith. Not the Sacraments, but the Word is the means that explains to us the riches and the fullness of Christ. The contents and object of our faith grow in riches through the Word. Besides, the Sacraments are always dependent on the preaching of the Word. Without the Word the Sacraments have no meaning; the Word alone is full of meaning. If the Word of God is considered a testament of God to His people, the Sacraments are the symbols and seals attached to that testament; but the testament is the most important. And, therefore, the ministry of the Word should always have the most important place in our churches. And as we shall have abundant opportunity in connection with the Lord's Days that follow to call your attention to the Sacraments, we shall, for the present, limit our discussion to the consideration of the preaching or ministry of the Word of God.
The Word is the revelation of the entire counsel of God concerning our salvation in connection with all the work of God in creation and redemption. In the broad sense it is the expression of what God has eternally in mind concerning Himself to us His people. And He spoke that Word in human language, He brought the divine Word down to our level, in signs and words we could understand. He did so from the beginning of the world and all through the old dispensation through His revelation to patriarchs and prophets. In the fullness of time He spoke this Word through Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh. And until the close of the apostolic age He spoke this Word to us through the divinely called and inspired apostles and evangelists. And He took care that this Word was preserved for us in a permanent form. For, He not only enabled His servants to speak that Word; He also inspired them to write it. This Word of God, then, we possess in the Holy Scriptures. In this sense we may, indeed, confess that the Bible is the Word of God. This does not mean, that this book of paper and ink, with these human symbols is identical with the divine Word, so that,. for instance, you would burn the Word of God if you should burn the Bible. But it does mean, that the Scriptures are from cover to cover and in every word the inspired and infallible revelation of the Word of the God of our salvation in Christ, in human language and, therefore, spoken to us.
Now, it is God's will that this Word should be ministered, preached unto His people. For this purpose He entrusted that Word to His Church, to preserve it, to propagate it, to copy it, to interpret it, and to proclaim it, within its own walls and far and wide in heathen lands. Not to every individual child of God, but to the Church He entrusted His Word. Just as in the old dispensation He entrusted His Word to Israel, to receive it, keep it and preserve it to the fullness of time; so in the new dispensation God gave his Word, not to an individual group of individuals, but to His Church, in which He dwells through the Spirit of Christ. And for this same purpose Christ instituted the offices in His Church, in order that the Church through these offices, and especially through that of the ministry of the Word, might preach, interpret and proclaim that Word of God. This preaching of the Word, then, by the Church and through the instituted offices, is the means of grace of which this Lord's Day speaks. This does not mean that the individual believer is incapable of reading and understanding the Word of God; neither that the Holy Spirit does not sanctify this reading of God's Word to the heart of the individual church-member. But it certainly does mean, that all this individual reading, or study of the Word of God by societies and Sunday school, is dependent on the official ministry of the Word of God. If there were no official ministry of the Word, in catechism and public worship, the true knowledge of the Word of God would soon be lost It is through the Church as their mother that the members are induced into the knowledge of the Word from their infancy; it is through the Church that the Bible and the knowledge of it has been preserved through all these generations. And the effect is soon noticeable when one ignores this official ministry of the Word and separates himself from the Church, in order to recede into solitude and read the Bible for himself. The preaching of the Word is a means of grace. Through it the Holy Ghost works and strengthens faith and causes the Church to flourish. Without it Christ will not bless His Church. And no one can with impunity ignore this will of God by which our salvation was inseparably united with the ministry of the Word of God. It must always occupy the chief place in the life of the Church and all other instruction and study of the Word of God, in home and school, in society and Sunday school must be subordinated to this means of grace!
Needless to say, that this preaching of the Word of God must have the entire Bible for its contents. It must always be preaching of the whole counsel of God concerning our salvation. We may not be satisfied with a little insignificant gospel or offer of salvation. We may not systematically select certain passages of the Word, which we, perhaps, like better than others and ignore or discard other parts. The Word of God is one. And every part of Scripture is organically related to that one Word. And the preaching of the Word means nothing less than the proclamation of the whole truth as revealed to us in the Scriptures. Only that Church is truly blessed that so preaches and so receives the Word of God that it grows in the knowledge of all the Scriptures that can make us wise unto salvation!
