The Sunday before lockdown, we had a newly-professing Christian show up to our gathering. He became a follower of Christ while living abroad and ours was the first church he had been to since returning to the UK. It was a joy to welcome him.
And then church stopped meeting.
There are many others from our church families that I’m sure you and I are concerned for during lockdown. Those who are physically vulnerable, and perhaps those who are spiritually vulnerable for one reason or another. We wonder – will church be the same when we fully emerge from restrictions? Will there be new people joining us? Will there be those who have drifted away?
And in the meantime, how will those we call our Christian brothers and sisters keep going? How will they persevere?
Under normal circumstances, we would be keen to point out the vital role of God’s appointed means of blessing – the ordinary means of grace. As Q.88 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says:
The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates 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.
As good as our efforts are on Zoom and YouTube and Facebook, none of us are able to fully maintain what we know to be the regular God-ordained means of grace. Oh, for the day when we can break bread together and pray side by side again (Acts 2:42-47).
But there is good news. Our God is greater than these restrictions, and his plan to shepherd his people home to glory is not limited solely to these means. As Ray Ortlund puts it here:
God does not limit Himself to His wonderful means of grace…His chosen means are not intended to restrict His availability, but the opposite. His chosen means identify where He has concentrated His availability, like a gushing fountain of mercy for sinners who are so desperate that they are finally coming to Christ on His terms.
While we are exhorted in Scripture to not stop meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), we realise that we are not sinning by failing to gather as churches in these days. Rather, we are being obedient to those God has placed in authority over us (Rom 13:1), and we are showing love for our neighbours.
Nevertheless, we are concerned about how many of our number will “reach the end by grace and grace alone” when we cannot be sure of the regular availability of the ordinary means of that grace. So what can we depend on?
Our church staff team are reading the book of Hebrews together this year (now on Zoom, naturally) and we recently arrived at these words in chapter 6 verse 17:
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.
The context is the story of God’s promise to Abraham, decreed afresh following Abraham’s faithful obedience to the point of sacrificing Isaac. And the important thing for us to notice is how the writer connects God’s oath with the Hebrews’ perseverance. There is confidence, there is optimism, there is hope – for the recipients of this letter and for us. Why? Because our salvation is guaranteed by God himself. He has an unchanging purpose for his people, and it is impossible for him to lie. This hope is secured for us in God’s very presence by Jesus our high priest.
We long for a return to the ‘fountain of God’s mercy’ we enjoy by meeting together – the means God normally uses to save sinners and bring them to glory. But for now, we take hold of the hope set before us and are greatly encouraged.
This tremendous hymn “The God of Abraham Praise” (click here to listen to the MM arrangement) reminds us of these truths and stirs our hearts with the hope of our future rest. There are many versions and indeed many verses. Here is one rendering of one verse:
The great I AM has sworn; I on this oath depend.
I shall, on eagle’s wings upborne, to heav’n ascend.
I shall behold God’s face; I shall God’s pow’r adore,
And sing the wonders of God’s grace forevermore.
May God bring his people safely home, according to his word.