XII. The Means of Grace

In the last three chapters we have been discussing God’s way of salvation for men, in particular the doctrines of conversion, of justification, and of sanctification. In the next three chapters we intend, God willing, to direct our attention to the means or instruments which God employs to bring about conversion or the bestowal of justifying faith, thus making man a believer, and which He also uses to produce the sanctification of the believer. This we shall discuss first in general, in this chapter on the means of grace, with special attention to the primary means of grace, the Gospel, and shall then direct our attention in particular to each of the two Sacraments, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Subsequent chapters on the Church, and the Ministry, through which the means of grace are administered among men, will be followed, finally, by studies of the Election of Grace, and the Last Things.

In treating the means of grace we must always bear in mind the Biblical doctrine of universal objective justification, as taught in 2 Cor. 5:19, for this accomplished justification is the content of the means of grace. God has forgiven all men’s sins, and by the means of grace He conveys to us this forgiveness. 2 Cor. 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” The last words of this Scripture passage refer to the means of grace; for the Gospel, or good news that our sins are graciously forgiven for Christ’s sake, which is the primary means of grace, is that “Word of reconciliation” referred to in the text just quoted.

The Gospel is a means of grace in every form in which it reaches men: as preached (Mark 16:15, 16; Luke 24:47: “remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations”), as written or printed and read (John 20:31: “These are written, that ye might believe;” 1 John 1:4: “These things we write unto you, that your joy may be full”), as declared in absolution, general or individual (John 20:23: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them”), as pictured in symbols or types (John 3:14, 15: the brazen serpent in the wilderness), or as pondered in the heart (Rom. 10:8: “The Word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart”) — also in the holy Sacraments, as connected with the water of Baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16) and with Christ’s true body and blood in the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19, 20; Matt. 26:26–28).

All means of grace, the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, have the same purpose and the same effect. As surely as Baptism is a means of regeneration (“the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost,” Titus 3:5), so surely the word of the Gospel works regeneration (“being born again … by the word of God,” 1 Peter 1:23). As certainly as Christ gives us His true body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, so sure it is also that He names as purpose of this wonderful gift the assurance and attestation that God is graciously disposed toward those who eat and drink, because of the body given and the blood shed by Christ: Luke 22:19; Matt. 26:28 (“given and shed for you for the remission of sins”). In perfect agreement with this Scripture teaching, the Confession of our Church states: “Of the use of the Sacraments they teach that the Sacraments were ordained … to be signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us, instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them” (A. C., XIII, Trig., p. 49).

The great importance of the Christian doctrine of the means of grace is evident from the Scriptural teaching that God wills to bestow the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake and faith in this forgiveness, regeneration unto spiritual life and all spiritual gifts connected with it, only through the means of grace which He has ordained, namely, through the Word of the Gospel and the Sacraments. It is noteworthy that, although many erring denominations theoretically deny the effectiveness of the means of grace and teach that God’s grace operates without means, they nevertheless most inconsistently continue to use these means (or at least some of them), and that God uses His means of grace, also in their hands and mouths, to bring men to faith and preserve them in faith, thus producing and maintaining the one true faith in the hearts of His real Christians in spite of Satan’s delusions. We need only adduce a few of the many strong statements of Holy Scripture to prove that God does indeed in His Word emphasize the efficacy and importance of the means of grace in kindling and sustaining Christian faith:

John 17:20: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their Word.”

1 Peter 1:23: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.”

Titus 3:5: “According to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost.”

Mark 16:15, 16: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.”

Luke 24:47: “Repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations.” Notice that this text does not speak of preaching about the remission of sins, but simply preaching remission of sins. The preaching of the Gospel conveys and bestows the remission of sins. And no remission of sins is to be found elsewhere than in the Gospel.

Through the means of grace alone God chooses to deal with us unto our salvation, to bestow His gifts of forgiveness, peace, joy, and everlasting life. By this we do not mean to say that God could not operate in our hearts without such external means, nor that He has not in certain exceptional cases done so (see Luke 1:15, 41, 44). But what we do assert is that when, under terrors of conscience, we seek assurance of God’s grace, He has bound us to the objective Word of the Gospel and to the Sacraments, and has not referred us in this situation to an immediate internal illumination of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit chooses to work through the means of grace. In them He is at home and at work; and, knowing this from Holy Scripture, we shall not seek Him and His gracious operations elsewhere. The Apostolic teaching and practice agrees with the Scripture testimony cited in the previous paragraph, for they do not encourage men to expect the Holy Spirit to light on them without means, but enjoin them to seek grace and salvation in the means of grace:

Acts 20:32: “I commend you to God, and to the Word of His grace.”

Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized every one of in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

1 Peter 3:21: “Baptism doth also now save us.”

Thus Holy Scripture teaches both that faith and regeneration are the work of divine omnipotence and that this divine power is exerted through the outward means of the Word and Baptism.

