Sunday, October 18, 2015

SA9: God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

This is the ninth and final post on sacraments in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.

We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit was on the Holy Spirit. The second set was on the Church. This third set is on sacraments.
God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

1. In our first article on sacraments, we mentioned that there were both "ordinary" sacraments and what we called "momentary" sacraments. Protestants generally recognize baptism and communion as ordinary catalysts of God's grace to us. Roman Catholics would add marriage, confirmation, ordination, penance, and "last rites" before death. God can use any of these to dispense his grace at a moment of his choosing, usually on the condition of our faith.

Cannot marriage be a moment when God dispenses his grace? In a day when tensions exist among Christians over those whom the State might marry, would not this be an opportune time to distinguish between civil unions, as it were, by the State and marriage as a means of God's grace as administered through his Church?

For those baptized as a child, confirmation is an important moment of personal commitment that surely can be a means of grace. In "low churches" (churches that do not emphasize sacramental moments or longstanding Christian traditions) where baptism does not coincide with the moment of church membership, cannot the moment of confession in church membership be a sacramental moment?

The early church often laid hands on those it was commissioning for special service. The church at Antioch laid hands on Saul and Barnabas (Acts 13:3). Timothy was commissioned by the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14). Is not the ordination of ministers today a moment when God's grace is given in a special way at a special moment.

The process of dying is a central time in a person's life. Perhaps surprisingly, it is a time when some saints have moments of doubt. It is thus a time when God uses many ministers, family, and friends to serve as a means of grace. I have heard of the words, "Let me be faith for you," uttered over the dying, and of God giving the dying peace through the body of Christ as a means of grace.

Protestant churches have had means of grace in relation to penance in the past, recognizing that some physical action, some outward and visible sign, is helpful as a catalyst of the inward grace of forgiveness. In the Wesleyan holiness tradition, going to the altar was such a means of grace. It was a means of outwardly signifying repentance. Today, churches sometimes have people stand. These outward signs are versions of the Roman Catholic sense of penance.

2. John Wesley divided up God's means of grace into two types: works of piety and works of mercy. The first (acts of vital piety) had to with God meeting us as we did acts of individual and corporate devotion like prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting as individual acts. Corporately there was communion, baptism, and fellowship (which he called "Christian conference"). [1] He considered these means of grace that were "instituted" means of grace.

The second type, works of mercy, had to do with God meeting us as we did outward acts of service toward others. [2] So Jesus assumed that we would give to the poor ("almsgiving") as in Matthew 6. Almsgiving is "everything that we give, or speak, or do, whereby our neighbor may be profited." [3] Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, assisting the stranger, visiting the sick or those in prison, comforting the troubled, teaching those without knowledge, redirecting the wicked, praising the person who does good, these are all ways in which God not only dispenses his grace to others, but to us as well.

3. It is understandable that God would use different means of grace in different times and places to meet and transform his people. Cultures differ in the means they have available and in their understandings of the world. God does not expect all people to come up the mountain to his timeless temple in his timeless way. He is an incarnating God who became flesh in Christ Jesus. God meets his people in various times and places in the ways that best change them.

So it is no surprise that God began to use the Scriptures as one of the primary means of his grace once the printing press came into common use in the West. Not only did a culture develop where most people could read but by the 1900s most people in the West had easy access to a Bible. Prior to the 1500s, Christian worship and communion understandably played a greater role in dispensing God's grace to most Christians, since the vast majority were illiterate and the Bible did not play a large role in worship.

In the early church, the Scriptures, breaking bread, fellowship, and worship were weekly features of Christian life. God regularly uses these same means of grace today in the church. God meets us in various ways as individuals. He meets us in various ways as the corporate body of Christ. And he meets us as we serve others in mission. Devotions are a contemporary personal means of grace, usually involving prayer and searching the Scriptures. Worship, fellowship, and communion are frequent corporate means. And we serve as means of grace toward others in evangelism and service.

But God can use anything to transform us. It is even possible that God may have a special means of grace just for you as an individual believer. Perhaps there is some outward symbol connected to a special memory of your walk with God, perhaps some moment of special divine encounter. Perhaps God occasionally uses that symbol to trigger that memory and give you a sense of his presence. [4]

Some Christians journal, and their journal becomes a means of grace. If they would ever have a moment of doubt or a moment when God seems silent, their journal can remind them of special moments of divine encounter from the past.

There is no limit to how God can meet his people to transform them. He is, after all, all powerful, all knowing, and everywhere present. We are embodied people. Physical actions and visible objects are usually more obvious to us than invisible things. God thus uses outward signs to administer inward graces. God uses all sorts of instruments of grace to transform his people.

Next Week: ET1: God's fundamental ethical expectation of us is love.

[1] Wesley mentions prayer and searching the Scriptures in his sermon, "The Means of Grace." Mention of baptism as a means of grace is in his sermon, "The New Birth" and Christian conference is found in his "Large Minutes."

[2] He called these "prudential" means of grace. He lists these works of mercy in his sixth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount.

[3] See n.2. I have lightly edited his language.

[4] It is of course essential that we not let any such symbol become an idol. No object is an idol if it merely triggers our thoughts of God. The object itself is not the point, including the Bible. The point is that it points us toward our relationship with God.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

A fine series. Thanks.