The office of deacon also was soon instituted in the church, at the occasion of a complaint in regard to the care of the widows of the church. About this we read in Acts 6: “And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them.” vss. 1-6. This evidently refers to the institution of the office of deacon. The deacons represent more particularly Christ as the merciful High Priest; and their task is the care and comfort of the poor and indigent. It is a different office from that of the ministers and elders in the church, but may not be regarded as a lower office.
In order to function in a certain office it is necessary that one be called by the King of His church. This is necessary because no one may encroach upon that office. For to function in a certain office it is essential that he be appointed officially, in order that he can also function with the authority of Him that sent him and called him to the office. In the second place, this calling is necessary both subjectively and objectively because of the difficulty and responsibility of the task of an officebearer. He who serves in the church of Christ as an officebearer and who takes his task and calling seriously bears a very heavy burden, and he performs a very difficult task. In the third place, this calling and the consciousness of this calling is necessary in order to remain steadfast over against all opposition from within and from without. In the midst of all such opposition nothing but the certain conviction that he is called to his office by Christ Himself can make him steadfast and immovable.
This calling to a certain office in the church, we said, is both subjective and objective, that is, internal and external. To the internal aspect of the calling belongs the abiding desire to serve the Lord in His vineyard, and that too, as officebearer—a desire that must, of course, have its root in the fear of God, and in nothing else. In the second place, we may say that the internal aspect of the calling also implies a consciousness of a certain measure of gifts, both natural and spiritual. As to the external aspect of the calling belongs, in the first place, the fact that the Lord Himself opens the way to reach the fulfillment of the desire to serve in a certain office. But above all, the foregoing must finally be sealed by the calling of the church. Without the calling by the church, there is no calling to any office whatsoever. The apostles, of course, were called and sent directly by the Lord. But after the period of the apostles the power to send and to ordain officebearers rests only in the church of Christ. Hence, no matter how strong a desire anyone may have to function in a certain office, he cannot consider himself to be called by the Lord unless he is called and ordained by the church.
Christ has endowed His church with power. We can also say that Christ exercises His power through the church, and particularly through the officebearers instituted in the church. The officebearers, therefore, do not receive their power and authority from the members of the church, even though it is through their instrumentality that they are called and ordained as o5cebearers. But they receive their authority to function in the office from no one else than our Lord Jesus Christ. This power is usually distinguished as three-fold.
First of all, it is the power to teach. To this power belongs, first of all, of course, the ministry of the Word, both in the local congregation to the edification of a certain congregation, as well as in all the world to the ingathering of the elect. And to the ministry of the Word in the local church also belongs the administration of the sacraments. To, the ministry of the Word belongs also, although not exclusively, of course, the preservation of the truth and its maintenance over against all that oppose it and all that distort the truth. The church, therefore, also must formulate its faith in specific confessions, by which the truth may be preserved in generations and also may be officially proclaimed and defended over against all heresies and heretics. Finally, it belongs to the power of teaching of the church to prepare ministers of the Word of God and to maintain seminaries for the cultivation of theology, that the truth may be maintained and become ever more fully developed in the consciousness of the church.
Secondly, the power of the church also implies what is called the power of government, the power to rule. This power is sometimes distinguished once more between the power and authority to make certain ordinances, based always, of course, upon the Word of God, for the ruling of the church. This power is embodied especially in our Church Order, that is, the Church Order of Dordrecht. Secondly, to that power also belongs the actual oversight over the local church, as well as over the individual members of the church, in Christian discipline. This discipline is, of course, always of a spiritual character. This we must never forget. Its purpose must always be the glory of God, the well-being of the church, and the salvation of the individual member, the salvation of the sinner.
Finally, we may mention the power of mercy in the name of Jesus Christ. This power of mercy concerns, first of all, those that are of the household of faith. The church must take care of her own poor, as is also evident from Acts 6. They must not leave this care to all kinds of worldly associations. But, although this power concerns first of all the members of the congregation themselves, there is no reason why also in the midst of the world this may not be revealed as far as this is possible.
THE MEANS OF GRACE
The means of grace are discussed in connection with the doctrine of the church, generally, because those means of grace are given to the church. Several questions must be asked and answered in this connection. In the first place, what are means, in general? In the second place, what are means of grace? Thirdly, how is the Word a means of grace? Fourthly, in what sense are the sacraments a means of grace, and what is their relation to the preaching of the Word? These, and other questions, are involved in the subject of the means of grace.
