A Very Humble Inquiry into the Role of Means of Grace in Justification and Perseverance
by: Amy Sayers
Studying the works of Jonathan Edwards this semester has forced me to wrestle with several theological issues, including ones of our responsibility in justification and evangelism. I have found myself agreeing with Edwards on most issues, but I was still feeling unresolved on these things. Without any intention of doing so, I have researched a topic that seems to work out several of my questions. The topic is "means of grace," and though it may not sound like anything revolutionary, it has been just that in my mind. For in Edwards theology, means of grace prepare the hearts of men to receive God's justifying grace both before and after regeneration. The concept of means of grace also clarifies our responsibilities in issues dealing with justification. Although I feel like much has been resolved, I am still full of questions and could use many more years of study on this topic. As you read, please keep in mind that this is "A Very Humble Inquiry" into the topic of means of grace, but hopefully it will stimulate your mind also and give you another angle on these theological difficulties.
In Edwardian style, it is necessary to begin by defining the terms that will be used in this discussion. Edwards understood the Spirit of God to give two different kinds of grace: common grace and special grace. Common grace works in the soul as the soul naturally exists, by assisting its natural principles. In essence, this common grace is the conscience, which produces conviction of guilt in the heart. It is present in both the regenerate and the unregenerate. Special grace is the infusing of supernatural principles into the soul, causing its faculties to habitually do what they would not have naturally done. This special grace is what inclines the elect to Christ and indicates justification. These are two completely different kinds of grace; common grace does not gradually develop into special grace. When the Spirit of God gives special grace to a person, they are recreated into something entirely new. Behold, "the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17) Special grace is bestowed by God according to His sovereignty, and when it is granted, it regenerates instantaneously and completely. God only promises grace to grace. In other words, God only promises grace to His elect. Thus, the gift of special grace is totally in his hands. Unless otherwise specified, the term grace in this discussion will refer specifically to special grace.
God, in His sovereignty, could bestow grace on mankind in any manner, but He has seen fit to use outward means of doing so. There is nothing special about the means themselves; they are completely unable to produce grace in any way. Still, God uses them to prepare the hearts of His people to accept Him. Because they are the method of preparation, means of grace are involved in the production of grace and in some sense are necessary for it. These means of grace are very familiar: the Bible, sacraments, doctrinal knowledge, preaching, instruction from parents and other authorities, works of God, spiritual gifts, etc. All of these means were instituted in the apostolic age and will remain unaltered until the judgment of Christ, when they will be done away with because they will no longer be necessary. These are the definitions that need to be understood in order to follow Edwards’ position on means of grace and their purpose.
Before God imparts grace, He generally brings His people through a period of preparation. Although this is not necessary, it is the pattern that God has often used throughout history. He allowed the Israelites to be enslaved by the Egyptians and to wander in the desert for forty years in preparation for the making of His covenant with them on Mt. Sinai. Others such as Joseph and David endured many troubles in order to prepare them for the positions that they would one day hold. The whole life of John the Baptist was preparation for the coming of Christ. Even the apostle Paul had a period of preparation before he began his ministry. God is patient and, as a farmer waits to harvest his crops until they are ripened, God prefers to wait until our hearts are prepared before He acts in our lives. Meanwhile, God uses means of grace to ready His people to receive the gift of salvation or some other spiritual good.
During a period of preparation, means of grace make a person more concerned about religious things, and they stir up in that person a desire to seek after grace. Generally, this desire is initially developed through a fear of punishment and hell, rather than an appreciation of the goodness of God. Fear of spending eternity in hell leads to conviction of sin, which brings a realization of the need of grace. In this manner, means encourage men to seek after grace. Men need to be prodded toward grace, for they will not desire it on their own, so, using means of grace, God initiates His work in their lives.
Means of grace have several different effects on our souls. First, they provide the mind with religious notions, which gives the Spirit something to act upon. Examples of religious notions are ideas of: God, Christ, the future world, the attributes of God, the works of God, and the theology and actions of Jesus Christ. Means of grace place these notions in our minds and emphasize them in order to give them a more prominent place there. Having religious notions in our minds opens us up to receive grace. It would not be proper for the Spirit to extend grace to someone who does not believe that God exists. That person would trample on the prize they were given, an action that would be far from glorifying to God. Thus, having true religious notions provides a great advantage for obtaining grace. The more a person is supplied with religious notions, the more lively they are, and the more often they are revived, the more opportunities the Spirit has to infuse grace.
Secondly, means work to bring one's reason into support of religion. The more one's mind agrees with conviction and the truth of spiritual things, the greater the opportunity for the Spirit's work. Means may also remove the prejudices that keep people from believing in God. Then when their eyes are opened to the truth, they will see the force and correctness behind the arguments for religion. If people hear the support for Christianity prior to their regeneration, then when they do close with Christ, they will already know the arguments and be able to use them themselves.
Another effect of means of grace is to give a sense of the natural good or evil of things. The recognition of good and bad ought to move the heart to fear and desire for the Lord. If there is a great fear of the horrors of hell before grace is bestowed, how much more will the love and mercy of God be appreciated afterward. The more the heart is prepared with a loathing for sin and evil, the more precious will the holiness of God be to them. The blessings of God will be cherished all the more, when set against the deserved punishments and conditions of sin.
