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Volume 15, Issue 1: Liturgia

Why Sacraments are not Means of Grace

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.

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