The Means of Grace

Last fall, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, I wrote a series of posts sharing and commenting upon Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. I covered Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Most of Luther’s approach to those key Christian teachings are probably familiar and comfortable to the majority of Christians, particularly Protestants in North America and Europe. The remaining sections may seem more controversial. In fact, many Lutherans say that they are not Protestants, because other Protestant groups lack the Sacramental teachings that are basic to Lutheranism. To provide some context to my forthcoming posts on Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys, and Holy Communion, I have written the following summary of Luther’s understanding of the means of grace.

Christians are saved by grace through faith. Faith is not something Christians do for God; faith is God’s gift to us. As Luther wrote, when explaining the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” This calling, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping us in the faith is done by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace. We come to faith through the means of grace and we are kept in the true faith by the means of grace. The means of grace are those gifts Luther had in mind when he said that the Holy Spirit “enlightened me with His gifts.” These gifts are not the abilities listed in I Corinthians 12; nor are they the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. They are, instead, those things that we often describe as holy: the Holy Bible, the Holy Christian Church, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

All these holy gifts come from God. All of them have the power to convey the forgiveness of sins. All of them create and sustain faith. All of them guarantee the believer eternal life and victory over our enemies. All of them are empowered by the Word of God.

The Bible is the Word of God. Written by prophets and apostles who were guided by the Holy Spirit, the books of the Bible are God’s Word even though they are also human words. The writers kept their own personalities and their ways of expressing themselves. Yet the Holy Spirit guided them in delivering God’s message, and he protected them from making any errors as they wrote. Luther did not write a section of the Small Catechism about the Bible because the entire Catechism is based upon the Bible. The other means of grace are described in the Catechism, using the Bible to show how they operate as God’s means of grace. Each of them is empowered by God’s Word. Christians are not meant to choose among the means of grace, trusting some and neglecting others. Christians are meant to find comfort and strength in all the means of grace.

Holy Baptism draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word it is only water; because of his Word, it accomplishes all that God promises. The Holy Christian Church draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Through the Office of the Keys, Jesus granted his Church the power to share his forgiveness with repentant sinners. Holy Communion draws power to grant saving faith and forgiveness of sins through the Word of God. Without God’s Word, it is only a tiny snack—a bite of bread and a sip of wine. Because of God’s Word, Holy Communion delivers the body and blood of Jesus to everyone who eats and drinks, conveying saving faith and forgiveness to all who believe that Word.

 

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5 thoughts on “The Means of Grace

  1. Grace by faith alone. But I love what you call means of grace because they speak to me of what has been done, symbols, pictures – gifts. I love the confirmation these gifts bring to me – confirmation of the sufficiency of Christ’s death paid for me.

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    • Confirmation is a good word. But Luther would insist that the means of grace are more than symbols or pictures, but that they actually convey the grace of God to the believer. See my other comment, below. J.

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  2. I’ve struggled with this for years. I have wondered why the means of grace save us when Christ had already paid the price. The best explanation to me was that even though our sins have been forgiven, we have difficulty forgiving ourselves. The means of grace allows the Holy Spirit to reassure us each time we participate in them. Thanks for your additional thoughts on the subject.

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    • Certainly the means of grace allow the Holy Spirit to reassure us of the forgiveness of our sins and the guarantee of eternal life. But Luther would go beyond reassurance. He would say that the means of grace actually convey forgiveness and life. One example, which I heard in a children’s sermon, used an electric lamp. Electric power comes from the power company to light the lamp, but the lamp does not light until its cord is plugged into the socket. That cord is like the means of grace that brings power to the lamp.
      Here’s another way to look at it: to have faith in Jesus, the Christian does not need to travel to Jerusalem to see the place where he was crucified and the tomb where he was buried. Nor does the Christian need to see or handle a piece of the True Cross to have faith. Instead, the Christian receives faith and all the blessings of God’s grace through the Word of God, through the people gathered around that Word, through that Word with water in Baptism, and through that Word with eating and drinking in Communion. We find Jesus, not in pilgrimages or in relics, but where he promised to be found–with his people, and in his Word and his Sacraments. J.

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