Why Sacraments are not Means of Grace

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Guest

Puritan Board Freshman
Why Sacraments are not Means of Grace
by Peter Leithart

Precision is not the problem so much as pseudo-precision-confusion masquerading as clarity. This is a common malaise, and perhaps most especially in sacramental theology. Instead of actually explaining how sacraments do what sacraments do, many sacramental theologies put on a show of explanation that amounts to little more than thick fog, which can lead the unwary into a cul de sac.

One example of this problem is the use of the phrase "means of grace" as a description of sacraments. The language of "means" has an ecumenical pedigree, and appears frequently in Reformed theology and confessions. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, God enables us to "escape the wrath and curse of God due to us by reason of the transgression of the law" by making "diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation." Among these means "whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation" are "word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation" (questions 153-154).
To the extent that the idea of "means of grace" emphasizes that believers receive real benefit from baptism and the Supper, it is a helpful corrective to feeble theologies that are widespread in the modern church. And, to the extent that the phrase is used to emphasize that God is the One bestowing life through water, bread, and wine, it is a useful reminder not to make idols of the elements. In several respects, however, describing sacraments as "means of grace" can be misleading and adds unnecessary complication.
We can get a sense of the problem when we attempt to apply "means" language to other areas of life. Is the sentence "food is a means of nourishment" any more precise than "food nourishes"? Is the claim that "water is a means for washing" better than "water washes"? Is sex a "means of making love" or is it "making love"? In each case, sticking "means" into the sentence gives the impression of insight and precision, without much payoff. More seriously, sticking "means" into the sentence gives the impression that "nourishment," "washing," and "love" exist apart from means and have to be "channeled" through means, as if washing or nourishment were an existing thing that has to find an embodiment in the "means" of water or food. In fact, nourishment only exists by our eating food, washing only with water, and love in bodily expressions.
Talking about the sacraments as "means" tends to mechanize them, turning the sacraments into machines that deliver grace. Sometimes, the mechanistic imagery is explicit. Thomas Aquinas, for example, tried to explain how sacraments worked by referring to Aristotle's view of causation. God is the "principal cause" of the grace of the sacraments, which means that God acts through sacraments. So far, so good. But then Thomas went on to compare the causative power of sacramental elements to a hammer in the hand of a carpenter (i.e., God). Is it useful to describe sacramental causation by comparison with physical causes? Do signs "cause" in the same way as tools?
More fundamentally, mechanistic metaphors obscure the fact that sacraments are moments of personal encounter with the living God, "trysting places" between God and His people, as Luther liked to say. The Reformed tradition has defined the sacraments as "signs and seals of the covenant of grace," thereby highlighting the covenantal and interpersonal character of the sacramental event. Unfortunately, the "personalism" of this covenantal theology has often been undercut by the notion of sacraments as "means."
The phrase "means of grace" further obscures the personal dimension of sacraments when allied with a misunderstanding of grace. Shortly after the apostolic period, theologians began to treat grace as a kind of "created thing," "force," or "energy" communicated through the sacraments. Ultimately, this model rests on a mistaken doctrine of God, for there is no impersonal force in God, nor is there any "energy" that mediates between God and creation. The God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus is exhaustively and eternally personal, eternally in communion of Father, Son and Spirit, and therefore God's relation to the creation cannot but be a personal one. The "force" that acts on us, whether in sacraments or in ordinary food or washing, is God Himself. Thus, the model of the sacramental operation should not involve four terms-God, grace, sacraments (as "means" or "channels" of grace), church; but only three-God (who is favorably disposed to us), sacraments, and the church. In the sacraments there is a personal encounter with the Triune God through the particular agency of the Spirit. The Jews marveled at the change that came about in the disciples, and noted that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13), and the same is true for us who have not encountered Jesus in the flesh-we are transformed not by impersonal energy flowing from God, but by a personal encounter, in word and water, in bread and wine, with the Lord who has become a life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).
So I suggest the following refinement of the confessional language: instead of saying that sacraments are means by which Christ's benefits are communicated to us, we should simply say that the sacraments are among the benefits that Christ has graciously given to us. Sacraments are not means of grace, but themselves graces, gifts of a gracious God.
 

Me Died Blue

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I cannot agree with this view of the sacraments. I wholeheartedly agree that the sacraments are more than mere outward symbols with absolutely no spiritual grace attached to them whatsoever. However, saying that they themselves are the graces, I think, wrongly shifts their proper place and purpose--to conform us to Christ. I completely agree that the notion that grace is some force or energy is utterly false--for [b:e05ce76c74]grace refers fully to our right standing with God in Christ, and of His continually conforming us to Christ[/b:e05ce76c74]. Saying that the sacraments themselves are the graces seems to me to undermine this focus on God, and seems to subtly lean more toward the mindset that they have some magical power--I am not trying to say that you or Leithart actually believe this, just that the mindset of the sacraments presented in the article seems to me to be pointing more in that direction than in the biblical view of the sacraments: that [b:e05ce76c74]they are the external means to which God [i:e05ce76c74]attaches[/i:e05ce76c74] much of His grace (His conforming us to Christ), even though they in themselves do nothing of the sort[/b:e05ce76c74].

