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Previously, I wrote that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the Church, because salvation is by grace, and grace is ordinarily given by the means of grace, which are given to the Church.
The question arises, what do I mean by the means of grace? To answer this question, we will begin with a broader explanation of the concept, and moving from the general to specific, conclude with a narrower definition as that concept applies to the context of the Christian Church.
Means and Grace
The term, “means of grace”, is comprised of two key words, “means”, and “grace”. A “means” is simply an instrument or thing through which an effect is extended or communicated. “Grace” is a gift or blessing. Christians say that God’s grace is unmerited favor, which is to say that His grace is a gift, or blessing that we do not earn. Taken together, a means of grace is an instrument or thing through which God gives or shares His blessings. In this general sense, there are many means of grace, because anything that God uses to give His blessings is a means of grace. For example, God gives mankind food and gladness through rain and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:17). Food and gladness are grace. They are God’s gifts, undeserved gifts. The rain and fruitful seasons are the means through which God gives those gifts.
Because we are discussing the means of grace in the context of salvation, we must narrow our focus from common grace, to special grace. Common grace refers to those gifts which God gives to mankind generally, such as life, and food, and gladness. The gifts and the recipients of them are universal, or common. Therefore, we call it common grace. However, God gives some gifts to some men that He does not give to all men. These gifts and the recipients of them are special. Therefore, we call it special grace. Special grace is sometimes called saving grace, or salvific grace, because it pertains to salvation. When discussing the gifts which God gives only to the Church, we are discussing special grace, also called saving grace, or salvific grace.
Blood on the Doorposts
In Exodus 12 we read that God destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, but spared the firstborn of Israel. When God spared Israel, it was a gift, an undeserved gift. It was also a special gift, given only to special people. Therefore, it is an example of special grace. Now, let us consider how God extended that grace to Israel. The LORD instructed them to select a lamb, which they were to kill and eat (12:1-8). He also instructed them to take some of the Lamb’s blood and put it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes (12:7). The LORD told Moses,
I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you (Exodus 12:12-13 ESV).
By morning, God had destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, but had passed over the houses of Israel (13:29). That was grace. Previously, God had told Israel to spread the lamb’s blood upon their doorposts and lintels, so that when He saw it, He would pass over their houses. That was the means. The blood on the doorposts was a means of grace. Note four things about this means of grace.
First, it was objective. It came from outside of the people. Just as grace came to Israel from outside of themselves, so also it came to them through means outside of themselves. In addition to being external, it was also a tangible, sensible thing. The LORD said, “The blood shall be a sign for you” (12:13). The blood was an outward sign. It was visible to the people of Israel.
Second, it was given to the people by the LORD. The people of Israel did not devise their own salvation. Nor did they invent the Passover rite. The LORD told Moses (12:1, 7); Moses told the elders (12:21); and the elders told the people (27-28). Because it was given to all Israel, it was a public, not private, affair. It began with the “whole assembly of the congregation”, and then it was applied to individuals as members of households (12:6-7). But it did not stop there. The Passover continued as a rite among the people of Israel from that day until the death of Christ (12:14).
Third, it communicated saving benefits, that is to say, grace. The LORD said, “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you” (12:13). The same destroyer, who struck the Egyptians, could have likewise struck Israel, except that the LORD would not allow him (12:23).
Fourth, it depended on God. All the blood, from all the lambs in the world, could not have saved a single Israelite, if not for the LORD working through it. It was the LORD who saw the blood and passed over the houses according to His promise (12:13).
Means of Grace in the Church Today
Now that we have a general idea of the means of grace, and an Old Testament example, let us again narrow our focus to consider the means of grace in the context of the Church today. Here we may define the means of grace as: objective instruments, given to the Church, by which the Holy Spirit communicates the benefits of Christ. This definition has four basic parts.
First, the means of grace are objective instruments. They exist outside of us, and independent from us. We cannot conjure up the means of grace from inside of us. Like Israel, we are saved by grace. Both that grace, and the means by which we receive it, come to us from outside of us. As objective instruments, the means of grace are sensible, that is to say they are perceived by one or more of our five senses.
Second, the means of grace are given to the Church. Neither individuals nor the Church have the authority to institute a means of grace. They are given to us by Christ, who is the Head of the Church. He has not given these means to the world. Because the means of grace are given to the Church, they are for use in the Church, and by the Church. This means that the means of grace are public, not private. It also means that they will continue as long as the Church continues on earth.
Third, the means of grace communicate the benefits of Christ. The grace in the means of grace refers specifically to those things purchased by Jesus Christ for the salvation of His people.
Fourth, the means of grace communicate the benefits of Christ by the Holy Spirit. The means of grace have physical characteristics, but their true operation is spiritual in nature. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter whom Jesus promised, is He who communicates the benefits of Christ.
So, when we speak of the means of grace in the context of the Church today, we mean those objective instruments, given to the Church, by which the Holy Spirit communicates the benefits of Christ.
Next time, God willing, we will discuss the ordinary means of grace instituted in the New Testament.