The Ordinary Means of Grace
While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. John 17:12NKJV
Question 154 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?” It gives the answer, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.” Last week we looked at what sinners must do to receive the salvation purchased for them by Christ. Today we consider the ordinary means God uses to save and sanctify His elect people.
As the Scripture above plainly communicates, Jesus Christ will most certainly save all of His chosen people. He will not lose one of them. He came and lived a perfect life in order to earn all of their righteousness before a holy God. He died an atoning vicarious death in order to take all of the wrath which their sins have provoked in God. Thus, in His life and death Christ has completed all of the work necessary in order to save all of God’s people to the uttermost: purchasing all of our justification, sanctification, and glorification. But how does the Lord Jesus Christ transfer to us these benefits which He has purchased? That is the question that today’s section of the Catechism was written to answer.
First we notice that the Catechism is only concerned to address the “outward” and the “ordinary” means that Christ uses to communicate His purchased salvific benefits to His church. This assertion immediately tells us that we are not going to be considering what goes on inwardly, in the mind or heart of man – the spiritual realm – of which our Maker has not equipped us to have definite knowledge. Instead we are only going to be noticing those outward things, for which we can be observers through the physical senses given to us by God. Thus, “outward means” refers to objects and actions in this physical world. Similarly, the adjective ordinary tells us that while God is always free to work when and how He wills, we should distinguish between the usual and the unusual ways. So for example, while God on one occasion used a donkey to speak to a man (Num. 22:28), we ought not to expect to be handing out seminary degrees to donkeys any time soon. A talking animal is not the ordinary way God reveals Himself to His people.
Second is the subject “means.” This refers to the fact that God does not usually apply Christ’s saving benefits directly to His people but He makes use of certain instruments or tools to do the work. Thus, a man might use a car as a means of transportation or a telephone as a means of communication, or he could walk and talk directly without the use of any means. God is the author and finisher of our salvation (Heb. 12:2). But God usually brings it about indirectly through the use of other objects or agents. We may have an example of a direct application where we see John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb of his mother when he heard Mary’s voice (Luke 1:44). This text could indicate that God converted a child before He was born, and thus apart from any outward or ordinary means – something God could easily do and surely does, but we can have no certain witness of such direct acts of God.
However, as Martin Luther once noted, even though God can work wherever and however He pleases, it is impious for Christians to look for God outside of those places where He has told us we can expect to find Him. Where can we expect to find God at work in our lives? In His ordinances; that is, in those things He has told us to do. Whenever we do what God tells us we can expect His blessing. The Catechism notices the three ordinances God has especially identified for believers: His Word, the sacraments, and prayer. As we make use of these three things in faith, God makes them effectual to us for the sake of our salvation. Thus, the means of grace are just that, means. We are not saved by our Bible knowledge, baptism, or prayers, but through these things God Himself exercises His power to accomplish all of our salvation! May we be encouraged to look for God’s grace to be powerful in our lives whenever we are doing what He says.