Chapter Three:
The Sacraments as Means of Grace

Grace upon Grace:
Sacramental Theology in the Christian Life.
By: Gregory S. Neal
Available from Koinonia Press
or online at

The Sacraments
As Means of Grace

Throughout much of Protestant Christianity there tends to be a great deal of confusion over the nature and function of Divine grace in the life of the believer. Does grace save? Does faith save? Does grace, operating through faith, save? Does grace come to us before we have faith, or after, or both? Can we reject or ignore grace, or are we free to say "no" to God? Questions like these are not new; they have raged among Christians – and not just Protestant Christians – for much of the last two millennia. With the third millennium dawning for the Church, it doesn't appear as though we are any closer to a definitive conclusion on these matters. Those who tend more toward the catholic side of the theological continuum still see these matters from one perspective while non-sacramental Baptists, Church of Christ, and others from the reformed community still tend to see things from an opposite point of view.

Chapter two was intended to lay the groundwork for an approach to the nature and function of grace that is acceptable to Christians who tend to gravitate more toward the catholic side of the spectrum. This does not mean that those who are Baptist, Reformed, or Campbelite (i.e., Church of Christ), won't find many ideas and concepts that they share with the discussion on the Stages of Grace. Quite the contrary, one of the beautiful things about Systematic Theology is that elements from one system are often found, perhaps with a different terminology, spread across multiple contradictory systems. This, I believe, is a manifestation of the fact that even though we certainly disagree on many matters, we do still worship the very same Lord and Savior. If we can keep our disagreements in this perspective, perhaps there is hope for the future unity of the Body of Christ. It certainly has not been my intention to say that alternative approaches to the stages of Grace in the Christian life are wrong. The groundwork laid in chapter two has simply been for the purpose of asking the following question:

"How does one receive God's Prevenient, Justifying, Sanctifying, and Perfecting Grace?"

Those who approach this question from the more catholic side of the theological spectrum will tend to answer these questions one way, while those who come from the reformed tradition will gravitate toward a different set of responses. It is this very difference that, more than anything else, characterizes each group.

I am frequently asked, "What is the difference between Methodists and Baptists?" While this question depends upon two stereotypes (one for Baptists and one for Methodists), it is a valid question, particularly within the context of this book. In general, Methodists – like many other catholic Christians – affirm that God's grace comes to us through instrumental means; Baptists, on the other hand, tend to affirm that God's grace is either neutral toward instrumental means, or entirely independent from them. Some are surprised to learn that this difference in approach is the most important one between Methodists and Baptists. Sure, there are many other differences, but most of the more obvious ones – like forms of Church government – flow from this difference in perspective. How one interprets the receipt of grace affects everything that one does in the Christian life.

For example, if you believe that instrumental means are the normal channels through which God's grace comes to you, you're going to be rather more diligent in availing yourself of those means than you would be if you didn't believe that grace comes through instrumental means. Those who prefer the perspective of ordinance theology do still consider the means of grace to be important ­ they are the principle foci around which the community of the faith gathers for worship ­ but they are not instrumental in the receipt of grace. Since they are not instrumental, they can easily be left out of the picture if time doesn't allow or conditions make them inconvenient. In other words, they become optional relative to the issue of one's receipt of grace.
This doesn't mean that they are optional relative to one's duty to observe them. Quite the contrary, those who prefer the ordinance approach do still consider them to be, if not instrumental means of grace, at least means by which we express our love and obedience to the Will of God. After all, Christ did ordain that we observe them and so, even if they don't function instrumentally in the receipt of grace, those who follow ordinance theology are not at any liberty to simply reject or ignore them.

Again, I want to assert that this should not be taken in any way as an attack upon non-sacramental approaches to the means of grace. It is simply a fact that the opinion of those on the reformed side of the spectrum differs from the opinion of those on the catholic side of the spectrum. This is not necessarily a bad thing God can and does use many different genre, many different nuances, many different images, to communicate the truth of divine love and presence in the life of the Church. Some people are drawn by and derive meaning from the concept of receiving grace through instrumental means, while others tend to view grace as being present apart from instrumentality. I believe that this diversity of opinion is a good thing.

