The Means of Grace

Question: What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? Answer: 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 their salvation. (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 88)

In a previous article, “Reformed Liturgy,” we discussed the vertical dimension or the “dialogical principle” of worship. Worship, we noted then, is for God, and not for us. God is the audience of our worship, not unchurched “seekers” or even fellow believers. He alone is the one whom we are to please in our worship. Worship is not evangelistic outreach, nor a concert, nor a lecture, nor a counseling session. These might be important things for Christians to attend at certain times, but they do not constitute public worship.

Our focus now turns to what worship does for us, and how it nurtures and edifies us through the means of grace. We need to confront ourselves first with the question, are we involved in a contradiction here? If our sole criterion is whether God is pleased, isn’t it impious to ask whether and how we as worshipers are blessed? Yet the Bible makes clear what happens to us in worship. When we praise and glorify God we will be blessed. The way that He glorifies us, the way that He causes us to grow in grace, is to worship Him as He desires.

This principle finds expression, for example, in Psalm 1. “Blessed is the man,” we read, whose “delight is in the law of the LORD.” Growth in grace will come to the believer as he obeys God:

And he will be like a tree firmly
planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season,
And its leaf does not whither;
And in whatever he does,
he prospers (v.3).

Scripture always connects growth in grace with pleasing God. The vertical character of worship, then, contains a blessing for us. We need not add to worship any “horizontal” elements for our benefit. The Westminster Shorter Catechism question quoted above spells this out. God promises to bless His people through the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and prayer.

These elements of worship, moreover, are “outward and ordinary.” They work slowly and quietly in reorienting our hearts heavenward. This is what God has designed for the souls of His people, but these ordinances are not a quick fix, nor are they a spiritual high. Too often, in pursuit of a spirituality of instant gratification, we might dismiss these means in search of what might appear to be a richer diet. But to do so is to resist the ordinances of God and to claim that we are wiser than He. The diet He has prescribed may not satisfy the taste buds that have been conditioned by world I:ness or spiritual junk food. But this diet is guaranteed to be nourishing for us, because God Himself is oath-bound to bless it toward our growth in grace.

Consider the experience of the early church on the Day of Pentecost. In response to Peter’s sermon, 3,000 souls come to faith. What follows for these new Christians? Filled with the Spirit, do they pursue exotic experiences of spiritual ecstasy? On the contrary, they attend faithfully the outward and ordinary means of grace: “And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

MEANS AND SECONDARY CAUSES

To speak of “means” is to refer to God’s providence, whereby, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, He preserves and governs all His creatures and all their actions. God does not carry out His plan in history only through miracles or the regeneration of the human soul. Rather He controls all of history through the use of secondary causes.

Conservative believers may be leery of employing the language of secondary causes. This suspicion is often in response to the naturalism of liberalism that reduces all of History to empirically verifiable causes and limits God’s existence to His immanence in creation. We have battled so hard, especially in this century, to defend the transcendence of God and the truth of miracles, that we may overlook the value of secondary causes. But to affirm with the Catechism the legitimacy of means is not to deny supernaturalism but simply to acknowledge that God uses creation to perform His bidding. God sovereignly works in the lives of all of His saints through circumstances that He ordains.

So the doctrine of miracles should not prevent us from upholding the doctrine of ordinary providence. We should not be afraid to talk about means. The Westminster Confession refers to means in its chapter on providence: “God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure” (VIII). Providence is the way in which God accomplishes His purposes. He uses means to bring us to Himself, and to cause us to grow in grace.

MEANS OF GRACE: MANNA IN THE WILDERNESS

Worship is our work and it is also God’s work. He is at work saving His people. But, one might object, are we not already the recipients of God’s saving grace? The Bible teaches us that God's people are saved, they are being saved, and they will be saved. The means of grace remind us that we who are marching toward Zion are weak and frail and sinful, and we are prone to wander. So we are in constant need of God's grace, and this is what we receive especially in worship.

