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Means of Grace not the end of our work

The means of grace (things like preaching and sacraments) are meant to be just that.  Means by which the grace of God reaches down to us.  I've been reflecting recently that often we try to absolutize the means of grace so that they become not means but ends in themselves, and not grace (i.e. His initiative) but works (i.e. ours!).

And then we divide over whatever our chosen 'means of grace' might be.

So the danger for the catholic is to see the eucharist not as a means of God's encounter with man but rather the moment in which they make God manifest (ex opere operato - by doing it, it is done). When the ritual is performed well/reverently/at all, Christ's presence is enjoyed. Christ is not present through the sacrament but rather the performance of the mass is Christ's presence. The mass becomes the point.

The danger for the charismatic is to view the singing of spiritual songs in the midst of the congregation not as a means of grace but as the time when ‘God's in the house'. When the band are playing well, God shows up - ex opere operato. In that case God is not present in and through ‘worship' but ‘worship' is equated with the divine presence.  Worship becomes the point.

The danger for the evangelical is to see preaching not as a means of grace but as the action we perform whereby we guarantee a divine speech act.  The Proclamation Trust states ‘When the bible is taught, God himself speaks.'  Now I want to draw the strongest possible link between preaching and God's speaking (see long paper here) but let's get the order right.  He graciously speaks through our preaching, we cannot bring Him down through our correct exposition.   The danger is that simple exposition of a biblical passage or theme is itself the encounter with God - ex opere operato.  Preaching becomes the point.

Yet surely, Christ is the point. And the Lord's supper and worship and preaching are ways that Jesus can and does make Himself known to us, among us and in us.  Yet He will not be brought down by our performance of these acts. They are His means (note means) of grace (note: grace!). He always remains free in His self-giving - in the bread and wine, in our corporate life, in His word.

That's why it's often great to hear a catholic preaching well, or an evangelical leading ‘worship' or a charismatic presiding at the Lord's table.  For then, they are less tempted to see the simple operation of this act as the point but as a means of making Christ known - He is the point.

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5 thoughts on “Means of Grace not the end of our work

  1. glenscriv

    yeah - and the answer is not for the two to correct each other. As though the worship leader needs more focus on the bible and the bible teacher more focus on heart-felt praise. Both need more focus on Christ.

    I see this quite a bit in Anglicanism between evangelical and catholic - the evangelical wants the focus on the bible, the catholic on the eucharist, but both *could* be idolatrous. People are always suggesting that we should have a dual focal point (word and sacrament) around which we orbit (as in an elipse). Yet it would be possible to perfectly balance your focus on word and sacrament (and even add in a charismatic third) and still buy into ex opere operato and forget the True Focal Point. All of grace indeed!

  2. Jacky

    hi glen,
    did u get my email on catholicism? your post came at a good time and made me think more about how to distinguish the differences doctrinally between catholic and protestant teaching since both sides are still guilty of self-idolatry..

  3. Dev

    interesting stuff
    a while back was looking at Charles Bridges on preaching

    realised i don't have such a high view of preaching.. but a high view of the Word of God - even more so that even a non-Christian can preach the Word of God (cf Phil 1:14-18)

    Similarly so .. reading Edwards on the Religious Affections
    that if an experience is outside of Scripture is required, then how is Scripture sufficient? it is the means to reach the real Word of God - Christ Himself...

    yet this does not discredit the means by any means! =)
    rather we are to use all means as often and effectively as possible - that some might be saved

  4. glenscriv

    Hi Jacky,
    yes, got the email. I'm no expert on Catholicism. Sounds like you've read more than me. I think we're always in danger of confusing grace and works (His work and ours) and always in danger of believing in a mechanical view of grace (ex opere operato). It's worth bearing in mind that functionally many protestants have a worse grasp of the gospel than the official Roman teaching. And worth bearing in mind that there are wonderful believers in the RC church. We're saved by grace (not by our theological articulation of that grace). But at the same time those who teach a false gospel are accountable. Getting that balance right seems to be pretty important when talking about RC - Protestant debates.

    Hi Dev,
    by all means use all means so that by any means some might be saved!

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