In chapter one, we examined the nature and means of grace. In short, there are many different means of grace. While some of the them are certainly more familiar than others, one of the fundamental claims of Sacramental Theology is that anything which serves to convey the love and favor, the real divine presence of our Lord Jesus Christ to the believer can be understood as a means of grace. This is true for the traditional instruments – the sacraments and the other sacramental acts which have been institutionalized by the Church over the past two thousand years – as well as for what would appear to be the simple, mundane elements of our everyday living. A cup of water or a hot meal can be a means of grace to a person who has neither. A jacket, a hug, and a kind word, or even just a pleasant smile, can all serve as instruments through which someone in need, loneliness, or despair might receive the grace which God so earnestly desires to give. Anything can be a means of grace.

Indeed, I am convinced that everything is a means of grace. This goes for both good things and bad things, good experiences and bad experiences, good feelings and bad feelings, joys and pains ­ in and through all things, God's grace can be found if only we have the eyes of faith to look and see. As St. Paul said:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

This doesn't mean that everyone, in every circumstance, will see, know, and receive God's grace. Quite the contrary, particularly in the midst of painful experiences it can be difficult to comprehend the presence of God in all things. The pain can be so great that even a well-honed discernment cannot apprehend God's presence in such difficult times.

Nevertheless, it has been the experience of many that, given time for healing and reflection, prayer and consideration, it is certainly possible to see God's presence, even in the midst of horrific events. This does not mean that God causes these horrific things. God doesn't shoot children in High Schools, or drag innocent men to death behind pickup trucks, or murder homosexual youth ­ God doesn't do any of these things, nor does God approve of them. And, yet, even amidst the evils of this life, even through the tears and the pain that can come with living, God can still be discerned and grace can still be received even when it is not known or felt to be present at the time.

Looking back upon the difficult times in my life I can see that the love of God was always present with me in many different ways and through many different people. Even when I was in the darkest valley – in the midst of my pastorate at the "First Church of Hell" – the means of grace were frequently near me, and signs of God's love could be discerned somewhere in my life. This is true not just of those means of grace which one would expect, like the prayers of one's family and friends, but even of the least likely of individuals.

In fact, I can see from my current perspective that even some of those people who desired to "get rid" of me were actually, at times and despite their intentions, expressing God's love for me. I didn't know or realize it at the time, but I wasn't alone. Even in the darkest hour, when my life was directly threatened by a "clergy-killer" who was out to destroy everything that God had accomplished in my life and ministry, I can now recognize that God's grace was truly present and working miracles in my life. Indeed, it was God's grace that enabled me to continue preaching, Sunday after Sunday, even with that particular individual sitting in the pew, glaring darts of venom and hatred at me. While, at the time, it was painful to continue in that pastorate, I can see, from the perspective that several years afford, that God's grace was present and active in my life. Even then, amidst the pain of oppression, God was still enabling me to continue to answer the call to preach the Word. I now know that I was not alone. Today, after much prayer and reflection, I know that God's grace was supporting me; even while in the deepest, darkest valley of my ministry, I wasn't bereft of the love and power of God.
Given time, prayer, and much reflection, I believe that everything can be discerned to contain at least a spark, a reflection, a dim shadow of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, as such, the means of grace can be seen in everything. The grace of God can be seen coming to us through prayer, healing, forgiveness, scripture, pastors, teachers, friends, spouses, music, and even through water, bread, and wine.

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have identified and institutionalized many of these means of grace in the form of sacraments and other "sacramental" acts, each playing an important role in the lives of believers. In this chapter we will examine the nature of the "sacraments" and the "sacramentals" over and against the understanding of "ordinance" theology.

Defining the Sacraments

"Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness,
so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
--Hebrews 4:16

If the means of grace are those instrumental ways that God's unmerited favor is communicated to believers, and if the sacraments are understood as being means of grace, then how are we to differentiate between the sacraments and those means which aren't sacraments? In other words, why aren't all the means of grace considered sacraments? Why don't Protestants accept, as sacraments, the clear means of grace that are available to the church in the forms of prayer, healing, confession, forgiveness, ordination, marriage, giving, or even foot washing? Throughout the history of the Church many of these means of grace have been recognized and institutionalized as sacraments. Most Protestants, however, tend to reject all but Baptism and Holy Communion as being truly sacraments. Why do Protestants limit the title of "Sacrament" to only these two? Why aren't all the means of grace considered sacraments? In short, what is a sacrament?

The term "sacrament" is derived from the Old Latin word sacrare, which denotes anything that produces holiness. In Roman paganism it referenced the vow or ritual action which initiated a transfer of anyone or anything from a secular standing to a position of divine right and responsibility. In other words, it was the liturgical element which produced ritual holiness in a person, place, or thing. The Latin word sacramentum is first found used for the Greek word musthrion, or "mystery," in some of the Old Latin translations of the New Testament, and as such the term came to indicate to Christians a thing which was both sacred and mysterious.

