Why are the means of grace restricted to Word and sacrament?

J.V. Fesko, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, 277-281


Why are the means of grace restricted to Word and sacrament? Some Reformed theologians, such as Charles Hodge (1797–1878), have included prayer as a means of grace. Hodge defines the means of grace as: “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.”44 Hodge simply echoes the Westminster Standards: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation” (SC q. 88). Given Hodge’s definition of the means of grace, prayer should be included.

In this vein, note how Paul explains that the believer receives the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit in prayer: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26). Hodge reflects something of Paul’s statement when he describes prayer as the realm in which providence brings believers near to God, who is the source of all good. Prayer enables believers to “fellowship with Him [and] converse with Him, [and] calls into exercise all gracious affections, reverence, love, gratitude, submission, faith, joy, and devotion.”45 If the means of grace are the ordinary channels by which the people of God receive the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit, then it also seems legitimate to include Grudem’s expansive list: Word, sacraments, prayer for one another, worship, church discipline, giving, spiritual gifts, fellowship, evangelism, and personal ministry to individuals.46 The gifts of the Spirit also evidence His supernatural influence.

Others have recognized the problem of including prayer as a means of grace. Berkhof, for example, writes:

Faith, conversion, and prayer, are first of all fruits of the grace of God, though they may in turn become instrumental in strengthening the spiritual life. They are not objective ordinances, but subjective conditions for the possession and enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant. Consequently, it is better not to follow Hodge when he includes prayer…. Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels which Christ has instituted in the church, and to which He ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace. Of course, these may never be dissociated from Christ, nor from the powerful operation of the Holy Spirit, nor from the Church which is the appointed organ for the distribution of the blessings of divine grace. They are in themselves quite ineffective and are productive of spiritual results only through the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit.47

Berkhof argues that the means of grace are objective, that is, not dependent on man’s subjective experience or reception. God’s objective revelation is independent and true whether man accepts it or not. Both Word and sacrament are forms of divine revelation. Prayer, on the other hand, is not divine revelation. If grace is defined 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, then prayer and other activities of the church may be included.

The answer to the potential antithesis between Hodge and Berkhof lies in understanding the range of meaning behind the concept of the means of grace. Hodge and Grudem represent the grace of God broadly defined as His favor, though Grudem has a more expansive list of means than Hodge. Berkhof’s understanding of the means of grace is more strictly defined, namely, that they are objective ordinances, God’s objective revelation in Christ. Hence, the two understandings of the means of grace are complimentary, not antithetical. In other words, the term means of grace can be defined broadly or narrowly and technically.

In other words, the term means of grace can be defined broadly or narrowly and technically.

Historically in Reformed scholastic theology, media gratia (means of grace) was a technical term. The classification of the Word and sacraments as media gratiae does not intend to exclude the general operation of grace, but rather to indicate the function of both the Word and sacraments in the effectual call and sanctification of man as objective channels of special grace (gratia specialis). The Word and sacraments are thus essential both in the inception of salvation and in the believer’s sanctification. The Word and sacraments are the sole officially ordained objective means of grace. God has promised His grace to faithful hearers of the Word and faithful participants in the sacraments, when the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.48

A close examination of the Westminster Standards reveals that they do not employ the terminus technicus of media gratiae, but instead describe the outward, ordinary means by which believers receive God’s blessing and favor. The Larger Catechism asks, “What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?” (q. 154). The answer it gives is almost identical to the answer to question 88 of the Shorter Catechism: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates the benefits of his mediation [redemption, q. 88], are all his ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation” (q. 154). The Word and sacraments are the objective means whereby God reveals Christ to His covenant people, but to cast the question in terms of Christ’s mediation or redemption draws a broader circle. The Word and sacraments are objective, though they require subjective appropriation; likewise, prayer is subjective, though it has an objective element in that prayers are offered to Christ, who objectively and truly exists. This is a difference in emphasis, as Word and sacrament are primarily objective, and prayer is primarily subjective.

Appealing to the way in which the Westminster Standards describe the Word, sacraments, and prayer substantiates that they do not employ the technical term media gratiae. Scripture is the revelation of God’s will to His people, and the supreme judge of all controversies is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.1, 10). Sacraments are “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits” (WCF 27.1). These things are objectively true of the Word and sacraments regardless of whether God’s people acknowledge them as such or not. Prayer, on the other hand, “is an offering up of our desires unto God” (LC q. 178). There is a distinct difference between prayer and the Word and sacraments, though the divines place prayer in the context of worship (WCF 21.3–4), which indicates they have a broader goal in view than narrowly or technically defining the media gratiae.

This point can be further illustrated by examining several key statements in the Heidelberg Catechism. The catechism appears to reject prayer as a means of grace in the way that the Westminster Standards define it. Such a conclusion might be drawn from question 65 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Since, then, faith alone makes us share in Christ and all his benefits, where does such faith originate? The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” Yet this statement should be compared with what the Heidelberg Catechism says regarding prayer: “Why is prayer necessary for Christians? Because it is the chief part of the gratitude which God requires of us, and because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who sincerely beseech him in prayer without ceasing, and who thank him for these gifts” (q. 116). Clearly the catechism has a very high view of prayer and the blessing that accompanies it, and even allows that believers receive the grace of God through it. In fact, compared with the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism appears to grant greater power to prayer (cf. HC 65, 116; LC 155, 161, 178–85).49 But while there are some different emphases, there is no substantive difference between the English and Continental Reformed traditions on the Word and sacraments as the only objective means of grace.50

Part of the reason why theologians differ on the proper limit of the means of grace is a lack of terminological precision. Theologians often assume the meaning of grace and then cast a wide net without distinguishing between the objective and subjective categories.51 This seems to be the case with Hodge and Grudem, though there is a total lack and even demonization of precision in McLaren.52 Hence, it is preferable to recognize that the objective means of grace are Word and sacrament, as they are the means by which God reveals His grace, the person and work of Christ.