Part Five: The Doctrine of The Church and of The Means of GraceThe Means Of Grace

II. The Word as a Means of Grace


Roman Catholics can hardly be said to regard the Word of God as a means of grace. In their estimation the Church is the great and all-sufficient channel of grace for sinners, and all other means are subordinate to it. And the two most powerful means which God has placed at the disposal of the Church are prayer and the sacraments. The Churches of the Reformation, however, both the Lutheran and the Reformed, do honor the Word of God as such and even regard it as superior to the sacraments. It is true that the older Reformed theologians, such as the professors of Leyden (Synopsis), Mastricht, à Marck, Turretin, and others, and even some of a more recent date, such as Dabney and Kuyper, do not treat of it separately as a means of grace, but this is largely due to the fact that they have already discussed the Word in other connections. They freely speak of it as a means of grace. And when they consider the Word of God as a means of grace, they are not thinking of the Logos, the personal Word, John 1:1-14. Neither do they have in mind any word of power proceeding out of the mouth of Jehovah, Ps. 33:6; Isa. 55:11; Rom. 4:17, or any word of direct revelation, such as the prophets received, Jer. 1:4; 2:1; Ezek. 6:1; Hos. 1:1. It is the inspired Word of God, the Word of Scripture, which they regard as a means of grace. And even when speaking of this as a means of grace, they contemplate it from a special point of view. The inspired Scriptures constitute the principium cognoscendi, the fountain head, of all our theological knowledge, but it is not that aspect which we have in mind when we speak of the Word of God as a means of grace. The Bible is not only the principium cognoscendi of theology, but it is also the means which the Holy Spirit employs for the extension of the Church and for the edification and nourishment of the saints. It is pre-eminently the word of God's grace, and therefore also the most important means of grace. Strictly speaking, it is the Word as it is preached in the name of God and in virtue of a divine commission, that is considered as a means of grace in the technical sense of the word, alongside of the sacraments which are administered in the name of God. Naturally, the Word of God can also be considered as a means of grace in a more general sense. It may be a real blessing as it is brought to man in many additional ways: as it is read in the home, is taught in the school, or is circulated in tracts. As the official means of grace, placed at the disposal of the Church, both the Word and the sacraments can only be administered by the lawful and properly qualified officers of the Church. But in distinction from the sacraments the Word can also be carried out into the world by all believers and operate in many different ways.


There has developed in the course of history quite a difference of opinion respecting the efficacy of the Word, and consequently, as to the connection between the effectual operation of the Word, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

1. Nomism in its various forms, such as Judaism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism Arminianism, Neonomianism, and Rationalism, deems the intellectual, moral, and æsthetic influence of the Word as the only influence that can be ascribed to it. It does not believe in a supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word. The truth revealed in the Word of God works only by moral persuasion. In some of its forms, such as Pelagianism and Rationalisem, Nomism does not even feel the need of a special operation of the Holy Spirit in the work of redemption, but in its more moderate forms, such as Semi-Pelagianism, Arminianism, and Neonomianism, it considers the moral influence of the Word insufficient, so that it must be supplemented by the work of the Holy Spirit.

2. Antinomianism, on the other hand, does not regard the external Word as necessary at all, and displays a Mysticism which expects everything from the inner word or the inner light, or from the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit. Its slogan is, "The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life." The external word belongs to the natural world, is unworthy of the really spiritual man, and can produce no spiritual results. While Antinomians of all descriptions reveal a tendency to slight, if not to ignore altogether, the means of grace, this tendency received its clearest expression at the hands of some of the Anabaptists.

3. In opposition to these two views, the Reformers maintained that the Word alone is not sufficient to work faith and conversion; that the Holy Spirit can, but does not ordinarily, work without the Word; and that therefore in the work of redemption the Word and the Spirit work together. Though there was little difference on this point at first between the Lutherans and the Reformed, the former from the beginning stressed the fact that the Holy Spirit works through the Word as His instrument (per verbum), while the latter preferred to say that the operation of the Holy Spirit accompanies the Word (cum verbo). Later on Lutheran theologians developed the real Lutheran doctrine, that the Word of God contains the converting power of the Holy Spirit as a divine deposit, which is now so inseparably connected with it that it is present even when the Word is not used, or is not used legitimately. But in order to explain the different results of the preaching of the Word in the case of different persons, they had to resort, even though it be in a mild form, to the doctrine of the free will of man. The Reformed indeed regarded the Word of God as always powerful, either as a savour of life unto life or as a savour of death unto death, but maintained that it becomes efficacious in leading to faith and conversion only by an accompanying operation of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of sinners. They refused to consider this efficaciousness as an impersonal power resident in the Word.