God bless,

Chris

[Edited on 2-24-2004 by Me Died Blue]
 

C. Matthew McMahon

Christian Preacher
Leithart is following Frame in trying to make things novel. to deny the sacraments are means of grace (i.e. that they actually do something apart from us) is to deny, as Luther will contend, for their mystical nature - something Zwingli denied (and Leithart) and Calvin upheld.
 

Guest

Puritan Board Freshman
It was very thought provoking though. I wonder, do you think Joseph being sold into slavery was a "means" of grace ? ? ?
 

luvroftheWord

Puritan Board Sophomore
I thought the article was interesting. Leithart is an interesting guy.

Also, its become more and more evident that John Frame isn't a popular guy in this messageboard. ;)
 

fredtgreco

Vanilla Westminsterian
Staff member
[quote:f76864d0b4][i:f76864d0b4]Originally posted by luvroftheWord[/i:f76864d0b4]
I thought the article was interesting. Leithart is an interesting guy.

Also, its become more and more evident that John Frame isn't a popular guy in this messageboard. ;) [/quote:f76864d0b4]

Hey! I resemble that remark!! :eek::p

By the way, Craig, the "nospam" is not showing up in your email. You should edit it in your Control Panel.
 

Me Died Blue

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
[quote:504736d29d][i:504736d29d]Originally posted by luvroftheWord[/i:504736d29d]
Thanks, Fred. It used to be there, but somehow it got changed. Oh well, lucky me. :cool: [/quote:504736d29d]

Craig, don't you mean "providentially blessed me"? :lol::bouncy::lol:

Chris
 

pastorway

Puritan Board Senior
Back to the article above:

Works, even works of obedience, cannot BE grace. For then they either would not be works....or grace would not be grace!

[b:25cd125f89]Romans 4[/b:25cd125f89]
4Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

[b:25cd125f89]Romans 11[/b:25cd125f89]
6And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.

The "Sacraments", or Ordinances that Christ has left the church are acts of obedience, and therefore cannot be a dispensation of grace itself. Grace is not the result of works, but works result from grace.

Phillip
 

blhowes

Puritan Board Professor
I'm trying to understand what exactly is meant by the word "grace" when you speak of the sacraments being a "means of grace". What does the word grace refer to?

I found an [u:56c7f7435d]An Overview of the Lord's Supper[/u:56c7f7435d] in which Charles Hodge says:

What our Lord said to the apostles He says in the most impressive manner in this ordinance to every believing communicant: "This is my body, broken for you... this is my blood shed for you." These words when received by faith fill the heart with joy, confidence, gratitude, love, and devotion, so that the believer rises from the Lord's table refreshed by the infusion of a new life.

I'm sure his list isn't all-inclusive, but is joy, confidence, gratitude, love, and devotion what you are referring to when you speak of grace as it relates to the sacrament/ordinance of the Lord's Supper?

Thanks,
Bob
 

Scott

Puritan Board Graduate
Phillip:

It is the sacraments themselves, not the act of receiving, that is gracious.

Receiving the sacraments is no more a meritorious work than is hearing the Word, reading the Word, or praying.

Scott

[Edited on 2-25-2004 by Scott]
 

Scott

Puritan Board Graduate
Bob:

From the Larger Catechism:

Q. 57. What benefits hath Christ procured by his mediation?
A. Christ, by his mediation, hath procured redemption, with all other benefits of the covenant of grace.

Q. 58. How do we come to be made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured?
A. We are made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured, by the application of them unto us, which is the work especially of God the Holy Ghost.

Q. 154. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.

Q. 161. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.

Scott
 

blhowes

Puritan Board Professor
Scott,
Thanks for the information.

I wonder if there's a source online somewhere that references the scripture passages that are used to answer those question.

I'll search,
Bob
 

brymaes

Puritan Board Sophomore
Is this a proper understanding?

A 'Sacrament' consists of two parts -- the external element (i.e. water, bread, wine), and the proclaimed Word. Accomanying Word that is the "means of grace" proper. It is that Word that strengthens, nourishes, sanctifies. It is that Word that sets the elements apart from a common to a holy use. It is the Word that provides the Sacraments 'efficacy,' not anything residing in the elements.

Am I way off base here?

