Grasping Grace at the Means of Grace
I think one of the great problems in the church is that we fail to get grace—oh we understand it for salvation, but I’m less convinced that we get it for living the Christian life. We believe we are saved by grace, but live like we are saved by works. The outcome? Legalism, lack of assurance, and above all, miserable Christians—saved by grace but living under a burden of failure, not grasping God’s delight in them.
There are many ways to counter this—things we can do for ourselves, eg. preaching the gospel to ourselves, relishing the love the Triune God has for us. But there are regular God-appointed events for the refreshing and refuelling of Christians. Theologians call them the ‘Means of Grace’—Preaching, Lord’s Supper, Baptism, Prayer.
Christ has placed these pipelines of his supernatural, Spirit-imparting, soul-refreshing, sin-defeating, doubt-scattering grace running into the church. We know what they are—like the pipes running into our house, they have been there as long as we can remember—but I’m not sure we know best how to drink from these fountains of grace.
A couple of friends of mine drill wells in east Africa. They go into villages with their drilling rig, and down they drill. Then they strike water—and it gushes everywhere—adults and children cavort in its fountains. Then they put a cap on the well and install a pump. You could imagine a child standing looking at the pump knowing it’s meant to bring blessing, but wondering how—that, I think is many Christians.
So I want to use my next few slots on Gentle Reformation to unpack how we benefit from the means of grace. Much ink has been spent defining and defending the means of grace—but not much seems to have been written on how we benefit from them.
In this introductory piece I can’t do much more than introduce the ideas which we’ll apply to each of the means of grace as we go along.
What are the Means of Grace?
We’ve already set out what the Westminster Confession defines as the means of grace—the Word, sacraments and prayer. But what is a ‘means of grace’?
Richard Barcellos writes “I define means of grace as the delivery systems God has instituted to bring his grace—that is his spiritual power, spiritual change, spiritual help, spiritual fortitude, spiritual blessings—to needy souls on earth.”
It is the generous outpouring of God to his people, supplying what we need, through public means that he has designated. And although we want to come to a better understanding of this, there is wonderful mystery about it.
They aren’t automatic blessing dispensers—either in the sense of ‘turn up, take part and be blessed’ or like some energy capsule for athletes which contains the same dose of minerals and carbohydrates each time. We need to make a right use of the means of grace, and as we do our gracious God feeds us what we need, in a variety of ways. These pipes flow with exactly what is needed for the child of God as determined by our generous and wise Father.
At the same well of grace different believers will receive grace appropriate to their needs. The Lord’s Supper is the same each time, yet God feeds his children differently—some will be deeply moved by a phrase, another by the love of God in Christ, another by the action of the bread being broken, another by a sense of assurance that their specific sins are forgiven, another by a line in a psalm as the truth hits home in a rich and powerful way. Grace, differently, wonderfully provided to each of his children
How do we benefit?
If it isn’t automatic—that we are just blessed by the taking part—how do we receive these riches? Is there some special technique? No, nothing so crass.
There is a single common biblical response, one that is to be particularly tailored to each means of grace. That response is faith. Faith is the hands which we cup together to drink what God is pouring on us. It may sound obvious or pious, but the question we need to ask is practical:
What should be the specific focus of my faith, what in particular should I be believing, as I stand under this fountain, so that I can drink deeply from it?
We’ll apply this more specifically next time. But in the meantime here are some questions to ponder:
- Am I thirsty for grace?
- Do I expect the preaching to be a blessing just by virtue of being preached to?
- Do I look for the same thing each time I come to the Lord’s Supper?
- What specific truths should I be viewing by the eye of faith at the Lord’s Supper or a Baptism?