The Means of Grace: The Word and Prayer

Sermon by Billy Dempsey on Jul 7

Psalm 119:25-32

If you all will open your Bibles to Psalm 119, we will be reading from verses 25 to 32 in a few moments. A few words of general introduction for us so that we know what is coming our way the next several weeks, then we’ll ask God’s blessing on His Word and read it and hear what it has to say to us.

For the next several Lord’s Days, some of our assistant ministers will be examining what we call “the means of grace,” that is, the means that God has given us for our use in spiritual growth - the Word of God, both in preaching and teaching and personal devotion, prayer, the sacraments, that is, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, corporate worship. These are the tools that God has given to us for our growth in grace, for our coming closer to Him, and His coming closer to us. They happen to be the very tools that God uses to grow us. So our growth in grace isn’t a willy-nilly, maybe so-maybe not random experience. If we use these means, we’ll grow spiritually because He’ll bless our use of them. And if we don’t use them, we won’t grow, and our spiritual formation will be weak and sickly, we’ll never be strong, never be able to bear up under the trial of difficulty inevitably God sends to us, never be able to experience the fullness of the joys that He sends as well. Without our using the means of grace, we’re not spiritually healthy. If you quit eating today, didn’t eat that large wonderful lunch that’s waiting for you in just a few minutes, if you quit eating today your body would wither. Spiritually it works the same way. If we don’t use the means that God has provided for our spiritual health and nourishment, spiritually we wither; our souls wither.

We describe ourselves as “an ordinary means of grace” church. What do we mean by that? That sounds like a bit of jargon; a bit of a buzz word. What do we mean? We promote, when we say that, we’re saying we promote the means of grace I’ve already listed, especially the preaching of God’s Word for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for deeds of service. That means, to put it very plainly, don’t ever expect your elders and deacons to run a clothes closet here or a food pantry. Are clothes closets and food pantries bad ideas? No, they’re very good ideas and a very good response to the need of a community perhaps. So if we need one, go do it. Go do it. The church as an institution, overseen by the elders and the deacons, don’t wait for them. If we need a clothes closet, go do it.

You see, the same church in which we live and worship and we’re a part of, in its earliest days had a crisis, had a crisis with mercy ministry - the handling of food, especially getting food to widows. And the apostles received the difficulty and they said, “You’ve got to fix this, Church. Find these men of spiritual wisdom, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, and fix the problem because our job is the ministry of the Word and prayer.” And that has been the Church’s stance ever since. We’ve got to minister the Word and prayer. The world is broken. The world is broken, and it is the preaching and the teaching of God’s Word to the Church that equips the Church to go out there and find the brokenness of the world and speak to it.

William Wilberforce, a member of Parliament, determined under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word that slavery was a great evil and had to be stopped. He didn’t go to his elders and say, “How come y’all aren’t fixing slavery?” No. What did he do? He banded together with believing men and women of like mind, created societies, did incredible work for thirty-plus years to move the British empire away from slavery and defeat slavery in that culture. He didn’t wait for the elders of the Church to decide it was their calling. It was his calling. Under the preaching of God’s Word, he was convicted it was right and he went out and struck a mighty blow for the Gospel in his society.

Robert Raikes looked at the children of the Industrial Revolution busy in the mines and the sweatshops and the mills, not going to school, not learning to read, not knowing how to read the scripture; a whole generation of young people growing to adulthood without being able to read the scripture for themselves. Under the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, he knew it was wrong. He knew it had to be stopped; something had to be done. He didn’t go to his elders and say, “You all have got to fix this problem!” He joined believing men and women of like mind and like heart whose consciences were convicted that the Word of God had to be read by each generation and they began to educate children. They began to educate children on Sunday afternoons and they used unused church buildings to do that. They were called the Sunday Schools and they were the forebear of the Sunday School that you've been to this morning. Because of the convicting power, the equipping power of the Word of God, Robert Raikes and those like him struck a mighty blow in their culture for the Gospel and for the good of men and women.

