Means of Grace in the Church

Some ideas are challenging because they are difficult and new. Sometimes ideas are challenging because they have been poorly communicated. On Sunday I made an idea that was challenging because it’s new to many more difficult because I poorly communicated it. Usually I don’t go back and reexplain myself here on my blog, but I didn’t have time to clear it up in the ACG I was teaching and I don’t want to leave it un-addressed.

In the ACG I was teaching on the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament and introduced the notion that the Supper is a means of grace for the believer. Several were uncomfortable with this phrase because, as they understood it, it seems to suggest that if you do these things, God will give you grace. A friend challenged, “It sound like you’re saying ‘If you obey, you get more grace’?” And I affirmed that’s what I meant – you come to the Lord’s table, partake as you are commanded to do, and you receive grace. That didn’t sit well in the class, and later, as I reflected on it, I think I understand why.

As I explained it, I may have made it sound like our obedience earns grace. That isn’t at all what I meant. In fact, earned grace is an impossibility, it’s a contradiction in terms. You can not earn a free gift. If it’s earned, it ceases to be free. But, being a free gift doesn’t mean that you don’t have to do something to access it. If I call to my children and say, “Come down boys, its Christmas! Come get your gifts!”, the boys have to do something to get their gifts (get out of bed and come to the tree downstairs. Yet I don’t think anyone would say that this takes away from the free nature of the gift – the boys certainly didn’t earn it. Or, if I call them to dinner it doesn’t mean that I’ve set up a works based system – you must obey or you don’t eat. I’m simply inviting them to where the food is.

That seems to me a pretty good analogy (patting myself on the back a little) for what happens at the Supper. The Supper is a spiritual feast. Our souls are fed as we partake of the body and the blood of Christ. We truly receive grace in this feast – grace that sustains us, helps us persevere, helps us grow in Christ-likeness. We must heed the summons to come to the feast, to come and receive the gift. We don’t earn the gift or the banquet, but we come obediently and expectantly ready to receive.

A few more quick points may clarify even more.

First, we don’t just need grace once. We need it constantly. You could draw the distinction, maybe, between saving grace (justifying) and sanctifying grace, but I don’t know that’s necessary or wise. It’s all saving grace. Remember: we’ve been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. Salvation isn’t just justification, it includes our sanctification and our glorification in eternity also – all in union with Christ!

Second, while grace can (and certainly does) come to the sinner in surprising and unique ways, it more typically comes through God ordained means. At the individual level, these include the reading of the Word, prayer, the ministry of fellow believers. But there is a special role for the church. Berkhoff writes, “While the Spirit can and does in some respects operate immediately on the soul of the sinner, He has seen fit to bind Himself largely to the use of certain means in the communication of divine grace…The Church may be represented as the great means of grace which Christ, working through the Holy Spirit, uses for the gathering of the elect, the edification of the saints, and the building up of His spiritual body. He qualifies her for this great task by endowing her with all kinds of spiritual gifts, and by the institution of the offices for the administration of the Word and sacraments, which are all means to lead the elect to their eternal destiny.” – Louis Berkhoff, Systematic Theology , 604.

Third, I think its always good to remember that our obedience isn’t something that earns grace because it’s grace based obedience. In other words,”it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Every act of obedience draws on God’s grace, so rather than earning something from God by our obedience, we go deeper in dept to God’s grace as we obey. Amazing Grace indeed! If you want to think more on this, I highly recommend John Piper’s Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (you can hear his speak on it it here).