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What is a Means of Grace?

A brief survey of the top fifty best-selling Christian books reveals what subjects are of the greatest and least interest to the majority of professing Christians. Books on purpose, finances, personality, self-esteem, love languages, and relational boundaries dominate the list. Books on the triune God, Christ, sin, the gospel, Scripture, preaching, the sacraments, prayer, church discipline, and the local church are woefully wanting. Since Jesus Christ and His saving work form the foundation of our faith (1 Cor. 2:2; 3:11), we should be most concerned about knowing how to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Our growth in the grace of Christ will be commensurate with our use of the means God has appointed. Theologians refer to these as “means of grace” (media gratia).

The means of grace are God’s appointed instruments by which the Holy Spirit enables believers to receive Christ and the benefits of redemption. Although He could have chosen to reveal Christ immediately to His people, He has determined instead to do so through certain means. God assigned the Word, sacraments, and prayer to be the foremost means by which He communicates Christ and His benefits to believers.

Jesus teaches that the Scriptures are the primary and indispensable means of salvation (Luke 16:31; 24:27, 44–45). The preaching of God’s Word was central in the ministry of the Apostles (Acts 2:22, 41; 4:4; 5:20; 6:7; 12:24; 15:7, 32, 36; 16:14; 19:20; 20:32). Paul explains in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The Apostles placed the highest value on the Word of God as the means of the salvation and sanctification of believers (Col. 3:16; Heb. 5:14; James 1:18, 21, 25; 1 Peter 2:2).

Scripture also teaches that God has appointed the sacraments to be means of grace. Paul makes the connection between baptism and the grace of salvation when he writes, “[God] saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). He refers to “the cup of blessing” (1 Cor. 10:16) when speaking of the Lord’s Supper. Christ’s saving grace is spiritually communicated to believers when they partake of the supper by faith. Conversely, those who partake “unworthily” (i.e., in unbelief) may be subject to the judgment of God (11:27–32).

Prayer is also a means of grace, according to Scripture. God has promised redemption to all who call on Him in truth. On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared, “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).

We find a helpful historical definition of the means of grace in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, where we read: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates 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” (WSC 88).

How are the means of grace made effectual? How do they work? They do not work out of themselves (ex opere operato), as the Roman Catholic Church insists. Rather, they work by the Spirit of God in the hearts of the elect through faith. As Westminster Shorter Catechism 91 explains,

The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that does administer them; but only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.

The members of the Westminster Assembly did not, however, believe that all the means of grace are equally efficacious: “The Spirit of God makes 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” (WSC 89). The Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos gave a rationale for the priority of the Word over the sacraments when he wrote:

If necessary, we can think of Word as a means of grace without sacrament, but it is impossible to think of sacrament as a means of grace without Word. The sacraments depend on Scripture, and the truth of Scripture speaks in and through them.

Likewise, prayer becomes a means of grace only as it is shaped by the truth of Scripture. The Holy Spirit takes the Word and enables believers to pray in accord with God’s will.

If we are to grow in grace, we must acknowledge that God has appointed certain means for that growth. We should approach these means with eager anticipation and childlike reliance on the One who adds His blessing to them, and we must rest content in a right use of them, knowing that God has promised to bless them as we use them with repentant and believing hearts.