As you and I leave this room today, what’s the blow that our culture needs to have struck? What’s the blow that our culture needs to have struck? What do we need here in our city? Where does the Gospel need to speak in our city? Is there something we can do? Can we band together with believing men and women from other churches, from other fellowships, and strike a blow for Christ right here, right here in Jackson because we’re equipped and convicted by the Word of God? That’s what we do here. We preach and teach the Word of God so the church goes out into the world and strikes a blow for Christ in places where the world is lost and dying and broken. Don’t wag your fingers at the elders and say, “How come the church isn’t fixing this?” Church, Church, fix it! Where has God planted you? Where has God called you? Where has God shown you that needs the application of Gospel principles? Fix it. That’s what the Word of God equips us to do. We don’t have all the answers, but we have all the power of God in the scripture. That’s why we call ourselves an ordinary means of grace church. We want to teach the Bible and equip the saints to go out yonder into the world and do the work of ministry, to strike a blow for Christ, to aide a broken world, pointing it toward the Savior. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we want to do here. That’s the best good that we can do the world right here is to equip you, the saints, to be salt and light out there.

Well with that in mind, let’s turn our attention. My assignment is to talk about two of the means of grace this morning. One, the Word of God; the other, prayer. And I want us to think about the Word of God really along the lines of Psalm 119. So let me pray, let me read this section, and then we’ll begin to think specifically about the Word of God as a means of grace. Let’s pray.

Father, we need to hear from You. I’ve just issued some challenges that we are insufficient for. But You make us sufficient by Your Word. And so feed our souls in these few moments. Feed our souls, equip us, make us ready to serve You in large ways and small on the other side of these walls. Hear our prayer, for Jesus’ sake, amen.

Psalm 119, beginning with verse 25:

“My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word! When I told of my ways, you answered me; teach me your statutes! Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works. My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O Lord; let me not be put to shame! I will run in the way of your commandments when you enlarge my heart!”

The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of God stands forever.

Meditation

Psalm 119 is the great psalm about the scripture; “the little Bible” it’s known as. Throughout its twenty-two sections, it extols the virtues, the glories, the efficacy of God’s Word. There is no more beautiful portion of scripture than Psalm 119 to talk about the wonders of the Bible. Eight times in this psalm alone does the psalmist declare, “I love your Word,” or “Your Law, Your precepts, Your testimonies,” or “Your statues.” Andrew Bonar tells of meeting a simple Christian in a Scottish farmhouse who was now, at the time of their meeting, meditating his way through the Bible now for the third time. That’s what Spurgeon says of the writer of Psalm 119. He’s gone past reading into meditation. Whoever wrote this psalm - David or another - was saturated with the books of the scripture that he possessed.

The State of His Soul

Let’s talk about these verses and we’ll run through them very quickly. And as we do so, I want you to recognize what is the psalmist asking God’s Word to do or God to send His Word to do. Pay attention to that as we work our way through these couplets that make up verses 25 to 32. First of all, he begins with the state of his soul. “My soul clings to the dust.” He’s overwhelmed. He’s burdened almost to the death. And what does he pray for? He doesn’t pray for understanding; he doesn’t pray for relief. He doesn’t pray for the end of the trial. He prays for life. “Give me life according to Your Word.” The Word of God shows us that He who first made us is the one who must keep us alive. It shows us the work of the Spirit of God who, through His Word, pours fresh life into our souls.

Think with me of Jesus standing outside the tomb of Lazarus. And what did He do to raise him? He called him forth. He spoke to him. He spoke to him. How does He give life to you and me when our souls are sinking and our souls are clinging to the dust? He gives us life by His Word. If we look for anything else, we’ve missed the point. The point is to call out to Him, “Give me life according to Your Word. Give me life through Your Word. Give me life from Your Word.” That’s what the psalmist is asking for and that’s the prayer that God answers. As you and I find ourselves in those situations, it’s life that we need. It’s not even understanding that we need. We need life. “Give me life according to Your Word.”