First of all, then, we must ask and answer the question: what is meant by means, in general? I would define means as elements taken from the world of our experience, that is, from the outside world in which we live, and that are adapted to our human existence and nature. Food and drink are such elements from the world in which we live, and are adapted to our nature in such a way that these means can nourish and sustain our body. We call them means because God uses them for the purpose to which they are adapted, that is, to nourish and strengthen our bodies. Of course, we must always remember that things in themselves are nothing. They exist and are sustained by the almighty and omnipresent power of God, which we call providence. But it pleases God to use these means always in the same way and for the same purpose. Because of this uniform use of means for the same purpose, we can use them. Bread always sustains and nourishes our bodies: God never uses bread to poison us. And because we have this confidence in God, we also are able to use those means. If God would use bread one day to poison our bodies, and another day to nourish them; it would be impossible for us to use those means. Means, therefore, are elements taken from the world in which we live, and the world of our experience, which are always used by God in the same way and which, for that very reason, we can use as means.
The question, however, is concerning means of grace, that is, therefore, means which the Holy Spirit employs to bestow grace upon the elect, the members of the church. And because that Holy Spirit uses those means for the same purpose, and for no other purpose, the church and the individual believer can also use them. However, what is the meaning of grace in the term means of grace? As we have explained it in the first part of dogmatics, under the attributes or virtues of God, the word grace in Scripture may have and does have a variety of connotations. We will not repeat them all here. However, we may briefly enumerate these various meanings. First of all, grace is an attribute of God, and as such has the fundamental meaning of attractiveness, gracefulness, pleasantness. God is the perfection of all beauty and attractiveness and gracefulness. For He is the implication of all infinite perfections, of all goodness in the spiritual, ethical sense of the word. As such God is perfectly lovely and beautiful. In the second place, Scripture denotes the attitude of graciousness or pleasantness, the gracious disposition of God to the creature, by the term grace. This is undoubtedly the meaning of the phrase “to find grace in the eyes of the Lord.” In the third place, and in close connection with the preceding, the word grace has the meaning of undeserved, or rather, of forfeited favor. In this case the favorable attitude of God is accentuated and enhanced by the condition of the subjects that receive this grace of God. Hence, the Word of God uses the term grace as standing opposed to obligation, and therefore, opposed to work. Grace and work are, as far as the term grace is concerned, directly opposite of each other. Fourthly, the word grace frequently is used in Scripture to denote that power of God whereby the sinner is actually saved and delivered from the bondage of sin and corruption, namely, the power whereby the sinner is regenerated, given a new life, called, and sanctified, and thus is made pleasant in the sight of God. It also includes all the spiritual blessings and virtues that are thus bestowed upon the objects of God’s favor. Finally, the word grace is used in the sense of “thanks.” To quote just one passage in this connection, we read in I Corinthians 15:57, according to the original: “Grace be to God, who giveth us the victory.” The meaning, in that case, is most probably that grace is ascribed to God by those that are the objects and recipients of the power of God’s grace, in order that He may receive the praise and adoration of all His own people as the God of grace.
In the term means of grace the word grace refers especially to the fourth connotation which we mentioned above. Means of grace, therefore, are means which the Holy Spirit uses to bestow that grace upon the sinner whereby he is actually delivered from the bondage of sin and corruption, regenerated, called, sanctified, glorified—made pleasant in the sight of God—whereby He also bestows upon the objects of God’s favor all the spiritual blessings and virtues that are in Christ their Lord. And they are means also used by the church and by the believer, and that too, for the same purpose.
These means are two: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.
It is possible, of course, to speak of means of grace in a wider sense of the word. In a certain sense all things are means of grace for those whom God has chosen from before the foundation of the world. Thus, it is plain that the simple reading of the Bible, especially the reading of Scripture at home, can be used, and undoubtedly is used, by the Holy Spirit in order to bring one of the elect to a living faith in Christ, or even to strengthen that faith. Thus also the godly conversation of believers among one another, or the Biblical discussion .in our societies can be used for, the edification and strengthening of the faith. Dr. Hodge, in his Systematic Theology, includes prayer in the regular means of grace. Writes he: “By means of grace are not meant every instrumentality which God may please to make the means of spiritual edification to his children. The phrase is intended to indicate those institutions which God has ordained to be the ordinary channels of grace, i.e., of the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit, to the souls of men. The means of grace according to the standards of our church, are the Word, sacraments, and prayer.”
