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MEANS OF GRACE.
[based on John Wesley's SERMON XVI]
What are the ordinances that Malachi is referring to? In the OT, they were the laws or statutes of God, the means that God ordained, through which he was with his people. In the NT, the ordinances of God are what we call "the means of grace," the means ordained of God that serve as the channels of his grace. The "means of grace" are those outward signs, words, or actions, whereby God makes himself known to us and makes his grace real to us.
A sacrament--baptism or the Lord's Supper--is a means of grace. A sacrament is defined as "an outward sign of inward grace."
Prayer is a means of grace. When we pray, either as individuals or as groups, we receive God into our lives.
The scripture is a means of grace. Through the reading the word, hearing the word, meditation on the word, we receive God.
Again, the church is means of grace. Attending church, coming into God's house, we draw nearer to God.
All of these things, these means, are channels of conveying Gods grace to our souls, but we most emphatically insist that the whole value of the means of grace depends on the end for which they were intended, namely to bring God to our souls. All these means, when separate from that end, are less than nothing. In other words, when prayer and the Lord's Supper and Baptism, and the Bible itself are worshipped in themselves, when they are considered as ends and not means, then they do not lead us to the knowledge of God, and they are not acceptable in God's sight.
God Does It
This is the main principle: If the means of grace are separated from the Spirit of God, they cannot help us at all; they cannot bring us at all to the love of God. We should not think of the means of grace as detached from God or God's action. When we receive any knowledge or love of God, it is because God does it. God alone, by his almighty power, works in us what is pleasing in his sight; and all other things, unless God work in them and by them, are without spiritual value. Whosoever, therefore, imagines there is any intrinsic power in any means of grace is much mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. There is no innate, magical power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound of scripture heard, or the bread and wine received in the Eucharist; but it is God alone who is the giver of every good gift. God alone is the author of all grace. The means of grace have power only through and because of God. Thus if baptism brings a blessing to our souls and assures us of our salvation. The blessing comes not from the water of baptism but from the God who ordained that means of grace. If baptism did not exist, God would give that same blessing, that same grace, in another way.
God does not depend upon the means of grace.
The means of grace depend upon God.
If we receive spiritual knowledge from reading a passage of scripture, it is because God gives the knowledge, not because scripture gives the knowledge. If there were no means of grace on this planet, God would still bless and save his people.
Means Do Not Save
And be well assured of this: The use of all means of grace-- attendance in church, reading the Bible, praying, partaking of the sacrament--will never atone for one sin. It is the blood of Christ alone whereby the sinner is reconciled to God. There is no other propitiation for our sins, no other fountain in which our uncleanness can be washed away. As believers in Christ, we are deeply convinced that there is no spiritual merit in any of my own works--not in uttering a prayer, or searching the Scripture, or hearing the word of God, or eating of that bread and drinking of that cup. There is no salvation except in Jesus Christ;
As a further problem with these outward means of grace, we recognize with sadness that a large proportion of those who are called Christians abuse these means to the detriment of their souls. Either they fondly presume they are Christians already, because, after all, they are baptized and they partake of the Lord's Supperalthough Christ was never revealed in their hearts, nor was the love of God ever given to their souls. Or else they suppose they shall be Christian one day because they have a Bible or because they occasionally attend church. That is, they see that the means of grace are available to them, and they assume that they will be saved because of these means; they assume that someday they will be made holy through these means, but they will not.
They fail to understand the foundation of the faith--which is, "By grace are you saved:" We are saved from our sins; we are restored to the favor and image of God, not for any works, merits, or deservings of ours, but by the great grace, the mere mercy, of God.
Seekers Use Means
But the main question remains: "We know salvation is the gift and the work of God; but how we might ask do we attain it? If we answer, "Believe, and you shall be saved," Perhaps someone might say, "But how shall I believe?" We reply, "seek God and God will help you." But now we come to another question: What if they ask, "Can I use the means of grace even if I am not yet saved? This is an important question and some people emphatically answer NO. No, you cannot pray before you are saved, no, you cannot come to church, No, you cannot read the Bible. But instead of depending upon our own reason here, let us ask what does the Bible say?
Ask In Prayer
Consider Matthew 7:7-8, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."
So Christ says to us, do not say to a seeker, You cannot pray because you are not yet a believer. Not at all, we ought to encourage her to pray and pray often. Jesus tells us to ask as a means of receiving; to seek, in order to find the pearl of great price; and to knock, to continue asking and seeking, if we would enter God's kingdom.
Again Jesus says in Luke 11:13, "How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?" It appears in this verse that the persons directed to ask had not yet received the Holy Spirit; nevertheless, our Lord directs them to use the means of prayer, and promises that it will be effectual; that upon asking they will receive that Spirit.
And remember James 1:5: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him." That is a great verse of assurance to all people, for it says God gives to all liberally and does not scold us or reproach us.
From all these scriptures, therefore, we infer, that all who desire the grace of God are to seek for it in the means of prayer.
Search the Scriptures
And, all who desire the grace of God are to use the Bible. "Search the Scriptures," Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews in John 5:39, "for they testify of me." He told them to search the Scriptures, not because they already believed but so that they might believe.
Moreover, Acts 17:11-12 teaches us Scripture can be a powerful evangelistic tool. We read that when Paul and Silas came to Berea: "These [the Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed." The Bereans used a means--the scripture--to get to an end--the grace of God. It is probable that some Bereans were already half convinced by the preaching of Paul (which is another means) and were confirmed by reading the Scriptures. But it does not matter, the point is God used means of grace to bring about his will for the Bereans.