Perhaps no metaphor is more central to the Bible’s description of the Christian life than the idea of pilgrimage. The church is like the Israelites in the wilderness (Heb. 3–4). We are aliens and strangers in this present life (I Pet. 2:11), and we seek a heavenly city (Heb. 11:16). As we struggle between our new identity of a life that is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3) and our present surroundings, we experience suffering because we are not home yet. This metaphor helps us to appreciate the means of grace.

The means of grace that God provides in worship become our sustenance; they are what keep us going throughout the wilderness of our pilgrimage. If we avoid them, we are foolishly ignoring God’s provision. If we trivialize them by preferring means of our own devising, then we do not understand how dire our circumstances are and how generous is God’s provision for us.

Absenting ourselves from worship is not only an insult to our creator and redeemer, who has ordained praise from His people. It is also a terribly presumptuous attitude regarding the state of our souls. The psalmist despairs when he is absent from worship: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1–2). These words are too often sentimentalized in contemporary praise choruses. But the psalmist is panicking, and his words are laced with desperation, especially as he contrasts his circumstances with the privilege of worship in his past: “These things I remember, and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (v. 4). Ultimately, the psalmist locates his assurance in the conviction that he will return to worship: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him” (v. 5, II).

Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews links the pilgrimage metaphor with the importance of worship: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:23–25).

As the Catechism notes, the means of grace are ordinary, and too often worshipers equate ordinary with boring. This should not surprise us. We should expect that God’s wilderness people will complain about His provision of manna, just as they did in ancient days. To be sure, God can work extraordinarily. The Confession acknowledges this in order to protect the freedom of God. But to acknowledge the extraordinary work of God is not to expand our options, allowing us to find God or to tap His grace by the means of our own devising. To presume upon that right is to disdain the gracious way in which He does promise to meet us and enable us to grow in grace.

MEANS OF GRACE AS CORPORATE GRACE

In his recent book, The Church, Edmund P. Clowney notes that thedoctrine of the means ofgrace points us to thetruth that the Christian pilgrimage is a corporate journey. “Growth in trueholiness,” Clowney writes, “is always growth together. It takes place through nurture, through the work and worship of the church.” The wilderness experience is a corporate march toward the promised land.

For this reason, the outward and ordinary means of grace are ecclesiastical ordinances. They belong to the church, which alone possesses the keys of the kingdom. The Reformers rightly insisted that outside of the visible church “there was no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.3).

Calvin employed the metaphor of the motherhood of the church in order to stress its vital necessity. “Let us learn, even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know [the church]. For there is no other way to enter life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, until she keep us under her care and guidance, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation." For Calvin, so essential was the church and the means that it provided that he was willing to conclude, “He who refuses to be a son of the Church desires in vain to have God as his Father.”

American Christians generally overlook the communal character of their faith. We practice what some have dubbed “churchless Christianity,” where church membership and worship attendance is incidental to the Christian life. Religious polling data have shown that large majorities of American Christians believe that they should arrive at their religious convictions independent of any church. With Calvin and the Confession we must reject the individualism of contemporary American spirituality, and the designer spirituality that invites us to pick and choose what works best for us. We do not come to church as consumers, looking for the best-equipped nursery or the most dynamic youth program.

Finally, adequate attention to the means of grace should provoke us to rethink the habit of absenting ourselves from evening worship. While the Bible may not specifically prescribe when and how often churches are to gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, reflection on worship as a means of grace will challenge the prevailing notion among American Christians that attendance at one service is sufficient. When we absent ourselves from the worship that is called by the elders of our church, are we not denying ourselves the fullest portion of the blessing that God intends for us? And when our churches are dark and empty on Sunday evenings, are the elders of the church nourishing their flock as adequately as God would have them do?

THE BENEFITS OF REDEMPTION

Precisely what do the means of grace accomplish? How do they work grace in us? The Catechism explains to us that the Word, sacraments, and prayer are the “means by which Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption.”

What are those benefits? The Westminster Shorter Catechism identifies these benefits in Q&A 32 as justification, adoption, and sanctification. As strange as this sounds, the Shorter Catechism suggests that there is a sense in which we can say that we are justified, adopted and sanctified through worship.