In fact, it is possible that we use the term “means of grace” in a still wider sense. So the Scriptures teach us: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Rom. 8:28. All things work together for good: and that “good” refers, of course, to the salvation of the people of God. Moreover, this is true especially of what we consider evil things, things that are evil in themselves: the temptation of the devil and of our flesh, and especially also the suffering of this present time, or, more particularly, the suffering of the people of God for Christ’s sake. That all these things are employed by the Holy Spirit unto the salvation of the elect and to cause believers to grow in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is very evident from the Word of God. Thus we read, for instance, in Romans 5:2-4: “By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.” In the epistle of James 1:2, 3, we read: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” And in verse 12 of the same chapter we read: “Blessed is the man that endureth temptations: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.” The same truth is expressed in I Peter 1:6-9: “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” These passages plainly teach that all things in a sense are means of grace, and that God especially through tribulation and suffering causes His people in the world to grow in the true knowledge of Jesus Christ, and faith and hope and love. Even as a young oak, when it is tossed by severe storms, strikes its roots more deeply into the ground, so by the grace of God tribulation and suffering have the effect that the believer strikes his roots of faith deeper into Jesus Christ, and thus grows in grace.
Yet, although this is true, this is not the meaning of the term “means of grace” as it is used by the church. It is, evident that all those other means are impossible as means of grace unless the preaching of the Word is heard. It is by the preaching of the Word that the Christian believes. By the preaching of the Word he is called. And through the preaching of the Word he receives the knowledge of Christ. And without the sacraments, which are added to the Word as signs and seal of the promise, the other means have no effect and have no meaning. “Means of grace,” therefore, refer especially to those means which the Holy Spirit uses as they are officially instituted in the church to be administered by her. And to be received from her and through her and used by the individual believers. If we use the term “means of grace,” the reference is only to those two means of grace: the Word and the sacraments.
Thus we are taught in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day XXV:
“Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed?
“From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.
“What are the sacraments?
“The sacraments are holy visible signs and seals, appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof, he may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel, viz., that he grants us freely the remission of sin, and life eternal, for the sake of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross.
“Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end; that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our salvation?
“Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.
“How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the new covenant, or testament?
“Two: namely, holy baptism, and the holy supper.”
Although the Catechism emphasizes the idea of the sacraments as means of grace, nevertheless the preaching of the Word is the more important. This is evident, first of all, because the preaching of the Word is indispensable. Without the sacraments the Christian, if need be, can live, but never without the preaching of the Word. Without the Word of God he cannot come to a conscious faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He has no knowledge of Him, and therefore cannot appropriate Him by a true and living faith. It is through the preaching of the Word that the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts. Besides, the preaching of the Word is not only the means by which the Holy Spirit works faith in us; but it is also the main means for the strengthening and upbuilding and sustaining of our faith. The sacraments are also to strengthen our faith, but in a different way from that of the Word of God. They are really added to the Word. They obsignate and seal the promise of God in the gospel. But it is chiefly through the Word of God that the believer increases in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Upon the preaching of the Word, therefore, the sacraments are dependent. Without it they are meaningless, and have no content. This would not be true, of course, if the Roman Catholic conception of the sacraments were correct. For, according to the Romish Church, the sacraments have power to work in themselves, even without the preaching of the Word. Grace is not really worked in the hearts of the believers through the sacraments, but the latter are grace. Just as the theory of common grace proceeds really from the idea that things in themselves are grace, so the Romish Church teaches that grace is in the sacraments. And also the Lutheran Church never entirely abandoned this erroneous notion. According to the Romish Church, baptism works regeneration; and in the Lord’s Supper, according to the Roman Catholic Church, we really eat and drink Christ with our physical mouth. In that case we really do not need the preaching of the Word, but what we need is the church and the priest as dispensers of grace. In distinction from them, the Reformers and Protestants in general have always emphasized that the preaching of the Word is the main means of, grace, that it alone is really indispensable, and that the sacraments are dependent upon it. Hence, not the sacraments, but the preaching of the Word should have the chief emphasis when we discuss the means of grace.