Confession

He moves from there to talk of confession. And I think David, the writer, perhaps David, will make more than one confession in this series of verses. He brings up the mention of confession right here and God’s acceptance of his confession. “When I told of my ways, You answered me.” Our confession and the confession of the psalmist is not so much for God to know what our sin is as much as it is for us to hear of ourselves tell of it and to own it for what it is before Him. That’s the value of confession. I don’t think any of us has ever made a complete confession. I don’t think I’ve ever found the bottom of the whole that sin has eaten into my heart and soul. My confession has never been complete; yours hasn't either because we don't know ourselves as deeply as that. God knows us from the top to the bottom and He knows all those dark, hidden places and those dark, hidden sins that we haven’t guessed at. Yet we confess what we know. We confess what we see. We own it. We own it and God hears our confession and stays near enough to answer.

Do you see that? “I told of my ways. You answered me.” Wow, what a marvelous image that God doesn’t step away from the sinner who’s penitent and seeking pardon but stays close enough to answer. It reminds us what John says of His promise in 1 John chapter 1 verse 9 - “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Chapter 2 verse 1 talks about our advocate, the One who speaks to the Father on our behalf, our behalf as sinners who need an advocate, who need a lawyer - “Jesus Christ, the righteous one.” “I told of my ways, You answered me.”

And what follows God's answer? A humble plea, "Teach me Your statutes. Teach me Your Law. Without Your statutes, I cannot walk in a manner that pleases You. Without them, I'm going to wander. Teach me. Teach me Your Law. Teach me Your statutes. Teach me so that I can walk with You, so that I can walk straight before You.” Confession, repentance, humility. “Teach me Your statutes.”

There’s another thing that he says along that same line, maybe developing that thought of confession. Verse 27, “Make me understand the way of Your precepts.” Or as Spurgeon would translate that, “Give me a deeper insight into the practical meaning of Your Word. Let me get a clear idea of the tone and tenor of Your Law.” Let me get a clear idea of the tone and tenor of Your Law. The psalmist is praying for understanding so that he can follow the Lord with his eyes wide open rather than a blind obedience. The kind of understanding that really only comes from the Lord Himself and from His Word.

Remember, one of the principles that we think of when we think of the Word is that one passage opens or unlocks the secrets of another. The Bible interprets the Bible. And so as God Word becomes increasingly more open to us, passage unlocking passage, secret giving way to secret, application giving way to application, what’s the response? Well, the psalmist tells us - “and I will meditate on Your wondrous works.” You know what he’s saying? He’s saying, “I’m going to daydream about You. I’m going to daydream about You. Make me understand the way of Your precepts and I’m going to daydream about You.” What do we daydream about? We daydream about a new car. We daydream about either this year’s vacation or next year’s vacation. We daydream about, “What would I do if I had $500 extra in my bank account?” We daydream about all kinds of things. I don’t know if we spend much time daydreaming about Jesus, but that’s exactly what the psalmist is saying. “I want to understand Your precepts. I want to understand Your Laws. I want to understand You so that I can daydream about You; I can meditate on Your works. I can pass the time thinking about You correctly, constructively, as You are.” He responds by wanting to daydream about God’s wondrous works.

This is what the Gospel does, y’all. This is what the Gospel does to us. The Gospel opens our hearts, softens our hearts, brings our hearts to God, and we begin in ways that we never would have guessed to fall in love with God for what He has done for us in Christ. The more we understand how deep our need is and how our need is satisfied in Christ, the more in love with Him that we are and the more that we daydream about His ways and His works.

