When Lutherans talk about our beliefs, we talk a lot about “The Means of Grace.” What does that mean? And why do we think it is so important?
There are probably few people that don’t recognize that John 3:16 is considered a very important Bible passage by Christians:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
This famous passage has sometimes been called “the Gospel in a nutshell” since in one sentence it conveys the essential message of the Christian faith: our salvation is a gift of love accepted by placing our faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Yet it leaves an important question unanswered: “How do I acquire such saving faith?”
Within the Christian church the answer is sometimes expressed as two extremes – a sacramental approach and a personal decision approach. Catholics emphasize that the church dispenses salvation through its sacraments (sacred rites). During the Middle Ages this came to be understood as though it were by belief in and connection to the earthly church that one is saved. Martin Luther and subsequent reformers strongly disagreed with this and sought to restore the Biblical teaching that it is personal faith in Jesus that saves. Some of the reformers then carried this to the other extreme of rejecting the power of sacraments entirely and instead emphasizing a personal choice. According to this view, being “born again” is initiated by an act of the human will in response to the Word of God. Thus, in a practical sense the question of “What do I need to do to receive God’s grace?” might be answered by Catholics as “Join the church and receive its sacraments” and by Evangelicals as “Hear the Word and choose to believe in it.” That’s a gross over-simplification (as is almost anything in a theological discussion!) but it establishes a context for placing the Lutheran answer in the middle of the discussion.
Lutherans don’t see the question as an “either/or,” but as more of a “both/and.” We hold that the Bible teaches that saving faith comes to us solely through the grace of God – independent of anything we can do to either deserve or choose it. And the way this grace comes to us is in two forms – Word and Sacrament. We call these “the Means of Grace” and consider them both as essential to creating and fostering the faith in Jesus Christ which saves. That is to say, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit works through both of these means to create and sustain faith.
As a rough analogy, consider how we receive physical life. No matter how much we may now value it, none of us chose it! Rather, we were constructed and nurtured in our mother’s womb – a process over which we had no control. Once born, we continued to depend on our parents who not only nurtured our fragile life, but taught us how to value and care for it. As we reached maturity, we gained the knowledge and learned the habits to seek the wholesome food and live a life style that would keep us healthy. Arriving at a healthy adult life involves multiple factors, but though it is true that we each could choose to reject or dissipate this gift of life along the way, none of us can take credit for it!
In a very crude way, this corresponds to the way in which Lutherans view the creation and maintenance of a saving faith: for many of us it began before we could make any choice when we were adopted by God (our spiritual parent) in the sacrament of Baptism as infants. As we grew, our faith was nourished by the promises of God’s Word until we were mature enough to receive the spiritual food of His presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion. For others, the process began as more mature individuals who experienced God’s call to faith and were then baptized into His family. In either case, it is God’s pure grace given by the means of Word and Sacrament that brings us to a saving relationship of faith in Him and continues to nourish this faith to eternal life.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)