1. THE LAW AND THE GOSPEL IN THE WORD OF GOD. The Churches of the Reformation from the very beginning distinguished between the law and the gospel as the two parts of the Word of God as a means of grace. This distinction was not understood to be identical with that between the Old and the New Testament, but was regarded as a distinction that applies to both Testaments. There is law and gospel in the Old Testament, and there is law and gospel in the New. The law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God's will in the form of command or prohibition, while the gospel embraces everything, whether it be in the Old Testament or in the New, that pertains to the work of reconciliation and that proclaims the seeking and redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus. And each one of these two parts has its own proper function in the economy of grace. The law seeks to awaken in the heart of man contrition on account of sin, while the gospel aims at the awakening of saving faith in Jesus Christ. The work of the law is in a sense preparatory to that of the gospel. It deepens the consciousness of sin and thus makes the sinner aware of the need of redemption. Both are subservient to the same end, and both are indispensable parts of the means of grace. This truth has not always been sufficiently recognized. The condemning aspect of the law has sometimes been stressed at the expense of its character as a part of the means of grace. Ever since the days of Marcion there have always been some who saw only contrast between the law and the gospel and proceeded on the assumption that the one excluded the other. They based their opinion in part on the rebuke which Paul administered to Peter (Gal. 2:11-14), and partly on the fact that Paul occasionally draws a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel and evidently regards them as contrasts, II Cor. 3:6-11; Gal. 3:2,3,10-14; cf. also John 1:17. They lost sight of the fact that Paul also says that the law served as a tutor to lead men to Christ, Gal. 3:24, and that the Epistle to the Hebrews represents the law, not as standing in antithetical relation to the gospel, but rather as the gospel in its preliminary and imperfect state.

Some of the older Reformed theologians represented the law and the gospel as absolute opposites. They thought of the law as embodying all the demands and commandments of Scripture, and of the gospel, as containing no demands whatsoever, but only unconditional promises; and thus excluded from it all requirements. This was partly due to the way in which the two are sometimes contrasted in Scripture, but was also partly the result of a controversy in which they were engaged with the Arminians. The Arminian view, making salvation dependent on faith and evangelical obedience as works of man, caused them to go to the extreme of saying that the covenant of grace does not require anything on the part of man, does not prescribe any duties, does not demand or command anything, not even faith, trust, and hope in the Lord, and so on. but merely conveys to man the promises of what God will do for him. Others, however, correctly maintained that even the law of Moses is not devoid of promises, and that the gospel also contains certain demands. They clearly saw that man is not merely passive, when he is introduced into the covenant of grace, but is called upon to accept the covenant actively with all its privileges, though it is God who works in him the ability to meet the requirements. The promises which man appropriates certainly impose upon him certain duties, and among them the duty to obey the law of God as a rule of life, but also carry with them the assurance that God will work in him "both to will and to do." The consistent Dispensationalists of our day again represent the law and the gospel as absolute opposites. Israel was under the law in the previous dispensation, but the Church of the present dispensation is under the gospel, and as such is free from the law. This means that the gospel is now the only means of salvation, and that the law does not now serve as such. Members of the Church need not concern themselves about its demands, since Christ has met all its requirements. They seem to forget that, while Christ bore the curse of the law, and met its demands as a condition of the covenant of works, He did not fulfil the law for them as a rule of life, to which man is subject in virtue of his creation, apart from any covenant arrangement.


a. As was already said in the preceding, the distinction between the law and the gospel is not the same as that between the Old and the New Testament. Neither is it the same as that which present day Dispensationalists make between the dispensation of the law and the dispensation of the gospel. It is contrary to the plain facts of Scripture to say that there is no gospel in the Old Testament, or at least not in that part of the Old Testament that covers the dispensation of the law. There is gospel in the maternal promise, gospel in the ceremonial law, and gospel in many of the Prophets, as Isa. 53 and 54; 55:1-3,6.7; Jer. 31:33,34; Ezek. 36:25-28. In fact, there is a gospel current running through the whole of the Old Testament, which reaches its highest point in the Messianic prophecies. And it is equally contrary to Scripture to say that there is no law in the New Testament, or that the law does not apply in the New Testament dispensation. Jesus taught the permanent validity of the law, Matt. 5:17-19. Paul says that God provided for it that the requirements of the law should be fulfilled in our lives, Rom. 8:4, and holds his readers responsible for keeping the law, Rom. 13:9. James assures his readers that he who transgresses a single commandment of the law (and he mentions some of these), is a transgressor of the law, Jas. 2:8-11. And John defines sin as "lawlessness," and says that this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments, I John 3:4; 5:3.

