The Means of Grace

God created all things out of nothing. He was dependent upon no one and no thing when he created. God had no need to create. He was not compelled, coerced, or forced to create. It was all from freedom. All that God created came as an outflow of the all-satisfying and sufficient love among the persons of the Godhead. Everything that was created was simply for the celebration and glory of God. It is for these reasons, among others, that we can look at all of creation and say it was by grace. Creation was not merited or deserved, but it was simply because God in his gracious nature desired to create. All good things come to man on account of God’s gracious character.

The graciousness of God is also seen in God’s dealing with Adam in the aftermath of his sin. The punishment that Adam had merited for all mankind in the Garden was not fully and immediately meted out. If it had been, then mankind would have been immediately and completely eradicated. Instead, the graciousness of God was demonstrated in that God shows both his wrath at sin and all that opposes his righteous rule while also revealing his patience and sovereign plan of redemption for mankind. Though they deserve death, God’s blessing makes the woman fruitful and causes her to eventually give birth to the one who would crush the head of the enemy and conquer the power of sin. The promise of redemption and salvation flows from the graciousness of God. God’s relationship with man has always been marked by grace.

The question that has arisen throughout the history of the church has been whether or not, in the communication of this grace, God uses means. That is, are there things that God uses to communicate his grace to us? When we talk about the “Means of Grace,” we are talking about the instruments by which God communicates his grace to us. There have been a variety of answers to this question. Mysticism has held that the grace of God, even salvation, is simply Christ in us, an inner guiding light, or some spark of the Divine that makes grace available to man. There are no means, God’s grace and blessedness is just in us and the task of the believer is simply to recognize, realize, or actualize that grace. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, sees God’s grace as bound to means. The visible Church as sustained by the invisible Spirit, is the actual means of grace. In their view, the Church is Christ on earth, and the grace Christ merited is administered through the sacrament by the priest. This means, as the Council of Trent articulates, that the grace of justification can only be obtained through the priestly administration of the sacraments, or at least a faithful desire for them.

The Reformation held a position in between these two poles. There are means but these means are not identical with the visible church. There is no Mediator between God and man. The church is the communion of the saints, but she does not mediate salvation. Instead, the Word and the sacraments alone can be viewed as means of grace. These means are external, humanly perceptible actions, and signs that Christ has given his church and with which he has linked the communication of his grace. Westminster agrees with this when it asks:

What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemptions?

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation (WSC #88).

The Word is primary as a means of grace because it is the clearest revelation of Jesus Christ. It is also through the Word that we are instructed in the nature and practice of the sacraments. The Word is primary, but the sacraments are a means whereby Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is communicated to the elect by faith. Geerhardus Vos comments, “Accompanying the spoken word, the sacrament is a word contained in an image and intended for the eye” (Vos, Reformed Dogmatics). Calvin adds, “Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith” (Calvin, Institutes).

The Word and sacraments are instruments or means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit presents Christ to his elect. They are inseparably attached to one another. The Word of God giving shape and direction to the sacrament. The sacraments are, therefore, impotent without the Word. And both would be fruitless without faith. But as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is by faith revealed and set before the believer.