The means of grace
Q65: Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?
A: 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.
Q116: Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
A: Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us: (a) and also, because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of him, and are thankful for them.
Q117: What are the requisites of that prayer, which is acceptable to God, and which he will hear?
A: First, that we from the heart pray to the one true God only, who has manifested himself in his word, for all things, he has commanded us to ask of him; secondly, that we rightly and thoroughly know our need and misery, that so we may deeply humble ourselves in the presence of his divine majesty; thirdly, that we be fully persuaded that he, notwithstanding that we are unworthy of it, will, for the sake of Christ our Lord, certainly hear our prayer, as he has promised us in his word.
Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q88: What are the outward and ordinary 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.
Q89: How is the Word made effectual to salvation?
A: The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.
Q90: How is the Word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?
A: That the Word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.
Q98: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
Q99: What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?
A: The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.
New City Catechism:
Q38: What is prayer?
A: Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God in praise, petition, confession of sin, and thanksgiving.
Q39: With what attitude should we pray?
A: With love, perseverance, and gratefulness; in humble submission to God’s will, knowing that, for the sake of Christ, he always hears our prayers.
Q40: What should we pray?
A: The whole Word of God directs and inspires us in what we should pray, including the prayer Jesus himself taught us.
Q41: What is the Lord’s Prayer?
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Q42: How is the Word of God to be read and heard?
A: With diligence, preparation, and prayer; so that we may accept it with faith, store it in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.
The Reformed catechisms link salvation to the means of grace, of which the Westminster standards lists the Word, Sacrament and prayer (WSC88), while the Heidelberg Catechism lists only Word and Sacrament (HC67). The concept of "means of grace" refer to those things which are instruments by which God communicates God's special grace to His people [Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology,604-5]. In other words, it is God's condescension to His people and His ordained activities through which God's favor and blessings are poured out on His people. The focus is always on God's gifts to His people. Through attending to these, we are strengthened in our faith.
Right here, we see that the New City Catechism generally follows the language of the WSC, and thus everything seems fine. The problem however goes back to the divorce of these activities from salvation and God's provision to His people. This lends the option of seeing the means of grace not as God's acts, but as Man's work towards God, or in other words "Spiritual Disciplines."
The idea of spiritual discipline refers to things that Man ought to cultivate towards growth in the Christian walk. It does not necessarily have to refer to any form of contemplative spirituality or eastern mysticism. In its most neutral form, spiritual disciplines seem to be virtues that believers should cultivate. After all, doesn't sanctification require us to mortify the flesh and vivify the new man? Certainly, we are not quietists who believe that believers just ought to "let go and let God" to grow in sanctification.
The issue however is not whether sanctification requires effort. The issue is who initiates it and the framework into which our striving in sanctification ought to take place. The difference between the "means of grace" and "spiritual disciplines" thus become clear. The "means of grace" are initiated by God. They are given by God for us to receive as we do them. Yes, we strive in sanctification, but we strive only after God has already given and we strive after receiving from Him. The means of grace are focused especially on God's Word and God's promises in His Word. It is God's voice, God's speech that reaches us, that touches us, that transforms us. Our striving comes after our receiving, and we come again and again to the means of grace to receive from the Lord His Word and His grace to us. In contrast, the "spiritual disciplines" focuses on asking us to do. 'Do this and you shall grow.' Hear the Word, and then you will know God more. Pray more and you will be more spiritual. Read the Scriptures more and you will grow in the knowledge of God. That is the problem! Do versus Done. By making the Christian life one of imperative upon imperative, we go back to a new Judaism where the steps we take towards godliness becomes like the Tower of Babel, with us building our way into the heavens. All the while, the Christian Life is like Jacob's ladder where God descends down to us. Law upon law wearies the soul, and instead of focusing on what Christ has done for us, we start to focus on our good works and godly actions.
The NCC thus opens itself to an interpretation of such activities as spiritual disciplines, instead of seeing them as means of grace. Judging by Tim Keller's love of mystics, it is not a stretch to see that it is possible to interpret those questions as speaking of spiritual disciplines. Without the clear statement that such are means of grace by which God is the initiator, the interpretation as spiritual disciplines cannot be ruled out. Therein lies the weakness of the NCC compared to the older Reformed catechisms, and why the latter are superior to the former.