I. The Means of Grace in General

A. THE IDEA OF THE MEANS OF GRACE.

Fallen man receives all the blessings of salvation out of the eternal fountain of the grace of God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ and through the operation of the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit can and does in some respects operate immediately on the soul of the sinner, He has seen fit to bind Himself largely to the use of certain means in the communication of divine grace. The term “means of grace” is not found in the Bible, but is nevertheless a proper designation of the means that are indicated in the Bible. At the same time the term is not very definite and may have a far more comprehensive meaning than it ordinarily has in theology. The Church may be represented as the great means of grace which Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, uses for the gathering of the elect, the edification of the saints, and the building up of His spiritual body. He qualifies her for this great task by endowing her with all kinds of spiritual gifts, and by the institution of the offices for the administration of the Word and the sacraments, which are all means to lead the elect to their eternal destiny. But the term may have an even wider scope. The whole providential guidance of the saints, through prosperity and adversity, often becomes a means by which the Holy Spirit leads the elect to Christ or to an ever closer communion with Him. It is even possible to include in the means of grace all that is required of men for the reception and the continued enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant, such as faith, conversion, spiritual warfare, and prayer. It is neither customary nor desirable, however, to include all this under the term “means of grace.” The Church is not a means of grace alongside of the Word and the sacraments, because her power in promoting the work of the grace of God consists only in the administration of these. She is not instrumental in communicating grace, except by means of the Word and of the sacraments. Moreover, faith, conversion, and prayer, are first of all fruits of the grace of God, though they may in turn become instrumental in strengthening the spiritual life. They are not objective ordinances, but subjective conditions for the possession and enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant. Consequently, it is better not to follow Hodge when he includes prayer, nor McPherson when he adds to the Word and the sacraments both the Church and prayer. Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the Church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace. Of course these may never be dissociated from Christ, nor from the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit, nor from the Church which is the appointed organ for the distribution of the blessings of divine grace. They are in themselves quite ineffective and are productive of spiritual results only through the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit.

B. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE WORD AND THE SACRAMENTS AS MEANS OF GRACE.

The fact that one can speak of means of grace in a rather general sense makes it imperative to point to the distinctive characteristics of the means of grace in the technical or restricted sense of the word.

1. They are instruments, not of common but of, special grace, the grace that removes sin and renews the sinner in conformity with the image of God. It is true that the Word of God may and in some respects actually does enrich those who live under the gospel with some of the choicest blessings of common grace in the restricted sense of the word; but it, as well as the sacraments, comes into consideration here only as a means of grace in the technical sense of the word. And the means of grace in this sense are always connected with the beginning and the progressive operation of the special grace of God, that is redemptive grace, in the hearts of sinners.

2. They are in themselves, and not in virtue of their connection with things not included in them, means of grace. Striking experiences may, and undoubtedly sometimes do, serve to strengthen the work of God in the hearts of believers, but this does not constitute them means of grace in the technical sense, since they accomplish this only in so far as these experiences are interpreted in the light of God’s Word, through which the Holy Spirit operates. The Word and the sacraments are in themselves means of grace; their spiritual efficacy is dependent only on the operation of the Holy Spirit.

3. They are continuous instruments of God’s grace, and not in any sense of the word exceptional. This means that they are not associated with the operation of God’s grace merely occasionally or in a more or less accidental way, but are the regularly ordained means for the communication of the saving grace of God and are as such of perpetual value. The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Question 65, “Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?” And the answer is, “From the Holy Spirit, who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.”

4. They are the official means of the Church of Jesus Christ. The preaching of the Word (or, the Word preached) and the administration of the sacraments (or, the sacraments administered) are the means officially instituted in the Church, by which the Holy Spirit works and confirms faith in the hearts of men. Some Reformed theologians limit the idea of the means of grace still more by saying that they are administered only within the visible Church, and that they presuppose the existence of the principle of the new life in the soul. Shedd and Dabney both speak of them, without any qualification, as “means of sanctification.” Says the former: “When the world of unregenerate men are said to have the means of grace, the means of conviction under common grace, not of sanctification under special grace, are intended.”[Dogm. Theol. II, p. 561.] Honig also distinguishes between the Word of God as a means of grace and the Word as it contains the call to conversion and serves to call Gentiles to the service of the living God.[Handboek van de Geref. Dogm., p. 611.] Dr. Kuyper, too, thinks of the means of grace merely as means for the strengthening of the new life when he says: “The media gratiae are means instituted by God that He makes use of to unfold, both personally and socially, for and through our consciousness, the re-creation that He immediately established in our nature.”[Dict. Dogm., De Sacramentis, p. 7 (translation mine — L.B.).] There is, of course, a truth in this representation. The principle of the new life is wrought in the soul immediately, that is, without the mediation of the Word that is preached. But in so far as the origination of the new life also includes the new birth and internal calling, it may also be said that the Holy Spirit works the beginning of the new life or of faith, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, “by the preaching of the holy gospel.”

C. HISTORICAL VIEWS RESPECTING THE MEANS OF GRACE.

There has been considerable difference of opinion respecting the means of grace in the Church of Jesus Christ. The early Church does not furnish us with anything very definite on this point. There was far more emphasis on the sacraments than on the Word of God. Baptism was rather generally regarded as the means by which sinners were regenerated, while the eucharist stood out as the sacrament of sanctification. In course of time, however, certain definite views were developed.

1. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC VIEW. While the Roman Catholics regarded even relics and images as means of grace, they singled out in particular the Word and the sacraments. At the same time they failed to give due prominence to the Word, and ascribed to it only preparatory significance in the work of grace. As compared with the Word, the sacraments were considered to be the real means of grace. In the system that was gradually developed the Church of Rome recognizes a means that is even superior to the sacraments. The Church itself is regarded as the primary means of grace. In it Christ continues His divine-human life on earth, performs His prophetic, priestly, and kingly work, and through it He communicates the fulness of His grace and truth. This grace serves especially to raise man from the natural to the supernatural order. It is a gratia elevans, a supernatural physical power, infused into the natural man through the sacraments working ex opere operato. In the sacraments the visible signs and the invisible grace are inseparably connected. In fact, the grace of God is contained in the means as a sort of substance, is conveyed through the channel of the means, and is therefore absolutely bound to the means. Baptism regenerates man ex opere operato, and the even more important eucharist raises his spiritual life to a higher level. Apart from Christ, from the Church, and from the sacrament, there is no salvation.

2. THE LUTHERAN VIEW. With the Reformation the emphasis was shifted from the sacraments to the Word of God. Luther gave great prominence to the Word of God as the primary means of grace. He pointed out that the sacraments have no significance apart from the Word and are in fact merely the visible Word. He did not entirely succeed in correcting the Roman Catholic error as to the inseparable connection between the outward means and the inward grace communicated through them. He, too, conceived of the grace of God as a sort of substance contained in the means and not to be obtained apart from the means. The Word of God is in itself always efficacious and will effect a spiritual change in man, unless he puts a stumblingblock in the way. And the body and blood of Christ is “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine, so that they who eat and drink the latter also receive the former, though this will be to their advantage only if they receive them in the proper manner. It was especially his opposition to the subjectivity of the Anabaptists that caused Luther to stress the objective character of the sacraments and to make their effectiveness dependent on their divine institution rather than on the faith of the recipients. The Lutherans did not always steer clear of the idea that the sacraments function ex opere operato.

3. THE VIEW OF THE MYSTICS. Luther had to contend a great deal with the mystical Anabaptists, and it was especially his reaction to their views that determined his final view of the means of grace. The Anabaptists, and other mystical sects of the age of the Reformation and of later times, virtually deny that God avails Himself of means in the distribution of His grace. They stress the fact that God is absolutely free in communicating His grace, and therefore can hardly be conceived of as bound to such external means. Such means after all belong to the natural world, and have nothing in common with the spiritual world. God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or the inner light, work directly in the heart, and both the Word and the sacraments can only serve to indicate or to symbolize this internal grace. This whole conception is determined by a dualistic view of nature and grace.

4. THE RATIONALISTIC VIEW. The Socinians of the days of the Reformation, on the other hand, moved too far in the opposite direction. Socinus himself did not even regard baptism as a rite destined to be permanent in the Church of Jesus Christ, but his followers did not go to that extreme. They recognized both baptism and the Lord’s Supper as rites of permanent validity, but ascribed to them only a moral efficacy. This means that they thought of the means of grace as working only through moral persuasion, and did not associate them at all with any mystical operation of the Holy Spirit. In fact, they placed the emphasis more on what man did in the means of grace than on what God accomplished through them, when they spoke of them as mere external badges of profession and (of the sacraments) as memorials. The Arminians of the seventeenth century and the Rationalists of the eighteenth century shared this view.

5. THE REFORMED VIEW. While reaction to the Anabaptists caused the Lutherans to move in the direction of Rome and to bind the grace of God to the means in the most absolute sense — a position also taken by High Church Anglicans —, the Reformed Churches continued the original view of the Reformation. They deny that the means of grace can of themselves confer grace, as if they were endued with a magical power to produce holiness. God and God only is the efficient cause of salvation. And in the distribution and communication of His grace He is not absolutely bound to the divinely appointed means through which He ordinarily works, but uses them to serve His gracious purposes according to His own free will. But while they do not regard the means of grace as absolutely necessary and indispensable, they strongly oppose the idea that these means may be treated as purely accidental and indifferent and can be neglected with impunity. God has appointed them as the ordinary means through which He works His grace in the hearts of sinners, and their wilful neglect can only result in spiritual loss.

D. CHARACTERISTIC ELEMENTS IN THE REFORMED DOCTRINE OF THE MEANS OF GRACE.

For a proper understanding of the Reformed doctrine of the means of grace the following points deserve special emphasis.

1. The special grace of God operates only in the sphere in which the means of grace function. This truth must be maintained over against the Mystics, who deny the necessity of the means of grace. God is a God of order, who in the operation of His grace ordinarily employs the means which He Himself has ordained. This, of course, does not mean that He has Himself become subservient to the appointed means and could not possibly work without them in the communication of His grace, but only that it has pleased Him to bind Himself, except in the case of infants, to the use of these means.

2. On a single point, namely, in the implanting of the new life, the grace of God works immediately, that is, without the use of these means as instruments. But even so it works only in the sphere of the means of grace, since these are absolutely required in drawing out and nourishing the new life. This is a direct negation of the position of Rationalism, which represents regeneration as the result of moral suasion.

3. While the grace of God generally operates mediately, it is not inherent in the means as a divine deposit, but accompanies the use of these. This must be maintained in opposition to the Roman Catholics, the High Church Anglicans, and the Lutherans, who proceed on the assumption that the means of grace always operate in virtue of an inherent power, though their operation may be made ineffective by the condition or attitude of the recipient.

4. The Word of God may never be separated from the sacraments, but must always accompany them, since they are virtually only a visible representation of the truth that is conveyed to us by the Word. In the Church of Rome the Word retires into the background as having only preparatory significance, while the sacraments, considered apart from the Word, are regarded as the real means of grace.

5. All the knowledge which is obtained by the recipient of divine grace, is wrought in him by means of the Word and is derived from the Word. This position must be maintained in opposition to all kinds of Mystics, who lay claim to special revelations and to a spiritual knowledge that is not mediated by the Word, and who thereby lead us into a sea of boundless subjectivity.