Moreover, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to seek it by partaking of the Lords supper. The Lord's Supper is for sinners. When I was in seminary, I had a little church in Belton SC. I noticed one sabbath when we celebrated the Lord's Supper that one young man did not partake of communion. I had heard this young man profess his faith in Christ. He was a member of the church. I knew him to be a devout Christian. So I asked him afterward what was going on--why did he not partake of the sacrament? He responded that he did not feel worthy. My response was: No one is worthy. The sacrament is a gift of God. The sacrament is not for perfect Christians (There are not any of those anyway). The point of the sacrament is to build up people in the faith.
But we sometimes hear objections to allowing people who are only seekers after God to use the means of Grace. Let us consider a few of those objections.
The first and foremost objection is, "You cannot use these means without trusting in them." Which is true, but there are different degrees of trust. Some people believe wholly and completely. They jump entirely through the window of faith. Others believe barely. They are, so to speak, hanging on to the windowsill of faith by their fingertips. And between these two extremes of faith, there are many degrees. Some are strong in the faith and some are very weak. We should be careful not to deny any advantage to a weaker brother or sister. If the means of grace help them, let them use the means of grace.
Secondly, it has been objected that using the means of grace is seeking salvation by works. The objection goes like this: "You expect to be saved by baptism or church membership or prayer." No doubt this has sometimes happened in the church. As I mentioned earlier, the means of grace have been and still are made into ends and worshipped in themselves, which is an abomination to God. Perhaps we ought to examine what we mean by the term "salvation by works." In the writings of St. Paul, salvation by works means, either seeking to be saved by observing the Mosaic law; or expecting salvation for the sake of our own works. But this has nothing to do with someone who is sincerely seeking God and using the means God has ordained, and expecting that God will reveal himself through those means--because God has promised to do so. I do expect that God will fulfill his word, that God will meet and bless me in this way. Yet not for the sake of any works which I have done, nor for the merit of my righteousness; but merely through the merits, and sufferings, and love of Jesus Christ.
Thirdly, it is objected "But does not the Scripture direct us to wait for salvation?" That is we should stand still, and see the salvation of God. Do not go to church, do not pray, do not read the Bible, just wait, God will save you. I do not think so. Let us examine the verses they find most favorable to this idea of "standing and waiting."
Exodus 14:10f "And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD. And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? And Moses said unto the people, Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will show to you to day: for the Egyptians whom ye have seen to day, ye shall see them again no more for ever. The LORD shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace. And the LORD said unto Moses, Wherefore criest thou unto me? speak unto the children of Israel, that they go forward: But lift thou up thy rod, and stretch out thine hand over the sea, and divide it: and the children of Israel shall go on dry ground through the midst of the sea."
The argument then is that the Israelites stood still and did nothing, and God saved them and so we should do likewise. The argument neglects to point out that the Israelites did not stand still. They marched into the Red Sea which divided before them. They exercised fabulous faith to receive the precious promises of God. They used the means God ordained for that moment--which was to march into the Sea. And God saved them. So what is the lesson to us? We do not stand still and wait. We use the means God has ordained, and God will save us.
Order and Manner of the Means
So we hold that all who desire the grace of God are to seek for it in the means which God has ordained. But this being accepted, it may still be asked, how those means should be used. What should be the order and the manner of using those means..
Order. With regard to the order of the means of grace, I would say that there is a kind of order that God often uses to bring a sinner to salvation. It goes something like this: a worldly wretch is going on in his own way, not having God in all his thoughts, when God comes upon him unawares, perhaps by an sermon or conversation, perhaps by some experience, or, it may be, that God does not use outward means at all but simply convicts that person that he is indeed a sinner who deserves the wrath of God.
This convicted sinner, having now a desire to escape from God's wrath, goes to hear how it may be done--goes to church. Perhaps he finds a preacher who speaks to his heart the gospel truth. The sinner is amazed, and begins searching the Scriptures, to see whether these things be so. The more he hears and reads, the more convinced he is; and the more he meditates on these things day and night. Perhaps he finds some other book that explains and reinforces what he has heard and read in Scripture. And by all these means, the arrows of conviction sink deeper into his soul. He begins also to talk of the things of God, which are now uppermost in his thoughts; and he begins to pray to God; although, through fear and shame, he scarce knows what to pray. He does not know if his prayer will be heard. He wants to pray with those who know God, with the faithful, in the great congregation, and so he goes to church some more. He observes others participating in the Lord's Supper, and is led by their example to do likewise. Thus he continues in Gods way, in hearing, reading, meditating, praying, and partaking, till God speaks to his heart, saying, "Your faith has saved you. You are forgiven of your sins. You are a child of God."
But nothing about the order of means is set in stone. The Holy Spirit may vary the order in a thousand different ways for different people. We are not to limit God by supposing that God must act in a certain way to save his people. God is above all means. God does whatsoever and whensoever it pleases him, and God is always ready, always able, always willing to save.
Manner. As to the manner of using these means, as to how we should use them, we are not to use them in pride and arrogance. I do not derive any merit in my using means. I do not gain such value by partaking of the Lord's Supper or by coming to church so that I deserve God's grace. But, rather God gives me these means as help toward receiving his grace. Settle this one thing in your heart, there is no power to save, but in God, no merit, but in the blood of Christ. Consequently, even what God ordains, even the means of grace, convey no grace to the soul, unless we trust in Christ alone. On the other hand, if we do trust in Christ, we cannot fall short of the grace of God. Though we were cut off from every outward ordinance, though we were shut up in the center of the earth, we cannot fall short of the grace of God. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 09/18/02