Means of Grace

“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  (Acts 9:15-16).

The Apostle Paul began his religious career as a persecutor of the Christian faith. But God had something better in mind for him. Through a flash of light and the Word of the risen Christ, Paul was changed on the road to Damascus. Something happened to him that day — an inner reflection or decision of his own, but an act of God himself.

Later, it was by means of the hands and words of the disciple Ananias that the scales that fell from Paul’s eyes, he experienced a taste of both the cost and blessing of discipleship. Just as he said he would, God made Paul into a living means of grace, saying:

“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  (Acts 9:15-16).

Physical instruments and tangible tools are the “means” by which we get a job done. The same is true for God. The Lord uses real-life things of his Creation to do his work in the world. This is true both in the Scriptures and in our own lives of faith.

God’s use of means is central to how Lutherans understand the way in which God instills and sustains faith in us as believers. We refer to Word and Sacrament as “the means of grace” — i.e., the ordinary instruments God uses to do his work in us. As the first Lutherans explained in the Augsburg Confession:

“[God has] provided the Gospel and the Sacraments; through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” (AC, Article 5)

Just as God did in the days of Scripture, our Lord still uses ordinary earthly means to communicate his promise of forgiveness in our lives. In the waters of Holy Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion, as well as in the human voice of the preacher in worship, God communicates with us. In those very moments, he brings about forgiveness of which he speaks. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God uses these means to lay hold of our hearts and to do his saving work in us.

In this column of Connections magazine, I am now starting my seventh year writing under the title and heading, “Sacramental Discipleship.” It has been my way of trying to describe how God uses us as followers of Christ as his “chosen instruments” — just as he did with Paul.

Broadly speaking, to describe something as “sacramental” (with a small “s”) is to say that it has the quality of means. Something sacramental is a real, tangible expression of God’s grace, empowered by his Word, that conveys the promise of Christ. In this sense, our very lives as disciples are sacramental, in that, through us, God is at work in the world to spread his gospel and accomplish his will. We are the tools God uses to show his love to the world as we love, serve, and forgive our neighbors on his behalf.

This is why, when Paul later wrote of our everyday lives as disciples of Christ, he used the same biblical language of instrument and means. He wrote:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness (Romans 6:13).

You and I may not have had as dramatic a call as Paul did on the road to Damascus. We may not have been brought from darkness to light through a literal healing of our eyes. But through our Baptism into Christ, we too have been set apart as his chosen instruments to carry his name to all the world. (Lest that seem too big, we can always start with our own homes and communities!)

Like he did with Paul, God has made it known that intends to use us as his instruments for righteousness. By granting our baptismal identity, and marking us with name, he has prepared us for this very thing. God desires to use us as his “tools” for creating faith — both in the world at large and in the lives of our neighbors. God has set us apart by the Means of Grace so that we would be “means of grace” — accomplishing his work of salvation and redemption through us.

 — Pastor Steven E. King

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