By Some Means...
In recent years, a number of Reformed theologians have introduced the phrase ordinary means of grace to a forthcoming generation of ministers. The incorporation of this phase into the vocabulary of the church has been quite easily observable--especially in serious-minded Confessionally Reformed churches where it has become something of a Shibboleth of orthodox worship and missions. Nevetheless, few have set out, in summary form, the variations of its use in the history of the Church.
In Roman Catholic theology, the phrase means of grace is shorthand for Rome's seven sacraments (i.e. Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage) and its sacramentals (i.e. lesser blessings, dedications and ceremonies for the sanctification of the people). Rome speaks of these things as "the means of grace of the Holy Church." Geerhardus Vos has rightly explained,
"One can easily see that the Word of God does not lend itself easily to the Roman Catholic concept of a means of grace. A means of grace, as Rome conceives it, must be, strictly speaking, a thing, a work, an action, not a thought, a word that brings God’s thoughts to our souls. Only the sacraments really fit in this system. They are means of grace as Rome requires them to be."1
In light of Rome's supplanting of the Word of God to the sacraments, it is easy to understand why some in Protestant churches have long been uncomfortable calling the sacraments (i.e. Baptism and the Lord's Supper) means of grace. Rome has removed the word of God as the foundational means of God's grace and has so invested the sacraments with a grace they do not in and of themselves have, namely a grace that works ex opere operato.
While references to the means of grace have been far from uncommon in the history of the church, appeal to the ordinary means holds a unique place in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition on account of the repetitious use of it in the Westminster Standards. For instance, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we find referrences to "the outward means," "the outward and ordinary means," "effectual means" and "the means of salvation." In making use of these phrases, the members of the Assembly were seeking to explain how God's grace ordinarily works in the lives of believers. The comfortable manner in which they employed the word means reveals something of its prevelancy in 17th Century theological expositions. It will
In WSC 85, the members of the Assembly explain the place of the outward means of redemption,
"To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption."
In WSC 88, they define the means of grace and salvation,
"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.".
In WSC 89, they explain the difference between the public reading and the public preaching of God's word,
"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."
And finally, in WSC 91, they clarified what they believed and did not believe about the sacraments as means of grace,
"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."
The Divines clearly taught that, within the visible church, three things constituted the outward and ordinary means of grace--namley, the word of God, the sacraments and prayer.
Appended to many (if not most) of the 18th and 19th Century editions of the Westminster Standards was The Sum of Saving Knowledge, a short work co-authored by David Dickson and James Durham. This book became one of the most loved of all the treatises on assurance written by the Puritans and their successors. At the outset of this work, Dickson and Durham explain that their purpose was to deal wth 1) "The means appointed to make [believers] partakers of this covenant," and 2) "The blessings which are effectually conveyed unto the elect by these means." They then suggested that "the outward means and ordinances, for making men partakers of the covenant of grace...are especially these four: 1. The Word of God. 2. The Sacraments. 3. Kirk-government. 4. Prayer." In keeping with the teaching of the Shorter Catechism, Dickson and Durham asserted that the Word of God, the Sacramants (i.e. Baptism and the Lord's Supper) and prayer were three outward and ordinary means of grace. However, they then broadened the definition to include Church government. The role of church discipline is included in their assessment of the means of grace.
Given this seeming difference of opinion about what are rightly considered ordinary means of grace, we must seek to answer the following two questions: "What, if any, guidelines are there to help us determine the ordinary means of grace?" and "What are the God-appointed outward and ordinary means of grace?"
In his section on "Word and Sacraments" in Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos took up these questions. Seeking to define the word grace in the phrase means of grace, he wrote,
"[There is] a certain indefiniteness that makes it difficult for us at a first glance to delineate sharply the concept of the means of grace. Everything that God uses as a means in order to show me any unmerited favor and by which He acts for my good then becomes a means of grace. There is common grace and special grace. But what serves for receiving and granting the former must also count as a means of grace. What occurs in the sphere of God’s providence cannot be excluded. Through the particular circumstances of life, God can act on me, and it is grace from Him when He does this. However, one senses that we cannot let the expression depend on this indefinite sense. The concept, taken so generally, would lose its theological significance for us."2
There is then a broader and a more narrow sense in which we may speak of means of grace. Everything that God does in my life in order to bring me closer to Himself is a means of grace, broadly considered. However, there must be limitations when we are speaking of those things that He has appointed to function in the church for the saving grace that He gives to all of His people.
Vos set out what he understood to be three limiting principles for the proper use of the phrase. He wrote,
"By showing that many of these things that one would like to call means of grace, in the widest sense, are not such in an independent way and by virtue of their own content, but only through the connection into which they are brought with instrumentalities that are the proper means of grace. One or another experience that I have in my life can certainly be used by God to strengthen the life of grace in me, but it could not do this by itself. It does this only because it brings me anew into contact with the Word of God and has as its consequence a new application of that Word to my life. It is therefore not a means of grace in the proper sense.
By saying that not every connection with preparatory grace or with common grace makes something a means of grace, but only the specific connection with the regenerating, effectual, converting, justifying, sanctifying grace of God. Said more succinctly: its connection with the beginning and the continuation of special grace. If something is not connected with that in one way or another, it may not be called a means of grace.
By saying that something must be linked with the gracious working of God not just incidentally on a single occasion but that it must be the regular, ordained means that accompanies that working. The means of grace are constant, not exceptional."3
Finally, Vos concluded,
"If we accept these three conditions, then it appears that they only apply to the Word of God and the sacraments. These two are the only means of grace in the narrower sense."4
This assessment has been echoed by Richard Muller who has so helpfully summarized this matter when he wrote,
"The identification of Word and sacraments as media gratiae does not intend to exclude a general or common operation of grace but rather it indicates the function of both Word and sacraments in the regeneration (regeneratio) and sanctification (sanctificatio) of man as the instruments or objective channels of special or saving grace (gratia specialis). Word and sacraments are thus instrumental both in the inception of salvation and in the continuance of the work of grace in the Christian life.
In addition, Word and sacraments are the sole officially ordained or instituted instruments or means of grace. God has promised the presence of his grace to faithful hearers of the Word and faithful participants in the sacraments. Thus the right preaching of the Word and right administration of the sacraments are the marks or identifying features of the true church (notae ecclesiae)." (Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms)
1. Vos, G. (2012–2016). Reformed Dogmatics. (R. B. Gaffin, Ed., A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, D. van der Kraan, H. Boonstra, J. Pater, A. Janssen, … K. Batteau, Trans.) (Vol. 5, p. 80). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
2. Ibid., Vol. 5, p. 78