If we are clear on the Scriptural doctrines of universal objective justification and the means of grace, we shall have no difficulty with the Scriptural teaching concerning the means of grace in the form of absolution, as we find it in the words of our Lord recorded in John 20:23: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.” For absolution is simply a special form of proclaiming the Gospel, namely, the announcing of the forgiveness of sins to one or more persons upon their confession of sins, either by a public servant of the Church or by a lay Christian. Absolution is based solely on the fact of God’s reconciliation to the world by the perfect satisfaction of Christ and on the divine command (John 20:21; Luke 24:47) in Christ’s name to proclaim the remission of sins provided by Him. Our attitude toward the means of grace, also in form of absolution, really reveals, as Luther has written, whether we take the Word God has given to His Church to be God’s Word, or whether we regard His Word in the mouth of a fellow-man to be merely a man’s word. The administration of the external means of grace by our fellow-men and fellow-sinners is one of the most marvelous demonstrations of God’s gracious condescension and love for poor sinners which leads Him so richly to provide means and ways to assure us of His grace and the forgiveness of our sins.

A few words must be added as to the reason why prayer, deeply as we appreciate the privilege of such access to our heavenly Father, must not be placed on a level with the Word and the Sacraments as a means of grace. To regard prayer as a means of grace (as so many do) would be coordinating incongruous things. Word and Sacrament are the means through which God deals with us men, that is, imparts to men the remission of sins earned by Christ, and through this bestowal creates and sustains faith in them. Word and Sacraments are, as Luther was accustomed to say, something God does to us. By prayer, on the other hand, believers are doing something toward God. Prayer obtains the remission of sins as an exercise of faith, which is man’s hand stretched out to receive God’s benefits, not as a means of grace, which is God’s hand stretched out to bestow His benefits.

The important Biblical doctrine of the distinction between Law and Gospel, which has already been virtually treated, under another name, in the article of justification, should be at least briefly presented also in connection with the doctrine of the means of grace. For, strictly speaking, not the Law, but the Gospel alone, is a means of grace. God indeed prepares a man’s heart for the bestowal of His grace by the Law, just as a farmer prepares the ground for the sowing of seed by breaking it up with the plow, but He never bestows the gracious forgiveness by means of the Law. Romans 3:20: “Therefore by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the Law is the knowledge of sin.” The Law, in the proper sense of the word, is that Word of God in which God demands of men that in their nature, thoughts, words, and acts they conform to the standard of His commandments, and pronounces the curse on those who fail to comply. The Gospel, in the proper sense of the word, is that Word of God in which God promises His grace for the sake of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction to such as have not kept the divine Law. Law and Gospel have indeed something in common — both are the Word of God; both apply to all men; and both are to be taught side by side in the Church and by the Church up to the Last Day.

But as to their promises, as to the persons to whom each is to be preached, and as to the sources from which they are known, Law and Gospel are opposites. The Law’s promises are conditional, and therefore beyond our reach, since we are unable to fulfill the condition (Gal. 3:12; Luke 10:28). The Gospel’s promises are gratuitous, without any condition attached. The Law pronounces the righteous man righteous; the Gospel pronounces the unrighteous man righteous; Rom. 4:5: “justifieth the ungodly.” “The Law is to be preached to secure sinners, the Gospel to terrified sinners,” as, with slight variations in wording, all orthodox expositions of the Catechism have ever taught. And this Catechism teaching is firmly based on the Word of God, e.g., Rom. 10:4, Luke 4:18: “To preach the Gospel to the poor.” The Gospel is to be recognized as the “higher Word,” which is to be God’s final Word for the terrified sinner. While the natural man still knows the Law, no thought of the Gospel has ever come of itself to even the wisest and (in the sphere of civil righteousness) most righteous of men. Contrast Rom. 2:14, 15 with 1 Cor. 2:6–10. Neither Law nor Gospel can be dispensed with in the practice of the Church or of the individual Christian, for the following reasons: 1). Only the sinner whom the Law has brought to a knowledge of his deserved condemnation will in faith accept the remission of sins offered in the Gospel. 2). The Gospel furnishes and presents man with the very fulfillment which the Law demands. 3). The Gospel with its verdict of justification must supersede or “devour” the Law with its verdict of condemnation. 4). Also after a man has become a Christian he still cannot do without the use of the Law; for he is not yet entirely a new man, but still has the old Adam dwelling in him. According to the new man the Christian needs the Law in none of its three uses (as a curb, a mirror, and a rule), according to the old man in all.

(N.B. The above presentation, especially the brief treatment of the distinction between Law and Gospel, has been in large part condensed and simplified from Dr. F. Pieper’s masterly presentation in his Christian Dogmatics. The remaining six chapters will lean heavily upon my translation of unpublished lectures delivered in the German language by the sainted Dr. Pieper in the fall semester of 1927–28, when I sat at his feet in his Dogmatics class).