Extraordinary Means of Grace
The idea of ‘the means of grace’ has undergone an encouraging rehabilitation in the life and ministry of many Reformed churches in recent years. This has come as a healthy corrective to pressure from the wider church to embrace ideas and practices that seem more effective vehicles for church growth. However ‘effective’ these alternative means may have seemed, it has been at the expense of a meaningfully biblical definition of the church. So, the widespread return to emphasising the Word, sacraments, fellowship and prayer (Ac 2.42) as the core components of a faithful and effective church has been welcome. These ‘ordinary’ means of grace are God’s ways of communicating his great salvation in Christ and by his Holy Spirit.
The very fact, however, that the adjective ‘ordinary’ is applied to these means by which God works implies that they are not the only way he works. They may be normative, but they are not exhaustive.
The men of the Westminster Assembly noted this in their treatment of Effectual Calling in chapter 10 of the Confession of Faith. It deals with the means by which the call of the gospel which is universal is made to be effective in the lives of ‘All those whom God hath predestinated unto life’ (10.1).
The divines open up what this entails and how it happens as being, ‘at his appointed and accepted time’ and by means of ‘his word and Spirit’ in order that they may be actually lifted ‘out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace’ (10.1).
They go on in the next section to explain this further: ‘This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it’ (10.2).
Here, then, are the normal means God uses to bring the spiritually dead to life, enabling them to turn in repentance and faith towards God as they rest on Christ alone for their salvation. But they are not the only means. The very next section goes on to make this clear in what it says about ‘elect infants dying in infancy’: ‘Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how He pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word’ (10.3). There are certain circumstances of life in which the ‘ordinary means of grace’ cannot function.
The Westminster divines reiterate this point in chapter 14, ‘Of Saving Faith’. There they state, ‘The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened’ (14.1) [italics added].
There are at least two reasons for drawing attention to the fact God’s grace has extraordinary as well as ordinary dimensions.
The first is pastoral. Infant mortality may not be as common in developed countries in the 21st Century as it was in those same countries just a few centuries ago, but the pain of loss and questions about life and destiny it raises are just as real. In some respects they are even more real for Christian parents who believe that ‘faith comes from hearing the message and is heard through the word of Christ’ (Ro 10.17). Knowing something of God’s extraordinary grace for such extraordinary circumstances can only bring comfort.
The fact the scope of this principle goes beyond ‘elect infants dying in infancy’ to ‘all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word‘ is also pastorally significant. Not least in terms of how the church regards and cares for those who are mentally incapacitated. At a very basic level the questions must be asked, ‘Can they be accepted as members of the church?’ and ‘May they receive the Lord’s Supper?’ If a church turns ‘the ordinary means of grace’ into ‘the sole means of grace’, the answer must be ‘No!’.
The other reason for raising this issue relates to the question Jesus was asked en route to Jerusalem: ‘Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?’ (Lk 13.23). It is the question many have asked throughout the centuries. And it is significant that Jesus does not give a direct answer, but says instead the real issue is making sure we ourselves are in his kingdom (Lk 13.24).
This does not mean the question in itself is wrong, or that it is wrong to ask it. Interestingly it was taken up by several 19th Century Reformed theologians, among them Charles Hodge and W.G.T. Shedd, in their consideration of the so-called ‘Larger Hope’.
In his book, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed – A Defence of the Westminster Standards, Shedd deals with this question (following chapters on ‘Common and Special Grace’, ‘God’s Love and Credal Proportion’ and ‘Infant Salvation as Related to Original Sin’) in a chapter entitled ‘The “Larger Hope”’.
There he discusses this issue in light of the relation between God’s glory and the number of the redeemed, but with cognizance of the extra-ordinary dimensions in the operations of grace.
Charles Hodge also addresses the issue, notably in his comments on Romans 5.18-20, where he says,
We have no right to put any limit on these general terms, except what the Bible itself places upon them…All the descendants of Adam, except Christ, are under condemnation; all the descendants of Adam, except those of whom it is expressly revealed that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God, are saved. This appears to be the clear meaning of the apostle, and therefore he does not hesitate to say that where sin abounded, grace has much more abounded, that the benefits of redemption exceed the evils of the fall; that the number of the saved far exceeds the number of the lost.
This issue has had extensive coverage by Roman Catholic, Liberal Protestant and Evangelical Protestant authors from a range of differing perspectives and with correspondingly different conclusions. But all too frequently their concern has been to try to justify, at one end of the spectrum, ‘sincere’ faith in any religious context, or good works in all contexts as the basis of acceptance with God; or, at the other end, some form of universalism.
It is significant, therefore, that the issue was raised in the way it was by the Reformed theologians cited above and on the theological foundation they build with the inferences they drew from it, but also those they did not.
The questions are real but Scripture is noticeably silent on them. Nevertheless the men of the Westminster Assembly offer a judicious response in what they say in relation to effectual calling. They enable us to focus on what the Bible makes clear – that the church’s duty is to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’ (Mt 28.19-20) – while at the same time acknowledging that ‘the Judge of all the Earth’ will most certainly do what is right (Ge 18.25).
 Shedd, W.G.T. Calvinism: Pure and Mixed (Banner of Truth; Edinburgh) 1986 [first published 1893] pp. 92-131
 Hodge, C. Systematic Theology Vol. 1 (Scribner & Co; New York) 1872 p. 26