[Edited on 2/26/2004 by SharperSword]
 

kceaster

Puritan Board Junior
No, you are not. Because that is what is meant by sacrament (sacramentum - mystery). It is a mystery how the common elements are, combined with Word and Spirit, effectual for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

In Christ,

KC
 

Guest

Puritan Board Freshman
[quote:c940d2fd9b]
No, you are not. Because that is what is meant by sacrament (sacramentum - mystery). It is a mystery how the common elements are, combined with Word and Spirit, effectual for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.

[/quote:c940d2fd9b]

Amen. The mystery of all mysteries I think . . mirroring the incarnation.
 

Scott

Puritan Board Graduate
[quote:2a962e1431][i:2a962e1431]Originally posted by blhowes
Scott,
Thanks for the information.

I wonder if there's a source online somewhere that references the scripture passages that are used to answer those question.[/i:2a962e1431][/quote:2a962e1431]

Yes, check out this:
http://www.opc.org/documents/standards.html

Go to Larger Catechism with scripture proofs and you will have the proofs supplemented by Westminster Assembly itself.

Scott
 

Scott

Puritan Board Graduate
[quote:87f9c777d6][i:87f9c777d6]Originally posted by SharperSword[/i:87f9c777d6]
Is this a proper understanding?

A 'Sacrament' consists of two parts -- the external element (i.e. water, bread, wine), and the proclaimed Word. Accomanying Word that is the "means of grace" proper. It is that Word that strengthens, nourishes, sanctifies. It is that Word that sets the elements apart from a common to a holy use. It is the Word that provides the Sacraments 'efficacy,' not anything residing in the elements.

Am I way off base here?

[Edited on 2/26/2004 by SharperSword] [/quote:87f9c777d6]

I am not sure what you mean. A sacrament has two parts, but the Word is not one of the parts according to Reformed views.

The Larger Catechism reads:
Q. 163. What are the parts of a sacrament?
A. The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ's own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified.

I do agree that the Word consecrates the sacrament to its function.

When it does this, though, the sacrament conveys the inward grace signified and become effectual to salvation. In terms of baptism, for example, the grace involves (according to LC 165) "ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life. . ."

The Larger Catechism likewise explains sacraments convey their grace (become effectual to salvation):

Q. 161. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.

There is not a mention of the Word at this point.

I think you will find that Calvin agrees with the Westminster view in his Institutes.

Scott
 

Scott

Puritan Board Graduate
"Amen. The mystery of all mysteries I think . . mirroring the incarnation."

Agreed.
 

fredtgreco

Vanilla Westminsterian
Staff member
Scott,

The word is essential to the sacrament. Without it, we have sacerdotalism. That is why WCF 27.3 reads:

"The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred [b:e3dbd39e93]by any power in them[/b:e3dbd39e93]; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the [b:e3dbd39e93]word of institution[/b:e3dbd39e93]; which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, [b:e3dbd39e93]a promise of benefit to worthy receivers[/b:e3dbd39e93].
 

Scott

Puritan Board Graduate
Fred:

I agree that the Word is essential to the sacrament. I am just saying that the Word is not a "part" of the sacrament, as the term "part" is used in the Standards. The Standards expressly say that the sacraments have two parts, the external visible sign and the inward spiritual grace thereby signified. From the Larger Catechism:
Q. 163. What are the parts of a sacrament?
A. The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign, used according to Christ's own appointment; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified.

The sacraments are not sacraments at all without the word of institution. They are just elements (bread, wine, or water).

Scott
 

puriteen18

Puritan Board Freshman
[quote:016ddcc4fe][i:016ddcc4fe]Originally posted by Scott[/i:016ddcc4fe]
Bob:

From the Larger Catechism:

Q. 154. What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation, are all his ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation.

Q. 161. How do the sacraments become effectual means of salvation?
A. The sacraments become effectual means of salvation, not by any power in themselves, or any virtue derived from the piety or intention of him by whom they are administered, but only by the working of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing of Christ, by whom they are instituted.
[/quote:016ddcc4fe]

And as usual, the Baptists are trailing right behind...

The Baptist Catechism (Keach)

Q. 95. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are His ordinances, especially the Word, Baptism, the Lord's Supper and Prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation. (Rom. 10:17; James 1:18; 1 Cor. 3:5; Acts 14:1; 2:41,42)

Q. 98. How do Baptism and the Lord's Supper become effectual means of salvation?

A. Baptism and the Lord's Supper become effectual means of salvation, not from any virtue in them or in him that administers them, but only by the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit in them that by faith receive them. (1 Peter 3:21; 1 Cor. 3:6,7; 1 Cor. 12:13)

"We have no itch to clog religion with new words"
~ The London Assembly
 
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