Appointed Means of Grace
Reformation Day (October 31) is fast approaching. (Yes, I know that the popular culture celebrates it as “Halloween,” but may I suggest that we who are Protestant Christians would do well to view it as a day to celebrate the light of the gospel, rather than as a day to revel in ghoulish pagan darkness.) Reformation Day is an occasion to remember the great biblical truths that had been rediscovered and proclaimed by great Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. It also reminds us of the gospel light that shone forth from their labors and those of their successors (gospel light that had been buried and obscured in the medieval Roman church). One of those great gospel doctrines was “sola fide” — “faith alone” — the glorious biblical truth that we sinners are justified before God by His grace alone, through faith (trust) alone in Jesus Christ alone, and apart from any works or merits of our own. This wonderful truth of our free justification in Christ is indeed a fundamental gospel truth, one that cuts down our sinful pride and drives us to the dust before our holy Creator God, only to raise us up rejoicing in the sure confidence of sins forgiven and peace with God through the blood and righteousness of Christ our perfect Savior! The church which holds firmly to this central gospel truth as taught in Scripture will stand strong, whereas the church which compromises or waters down or ignores this truth is rushing headlong toward gospel apostasy and ultimately toward becoming a “synagogue of Satan.”
We are justified by faith alone (sola fide)! But how is it that we are brought to this justifying faith, and how is it that we are kept and preserved in this faith? The biblical and historic Reformed answer is that the sovereign, Triune God ordinarily uses objective, appointed means to bring elect sinners to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and to keep them in the faith. As the Scriptures proclaim: “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” (Romans 10:17, KJV) No one comes to faith in Christ in a vacuum, or through direct mystical encounters with Christ, or without any means being employed in the hands of God to bring them to such faith. God is a God of order who chooses to condescend to use Divinely appointed means to bring us to faith.
What are these appointed means of grace? Answer: The Word, the sacraments, and prayer, in the context of Christian fellowship within the church. The Word of God (as it is read, but especially as it is preached) is the primary and essential means of grace. “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.” (Answer to Shorter Catechism Q/A # 89.) The Word is the primary means of grace, for without hearing the Word of the gospel no sinner can be saved (the only exceptions being elect infants dying in infancy and mentally impaired individuals who are incapable of being called to faith by the gospel). Being cut off from the sacraments does not, of itself, damn (except in the case of those who wilfully and with full knowledge neglect or refuse the sacraments). But to be cut off from the Word of God is to be cut off from the gospel message which alone brings the good news of salvation to sinners. Without knowledge of the gospel that comes through instruction in the Word, damnation is certain, for without the Word there is no saving faith, since faith comes from hearing the Word (Rom. 10:17). (This is obviously one of the major reasons why evangelism and missions are so important.)
The sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are also Divinely appointed means of grace. However, they are secondary and subordinate means, for they depend for their efficacy upon the Word, and they are signs and seals of the Word. They are effective in confirming and sealing the benefits of Christ to sinners, but only when the Spirit is pleased to bless them and only as they are received by faith in Christ. As our Westminster Shorter Catechism correctly summarizes the biblical teaching on the sacraments in answer to Question # 91 (“How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?”): “The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them; but only by the blessing Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.” Therefore the sacraments are not to be rested in for salvation, for they direct our faith away from themselves to the Christ whose saving benefits they visibly signify and seal. At the same time, it is a very serious sin to condemn or neglect the sacraments, for they are genuine means by which God strengthens and confirms our faith, and by which He preserves us in His grace.
Through prayer we respond to the Word and sacraments, and in prayer we experience living communion with the living God. Thus prayer should also be regarded as a Divinely appointed means of grace.
Every week as we approach the Lord’s Day, let us thank God for the appointed means of grace, and let us use them diligently so that we might continue to grow in the knowledge and love of our Lord and Savior.