III. It is not difficult to understand how the preaching of the Word of God can serve the purpose of a means of grace. All our salvation is in Christ Jesus our Lord, the Head of the Church. In Him is our righteousness and wisdom, our sanctification and our complete redemption. He is our life and our peace, the ground and object of our hope. He is the revelation of the God of our salvation. And we are united to Him by the bond of faith. Faith is that spiritual power, that gift of God's grace to us, whereby our entire soul, with mind and will clings to Him, and draws from Him the fullness of grace and salvation there is in Him. The righteous shall live by his faith. But if this faith is to become a conscious activity of the soul, of the mind and heart, it must have an object, which it is able to apprehend. In other words, the full and living Christ must be presented to that soul, so enriched with the grace of faith, in order that faith may become conscious and active. Now we do not see Christ. He has come and died and risen again and is exalted in the highest heavens, far above all principalities and powers and every name that is named. If our soul in this life is to cleave to Him, He must be brought to us, He must be revealed to us, so that we may know Him and through Him may know God as the God of our salvation. And this is the function and purpose of the Word of God. Centrally it preaches to us Christ our righteousness, Who died for us and rose again, and in Whom is all our salvation. And, therefore, the preaching of the Word is adapted to the purpose of being a means of grace, a means to call our faith into conscious activitity and to nourish that faith to greater assurance and fuller comprehension of the riches of Christ. Bread is adapted to the purpose of nourishing our bodies; water is adapted to quench our thirst. So is the Word of God adapted by God to nourish our hungry souls with the Bred of Life and to satisfy our thirsty souls with the water of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!
We must remember, of course, that the preaching of the Word is but a means. It is not the cause of faith and salvation, but an intermediate agency through which the Holy Ghost works and strengthens faith. It is bread through which God feeds us; it is water God uses as a means to satisfy and quench our thirst. From this it follows in the first place, that the preaching of the Word of God is a means of grace only to the living children of God, regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. You may take bread to the cemetery and offer it to them that are asleep in its graves, but it will not serve as a means to nourish them. They do not eat and drink anymore. There must be life before it can be strengthened and nourished, and even before it can be called into the conscious activity of saving faith, whereby I may eat and drink Christ. And yet, it is the will of God that this means to call and nourish His people should also be placed before the dead, the spiritually dead. Nor are these like the physically dead that sleep in our graveyards in this respect that the presentation of the Word of God leaves them cold and without any activity whatsoever. The physically dead are wholly inactive, the spiritually dead are actuated by enmity against God and His Christ. And, unless God in eternal and electing love changes our inmost heart from death into life, the preaching of the Word to the spiritually dead will serve the purpose to bring to light in clearer manifestation the enmity against God that is in them. They will despise the Word of God. They will trample it under foot. They will reply to its calling to repent with an ever stronger and more determined No! And thus their hearts will be hardened, the things of the Kingdom of God will be hid from them, their judgment will be aggravated and the preaching of the Word will have become a savor of death unto death for them. But means of grace, means to call to conscious faith and to nourish that faith and cause the believer to grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is for the living children of God only.
And secondly, it follows from the fact that the preaching is a means that the work of calling and of strengthening our faith remains God's and His only. It is not the preacher, nor even the preaching that calls and works faith and that is able to strengthen it. Apart from the divine operation of the Holy Ghost the preaching is vain. This is an important truth to be constantly born in mind by the congregation. For, bearing this in mind and living in the clear consciousness of that truth, we will acknowledge God as the Author of our salvation even through the preaching of the Word. We will not expect our salvation from the preacher, nor from his preaching, nor from our own ability to hear, but from God only. And in this expectation we will assume the spiritual attitude of earnest prayer over against the preaching of the Word. Even as we bow our heads in prayer before a well supplied table, in order that God may give the blessing and nourish our bodies through the means of the food that was prepared; so we will open our hearts before the throne of grace when the Word is to be preached unto us, that God may feed our hungry and thirsty souls!
Permit me now to apply this message to this occasion. And, then, I will begin by calling your attention to the labor that has been bestowed upon us as a congregation these sixteen years. Far be it from me that I should glory and boast of my own work. It is not to the work of the preacher that I would call your attention this morning, but to the marvelous grace of God that has been bestowed upon us. For sixteen years God had His Word preached among us. It was ministered unto us from the pulpit, in our catechism classes, in our homes. Approximately twenty-four hundred sermons were delivered to you; and eight or nine times the whole body of the truth as contained in our Heidelberg Catechism was expounded to you. As to our catechisms, besides the regular catechetical instruction, a good deal of special instruction was offered to our young people, and societies. All our confessions were explained more than once. And a course was given in the history of God's truth as it was confessed by the Church in the past. The Canons, the Netherland Confession, the Three Points, the Baptism Form, all were expounded in detail. I say it once more, I will not boast of self. But of this I will boast, that on this sixteenth anniversary I may take you all for witness that by the grace of God the Word of God, the whole Word of God and nothing but the Word was ministered unto the congregation that is now the Fuller Avenue Protestant Reformed Church. I am confident that no one is able to gainsay this. If the preaching of the Word of God is the Bread of Life as it is presented to us, then we may, indeed, say that God has made us live in abundance of spiritual food!
What has been the effect and what is our present status as a congregation in the light of this abundant grace of God?
