Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
In considering the gathering of the church, we saw how Scripture reveals that gathering as God’s work exclusively. It is the wonder work of divine, sovereign grace. It is the work of particular grace.
That is evident in what the inspired apostle writes to the church at Thessalonica in II Thessalonians 2:13-14: “But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
You will notice immediately that God’s gathering of the church is a fruit of sovereign election. The fact that God has “from the beginning chosen you to salvation” comes to manifestation in the gathering of His church “through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” To accomplish this mighty work, God “called you by our gospel,” writes the apostle. It is this aspect of the gathering of the church that we take up now.
This work is emphatically the work of the Holy Spirit. Our Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes that in Lord’s Day 25, Question and Answer 65. “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.”
The subject before us is the means of grace. Perhaps it is better considered as “the means of faith.” That is the approach of the Catechism. We speak of the means by which the Spirit works and confirms faith in us who are the redeemed.
We stand before a very important practical subject. How is faith mine? How do I keep it? How does it grow? The answer, we find in Romans 10 and elsewhere, is that the Holy Spirit works and sustains and nourishes that faith by the use of means.
Means, a Natural Phenomenon
Means are things created by God and used by Him to have certain effects upon our lives.
Through such means God works constantly and in the same manner. He always produces the same effect by them, and never produces that effect without them.
Our physical lives are dependent upon such means.
By means of food and drink our physical life is sustained and nourished. Without food and drink we die. God will not uphold a person’s life in this world, except that person receive that which God has given for nourishment.
Such is the created order of things. And because God uses means in this way, it is possible for us to use those means. If God did not bind Himself to the use of a particular means to achieve a particular purpose, we could not use them. If, for example, by means of bread God would strengthen us today and kill us tomorrow, we could not possibly use that bread for food. If water provided necessary hydration for our bodies one day, but the next day was poison, we could not drink water. But for our sakes God has bound Himself to the use of particular means to accomplish particular purposes that He Himself has ordained.
It follows from God’s use of means that God has bound us to the use of those means. To ignore the means that God has established, perhaps with the argument that God is certainly powerful to sustain our lives without them, is grievous sin. It is a profane tempting of God. And God punishes with death the rejection of His good gifts.
True Also in the Spiritual Realm
What is true in the physical realm is also true with respect to our spiritual life.
We have to remember that Christ and our salvation belong to another world than ours, the spiritual and heavenly world.
Means of grace, therefore, are those means God has ordained to bring us to Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep. That beautiful Bridegroom, and the blessedness that belongs to the things heavenly, are by God’s grace adapted to us, brought to us in such a way that we can hear them and see them and taste them. Such indeed is the preaching of the Word, and such are the sacraments.
The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments. By those means the Spirit nourishes our hungry souls with the Bread of life and satisfies our thirsty souls with the water of life eternal in Christ Jesus our Lord. Constantly does the Spirit of Christ work and strengthen our faith by those means.
There is a figure often used in Scripture to depict this wonder, that of a shepherd feeding his flock.
In the Song of Solomon 1:7, when the bride (Christ’s church) sings, “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest,” she is looking at Christ as a Shepherd. She desires to know where Christ feeds His flock. That flock is His people, the sheep of His pasture, the elect whom He has purchased as His own and called by His grace. That flock, therefore, is distinct from all the world’s goats and wolves. But that flock is exposed to many dangers and to the cruelty and barbarity of ungodly enemies, even the devil himself.
So the Father says to His Son in Zechariah 11, “Feed the flock of the slaughter; Whose possessors slay them, and hold themselves not guilty,” and Christ turns to the flock and replies, “I will feed the flock of the slaughter, even you, O poor of the flock.”
Christ’s sheepfold needs food and rest. He knows that. He came as the good Shepherd to save His sheep, to call them, to feed them, to protect them. In the shelter of the fullness and sufficiency of His grace He gives His sheep everything that they need. He does so by the use of means—the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
By those means of grace He abides with us by His Spirit, the Comforter. By His means of grace He walks with us through the fire and the water, seeing that we are not burned, nor overcome (Is. 43:2). He props us up with His everlasting arms and gives us hope, reminding us of His love by His words of promise. For those means are 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 for our salvation (Q & A 67, Heidelberg Catechism).
Why Only Two?
While we speak of the means of grace as two, namely, the preaching of the gospel and the use of the sacraments, we realize that God uses many other means to lead His people to the ultimate goal of their salvation.
Certainly God uses as such means our own Bible study and prayer. He uses the godly instruction that parents give their children. He uses the encouraging words of the saints, the fellowship around His Word in the Bible studies of the church. In the broadest sense, all things are means unto our salvation. For Scripture teaches us that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
But the expression “means of grace” does not refer to the means that God uses in a general way.
Rather, we speak of the “means of grace” with reference to those means that have been given to and instituted in the church by Christ Himself, and that belong, therefore, to the church’s ministry. That is why our definition is limited to the preaching and the sacraments.
As we go on, the Lord willing, to consider the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there are a couple things to bear in mind.
The Relationship of the Means
The preaching of the gospel is the chief means of grace.
On the basis of Romans 10 and I Corinthians 2 and other passages, the Reformed churches distinguish themselves historically with their emphasis on preaching rather than on the sacraments. Even when we administer the sacraments—whether baptism or the Lord’s Supper—the preaching still has the dominant place in the worship service. It must. For the preaching of the gospel is the means whereby the Holy Spirit first brings faith to consciousness. The call to faith is by the gospel.
Furthermore, the preaching of the gospel is the means to strengthen and nourish and to enrich that faith. Not the sacraments, but the Word is the means that expounds to us the riches and fullness of Christ.
Besides, the sacraments are always dependent upon the preaching of the Word. The sacraments are seals added to the Word for the sake of confirmation, and therefore they can never go beyond the Word. Furthermore, without the Word the sacraments have no meaning. They cannot even strengthen faith apart from the preaching.
That is not to belittle the sacraments that Christ has ordained. But the point is: The preaching of the Word is the primary means of grace, while the sacraments are seals added to the Word preached for the sake of confirming that Word.
The Power of the Means
The other thing that we must bear in mind before we begin our study of each of the means of grace is that the power of grace is not in the means as such. The power of the means is in the Holy Spirit Himself, the Spirit of the exalted Lord Christ. The means themselves accomplish nothing. But God uses those means by the Spirit of Christ to work faith and to strengthen faith in those who belong to Christ’s sheepfold.
Preaching is not a question of the intellectual power or persuasiveness of the sermon. Preaching is a matter of Christ speaking! The power of the means is in the Holy Spirit applying the Word to the heart, so that—in fulfillment of John 10:27—His sheep hear His voice and follow Him. Nor is baptism or the Lord’s Supper a means of grace merely in the eating and drinking. It is a means of grace only in the Spirit’s application of its spiritual significance of those signs and seals.
And that means that these are means of grace only for the living children of God.
There must be life before there can be nourishing and strengthening of life by the eating and drinking of the Bread of Life, who is Christ.
Oh yes, the preaching and the sacraments do have their effect even on those who are spiritually dead, the unbelieving and disobedient. They are a means to harden and to expose their enmity against God.
But for you who live, and therefore who sorrow over your own sin, believing that God alone can and has fulfilled His gospel promise, punishing your sins in the bitter and shameful death of His own dear Son, for you both the Word preached and the sacraments point you and draw you to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of your faith.