The Means of Grace
Every trade, profession, or even hobby has its specialized terms. It is not necessarily the case that they use unique words. Most often words are simply used in a unique way. A person who wants to pursue a profession, trade, or hobby will have to become familiar with the terms.
This is no different in the life of the church. There is a specialized use of words and terms. A person who wants to learn about the gospel has to take the time to become familiar with the way words and terms are used.
When it comes to understanding the terms used in the life of the church, one would expect that this should present little problem for those born and raised in the church. In the same way that children learn much language by simply listening to others talk, those born and raised in the church can be expected to learn much by simply listening to others. In addition, just as children have opportunity to learn to become more precise in their language through the years of elementary and high school education, so church members have the opportunity to learn to become more precise through the years of church education in catechism classes and weekly preaching.
It is not unusual to discover, however, that people are not familiar with basic words and phrases. One such phrase is "the means of grace." This should be a most familiar term to the ears of every believer.
When we use the word "means" in the phrase, "means of grace," it refers to a medium, method, or instrument used to accomplish a certain purpose. We use it in situations where someone proposes a great project or perhaps a very expensive trip. We might ask, "Do you have the means to do that?" We want to know how they intend to accomplish their goals.
Use of means in our physical life
From Scripture we learn that our God is a God who uses means to accomplish his purpose. We see it in our physical life. For example, we acknowledge that God creates new life in the womb of a mother. This does not just happen. He does that through the sexual relationship between husband and wife.
Another example is the way we acknowledge that God gives us health and strength. Again, this does not just happen. There is actually a very long process involving cultivating the earth, planting crops, harvesting, cooking of food, and finally eating food.
Use of means in our spiritual life
Just as God uses means for our physical life, this is also true for our spiritual life. This is why we speak of the means of "grace," that is, the means by which God accomplishes his gracious plan of saving those he has chosen from before the foundation of the world. Most basically, this involves the sending of his only Son into the world and him dying on the cross, rising on the third day, and ascending into heaven. We can say that we are saved by means of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
The term "means of grace," however, is not used in connection with the role of our Lord Jesus Christ in our salvation. Rather, the term is used to describe the process by which God makes his children share in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ so they may escape punishment and receive eternal life. This does not just happen. It is not immediate, that is, without the use of means, but it is mediate, that is, God employs certain means.
That God uses means to accomplish his plan of saving sinners is clearly taught in Scripture. We see it in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). There we read how the Lord Jesus sent the disciples into the world to make disciples of all nations. That passage is often misunderstood as if the Lord Jesus gave three commands, namely, to make disciples, then to baptize, and then to teach all he had commanded them. A careful reading of the passage shows that the command is to make disciples. Our Lord did not continue to give two more commands but he told them how to do this, namely, by baptizing and by teaching. Baptizing and teaching are the means by which disciples are made.
God's use of means is also stressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Of particular significance are his words found in Romans 10:14-17,
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? ... Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.
It should be noted that Paul placed the emphasis not on reading the word but hearing the word preached, by official ambassadors.
We see this same emphasis on the preached word in 1 Peter 1:23-25, "For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God ... and this is the word that was preached to you."
The use of the means of grace in the confessions
The use of means is repeatedly stressed in the Reformed confessions. It is mentioned in Article 2 of the Belgic Confession. There it is confessed that God has revealed himself to us by two means, namely, his creation and his Word. The Word is stated to be critical in that it teaches us all we need to know for God's glory and our salvation. The extensive treatment of the Word of God in the Belgic Confession reflects the renewed emphasis in the Great Reformation on the Word of God as the chief means by which God works faith.
In the Heidelberg Catechism we come across it a number of times, even though the term "means" is not used. For example, in Lord's Day 7, Answer 21 it is confessed that it is "the Holy Spirit (who) works faith in my heart by the gospel." In Lord's Day 25, Answer 65 it is confessed that faith comes "from the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments." The combination of Word and sacrament brings to mind the Great Commission.
It also receives extensive attention in the Canons of Dort. It is most significant that the Canons, while explaining salvation in terms of God's eternal election, also show how God uses the means of grace to accomplish his purpose. It is mentioned repeatedly to guard against misunderstanding and misuse of the doctrine of election and to give encouragement and direction to all who hear the call of the gospel to believe in Jesus Christ. Three articles in particular stand out.
In the first place, there is Article 16 in Chapter I.
This is in the midst of the discussion about reprobation, the doctrine that God has not elected some to salvation but instead, God decreed to leave them in the common misery (Art 15). Most striking are the words of Article 16,
Some do not yet clearly discern in themselves a living faith in Christ, an assured confidence of heart, peace of conscience, a zeal for childlike obedience, and a glorying in God through Christ; nevertheless, they use the means through which God has promised to work these things in us. They ought not to be alarmed when reprobation is mentioned, nor to count themselves among the reprobate. Rather, they must diligently continue in the use of these means, fervently desire a time of more abundant grace, and expect it with reverence and humility...
God's use of means receives the fullest treatment in Chapter III/IV as it explains the way God works conversion. We read in Article 17,
The almighty working of God whereby he brings forth and sustains this our natural life does not exclude but requires the use of means, by which he according to his infinite wisdom and goodness has willed to exercise his power. So also the aforementioned supernatural working of God whereby he regenerates us, in no way excludes or cancels the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul. For this reason the apostles and the teachers who succeeded them, reverently instructed the people concerning this grace of God,. to his glory and to the abasement of all pride. In the meantime, however, they did not neglect to keep them, by the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the administration of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. So today those who give or receive instruction in the church should not dare to tempt God by separating what he in his good pleasure has willed to be closely joined together. For grace is conferred through admonitions, and the more readily we do our duty, the more this favour of God, who works in us, usually manifests itself in its lustre, and so his work best proceeds...
The mention of discipline seems an addition but it makes sense when it is kept in mind that discipline is the application of the gospel to the particular situations of life for believers. We should also note the call to honour God's way of working through these means to accomplish his work of grace by faithfully using them.
The third reference is found Chapter V, dealing with the perseverance of the saints. We read in Article 14, "Just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the preaching of the gospel, so he maintains, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of his Word, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and by the use of the sacraments."
Conclusion: use the means!
The phrase, "the means of grace," should be a familiar part of our faith language, immediately making us think of the way God uses the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, as well as discipline, to accomplish his gracious work of salvation. It helps us understand the importance of the ministry of the church, both in our own lives and in the efforts to reach others. It also encourages us faithfully to use the means of grace, for "the more readily we do our duty, the more this favour of God, who works in us, usually manifests itself in its lustre, and so his work best proceeds..."