To be sure, for a large number of us the preaching of the Word of God has been a blessing. The statement of the Heidelberg Catechism in this twenty-fifth Lord's Day has been realized and verified in them: the Holy Ghost did work and strengthen saving faith in them. There are a number, a goodly number of families among us, that are very regular partakers of this means of grace. They never fail to attend public worship unless it is impossible for them to be present, neither have they become fastidious in their appetite so that they leave their own table to feed their souls with the dainties and delicacies that are offered elsewhere. Usually it is these same families that regularly send their children to catechism. There are a number of names of young people on my rolls that have a hundred percent or well nigh perfect record of attendance. It is in general these, that have enjoyed a steady and healthful growth in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. They have been founded in the truth; established in the faith; sanctified in their life. And they are lovers of the Protestant Reformed truth. They are and will always be the backbone of our congregation. And looking at this work of God's grace there is reason to rejoice and to give thanks to Him, Who only is the God of our salvation!
There is, however, not only reason to rejoice; there is also cause for grief and sorrow yea, there is even reason to fear and to be alarmed with a view to the future of our congregation. There are a number of us, especially among the younger generation, that despise the means of grace as present in the ministry of the Word. And the alarming phenomenon is that this number is rapidly increasing. They are those that only occasionally or never or hardly ever attend catechism. Only under the most ideal conditions will they show themselves occasionally. It must not be too cold, nor must the weather be too nice; there must be no skating neither must there be a ballgame that tempts them to stay away. And what applies to catechism is true of their church attendance. They attend once if conditions permit, or not at all. What, in the light of the fact that God will not save us except in His own way must be our judgment of them? It is hard to say and grievous to think, but the only conclusion to which this phenomenon leads is, that many of us, so despising the means of grace, will be lost forever! But even if this will not be the ultimate result, the fact remains that their present attitude plainly predicts the degradation of the church in the future. They know not the truth, though they might have known it. They understand not the Protestant Reformed principles, though they might have understood them. The result is that they do not love what they do not know. And if their number increases and ultimately predominates, the church is lost. I must say, then, to them with all emphasis: Repent! Despise no longer so great an abundance of spiritual means and so great a salvation! Terrible it will be to fall into the hands of the living God!
Then there are others, that seem to grow fastidious of hearing and always desire something different from what is offered in the preaching of the Word of God. I do not now refer to the natural difference in taste and appetites that must needs appear in a large congregation like ours. When in a large family the children grow up, it becomes increasingly difficult for mother to cook for them and please the tastes of all. The one does not like spinach, the other abhors carrots; one will prefer beef, the other pork; one will enjoy a solid meal, the other will set his heart on cake and pie; what the one relishes the other despises. This is also true in a large congregation. It is merely a matter of taste.
One prefers doctrine and always doctrine; another rather likes practical preaching; one would have me preach from the epistles of Paul, another prefers historical matter. And as mothers get gray if they pay too much attention to this difference in taste and try to please all always, so the minister will soon despair if he imagines that he is able to cater to every one's individual taste of having the Word of God prepared and dished out to him. Nevertheless, it is well also for the congregation to be mindful of this situation, so that we may not too loudly complain if the Word of God is not always prepared to our taste. The main question is always: is it the Word of God? And if it is, you must eat and not despise! But I am rather referring to the fact, that some are apparently ticklish of hearing in the evil sense of the word. This is characteristic of our age; and it is an alarming sign. The apostle warns against this evil in his epistles to Timothy more than once. "The time will come," thus he writes, (II Tim. 4:3) "when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts they shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables." In the American world thousands have succeeded in finding such teachers for themselves. And when I hear the careless and contemptuous remarks even some of us make about what is undeniably the preaching of the Word of God, I am afraid that this spirit of the times is making inroads into our own church. Beware! God will not be mocked. We cannot with impunity despise the Word of God!
In conclusion, let me admonish you and myself jealously to guard this institution of Christ, this means of grace, whereby only the flock of the Good Shepherd can be nourished unto eternal life, the ministry and preaching of the Word of God, that has been entrusted to our care. Let us not become the occasion or the cause that this institution falls into decadence, and that the pure milk of the Word is adulterated or substituted by the dainties of man's philosophy. Let us diligently attend divine worship and be present at every occasion where the Word of God is administered, both in teaching and preaching. Let us prayerfully prepare to receive the Word, and having received it, let us not immediately return to the things of the world, but speak about it to one another and meditate on it to our salvation. Let us, both individually and in our societies support and strengthen this institution by searching the Scriptures, that we may grow thereby. For, it pleases God in Christ to bless His Church, to call her to conscious faith and to nourish her with the Bread of Life, which is Christ, through the preaching of the Word above all! May the Lord God make you and me faithful to this sacred charge, that no one take our crown! Amen