The term sacramentum was imprecisely adopted and applied by the early Christian writers as they attempted to describe the many actions, symbols, signs, and ceremonies that functioned as means of grace for them. For example, several earlier Christian writers refer to "The Sacrament of the Lord's Prayer," while still others write about the "Sacrament of Labor," the "Sacrament of Service," and the "Sacrament of Worship." In each case, the author is identifying the mysterious reality of the means of grace in each of these events, moments, or activities. None of these are identifiable as sacraments, however, even though they can all be affirmed as being sacramental in nature. They are means of grace, certainly, but they are not sacraments.

This kind of loose application of the term "sacrament" in the history of the Church led to the conclusion that, unless there were going to be thousands of sacraments, a far more precise definition than just "mysterious and sacred things" or "means of grace" was really needed. Such a definition began to take form in the theological contemplation and articulation of such great thinkers as St. Augustine, Hugh of St. Victor, and especially Peter Lombard.

St. Augustine's initial definition of "sacrament" was still vague, but it provided some controls over the multiplication of the sacramenta. For Augustine, the sacraments were:

visible signs that represent an invisible reality. A sacramentum is a sacrum signum, that is, a sign designated by God to point to a divine reality (res divina) and containing that reality within itself.

This initial definition highlighted the importance of recognizing the real, effectual nature of divine grace in the sacrament, combined with a visible, exterior component. In many respects, however, this is a valid definition of the means of grace in general, not of the sacraments in particular. The use of this vague definition led Augustine to identify a multitude of sacraments ­ far more than were functionally manageable. The short form of Augustine's definition, one which became popular in the European theology of the early middle ages, was: "invisibulis gratiae visibilis forma," or "the visible form of invisible grace." Again, this is an excellent partial-definition of the means of grace in general, but hardly a useful definition for the sacraments.

Both Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris, sought to modify Augustine's concept of the sacraments. The product of their thinking, filtered through the voluminous work of St. Thomas Aquinas, led to the following, excellent definition of a sacrament, which can be found in the Roman Catholic Dictionary of the Liturgy:

Outward signs or sacred actions, instituted by Christ, through which grace is channeled or communicated for inward sanctification of the soul.

The elements of this definition are worthy of special note. Firstly, a sacrament is an "outward" sign or action. It is not a quiet, invisible, personal, and private action, but rather a visible, objectively established representation of that which is invisible and internal. Secondly, a sacrament must have been a sign or an action established by Jesus. Not just any old sign or action will do, not just any means of divine grace can be considered a sacrament. To be sacraments, Christ must have established them. Thirdly, a sacrament serves as a true method by which grace is received. In other words, sacraments are not just wishful thinking. Nor are they promises. Nor are they even indicators. They are real conduits through which the love of God is communicated to us. And, fourthly, the grace received is transforming in character. Fundamentally, the sacraments sanctify us. Or, as John Wesley might have put it: through the sacraments we encounter the grace of God, and this grace "moves us on toward perfection."

These points are, essentially, reflected in the Anglican and Methodist Articles of Religion, which state in their shared Article on the topic of the Sacraments in general:

Sacraments ordained of Christ are not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they are certain signs of grace, and God's good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him.

Here, we find the sacraments defined as being not just announcements of faith, but as visual signs of the actual means of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, which were established by Christ Jesus.
Based upon these definitions, the nature of the sacraments as being distinct from the other means of grace becomes evident. Those means of grace which lack one or more of the before listed characteristics, while certainly still means of grace, are not sacraments. For example, worship and fellowship have strong sacramental characteristics, and they certainly are means of grace, but they are not technically sacraments.

