You probably haven’t heard the term Means of Grace mentioned today in the morning news, on social media, or during small talk at the grocery store. It’s not part of most regular conversation, and even the words seem somewhat abstract in contrast to popular language. You hear about Means of Grace in church and maybe in your devotions, but what does the term really mean? There is a simple explanation for what Lutherans believe about these Means of Grace and why they are for you.
The Means of Grace are ways God brings us forgiveness through faith, which is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When God created the world and the first humans, everything was perfect and without sin. But when Adam and Eve fell into temptation, sin entered the world. In God’s perfect plan, Jesus became the Savior of all mankind. But how is the grace Jesus already won for us on the cross appropriated to us personally? We refer to the way God gives us His grace as the Means of Grace. These Means are Baptism, Holy Communion, Absolution, and the Bible. God uses these Means to work faith in us with the Holy Spirit and give us forgiveness for sin. Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation offers these words:
Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Holy Absolution, along with God’s Word as it is written, preached, and shared, are sometimes called “the Means of Grace,” because through them, as through earthly elements, the triune God delivers His gifts of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. (Small Catechism, Means of Grace)
Baptism is a sacrament, meaning that it combines physical water with the power of the Word to give us forgiveness of our sins and make us a part of the family of God. In the final chapter of Mark, Jesus commands us to get baptized, saying,
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)
Luther’s Small Small Catechism with Explanation explains why Baptism is so much more than the physical element of water:
It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. (Small Catechism, Baptism, “What benefits does Baptism give?”)
We believe that God uses water and the Word in Baptism to give us faith and forgiveness, making us new as His people. Baptism is not a human achievement but the work of God. It is a “Means” of Grace because it is through these particular means that God shows His grace to us.
The sacrament of Communion is also a Means of Grace because, through the body and blood of Christ, God gives us forgiveness and strengthens us in faith. Jesus instituted Communion when He offered His disciples the cup and bread on the night He was betrayed, saying,
This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me. (Luke 22:19)
And also saying,
This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood. (Luke 22:20)
Jesus’ words in Scripture are powerful. They join Jesus’ body and blood to the bread and wine as a Means of Grace to us. Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation offers a brief explanation of Jesus’ words:
These words . . . show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. (Small Catechism, Sacrament of the Altar, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?”)
As Lutherans, we are careful to trust what the Bible is saying without changing it. This means we believe and confess that Christ’s true body and blood are present in, with, and under the bread and wine. Although we can’t always explain how God works, we put full faith in the words of Scripture, trusting that when He promises to sanctify and strengthen us with His true presence, He certainly will.
While these Means of Grace involve physical elements and are for us, they are not enacted by us. Instead, it is the power of God working through the Holy Spirit in Scripture that brings faith and forgiveness to us. The Means of Grace are how God reaches out to us, not how we reach out to Him.
The Word of God
God’s Word is also a Means of Grace because, through the Gospel, we are given faith and forgiveness. The power of Scripture is so much more than ink on a page or sound waves in the air. We know that Scripture is true and faultless because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. When we read or hear the words of the Bible, the Holy Spirit works through them in us.
Hebrews 4:12 shows us that the Word of God is full of power:
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.
Romans 10:17 reminds us that reading and hearing the Word bring us to faith:
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Confession and Absolution
When we repent to God, we confess all our sins and acknowledge our sinful nature. Whether with the congregation in public confession, a pastor in individual confession, or privately in prayer, we can trust in the promise given to us in 1 John 1:9:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
When we confess our sins before God, we are admitting our failure to keep the Law perfectly and acknowledging that we deserve punishment. Although the Law is bitter, the Gospel of Jesus is sweet! When we confess our sins to God, He will absolve us and wash us in the blood of Jesus. God’s forgiveness is for all sins and immediately ours because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
The Means of Grace are gifts of God to us that are meant to be brought out into the world. We should continue to proclaim the Gospel, baptize new Christians, confess our sins to God, and administer Communion to the Church. More than words on a page, water in a font, or wine in a chalice, the Means of Grace are active and potent within us with the power of God.
Through our Baptisms and continual administration of Communion and preaching of God’s Word, God sustains and strengthens us in faith. How special that God brings His grace to us through the ordinary and mysterious. What an incredible claim to say that we take on the redemption of Christ through His real presence in these Means of Grace!
Read Being Lutheran to learn more about trusting God’s Word and following Jesus through the Lutheran Confessions of faith.
Small Catechism quotations are from Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation, copyright © 1986, 2017 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.