God’s Word makes it clear that we sinners receive God’s gracious gift of salvation through faith (meaning, personal trust) in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior, apart from works. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8) “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1)
But how does God by the Holy Spirit deliver the gift of salvation that Christ has purchased for His people, and which is received by faith alone? And, having delivered the gifts of faith and salvation to believers, how does God preserve believers in their faith, and therefore in the state of grace, bringing them at last to heavenly glory?
The biblical answer to these vitally important questions is, through the means of grace, in particular through the Word and the Sacraments. These ordinances are called “means” of grace because they are like instruments or tools in God’s hands to offer and deliver His good gifts of grace and salvation to us sinners, who through God-given faith receive them. As the Bible-based answer to Shorter Catechism Question # 88 (“What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?“) states: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth 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.”
The primary and indispensable means of grace is the Word of God. The Holy Spirit uses the reading, but especially the preaching, of God’s Word to bring sinners to conviction and repentance for their sins and to faith in Jesus Christ for their salvation. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” With the exception of extraordinary cases, such as elect infants dying in infancy and other elect persons who are mentally incapable of understanding the Word, God’s usual way of delivering His grace to sinners and of bringing them to faith in Jesus is through the ministry of the Word. As elect sinners hear God’s Law proclaimed in the Scriptures, in God’s timing they are brought to a genuine contrition for their sins. As they hear the good news of free salvation in Christ proclaimed from the Scriptures, in God’ timing the Holy Spirit enables them to trust in Christ alone for their salvation. This mighty work of regeneration and new life is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit using the means or instrument of the Word, especially as that Word declares the gospel (“good news”) that in Jesus Christ the believing sinner has a merciful, forgiving God!
In line with the above, Shorter Catechism Question # 89 asks, How is the Word made effectual to salvation? The Bible-based answer to that question is: “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.”
Other vitally-important and often neglected means of grace are the sealing ordinances, or sacraments, of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments are “visible words” which proclaim the gospel in symbol form (First Corinthians 11:26). They are signs and seals of God’s covenant of grace, God’s pledges of grace and salvation to those who receive them with faith in Christ. As the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ commanded His apostles (and thus His church), “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, emphasis added). At His last supper with His apostles, on the night in which He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus also commanded the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as a perpetual observance in His church (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; First Corinthians 11:23-26). And as the Apostle Paul wrote regarding the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (First Corinthians 10:16). There is a sense in which believers actually “participate” or have “fellowship” or “communion” in the body and blood of Christ when they partake of the Lord’s Supper (not in a physical, carnal sense, but through the Holy Spirit and by faith).
While the sacraments are not absolutely necessary for salvation in the same sense in which the Word is (without which no one can ordinarily be saved, since faith comes from hearing the Word); at the same time Christ commanded the observance of these sacraments by all who profess to be His disciples. Therefore, a professing “believer” who neglects, refuses participation in, or even condemns participation in the sacraments, not only commits a grave sin which calls the genuineness of such a professed believer’s “faith” into serious question. Such an individual also cheats himself or herself out of both a great blessing and a vital means that God uses to preserve His people in their faith and state of salvation. Just as faith is begotten and preserved by the Word, so it is confirmed and strengthened and preserved by the sacraments.
Shorter Catechism Question # 91 asks, “How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?“. The Bible-based answer to that question is: “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 of Christ, and the working of his Spirit in them that by faith receive them.”
So what are some take aways from all of this?
First of all, if God by His Spirit ordinarily delivers His grace and salvation through the Word and the Sacraments (which faith alone receives), and ordinarily preserves His people in a state of grace through those means, then if we desire to receive God’s good gifts of grace and salvation, and to continue persevering in a state of grace and salvation*, then we must diligently seek to avail ourselves of those means of grace that God has ordained to deliver His grace to us and to preserve us in faith. Certainly it is vitally important that we read the Scriptures and pray privately, and in our families, using the means of the Word in private and family worship. But if we desire to understand and receive God’s good gifts of grace, it is especially important that we attend upon the public means of grace, gathering with others around the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the fellowship of Christ’s visible church.
Secondly, and finally, this doctrine of the means of grace goes against the grain of the hyper-individualism of modern American evangelicalism, which views God’s grace operating mystically and directly (without the mediation of any means of grace), which sees Christianity as merely a “personal relationship with Jesus”, and which has a low view of the church (which is often viewed as helpful but optional to living a faithful Christian life). If we affirm the biblical doctrine of the means of grace, let us also value and promote the vital importance and centrality of the church to our lives as those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.
*Scripture certainly teaches that God will preserve true believers in a state of grace and salvation. Those who have truly come to Christ will be preserved by Him, and thus true believers are eternally secure in their salvation (for example, John 10:27-30; Romans 8:1; etc.). However, this comforting truth does not mean that believers may therefore be lazy or careless in their walk with the Lord, or that they may casually neglect the means of grace without consequence. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that ordinarily God chooses to preserve His believing people through their perseverance in faith (First Peter 1:5) – a persevering faith that is nourished, preserved and strengthened by God through the means of grace! While God does indeed preserve us, at the same time we are responsible to give all diligence to make our calling and election sure (Second Peter 1:10-11). It is through that very diligence that God preserves us believers in faith.
All Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible: English Standard Version