Why the Phrase “The Means of Grace”
In our finite ability to articulate the revealed glories of God in Holy Scripture, we are bound by the limits of language. This can be frustrating for all, and even objectionable by some. For instance, the word “Trinity” is not a word found in either the Hebrew or Koine Greek Scriptures. However, progressive revelation—i.e., as the self-revelation of God unfolds in Biblical truth—discloses that God who is One in Three, a mystery unveiled if not fully comprehended (all attempts at useful similes ultimately fail; we are left with the simple revelation: Our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is one). So, the word, “Trinity” is useful. Similarly, the phrase “the means of grace” is a concise way to articulate a key Bible message.
The “means of grace” is a phrase used in Christianity to both systematize and describe the Biblical revelation of how God communicates His will and His gifts, His plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, as well as the benefits of redemption. _The Westminster Shorter Catechism, used by almost all the beautiful parts of the _mosaic of the Body of Christ, is majestic in its simplicity; achieving unrivaled accuracy and broad reception by what it omits as much as what it affirms. On the way that God reaches us, this Catechism states, “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)
So, we know God’s will and God’s blessings in Christ_by means of (i.e., by _way of) His Word, His two emblems of entrance and abiding, election and redemption, the Sacraments (baptism, and the Lord’s Supper), and Prayer (private, or “devotional,” as well as public, as in “Common Prayer,” worship). There are many subplots to the story of how God communicates to us, but each is, at length, an expression of one of the three “means of grace:” Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.
How We Appropriate the Means of Grace
God “could have” saved us without means (again, we are constrained by human deduction and language to express what we see in Creation and receive in Special Revelation, the Holy Bible). Yet, God glorifies Himself and exalts the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, by ordaining and requiring a “means” to achieve His glorious “ends,” viz., His revealed purposes, or, “His will.” if you prefer. God, also, uses the gift of “faith” and the help of the Holy Spirit at work in His people to perceive Christ in the Word, Sacraments, and Prayer. Thus, God’s grace—an act of divine pardon by covenant employing substitutionary atonement, viz., the Virgin-born Christ Jesus who is the resurrected, ascended, and interceding “God-Man” as our righteousness, and Christ Jesus our sacrifice for sin—is made available and accessible to humankind by ordinary ways that are nevertheless extraordinary (i.e., the supernatural residing within the “sensible”). Therefore, the power (“efficacy”) of the means of grace lies in the nature of God and God’s immutable purposes. For example, these passages describe the divine power of the means of grace quite apart from any contribution of Man:
“I will build My Church . . .” (Matthew 16:18 KJV); “So shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11 ESV); “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16 NKJV); “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26 ESV).Various passages.
The Efficacy of the Means of Grace
The intrinsic power, or “efficacy,” of the means of grace (which is not dependent on the moral attainment of the human ambassador or “minister” of Word, Sacraments, and Prayer) does not diminish God’s commands for His People to be obedient, and His ministers to be godly in character and proficient in the gifts of administering the means of grace (e.g., “An overseer, then, must be above reproach . . .” 1 Timothy 3:2 NASB; and “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” 1 Timothy 4:13). What is clear, however, is that the means of grace are effective unto God’s purposes even if the human instruments are (or become) “unworthy.” An example of this truth is demonstrated in Paul’s reflections on ungodly ministers: “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill” (Philippians 1:15). Yet, Paul concludes,
“Some indeed preach Christ even from envy and strife, and some also from good will: The former preach Christ from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18).
The Sufficiency of the Means of Grace
If God has appointed Word, Sacrament, and Prayer as the means for human beings to repent, believe, and obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then we can be sure that God’s ways are sufficient to accomplish His purposes. From the promises to Adam and Eve to the New Heaven and New Earth, we may say with a divine warrant: What God promises, God provides.
And He said: “Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord. For it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.Exodus 34:10 NKJV.
The means of grace is an appropriate and essential theological phrase grounded in Scripture, church history, and used by diverse communities within the one true Church to identify how and by what means—i.e., ways—God communicates His revelation in Christ and the benefits of our redemption. Being of God Almighty, the means of grace are the divinely appointed instruments to convert and sanctify (i.e., “grow in grace”) a believer. Likewise, our Lord Jesus Christ builds His Church through the means of grace. Word, Sacrament, and Prayer are the indispensable and sufficient means God has chosen to advance His Kingdom. The question must always be put: “Are you exercising Word, Sacrament, and Prayer to know Christ, and to make Him known?”
- The Westminster Larger Catechism with Scripture Proofs
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism with Scripture Proofs and Commentary
A Sample of Scholarly Works by Tradition
Confessional Study of the Scriptural Revelation
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. 3. p. 466.
Westminster Shorter Catechism
“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).
A Comparative Study
Horton, Michael S.. “Theologies of Sacraments in the Reformation and Catholic Counter- Reformation” In Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, 119-131. New York: New York University Press, 2017.
Application in Ministry
Underwood, Ralph L.. Pastoral Care and the Means of Grace. United States: Fortress Press, 1992.
Means of Grace, Hope of Glory: Five Hundred Years of Anglican Thought. United Kingdom: Canterbury Press, 2005.
Packer, J. I., senior editor. To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. Wheston: Crossway, 2020.
Trueman, Carl R. [A Presbyterian minister writing in a Southern Baptist publication]”The Word as a Means of Grace.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 19 (2015): 59-78.
Mayer, F. E. (1939) “The Means of Grace,” Concordia Theological Monthly: Vol. 10, Article 8. https://scholar.csl.edu/ctm/vol10/iss1/8
Thompson, Andrew Carl. “John Wesley and the Means of Grace: Historical and Theological Context.” PhD diss., Duke University, 2012.
Olson, Robert J. “Outward and Ordinary Means of Grace: How Those Means are Effectively Communicated to God’s People.” PhD diss., Reformed Theological Seminary, 2012.