In our last article, we concluded the discussion with the remark that there was only one means which God used to give grace to His people; and that one means of grace was the preaching of the Word.
Generally, the means of grace are considered to be of two kinds: the preaching of the Word, and the proper administration of the sacraments. Thus, we read in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day XXV, 65 and 67, “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.
“Are both word and sacraments, then, 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 of our salvation? Yes, indeed: for the Holy Ghost teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.”
So also we read in article XXXIII of the Belgic Confession, “We believe, that our gracious God, on account of our weakness and infirmities, hath ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us his promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God toward us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith; which he hath joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses, both that which he signifies to us by his Word, and that which he works inwardly in our hearts, thereby assuring and confirming in us the salvation which he imparts to us…”
But even though it is certainly correct to maintain that God bestows grace to the elect by means of the preaching and the sacraments, nevertheless, the means of grace are essentially one, that is, the preaching of the Word. For it is indeed true that the sacraments themselves are also the preaching of the Word. They are such in a unique sense, for the Word is preached by means of visible signs, and the promise of that Word is sealed to the elect by means of these signs and seals. We shall have more to say about this in some later article.
In this sense, Christian discipline also can be conceived of as a means of grace, for also Christian discipline is part of the preaching of the Word. It is interesting to notice in this connection that the means of grace are identical with the marks of the true church as discussed in article XXIX of the Belgic Confession. It is true that Christian discipline is not a means of grace to reprobate seed which are cut off from the church, but the purpose of the exercise of the key power is always to save. When a person is become the object of censure by the consistory, the elders have the purpose in mind to bring him to repentance. And therefore, if that purpose is attained, it is evident that God has also used key power to apply grace to the heart of one of His people. And in a broader sense of the word, key power and the exercise of it is also a means of grace to the congregation as a whole. For they come to a consciousness of their participation in the grace of Jesus Christ as it manifests itself in penitence and a sorrow after sin when they see discipline applied to those who do not repent of their sins. This is very beautifully expressed in the prayer of the Form for Excommunication: “O, Righteous God and merciful Father, we bewail our sin before thy high majesty, and acknowledge that we have deserved the grief and sorrow caused unto us by the cutting off of this our late fellow-member; yea, we all deserve, shouldst Thou enter into judgment with us, by reason of our great transgressions, to be cut off and banished from thy presence. But, O Lord, Thou art merciful unto us for Christ’s sake; forgive us our trespasses, for we heartily repent of them, and daily work in our hearts a greater measure of sorrow for them; that we may, fearing thy judgments which thou executest against the stiff-necked, endeavor to please thee…”
God may use many other things to apply grace to His people and to cause them to grow in grace. In the daily walk of a child of God in the midst of this world, his godly conversation, his conduct in relation to his family and friends and brethren in the church, his devotions with his family, his study of the Scriptures in private or in society, may all be a means to a greater consciousness of his salvation and the strengthening of his faith. But none of these things are means of grace apart from the preaching of the Word. Only as all of his activities are done in the light of, and are understood by means of, the preaching of God’s Word, will they be used to strengthen faith. For by the Word can we learn to know our proper conduct; by the light only of that Word can we understand that which we read by ourselves or in a society; with the guidance of that Word, and it alone, do we understand our relation to God as governing our devotions and our spiritual conduct in the home.
It is, therefore, also possible that our study and reading of secular material may also be a means of grace. I do not have in mind all kinds of trash and filth which clutter the market today, but I refer particularly to our studies in school at any level of education, and our reading of books which others have written as well as reading of the newspapers and other news magazines. But again, this is only possible under the preaching of the gospel. For only in the light of that preaching can we properly interpret our secular studies and the history of the world as it is taking place about us. But as in the light of that Word, we also do interpret properly, so that these things may strengthen our faith.
And so in the broadest sense of the word, all things are means of grace, for God uses all things to save His people and bring them into highest glory. And although we can never consciously receive grace through all things while on this earth, nevertheless, “All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28).