Grace comes solely from God and is the uncreated energy of God. This uncreated energy can be understood as the work of God’s person upon the heart and soul and it is my belief that “grace” and “the work of” or “the personal effort of” the Holy Spirit are biblically interchangeable. And yet God always seemingly works through some type of means. In other words, God doesn’t “zap” grace, rather He always works though some instrumental means and the means in which God may work through can literally be anything.
Key Concepts in Sacramental Theology:
Means of grace: In Christian thought the “means of grace” are methods or ways through which God gives grace. By asking yourself if you can think of a way that God gives grace apart from specific means, you’ll quickly realize that God seemingly always gives grace through some form of means.
What are means of grace: Everything from the ordinary and mundane to the extraordinary and amazing can be a means of grace if the real presence of the Lord is felt, and our Lord’s love for the recipient of grace can be expressed through the means. The means of grace are situational and personal in that God can encounter people from a cup of water given to the thirty, a meal to the hungry, another’s smile to the depressed, a hug given to the lonely, through prayer, joy, Bible study, fellowship, music, worship, forgiveness, or whatever else. Ultimately everything can be a means of grace be it good or bad, full or joy or full of pain. Everything and anything can be a means of grace if we have the eyes of faith to see for Paul said to us,
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
What did the first Christians think about the means of grace? The early Christians took the existing Latin word sacrare which denoted anything that produced holiness and applied it as sacramentum to encompass the great variety of means of grace. But it quickly became apparent that unless they were going to have thousands of sacraments (e.g., the sacrament of the Lord’s Prayer, the sacrament of labor, and so forth) they needed a better definition for what was a sacrament.
Dr. Neal uses several theologians as way points for the refinement of what a sacrament is beginning with Augustine, writing,
For Augustine, the sacraments were:
Visible signs that represent an invisible reality. A sacramentum is a sacrum signum, that is, a sign designated by God to point to a divine reality (res divina) and containing that reality within itself.
This initial definition highlighted the importance of recognizing the real, effectual nature of divine grace in the sacrament, combined with a visible, exterior component. In many respects, however, this is a valid definition of the means of grace in general, not of the sacraments in particular. The use of this vague definition led Augustine to identify a multitude of sacraments far more than were functionally manageable. The short form of Augustine’s definition, one which became popular in the European theology of the early middle ages, was: “invisibulis gratiae visibilis forma,” or “the visible form of invisible grace.” Again, this is an excellent partial-definition of the means of grace in general, but hardly a useful definition for the sacraments.
Both Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard, bishop of Paris, sought to modify Augustine’s concept of the sacraments. The product of their thinking, filtered through the voluminous work of St. Thomas Aquinas, led to the following, excellent definition of a sacrament, which can be found in the Roman Catholic Dictionary of the Liturgy:
Outward signs or sacred actions, instituted by Christ, through which grace is channeled or communicated for inward sanctification of the soul.
The elements of this definition are worthy of special note. Firstly, a sacrament is an “outward” sign or action. It is not a quiet, invisible, personal, and private action, but rather a visible, objectively established representation of that which is invisible and internal. Secondly, a sacrament must have been a sign or an action established by Jesus. Not just any old sign or action will do, not just any means of divine grace can be considered a sacrament. To be sacraments, Christ must have established them. Thirdly, a sacrament serves as a true method by which grace is received. In other words, sacraments are not just wishful thinking. Nor are they promises. Nor are they even indicators. They are real conduits through which the love of God is communicated to us. And, fourthly, the grace received is transforming in character. Fundamentally, the sacraments sanctify us. Or, as John Wesley might have put it: through the sacraments we encounter the grace of God, and this grace “moves us on toward perfection.”
The means of grace that lack one or more of the four elements above, while still a means of grace are not defined as a sacrament. For example, fellowship, worship and Bible study can all be devotional exercises and means of grace but they are not considered sacraments. Dr. Neal’s Grace Upon Grace is the popularly written version of his Ph.D. And he posits in contrast to non-sacramental theology were the supplicant is the principle actor who performs an “act of faith,” in sacramental theology what the preceding definition lacked is the affirmation that God is the principle actor in the sacraments. Dr. Neal writes:
A New Definition
through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward
as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
– Romans 3:22b-25a
- In all of these definitions of the “sacraments” there seems to be lacking an affirmation that God is the
- actor. While certainly implied in all prior statements, the differentiation between the principle actor and the one who is acted upon is important for clarifying the difference between a general means of grace and a sacrament. Likewise, also lacking in the traditional definitions of the sacraments is the importance of the human response to the grace received. And it is
- that I believe a strong distinction can be drawn between the general means of grace and the sacraments. In short, I propose that the issue of the necessity of human response be understood as the fundamental characteristic that defines a sacrament as distinct from the other, general means of grace.
A sacrament is a means of effective grace – an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and spiritual favor – which is totally unoccasioned by anything that we do and which, furthermore, elicits a response of faith from the receiver in order to be completed.
In other words, Dr. Neal casts the sacraments in the light that God moves preveniently which then causes a response. It is at this point that sacramental grace can then be tied into a larger discussion about how prevenient grace is thought to operate.
Overview of sacramentalism and all quotes are from Dr. Neal’s popularly written Grace Upon Grace.