The same cannot be said for several of the other means of grace which have been considered sacraments by the Roman Catholic Church. For example, while most Protestants have rejected the sacramentality of the rite of penance (a.k.a. "The Sacrament of Reconciliation"), our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Eastern Orthodox Communions have considered penance an important sacrament. And, after much reflection, I can no longer honestly say that they're wrong. There is certainly a spiritual aspect to confession and forgiveness that cannot be denied. Indeed, the sacramental nature of Reconciliation is, in my opinion, so strong that such rites may very well be validly understood as either full-blown sacraments or, in the very least, as "sacramentals." This is particularly true when the Dominical character of confession and forgiveness is considered. Jesus certainly directed his disciples to forgive the sins of others:

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

Questions concerning the penitential rites, and the issue of their sacramental characteristics, will be covered in chapter six. For now, suffice it to say that, while Jesus established several means of grace, not all are of equal value or character. In this, I am in complete agreement with my Protestant brothers and sisters: Communion and Baptism are the two principle means of grace and, as such, they are our sacraments. No matter what may be said in favor of the other means of grace, none of them can measure up to the powerful presence of Jesus that can be known in these two principle means. This tends to be the conclusion of the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran, and other catholic but non-Roman Communions. The other means of grace appear to lack the full characteristics of a sacrament.

This evaluation can be seen articulated in the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and Anglican Communion:

Those five commonly called sacraments, that is to say, confirmation, penance, orders, matrimony, and extreme unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel; being such as have partly grown out of the corrupt following of the apostles, and partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures, but yet have not the like nature of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, because they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

This article affirms that the means of grace clearly have scriptural justification for a role in the life of a believer, but they are not understood to have the same sacramental character as Baptism and Holy Communion. While other means of grace are certainly recognized, these two primary means are specially understood as the sacraments established by Jesus.

A New Definition

"They are now justified by his grace as a gift,
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward
as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith."
– Romans 3:22b-25a

In all of these definitions of the "sacraments" there seems to be lacking an affirmation that God is the principle actor. While certainly implied in all prior statements, the differentiation between the principle actor and the one who is acted upon is important for clarifying the difference between a general means of grace and a sacrament. Likewise, also lacking in the traditional definitions of the sacraments is the importance of the human response to the grace received. And it is here that I believe a strong distinction can be drawn between the general means of grace and the sacraments. In short, I propose that the issue of the necessity of human response be understood as the fundamental characteristic that defines a sacrament as distinct from the other, general means of grace.

A sacrament is a means of effective grace – an outward and visible sign of God's inward and spiritual favor – which is totally unoccasioned by anything that we do and which, furthermore, elicits a response of faith from the receiver in order to be completed.

Now, it must first be noted that the principle actor in every means of grace is God. Long before we do anything, God moves to give us grace; regardless of our response, the means of grace impart to us God's love and favor. This means that sacramental grace is, at least initially, prevenient in character. We do nothing to begin its action in our lives because the love of God has already been poured out for us from the cross of Jesus Christ. Likewise, as a gift of God's grace, the sacraments differ from the other means of grace in calling forth a response of faith.

The general means of grace may or may not elicit a response of faith ­ they may fall on deaf ears, or on stony hearts, or not be received at all. Regardless of the response of the believer, grace is still present and still plays a role in our lives. In other words, prayer works it works, sometimes, despite our weakness or lack of faith.
The sacraments, being means of grace, also communicate favor. However, for the means of grace to be completed within the sacrament – for the sanctifying effects of divine grace to be made known in our lives – a response of faith must be forthcoming from us. God's grace is always perfect, always complete, always present; our response, unfortunately, is not. Hence, the means of grace are sure, but their identity as completed sacraments depends upon our response of faith.

This is another place where the Protestants on the catholic side of the theological spectrum differ with their Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. The Roman Catholic approach views the sacraments as being effective regardless of our response; the sacraments function as sure means of grace, regardless of the faith of the receiver.

The Anglo-Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and even Presbyterian approach views the sacraments as only having power to sanctify us when we employ them through faith. Without faith, they still present the love of God to us, and so embody prevenient grace, but they don't effect a sanctifying change in us. The sacraments not only communicate effectively God's grace to us, but when we partake of them by faith they complete a work of God's sanctification in us. Our response of faith is required for the grace to "move us on toward perfection." Without our response, the sacraments are still means of grace, but they are not completed they are not actualized. It is our response of faith which brings the sacraments to effective completion.

The means of grace are the tools, the instruments through which God communicates to us divine favor. When we receive the means of grace, even without faith, they have an immediate prevenient impact on our lives: they, if only by virtue of the faith of others, move us closer to God. When we respond to the means of grace with faith, however, they move us even further into God's sanctifying Will for our lives. Indeed, it might even be said that it is our very response of faith that propels any of the general means of grace into the category of a "sacramental." And this is also the reason why there remains a vague line of distinction between the sacraments and the sacramentals ­ faith functions in both. When the means of grace are actual sacraments, however, our response of faith brings to completion within us a mighty working of God's perfecting love. Be the grace justifying, sanctifying, or perfecting, when we respond with faith the sacraments truly do communicate to us the Real Presence of almighty God.

