By Some Means…

Few have set out, in summary form, the variations of the use of the phrase "ordinary means of grace" in the history of the Church.

While references to the means of grace have been far from uncommon in the history of the church, appeal to the ordinary means holds a unique place in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition on account of the repetitious use of it in the Westminster Standards. For instance, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we find references to “the outward means,” “the outward and ordinary means,” “effectual means” and “the means of salvation.” In making use of these phrases, the members of the Assembly were seeking to explain how God’s grace ordinarily works in the lives of believers. 

 

In recent years, a number of Reformed theologians have introduced the phrase ordinary means of grace to a forthcoming generation of ministers. The incorporation of this phase into the vocabulary of the church has been quite easily observable–especially in serious-minded Confessionally Reformed churches where it has become something of a Shibboleth of orthodox worship and missions. Nevertheless, few have set out, in summary form, the variations of its use in the history of the Church.

In Roman Catholic theology, the phrase means of grace is shorthand for Rome’s seven sacraments (i.e. Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Marriage) and its sacramentals (i.e. lesser blessings, dedications and ceremonies for the sanctification of the people). Rome speaks of these things as “the means of grace of the Holy Church.” Geerhardus Vos has rightly explained,

“One can easily see that the Word of God does not lend itself easily to the Roman Catholic concept of a means of grace. A means of grace, as Rome conceives it, must be, strictly speaking, a thing, a work, an action, not a thought, a word that brings God’s thoughts to our souls. Only the sacraments really fit in this system. They are means of grace as Rome requires them to be.”1

In light of Rome’s supplanting of the Word of God to the sacraments, it is easy to understand why some in Protestant churches have long been uncomfortable calling the sacraments (i.e. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) means of grace. Rome has removed the word of God as the foundational means of God’s grace and has so invested the sacraments with a grace they do not in and of themselves have, namely a grace that works ex opere operato.

While references to the means of grace have been far from uncommon in the history of the church, appeal to the ordinary means holds a unique place in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition on account of the repetitious use of it in the Westminster Standards. For instance, in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, we find references to “the outward means,” “the outward and ordinary means,” “effectual means” and “the means of salvation.” In making use of these phrases, the members of the Assembly were seeking to explain how God’s grace ordinarily works in the lives of believers. The comfortable manner in which they employed the word means reveals something of its prevelancy in 17th Century theological expositions. It will

In WSC 85, the members of the Assembly explain the place of the outward means of redemption,

“To escape the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin, God requires of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.”

In WSC 88, they define the means of grace and salvation,

“The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.”.

In WSC 89, they explain the difference between the public reading and the public preaching of God’s word,

“The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.”

Read More