Means of God’s Grace

In this article series over the past year, we have been looking at the subject of Discipleship through the specific lens of a sacramental Lutheran perspective, in the belief that our faith tradition has important contributions to make to the larger conversation about Christian discipleship that is happening in the Church today.  In particular, the Lutheran emphases on the believer as “simultaneously saint and sinner,” the recognition that God chooses to work through natural means, and the importance of proclaiming Christ’s forgiveness in everyday life, are key to this perspective. In other words, we are simply asking the question of what it would look like if the faith and logic of the sacraments were applied to our life as disciples of Jesus.

To give an example, consider the following excerpt from Luther’s Small Catechism, where he speaks of God’s promise at work in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Luther asks the question about the Lord’s Supper, saying: “How can the bodily eating and drinking produce such great benefits?” He answers in this way:

It is not the eating and drinking alone, but also the words that accompany it, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” These words, together with the eating and drinking, are the chief thing in the Sacrament, and those who believe them have what they say and declare, namely, the forgiveness of sins.
(Luther’s Small Catechism – 2010 Version, Sola Publishing)

In this short passage, Luther says a lot about how we understand the way in which God works in our lives. First he makes it clear that works alone (in this case, eating and drinking) do not have saving power by themselves.  It is not because we engage in outward acts of piety or worship that we earn or merit God’s grace.  That happens by faith alone, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in God’s Word. Our faith rests in the “chief thing” – that is, in the promise of Christ himself.

At the same time, Luther shows how the promise of Christ is communicated through real things – simple human words and actions that God uses as means to create faith in us and through us. Seen in the proper order and direction, we understand that our human works are not the means by which we obtain God’s grace and mercy, but the means by which we give these gifts to others.  As Luther once observed, “God does not need our good works; but our neighbor does!” By its very nature, faithful discipleship is not a self-directed effort, but always points outward.

To apply this same sacramental principle to Discipleship is to see our lives of faith not as an effort to attain some status for ourselves, but rather as a means of grace by which Christ is brought into the lives of others.

This is why “discipleship” and “making disciples” go together. It is also why person-to-person relationships are so important to sharing the faith. Because God himself works through us — in the works we do, the words we say, the effort we exert, and all the disciplines by which we live in Christ — we serve as his instruments in bringing the Gospel to all the world… including the little world in which we live our daily lives.

– Rev. Steven E. King