Sacraments or Ordinances?

This way of looking at the sacraments is at odds with the ordinance-based understanding of Baptism and the Lord's Supper which is most common among the Baptist, Church of Christ, and Reformed communions. Ordinance Theology focuses upon the Christian's cognitive and willful act of obedience to our Lord's commandment that we baptize as expressions of our faith, and "remember him" as we eat the Lord's Supper. For them, the sacraments are memorial moments.

Those who consider the sacraments to be ordinances and not means of grace frequently tend to think of their interpretation of the sacraments as being ancient and reflective of the early church's position. In point of fact, however, their approach is fairly new in the history of the Church, dating from the time of the Reformation and the teachings of such Anabaptists as Blaurock, Grebel, and Simons on the one hand, and of the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli on the other. Zwingli's theology was based on a single principle which governed much of his theological thought: if the Old or New Testament did not say something explicitly and literally, no Christian should either believe it or practice it. In 1522, for instance, Zwingli opposed the traditional practice of fasting during the liturgical season of Lent. His argument was that nowhere in the New Testament is fasting during Lent ever mentioned. Indeed, the season itself is not at all Biblical and, hence, fasting during Lent should not be practiced and the season itself should not be observed. Both were considered inherently unchristian.

Concerning the sacraments, Zwingli rejected instrumentality and was entirely loath to accept or recognize any other means of grace than direct, unmediated, communion with God. Sacramental causality was tantamount to blasphemy for him because such a way of accounting for the receipt of grace detracted from the immediacy of God's presence. Rather than viewing the means of grace and the sacraments as being the ways through which God's presence is made known to Christians, Zwingli believed that the elements of water, bread, and wine, actually created barriers between God and humankind. Contrary to instrumental presence, Zwingli asserted that the sacramental symbols were "tokens or emblems, like an engagement ring." They were outward symbols only. Rather than being a means of grace, an outward and visible sign of God's inward and spiritual grace, Zwingli argued that "a sacrament is a confession, not a confirmation, of faith." In other words, it is an "ordinance."

All of the above being said, I do want to affirm that even Zwinglian Theology accepts that the grace of God is present when a Christian partakes of the ordinances. However, that presence is not understood as being mediated in any identifiable, instrumental fashion, through the ordinances themselves. The grace of Jesus doesn't come through the instrument of prayer, or through the instrument of the scriptures, or through the instruments of water, bread, and wine. Rather, if grace is understood as being present in any proximity to the ordinances, it is present in the undefined link between the Christian and God. Grace flows from God, directly, to the believer; it is not conveyed through instruments.

In Zwinglian Ordinance Theology, neither Baptism nor the Lord's Supper function as means of grace. The Christian doesn't receive anything of a spiritual nature (and certainly not the real presence of Christ) through the partaking of the Lord's Supper or by receiving the waters of Baptism. In Ordinance Theology attention is placed upon what the believer is doing in the rite, not upon what God does. As such, Ordinance Theology is entirely dependent upon the capability of the receiver to both understand and participate in the rite involved. Essentially, the ordinances become "works of faith" rather than "means of grace." They are not channels for receiving God's love but, rather, ways in which we express our love of, faith in, and obedience to the commandments of Christ.

It is this quality of Ordinance Theology ­ the focus upon the ability of the recipient and not upon the active grace of God ­ that has resulted in some horrific misinterpretations of Paul's directions regarding Holy Communion. The outright blasphemous demand that Christians must be "worthy" in order to partake of the elements is rooted in an understanding of Communion as being something that we do. Granted, not all supporters of Ordinance Theology will fall into this trap, but it is a trap that is peculiarly "ordinance" in nature.

The difference between a Sacramental understanding of the means of grace and an Ordinance understanding of these same rites must be recognized before the differences in interpretation of the Scriptural witness, and the subsequent traditions of the Church, can be understood. In all honesty, it must also be recognized that neither approach is free from the oft-attacked "traditions of men." Both have Scriptural warrants for their approach, and both rely upon a specific set of man-made hermeneutical devices and assumptions. The best any of us can do is approach these questions with humility and acceptance, knowing that many – even those who accept the means of grace concept – will not agree on every point. This is okay. God's grace is bigger than our differences.

© 2000, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved