A Question for My Readers

In the Reformed world, three things are usually said to be means of grace: Word, Sacraments, and prayer. They are ways that God gives grace to us. This is certainly the confessional position, as evidenced by WSC 88, which calls those three things “ordinances.” They are the things that God makes effectual for salvation (salvation here obviously being taken in a broad sense for the entire Christian life, not just conversion). My question for my readers is this: do you think that the communion of saints is a means of grace as well, or do you think that it is in another category? Does God give grace through the “one anothering” that the New Testament prescribes? Of course, it would be difficult to call the communion of saints an “ordinance.” It feels a bit weird to call it that. A further related question would be this: is there a difference between “ordinance” and “means of grace?” Lastly, for those of you who would believe that the communion of saints is a means of grace, should there be a revision proposed to the Westminster Standards? As for myself, I have not come down on an opinion one way or the other, and I would like to see some good arguments on both sides.

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23 Comments

  1. January 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the fact that the outward and ordinary means of grace are all inherently corporate in nature? That would (I think) more or less imply the inclusion of the communion of the saints in some sense.

  2. January 20, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Surely the communion of saints is an essential part of the other three, since one cannot do the three things alone. Perhaps it is already included by necessary consequence.

  3. greenbaggins said,

    January 20, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Yes, I have heard that definitely before. However, there are private aspects to some of the means of grace, particularly Word and prayer. As done in the church, the three normal means of grace are definitely corporate in nature. But it seems to me to be a bit more complicated than that, given the fact that one can engage in Word and prayer in a non-corporate way as well. How would you respond?

  4. Pete Rambo said,

    January 20, 2014 at 11:11 am

    Exodus 31:13

    “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you….

    Yes. Lev. 234:1-3 specifically delineates this as ‘My appointed time’… a ‘holy convocation.’

    It is decidedly a means of grace/sanctification.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    January 20, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Interesting thought, Pete. But is Exodus saying that the Lord sanctifies the people through the Sabbath, or does the text say that this is how the people will know who is the one who sanctifies them? In other words, does the Exodus passage call the Sabbath a means of grace, or a means of assurance?

  6. greenbaggins said,

    January 20, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Another thought: by keeping the Sabbath holy, does that not mean that we are engaging in Word, Sacrament, and prayer? So is the Sabbath a means of grace itself, or is it the time in which the means of grace are administered?

  7. Bob B said,

    January 20, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    What is the communion of saints if not Christians past and present? Surely one of our primary jobs is to be a means of God’s grace to one another.

    Is it proper to request an administration of grace from a member of the communion of saints? (Brother, pray for me?) Is that request limited in its scope to only ‘present’ members of the communion of saints?

    Can we also administer grace to those who are in the communion of saints past?

    As to your Sabbath question, I would think it is a time in which the means of grace are administered. After all, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

    If we consider the sacraments a means of grace, what is the justification from withholding communion to once a month or once a quarter – ought it not be a weekly (minimum) affair? Give me the grace!

  8. January 20, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    A couple of questions that could help clarify the general idea: What is the biblical support for the idea of “means of grace” in the first place (for example: can it be shown from Scripture that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, and what does God intend specifically by giving us grace through that specific ordinance)? Does God always give His grace to us through some activity or does He give us His grace directly, in an unmediated way, or both? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book – or even a journal article – on the subject of the means of grace, come to think of it.

  9. greenbaggins said,

    January 20, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Richard, the recent book by Barcellos that I reviewed here was written entirely to prove that the Supper is a means of grace. I think he more than proves his point. As to the larger question of the means of grace, I agree that there doesn’t seem to be many books or articles written on it.

  10. January 20, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    Psalm 133 comes to mind. God’s fullest blessing comes in the fellowship of his people.

  11. January 20, 2014 at 4:04 pm

    “there are private aspects to some of the means of grace, particularly Word and prayer. As done in the church, the three normal means of grace are definitely corporate in nature. But it seems to me to be a bit more complicated than that, given the fact that one can engage in Word and prayer in a non-corporate way as well. How would you respond?”

    I’m tempted to say that even private prayer and bible reading is “corporate” in nature, since He is presnt in those things. A believer cannot pray to himself, nor can he or she study God’s word fruitfully without God’s Spirit applying it to his heart. All these are sacrificial service even though not “corporate.” Is obedience and discipleship a MEANS of grace as well as the result of grace? Perhaps, arguably, applied to sanctification.

  12. Ron said,

    January 20, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Lane,

    I would say that the communion of saints is a means of grace but only insomuch as it is a form of ministry of the word. Our fellowship is in the truth, so when one is built up in the faith through fellowship, truly built up that is, it can only be because the Word is being ministered at least in some measure. In the like manner, the singing of Psalms (or hymns pregnant with biblical truth) ministers grace to us. That all being said, I think the three standard categories are sufficient and complete.

  13. January 21, 2014 at 7:18 am

    What do we mean by “means of grace”? If we mean the means by which God communicates to us the benefits of Christ and the Gospel, then the Word is preeminent in how we understand any of the “means of grace.” The Sacraments are a means of grace because they SIGNIFY Gospel promises we are to believe – which promises are only known through the Word. Further, the Word is explicitly connected to Baptism via the Triune formula, and to the Lord’s Supper via the words of institution. Thus faith is essential to receiving the sacraments as “an effectual means of salvation” (WSC 91). If we include prayer as a means of grace (which Heidelberg does not), I would suggest it is only so insofar as prayer is the believing response to the Word (i.e., we adore God for who He has revealed Himself to be in the Word, we confess our sins in view of His Word of Law, we thank Him for His grace to us in Christ, we supplicate Him and intercede for one another according to His revealed will in the Word, etc.). So, in my opinion, the fellowship of the saints in and of itself is not a means of grace, but as “the Word of Christ dwells in us richly” and we “teach and admonish one another accordingly,” we are thereby employing the means of grace and mutually edifying one another. That’s my stab at it.

