The Means of Grace – The Outward and Ordinary Means

The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms help explain more about the function and purpose of the outward and ordinary means of grace. The benefits of the redemption we have in Christ are possessed by us through faith. Faith is the instrument of our salvation. As the Holy Spirit, by God’s grace, works faith in us, we are led to repent of our sins. The odiousness and heinousness of our sins becomes unbearable but the beauty of and grandeur of Christ’s sacrifice for us becomes resplendent. By repentance and faith, we escape the wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law (WLC 153). Repentance and faith are the inward graces of the Gospel. All who are saved by the Lord Jesus Christ repent and believe by faith.[1]

But how is this good news outwardly communicated to us? God has ordained that we will come to a knowledge and understanding of this redemption through his outward and ordinary means. These outward and ordinary means are the word, sacraments, and prayer. These means are God’s method of revealing Christ to the elect. When the outward means of grace meet with the inward graces of repentance and faith, there is redemption with all the benefits of justification, adoption, and sanctification, along with assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, increase of grace, and perseverance to the end (WSC 33-37).

It is important here to clearly distinguish between God and the instruments used by God. In the Roman Catholic church and any other denomination that teaches baptismal regeneration (a belief that the sacrament of baptism, in and of itself, actually confers salvation to the recipient by virtue of the authority of the church as a storehouse of God’s grace) it is held that all who are baptized are ipso facto saved. In this scenario the instrument of God is confused and conflated with God. Paul argued against this view, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:28, 29). The sign of circumcision or baptism does not confer the grace of God ex opere operato, that is “from the work worked” meaning that executing of the sacrament grants the grace of God. The inward and outward grace of God work together but must remain distinct.

The opposite error must also be avoided. The inward and outward graces must remain distinct, but they cannot be separated. Those denominations that would ignore or diminish the sacraments, prayer, or the Word deny the outward means of grace in favor of some mystical or spiritualized form of religion. Modern American spirituality where the person is “spiritual but not religious” would be an example. They have eschewed any outward means of God’s grace and assume that they can still receive God’s inward grace.

There is an inseparable connection between the outward and inward. OPC pastor GI Williamson warns, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”[2] This union between inward and outward, while they remain distinct, explains why those who regularly hear the Word preached are usually those who truly believe. It also explains why some hear and do not believe (e.g. Simon Magus, Acts 8).

We cannot, therefore, underestimate the importance of the outward means of grace. If the Church fails to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, or pray, then the people of God will be harmed. Since these means are given to us through the Church, this highlights the incredible importance of the local church in the life of the believer.

We should also note that these are described in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as “ordinary.” We live in a celebrity culture where we tend to believe that some people are able to tap into more of the power of God than the regular and ordinary pastor of God’s people. Yes, some men are gifted communicators and are able to express truth in a clear and helpful way. But they possess no more power from God than the regular minister. In fact, the diligent and regular preaching of God’s Word by ordinary and faithful pastors has an incalculably greater effect than any celebrity speaker. Believing that some special speaker will bless us more than the regular and ordinary preached word is to conflate and confuse the instrument of God’s grace with God himself. God’s grace is found in the ordinary means of grace. We are called to seek the inward grace of repentance and faith by the diligent use of the outward means of grace.

 

[1] Elect infants who die in infancy and the elect with mental disabilities which would preclude them from repentance and believing would be a small exception to this.

[2] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes, 2 edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 2003), 284.