Strengthening

But sometimes verse 28 is what catches us - “My soul melts away for sorrow.” Now doesn’t that come to us sometimes? Sometimes the sorrow is so heavy sometimes, the depression is so thick, “my soul melts away.” We feel like we’re melting and our plea is right there. “Strengthen me according to Your Word.” Sometimes sorrows overwhelm us. Can we strengthen ourselves? We only strengthen ourselves with God’s Word as God’s Word gives grace. God’s Word gives grace. His Word creates; His Word sustains. Grace enables us to bear the constant tear-drip of abiding sorrow. His grace through His Word repairs the damage to our souls caused by the ache of a pain and loss that won’t go away. It’s grace coming through His Word that gives us a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness.

We long for that, don’t we? We long for that, don’t we? We long for it. When we feel our soul melting away, we’re looking for help, we’re looking for a lifeline, we’re looking for something to grab, and the psalmist is saying, “It’s in Your Word! That’s my hope. There’s my strength. There’s what I can grab. It’s in Your Word that I find strength for my soul and my soul doesn’t melt into nothingness because the sorrow that overwhelms me. It’s in Your Word that I find strength.” Strength to endure. It doesn’t mean the sorrow is going to go away. It doesn’t mean the sorrow is going to disappear. It doesn’t mean that tomorrow the sun will come up and everything will be new. It would be wonderful. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It’s not what God’s ways with us always are, are they? Sometimes the sorrow endures. How do we endure? “Strengthen me according to Your Word.”

Faithfulness

I look at verses 29, 30 and 31 really as the crux of this section of Psalm 119 and I think they’re telling us the same thing and I want to take them together. “Put false ways far from me and graciously teach me your law! I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I set your rules before me. I cling to your testimonies, O Lord; let me not be put to shame!” The psalmist, could be David, has walked in the world and he feels the world’s false ways clinging to him like velcro. His only hope is for God’s Law to instruct him in the way of faithfulness, and that as a grant of God’s grace. He’s not calling for what he deserves. He’s not calling for what he’s earned. He’s not calling for, “It’s my due and my right.” Only as a grant of grace, “Let Your Word strengthen me. Graciously teach me.”

He says, “I’ve set Your rules before me. I cling to Your testimonies.” That verb is stark right here. What do we cling to? We cling to that which is most precious. Why are God’s testimonies here most precious? Because they bring life. You’re on a sinking ship. You’re not going to cling to that suitcase, no matter how many treasures you’ve got in that suitcase. You are going to cling to that life jacket around your neck! It only cost $10 and you may have $10 million dollars in the suitcase. The suitcase will drag you to the bottom of the deep blue sea! That life jacket is life. You are going to cling to it. You are going to cling to it. It’s precious. It’s going to save your life and you’ll see another day because of it. That’s what we cling to. He says, “I cling to Your testimonies,” because God’s testimonies bring life.

It’s important we remember this point. We’re not just talking about information. That’s really important. We’re not just talking about stuffing our heads full of Bible verses and thinking that’s what the psalmist is telling us to do. Stuffing our heads full of Bible verses is very important, don’t ever stop, but the point here is not information. The point here is what that Bible verse does in my heart, in my mind, in my soul because it brings life, it brings new life, it brings transformed life. It restores the one who’s learned the false ways of the world and longs to untangle himself from them. He won’t untangle himself without the Word of God, the testimonies to cling to him, to help him recognize what’s true and what’s false, what’s valuable and what can be tossed; what's good and what's not. It's not just the information. It's what that truth does in our minds and in our hearts. It's living. It's active. As the writer of Hebrews says, "It's sharper than a two-edged sword." It does God's surgery in our hearts and in our souls. That’s why he prays, “Let me not be put to shame.” He’s praying, “Rescue me by Your Word. I cling to it. I’ve set the way of faithfulness before me. Help me, O faithful one.” Spurgeon right here says, “He who has enabled us to cling to Him, surely will cling to us.” Did you hear it in the anthem our choir sung a few moments ago? The Son of God, forsaken, so that God clings to the people that He died for. The Son of God cast aside so that His people never would be. Surely God who enabled us to cling to Him will cling to us.

