"Those institutions which God has ordained to be the ordinary channels of grace, i.e., of the supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit, to the souls of men" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:466).
The Larger Catechism defines the means of grace as "the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to His Church the benefits of His mediation," and identifies them as "all His ordinances; especially the Word, sacraments and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for their salvation" (Q. 154).
The primary means of grace is the word of God, the Bible. Hodge remarks, "The word of God, as far as adults are concerned, is an indispensable means of salvation. True religion never existed, and never can exist, where the truths revealed in the Bible are unknown.… The word of God is not only necessary to salvation, but it is also divinely efficacious to the accomplishment of that end" (ibid.).
This power is in Scripture by virtue of its divine inspiration.* However, for it to become effective in the souls of men, it must be attended by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14; John 8:43, 47; James 1:18). It is by His word that God brings souls to the new birth (1 Pet. 1:23) and calls them to the exercise of faith in Christ (Rom. 10:17). (See Regeneration for discussion of the apparently—but not really—contradictory point that the Holy Spirit quickens dead souls immediately, i.e, without the use of means.)
As a means of grace, the word of God continues to be effective in the souls of believers as the primary means of sanctification (John 17:17). Growth in grace and progress to full spiritual maturity depend on the word of God (1 Pet. 2:2; Heb. 5:12–14).
Prayer is a means of grace. It is by calling on the name of the Lord that men are saved (Rom. 10:13), and it is by continuing steadfastly in apostolic doctrine and fellowship and in prayers that Christians grow in Christ (Acts 2:42).
The sacraments* of baptism* and the Lord's Supper* are also means of grace. They do not communicate grace opus operatum,* but they are used by the Holy Spirit to quicken the believer's faith in the reality of the things they signify. In this way they are gracious means to sanctification.
It should be noted that the grace intended in the phrase "the means of grace" is supernatural, saving grace in the proper sense of that term. It is not regenerating grace (see Baptismal Regeneration). Reformed theology is careful to maintain the distinction between regeneration as the sovereign act of the Holy Spirit creating new life in dead souls and all consequent exercise of that life, both in the initial act of faith in trusting Christ and in all the activities of conversion.* The grace in the means of grace is converting and sanctifying grace—and, of course, conversion and sanctification are vital components of our salvation.
Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 274–275). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.
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