  14. January 21, 2014 at 7:42 am

    * I would suggest that prayer and the fellowship of the saints are not, properly speaking, means of grace. Both employ the means of grace. God is the one taking the initiative and objectively, externally “speaking,” if you will, via the Word and Sacraments (the “visible Word” a la Augustine). However, maybe we can make a distinction between “means of grace” specifically and “ordinances” more generally. Ordinances are more broadly those things Christ has appointed for the benefit of His people, which we are obligated to observe. We are commanded to hear the Word, to receive the Sacraments, to pray, and to assemble as God’s people (cf. Acts 2:42). So “ordinances” may be considered a larger category which includes the means of grace plus prayer and the fellowship of the saints.

  15. Larry Wilson said,

    January 21, 2014 at 9:21 am

    If you look closely, you’ll note that the Standards state that the outward and ordinary means of grace are “ALL the ordinances of God” (so that in addition to the Word, sacraments, and prayer, there are other means, including the fellowship that believers have with each other). Then they go on to say ESPECIALLY the Word, sacraments, and prayer. It seems to me that there are narrower and broader uses of the expression “means of grace.” In the narrowest sense, our Lord works especially by means of the Word and sacraments (received in faith, which is expressed in prayer). It seems that the continental Reformed confessions use “means of grace” in that narrowest sense. On the broadest level, we know that God causes ALL THINGS to work together for the good of his redeemed children (Rom. 8:28). The Westminster Standards, it seems to me, use it in a more technical sense than that, but it a less technical sense than the continental Reformed standards.

    However we say it, thought, it does seem that — especially in our individualistic culture — we do need to put greater emphasis on the importance of Christian fellowship as something God uses for our growth in grace. God’s Word does, for example, all the “one another” passages in the New Testament.

  16. Richie said,

    January 21, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    (This is a repeat.. perhaps my last attempt was deleted?? ) Totally off topic but I was wondering if the book on Catholicism has been put on hold? The last thing I remember was that you had read Ott and DeChirico and where making your way through the Catechism, checking every cross-reference as you went along. Is the project off? I was really looking forward to it.

  17. rfwhite said,

    January 21, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    To put Larry Wilson’s comment in other words, can we say that all ordinances are also means of grace though the Word, prayer, and sacraments are distinguished?

  18. Cris Dickason said,

    January 22, 2014 at 12:07 am

    I would rather have some formulation, or handy sentence regarding the communion of the saints be set forth as the fourth mark of a true church. Perhaps pointing to this new 4th mark of the church as one most directly entrusted to the general office of believers, since the conventional 3 marks (faithful preaching, administration of the 2 sacraments, scriptural church discipline) could be seen as in the care and trust of special officers.

    In the long wrong, I suspect that communion of the saints, fellowship of the saints, mutual care and encouragement are too interpersonal/relational, too pastoral, too nouthetic, to be categorized as a means of grace and called out as such in a revision of the Westminster Standards.

    Yes, I know that our life in union with Christ is (ought to be) quite relational, personal, but we are talking about the human to human dimension.

    Also, I understand that the church is not just officers. Thus the mention of the general office of believers. The Church is special office and general office of believers, that’s not typical Presbyterian formulation. I am decidedly shaped by 18 years in the Canadian Reformed Churches, where I was schooled on the subtle and not subtle differences between Presbyterian and Reformed polity.

    -=Cris=-

  19. greenbaggins said,

    January 22, 2014 at 8:50 am

    Richie, welcome to the blog. What is your last name? As to your question, I am still working on the book, but it will probably be around ten years in the making, as I am hoping to make it a fairly comprehensive book.

  20. Richie Cronin said,

    January 22, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Excellent. If in the mean time you want to continue blogging through DeChirico’s efforts…

  21. Richie Cronin said,

    January 22, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    … that would be great! But otherwise I await what you come up with.

  22. michael said,

    January 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Seems to me Lane, besides Psalm 133, already cited, the second of the two great Commandments upon which the Grace of God from the Law and Prophets come to minister answers the question?

    Once I’m full of this Grace, I still have my neighbor to love and care for and pray for.

    One strong indication that Grace to my neighbor and to me from my neighbor is central to life is written about in chapter 15 of Deuteronomy 1-11 and the issue of caring for others by providing them what they need from the blessings Grace has bestowed on us.

  23. Paul W said,

    February 19, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    J.V. Fesko addresses this question in his Water, Word, and Spirit (Chapter 11). “If grace is defined [objectively] as the work of Christ applied through the Spirit, then the means of grace must be restricted to Word and sacrament. If, however, the means of grace are defined as the ordinary channels through which the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit come to the believer [requiring subjective appropriation], then prayer and other activities of the church [worship, discipline, giving, spiritual gifts, fellowship, evangelism, personal ministry] may be included. (page 278). The whole chapter is a good discussion, citing Hodge and Berkhof (and Grudem), and calling both definitions “complementary.” WLC Q.154 and WSC Q.88 are addressed by him as incorporating aspects of both definitions and not using media gratiae as a strict, technical, objective term.


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