Transformation

Finally, verse 32, the psalmist says this. “I will run in the way of Your commandments when You enlarge my heart.” Look at what God’s Word has done. Verse 25, we’re talking about a soul that clings to the dust, a soul that's just about overborne with care and sorrow and burden. Verse 32, a soul that's saying, "I will run." Look at the transformation that the Word of God brings. "I will run in the way of Your commandments when You enlarge my heart." God's Word must work in us and then we shall do and be able to do all according to His good pleasure. It’s God who changes the heart. It’s God who unites the heart, encourages the heart, strengthens the heart, enlarges the heart. And so from our highest state, we always attribute all to the free favor of God, who loves us, carries us, and cares for us. God will help us run in the pathway of His commands.

We need to change our gears just a second and talk about prayer. That’s an abrupt end to the Word, but I hope that’s just kind of a seeding point, plants a few seeds for us to follow and for you to follow in your own time in God’s Word. We want to talk about prayer. I wish we had more than five minutes. We need five days to talk about prayer as a means of grace, but let’s jump into it in the time we’ve got. And what’s helpful to us right off the bat is to recognize that we’ve been using a prayer, Psalm 119, to talk about prayer and the role of God’s Word in our lives and in prayer. It’s appropriate to think about the close tie that exists between prayer and the Word of God as we read it and sit under its preaching and teaching. We’ve seen, in this short section, we’ve seen God’s Word expose the psalmist’s need for God in deeper and fresher ways as we’ve looked at this passage.

What’s been his response? The more of his heart and his life that he’s seen, he flees to God in prayer. He bears his soul before his Maker and he cries out to Him about his deficiencies and his needs. And what’s the Lord’s response been? Just as I noted a second ago, the plea for life in verse 25 is met with anticipation of running in the pathway of God’s commands. In verse 32, the psalmist is resting in the Lord’s care for him. The psalmist is expecting new life. The psalmist is confident in God’s commitment to him and God’s keeping of him. That’s what prayer does under the influence of God’s Word. It allows our souls to unburden themselves of all that God has brought to light. It’s the confident, trusting response of the child under his Father’s loving care. It’s the cry of the believing heart to the Father of mercies. We’re talking about personal prayer, intercessory prayer where we’re praying for other people, corporate prayer. Think of Jesus’ practice of prayer when He would pull away from the disciples and fellowship with His Father alone in prayer, sometimes for an entire night. And then that time in Jesus’ closest hour of need, the fact that He gathered His disciples to pray with Him. We’re talking about prayer on all those levels - our souls unburdening themselves of all that God has brought to light, all that we have need of, all that troubles and confuses and concerns us. A life in which prayer is regular and a serious exercise is a life that will know much of the peace and power of God.

Let me wrap up with this. E. M. Bounds says that we waste our prayers. “We waste our prayers on raising tomatoes when we could be raising Lazarus.” What does he mean? What does he mean by that? What he means is, we don’t pray big enough. We don’t pray deep enough or wide enough. We pray too small because sometimes our notions of God are too small. It’s God’s Word that opens the greatness of God to us. Let’s pray big. Let’s pray big. Let’s pray and ask God to do what only He can do in our own lives, in our families, in our church, in our neighborhoods, in this city, in our nation, and in the world. Let’s pray big. Let’s pray big and ask God to do only the things that He can do. Let’s not pray small. Let’s not raise tomatoes; let’s raise Lazarus. Let’s ask God to do a work, an amazing work across this community and around this nation and around the world, for Jesus’ sake and for His glory. Amen. Let’s pray.

Father, You’re good. You’re good to speak to us about things that we would not be able to figure out - about You and about us and about the ways in which we need You. Draw near to us as we make time for Your Word. Draw near to us as we sit under the preaching and teaching of Your Word. Plant it deep within us. Father, cause it to bear fruit in amazing ways in our lives for the benefit of the world around us. Father, indeed make us a church of prayer, a people of prayer. Make us people who love prayer and make us people who resort to prayer first and not last. Hear us, as we make all these requests, Father, in Jesus’ name and for His sake. Amen.

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