There are other benefits which “do either accompany or flow from” our justification, adoption, and sanctification. Q&A 36 describes these as “assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase in grace, and perseverance therein to the end.” What more could we need in the barren wilderness that we find ourselves in, as we suffer and are persecuted and groan for our Lord? What could be more comforting than to enjoy these benefits? And how else are we to obtain them, than by the diligent use of the means of grace?

The instrumentality of worship in communicating these benefits is explained in Q&A 89: “The Spirit of God maketh 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.” This is a bold claim, but as Paul writes, faith comes from hearing the preached word of God (Rom. 10:13-15). This also seems like an archaic claim. In our hyper-stimulated, video-oriented, MTV culture, self-styled communication experts are saying the sermon is an ineffective and outmoded means of communication.

After all, people cannot devote sustained attention to anything, much less a “talking head,” for more than 5 or 10 minutes. Yet here the church must be counter-cultural, and trust in the promises of God, even if it appears foolish according to the wisdom of our age: “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (I Cor. 1:21).

What is said here of preaching applies to the other means of grace: they too convince and convert us, and they build us up and sustain us in the faith. Baptism, the Shorter Catechism tells us, is a partaking “of the benefits of the covenant of grace” (WSC 94). In the Lord’s Supper, believers “are made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace” (WSC 96). Notice the language of benefits: we receive these benefits through the sacraments. 

In these words the Westminster Divines are echoing Calvin. Calvin wrote that “the sacraments bringthe clearest promises; and...they represent [the Word] for us as painted in a picture from life.” The sacraments, Calvin is suggesting, are sermon illustrations from God.They are the images He uses to show the gospel to us. Moreover they confirm us in the gospel. According to Calvin baptism and the Lord’s Supper “have been instituted by the Lord to the end that they may serve to establish and increase faith.”

Finally, prayer as a means of grace is accompanied with the promise of God’s blessing. When we offer up our requests to God for things agreeable to His will, then our prayers will be a blessing to us and cause us to grow in grace. This can happen, of course, in private prayer. But corporate prayer is a knitting of our hearts together. The Lord’s Prayer is a “we” prayer, a model for praying together, with and for others.

Specifically, these means convey grace through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Word. The Spirit enables the spiritual presence of Christ in the sacraments. And the Spirit prays with us, translating our groanings into words pleasing to God and edifying to us. The Reformers stressed the work of the Spirit in order to avoid the Catholic error of sacerdotalism. Grace is not dispensed by any virtue in the means themselves or in those who administer them, as if by some automatic or magical way. Rather, grace comes “only by the blessing of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them” (WSC 91 ).

THE EFFECTIVENESS OF THE MEANS OF GRACE

We are not saying here that God will not provide us with assurance of His love or an increase in grace through other means. Christians may find assurance and grace through listening to Christian radio or participating in small group Bible studies. God can always work wherever and whenever He pleases. But the Bible teaches that God has promised to bless the means of grace that He provides in worship in a way that He has not promised to bless anything else. We have no need to expect God to work through anything else if we attend diligently to the means He has promised to bless. If we want God’s blessing, if we want genuine comfort for the difficulties of our pilgrimmage, then we have no further to look than the outward and ordinary means. The means, communicated through the church, “are made effectual to the saints for their salvation.” And so we avoid or trivialize worship only at our own peril.

Dieters know how dubious are the promises of many heavily-advertised weight-loss programs. God’s diet is a sure thing. The Spirit promises to make these outward means effectual for our salvation. He honors His own promises and uses the word, sacraments, and prayer to sanctify us. We must avoid the many counterfeit diets that are flooding the Christian marketplace. Instead let us see how great God's provision is for us in worship, and how important it is to the life and the health of the believer. The means of grace are part and parcel of Christian worship. We worship to praise God and to give Him the glory that He alone deserves. And in worship God is also at work, extending His blessing to His people, and transforming us into His image.

D.G. Hart is librarian and Associate Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA). He serves as an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, PA. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).

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