The final question of the April 27, 2011 episode of the Office Hours podcast by Westminster Seminary California, “Ask the Profs,” provided a good summary of the Reformed concept of the means of grace. Precisely at the 22 minute mark, the question was raised by a listener and the helpful answer was provided by Dr. John Fesko. Below I have appropriated some of his summary with a little of my own reflection on the topic in light of the teaching of Scripture.
“Means of grace” was originally a medieval Roman Catholic technical term for the sacraments, teaching that they are the means by which we receive the grace of God. Baptism was the means by which the infused righteousness of Christ was received, and the Lord’s Supper was the means by which the physical body and blood of Christ were received for eternal life.
The Reformers reformed the doctrines, but retained the terminology. First, they emphasized the centrality and priority of the Word of God preached by which God’s grace was received by those who believe, and condemnation received by those who do not believe. The sacraments were likewise means which confirm the grace received by those who believe the Word or condemnation by those who do not believe.
Contrary to Romanism, Reformed theology teaches justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ which is receied by faith alone; thus baptism does not convey the grace by merely submitting to the rite regardless of the recipient’s spiritual condition. Furthermore, Reformed theology agrees with Rome that Christ is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper, but they disagree on how he is present–Reformed theology teaches that Christ is present via the Holy Spirit, not physically. Thus the efficacy of both sacraments is the work of the Spirit, and not the magical work of a human priest. The benefits of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross are given by the gracious work of the Spirit alone and received by faith alone.
It is interesting to note that Scripture clearly presents the dual truth that grace is received by the believer in the sacramental means of grace, while condemnation is received by the unbeliever who presumes to participate in the sacraments. Consider the following passages:
One may legitimately argue against the use of this passage, due to its questionable manuscript evidence, nevertheless Mark 16:16 emphasizes the necessity of faith for the efficacy of baptism: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” This shows how the believer who is baptized receives the grace by faith, but the one who is baptized but never finally comes to faith in Christ will be condemned.
First Corinthians 10:16 shows the blessings received by those who believe the Word and partake in faith in terms of communion or participation in the body and blood of Christ: “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The following chapter then shows how condemnation is received by those who partake of the Supper unworthily: “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27).
Thus we see that the Reformed concept of the means of grace is centered around the centrality of the Word of God preached and received through faith alone by the grace of God the Holy Spirit alone. This grace is signified and sealed to the one who believes in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but condmenation comes to the one who does not believe, even if he is baptized or partakes of the Lord’s Supper.