What are the Means of Grace?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
The two sacraments, baptism and Lord’s Supper, are not the only ways in which God extends grace to his people. The phrase “means of grace” is a broader category referring to all the ways God has appointed to convey his grace to men and women. The two sacraments are the best examples, and are called “sacraments” because Jesus himself instituted them and commanded us to observe them. Sacraments involve something physical like bread or water and are to be celebrated in community.
However, God is not limited to conveying grace only when we are gathered together as the church. God also conveys grace to us as individuals. Examples of this would include the reading of Scripture, hearing God’s Word preached, prayer, fasting, serving the poor, and so forth. Broadly speaking, a means of grace refers to all the ways by which Christians grow stronger in their faith and grow in the grace of Christ. In other words, they are God’s instruments to convey grace, including prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace and, ultimately, glorifying grace.
An unbeliever might be sitting next to a Christian on an airplane and the Christian may, in the course of their travels, share the gospel with this person. In the hearing of God’s Word, the Holy Spirit acts to convict the person of their sin and they trust Jesus Christ for their salvation. In this instance, the sharing of God’s Word on the airplane becomes a means of grace to the unbeliever. Likewise, if a Christian is going through a difficult time and is feeling absent from the presence of Christ, they may begin to sing or pray, and in that prayer they gain a renewed sense of the presence of Christ and a clearer direction as to how they should respond to the situation. This is another example of how prayer can become a “means of grace.”
Of course, the Bible in and of itself, or a prayer in and of itself, has no power to change us. If we believed that, we would be affirming a form of magic. Rather, whenever we refer to a “means of grace” we acknowledge ultimately that only God is the true giver of grace, through the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The term “means” simply reminds us that God uses ordinary things like words and prayers and actions to convey his presence to us, and whenever his presence is truly encountered (even if we don’t feel it), then grace is conveyed. It is another way of saying that the church is not autonomous. The church does not “do good works” in the same way as one of the well-known, and worthy, organizations such as the Lion’s Club or the Kiwanis Club. Instead, the church acts or speaks or prays in concert with Christ, and these actions or words all become channels or means through which God does his work. It is another example of the cooperation which God is building in his Kingdom. It is not enough for us to just sit back and wait for God to act. Instead, we roll up our sleeves and begin to serve the poor. We make a decision to get down on our knees and pray about something. We decide to put aside our fears and we share the gospel with someone. And, in the process, God comes alongside of us and uses these humble acts for his glory.
2 Kings 19:14–19