Finally, means are able to restrain people from sin, which might have kept them from receiving grace. If left to ourselves, our natural appetites would lead us directly into destruction. The means of grace have the power to rein in our sinful nature and keep it from conquering us. Thus, they are able to steer us toward grace by helping us to avoid the path of sin.
Therefore the means of grace affect men's hearts in different ways in preparation for receiving God's salvation. The more that means work on someone's soul, the more likely it is that the person will be given grace, although it is never guaranteed. Someone with a desire for God's grace should be led directly into the way of many means of grace, for that is the place to be in order to receive it. The final decision of salvation is totally up to God, but there are conditions that are more conducive to the reception of grace than others. If you had a great desire to go sledding, it would be foolish of you to vacation in Florida, for little to no snow falls there. Instead, you should travel north, where snow can be found in abundance. In order to satisfy this craving, you need to be in a place conducive to the activity. For someone attempting to gain salvation, it is best for them to throw themselves into the path of grace. This is where our responsibility comes into effect. If we have not sought out grace and then do not receive it from God, it is our own fault that we were not doing all that we could to be ready. We were not ripe for the harvest at the proper time. I am not sure about those that do strive after grace and never receive it. I suppose that we have to trust God in His sovereignty in that. That is still a great question for me.
Obviously, means of grace do much to prepare the soul for redemption, but what happens after salvation is given? What role do means of grace play then, because they do seem to remain important to the Christian life? Means of grace do retain great importance to Edwards because his view of justification is tied so closely with the concept of perseverance. In Edwards’ theology, justification occurs at specific instances of faith, yet at these points in time, God also takes into account the perseverance of the faith. Every future act of faith is known and accounted for in the first act. But justification is not a one time occurrence, as present-day Christians often believe. Christians are not finished with grace at their first act of faith. Instead, the Christian life is one requiring continual seeking after grace and persevering in faith; we never stop striving after God's grace. In that, God reaffirms a Christian's justification over and over again throughout their lives, even moment by moment so that there are no disruptions in the state of justification. The visual image of this is the graph of a line. Although a line appears to be continuous, it really consists of an infinite amount of points. Similarly, a Christian's justification looks continuous, and it is, but only because of the continual, momentary infusion of God's grace.
God does not intend for this line to remain at a constant level, but rather to be an increasing function. This is where means of grace come in to play. Means of grace prepare us for and place us in the way of God's grace. As said before, the more a person is supplied with religious notions, the more lively they are, and the more often they are revived, the more opportunities the Spirit has to infuse grace. With more and more opportunities, the Spirit is able to give us more and more grace and lead us upward toward holiness. Thus, the benefit of religious disciplines and notions, such as study and meditation and frequent instructions, is that they "more fully and purely supply our minds with matter for grace to act upon." By encouraging the influence of means of grace in our lives, we are strengthening the perseverance of our faith and moving towards Christ in sanctification. Means of grace are not only necessary to the unregenerate hoping to experience grace but also to the follower of Christ who desires holiness and righteousness.
Edwards’ view of means of grace does much to resolve some of the difficult aspects of Calvinistic theology. It allows for human responsibility and action, while not disturbing the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty. The Bible tells us that we were chosen "in Him before the creation of the world," (Ephesians 1:4) but it also says that if we confess with our mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved. (Romans 10:9) These two passages, and others like them, may be reconciled in the idea of means of grace. Means of grace force us into responsibility. We cannot just sit in a chair hoping that we will be one of the lucky few that God zaps with His grace. Instead, if we desire His grace, we need to put ourselves in a position to be granted it. Through the means of the Word, preaching, and other Christian instruction, we can enter into repentance, confession, and belief. We can take advantage of the means of grace to prepare our hearts for God's salvation. We can seek the Kingdom of Heaven above all things. Basically, we need to throw ourselves in the path of grace. We need to be where grace is. Again, there is nothing of worth in the means themselves or in our seeking out grace that catches God's attention and earns the gift of His salvation. He is still completely free to distribute grace as He sees fit. The purpose of taking advantage of the means of grace is to make the odds of receiving grace as high as possible.
This idea of preparation and responsibility also affects evangelism and ministry. As Christians, we have a responsibility to push people into the path of grace. Whether God will choose them or not we can not and are not to know; that is the under the control of the Spirit. We are simply to prepare people for the possibility of grace. If we know that the chances of someone coming to know Christ are much greater when under the work of means of grace, then we ought to get as many people as we can into that position. We ought to put to use the means of grace- preaching, teaching, prayer, godly instruction, etc- in order to make this happen.
In His sovereignty, God has seen fit to use means of grace to prepare His people for salvation and to spur them on to holiness. He has also left us with responsibilities through these means- responsibilities to seek after grace continually ourselves and to introduce others to this condition of preparation. Means of grace allow us to play a role in our justification without giving any merit to us or taking anything away from the absolute sovereignty of God. They work to lead us through the seasons of our lives until the day when we are perfected in Christ.