Why Does God's Church Gather and What do We Do When We Gather?
This is article three in a series of articles on the gathered church. For article two click here.
Encouragingly, many Christians quarantined by the COVID-19 crisis are asking about when they may gather again, face to face, with those in their local church. This is a good longing, and hopefully it comes out of clear gospel motives. This longing, asked in this time of pandemic, gives us a good opportunity to talk about why the gathering of Christ’s people is so important. When we approach this question, we need to realize that when the church of Christ gathers, it is more than simply an opportunity to see other Christians, as important as that is. God has given His people specific commands for worship, in both the Old and New Testaments, and the Scripture regulates His worship. Yet, these commands for worship benefit every believer who comes in faith.
In the New Testament, we see that there are specific, regular and ordinary means that the Lord uses to grow His people in the faith. He has not left us to our own devices to discover what works best for us in nourishing our faith. Rather, He has ordained specific means, which are ordinary, or should be regularly used, whereby the faith of His people may be strengthened and increased. God has always had a day that is set aside for worship and rest in Him (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 16:29, Exodus 20:8-11, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Revelation 1:10). This Sabbath, or Lord’s Day is a day where unique practices occur—prescribed by God—where His people are blessed. And this idea comes with the reality that Christ is among His churches—he stands among them—down through the ages (Revelation 1:13).
This is why the gathering of the church is so important. Christ stands among them, and gives them practices to utilize so that they may be nourished. What are those practices? They have often been called the ordinary means of grace. “Ordinary” not as in “not all that special,” but rather “Ordinary” in the sense of “regularly used.” Theologian Charles Hodge defines means of grace in this way: “Those institutions which God has ordained to be the ordinary channels of grace, i.e., of the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit, to the souls of men.” These ordinary means are Preaching, Prayer and Sacraments (or the Ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Preaching, when faithful and centered in the text of Scripture, is Christ’s very words to His sheep. Prayer is our dependent communication with God, through Christ, by His Spirit, and the sacraments are two practices, or acts where Christ’s words of gospel promise—of covenant promise—are made visible to our senses. Think of this: every time you come in faith to the Lord’s Supper, or to you own, or another believer’s baptism, Christ’s covenant promises are made visible to you. They are preached to you. Sacraments are a visible sermon to you. And, 1 Corinthians 10:16 makes clear that in the Lord’s Supper, we are spiritually present with Christ in a special and unique way.
To give a more lengthy example, here is what John Calvin writes, when speaking of the Lord’s Supper.
All we say is, that God uses the means and the instruments which he sees to be expedient, in order that all things may be subservient to his glory, he being the Lord and disposer of all. Therefore, as by bread and other aliment he feeds our bodies, as by the sun he illumines, and by fire gives warmth to the world, and yet bread, sun, and fire are nothing, save inasmuch as they are instruments under which he dispenses his blessings to us; so in like manner he spiritually nourishes our faith by means of the sacraments, whose only office is to make his promises visible to our eye…
There are other things that we utilize during our days on this earth as we walk with Christ: Good books, coffee with a Christian friend, accountability groups, podcasts and blogs, and book studies over lunch. These things however, are not the ordinary things that Christ has ordained and has promised to bless regularly in our lives. The other things are good, but Christ has, in His word, promised that these ordinary means, when attended to in faith, will be used to grow us in Him (Acts 20:32).
COVID19 has caused us to ask when we will get to gather again. It’s also a good time to ask then, “why do we gather, and what ought we to practice when we do…?”
J. Ryan Davidson (Ph.D. cand., Free University of Amsterdam) is the pastor of Grace Baptist Chapel, a Reformed Baptist Congregation in Hampton, VA. He holds degrees from Samford University (B.A.), The College of William & Mary (M.Ed.) and Southern Seminary (Th.M.) in Louisville, KY. He is married to Christie, and they share four wonderful children.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 3:466. Accessed from Thomas R. Schreiner and Matthew R Crawford, eds. The Lord’s Supper: Remembering and Proclaiming Christ Until He Comes, Volume 10, NAC studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 255.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter XIV, Section 12. Taken from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. II. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 499.
 For a more detailed study on this, see: J. Ryan Davidson, Green Pastures: A Primer on the Ordinary Means of Grace (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2019).