b. It is possible to say that in some respects the Christian is free from the law of God. The Bible does not always speak of the law in the same sense. Sometimes it contemplates this as the immutable expression of the nature and will of God, which applies at all times and under all conditions. But it also refers to it as it functions in the covenant of works, in which the gift of eternal life was conditioned on its fulfilment. Man failed to meet the condition, thereby also losing the ability to meet it, and is now by nature under a sentence of condemnation. When Paul draws a contrast between the law and the gospel, he is thinking of this aspect of the law, the broken law of the covenant of works, which can no more justify, but can only condemn the sinner. From the law in this particular sense, both as a means for obtaining eternal life and as a condemning power, believers are set free in Christ, since He became a curse for them and also met the demands of the covenant of works in their behalf. The law in that particular sense and the gospel of free grace are mutually exclusive.

c. There is another sense, however, in which the Christian is not free from the law. The situation is quite different when we think of the law as the expression of man's natural obligations to his God, the law as it is applied to man even apart from the covenant of works. It is impossible to imagine any condition in which man might be able to claim freedom from the law in that sense. It is pure Antinomianism to maintain that Christ kept the law as a rule of life for His people, so that they need not worry about this any more. The law lays claim, and justly so, on the entire life of man in all its aspects, including his relation to the gospel of Jesus Christ. When God offers man the gospel, the law demands that the latter shall accept this. Some would speak of this as the law in the gospel, but this is hardly correct. The gospel itself consists of promises and is no law; yet there is a demand of the law in connection with the gospel. The law not only demands that we accept the gospel and believe in Jesus Christ, but also that we lead a life of gratitude in harmony with its requirements.


It is customary in theology to distinguish a three-fold use of the law.

1. THE THREE DEFINED. We distinguish:

a. A usus politicus or civilis. The law serves the purpose of restraining in and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God's common grace in the world at large. This means that from this point of view it cannot be regarded a means of grace in the technical sense of the word.

b. A usus elenchticus or pedagogicus. In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes his tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God's gracious purpose of redemption.

c. A usus didacticus or normativus. This is the so-called tertius usus legis, the third use of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians.

2. THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LUTHERAN AND THE REFORMED ON THIS POINT. There is some difference between the Lutherans and the Reformed with respect to this threefold use of the law. Both accept this threefold distinction, but the Lutherans stress the second use of the law. In their estimation the law is primarily the appointed means for bringing men under conviction of sin and thus indirectly pointing the way to Jesus Christ as the Saviour of sinners. While they also admit the third use of the law, they do it with a certain reserve, since they hold that believers are no more under the law. According to them the third use of the law is necessary only because, and in so far as, believers are still sinners; they must be held in check by the law, and should become ever-increasingly conscious of their sins. It is not surprising therefore that this third use of the law occupies no important place in their system. As a rule they treat of the law only in connection with the doctrine of human misery. The Reformed do full justice to the second use of the law, teaching that "through the law cometh the knowledge of sin," and that the law awakens the consciousness of the need of redemption; but they devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification. They stand strong in the conviction that believers are still under the law as a rule of life and of gratitude. Hence the Heidelberg Catechism devotes not less than eleven Lord's Days to the discussion of the law, and that in its third part, which deals with gratitude.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Why do the Roman Catholics regard the Church as the outstanding means of grace? What accounts for their neglect of the Word as a means of grace? Why are the means of grace in disrespect among the Mystics? What distinguishes the Word and the sacraments as means of grace from all other means? Is it correct to say that they are administered only in the Church and serve, not to originate the new life, but to strengthen it? Is the Word of God exclusively used as a means of grace? How do the law and the gospel differ as different aspects of the Word?

LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 483-505; Hodge, Syst. Theol. III, pp. 466-485; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. II, pp. 561-563; Vos, Geref. Dogm. V. De Genademiddelen, pp. 1-11; McPherson, Chr. Dogm., pp. 422-427; Dick, Lect. on Theology, pp. 447-458; Pieper, Christl. Dogm. III, pp. 121-296; Valentine, Chr. Theol. II, pp. 282-292; Mueller, Chr. Dogm., pp. 441-484; Raymond, Syst. Theol. III, pp. 243-255; Drummond, Studies in Chr. Doct., pp. 399-403.