THE CHANNELS OF GRACE
Written by Doug Ponder on May 9, 2015
The Channels of Grace
God’s saving work in our lives is not a magic trick. When God works to change us, he does not “zap” us or wave his magic wand. Instead, God works through specific “channels” to bring saving grace into our lives. These “channels” are like pipes that carry water into the house. The pipe itself isn’t the water, but it does carry the water. In the same way, God uses specific channels to bring us the grace that saves and changes us.
These “channels of grace” are what the church has historically called “means of grace.” The word “means” is used in the same way that we might say, “John arrived in Orland by means of an airplane.” Thus the means of grace are the instruments of God, functioning like his delivery system to bring us what we need. This means that if we want to change, we have to know the means of grace and use the means of grace.
Knowing the Means of Grace
There is no “official” list of the means of grace, but they can be grouped into three major categories: the gospel, prayer, and service.
Gospel: The First Means of Grace
The first means of grace is the gospel, which is the good news of the Word of God. There are two ways that God uses the gospel to bring his saving grace into our lives. The first is hearing (or reading) the gospel. The second is “seeing” the gospel.
We hear the gospel when we join together as a church to sit under the faithful preaching of God’s Word by men whom God has called and appointed to lead His people (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:9; 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 5:2; Heb. 13:17). We also hear the gospel when we come together each week in our community groups to discuss the meaning of the message preached on Sunday and explore its significance for our lives.
God has also given us physical demonstrations of the promises of the gospel in the sacraments of baptism and communion. In baptism we witness the saving power of God that has come into to someone’s life through faith in Christ, giving them a new heart and new desires to live for God (Titus 3:4-6; Phil. 2:13). The very act itself is a picture of the gospel: someone sinking beneath the waters as a symbol of death, yet rising again from the waters in victory over death—not by their own strength, but by the power of the one who has raised them to walk with new life (Rom. 6:3-4).
Communion also gives us a physical reminder of the gospel in bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus given for us (Luke 22:19-20). The symbolism is rich, for the bread cannot be eaten unless it was first broken, and the wine cannot be poured without the crushing of grapes. In the same way, we can eat the bread and drink the cup because Jesus himself was broken and crushed: “He the Lord for we the least; him devoured so we may feast.” The effects of the gospel are portrayed also in the unity of believers. We eat and drink together, as one body saved by the same Savior and Lord (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
In this way, the preaching of the gospel and the public demonstration of the gospel (through the sacraments) are clearly a means of grace, for God uses this channel to steer his people away from sin and back to the grace that makes us whole. For it is the gospel preached and seen that reminds us that yes, we really are forgiven and loved and accepted, and all because of Jesus.
Prayer: The Second Means of Grace
The second means of grace is prayer. Prayer is more than talking to God, but it’s not less than that. Prayer is actually a way of acknowledging our dependence upon God which we may express through words, thoughts, or even a disposition of the heart (Rom. 8:26). And Jesus assumed that his followers would pray, which is why he began his teaching on prayer in this way: “When you pray…” Not if, but when.
Prayer is a means of grace because it helps us remember and experience our lives as people who are completely dependent upon God for all things. The reality is that we are always dependent upon God for all things, whether we are aware of this or not (just as babies depend upon their parents, even if they are unable to understand how much they need them). Thus it is good for us to consciously remember our dependence upon God—which is what prayer is—so that we can learn to rely upon his grace.
Prayer is also an expression of our conscious need for God. In prayer we bring our requests to our heavenly Father, who tells us to ask him for what we need. As we go to him in prayer, we are reinforcing and expressing anew our dependence upon him for all that he provides. In fact, Jesus says that there are many things that we don’t have because we refuse to ask God for them (Matt. 7:7; James 4:2). This is not God’s way of being cruel, nor is it a sign of his ignorance. (Jesus says that God knows what we need before we ask him—see Matt. 6:7-8). Rather, God tells us to ask him for things because, above all, prayer will remind us of how much we need him.
Service: The Third Means of Grace
Service is another way of talking about not living for yourself, which is one of the main effects of God’s grace in our lives. He tells us, “Christ died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who died and was raised for their sake” (2 Cor. 5:15). Another way to talk about “service” is to talk about “loving your neighbor,” which is the second greatest commandment (Mark 12:31).
Service is a means of grace because there are some things that we cannot learn unless we do them. That’s the difference between studying weightlifting and actually lifting weights. Since God’s desire is to save us from slavery to sin—which is always selfish—then he accomplishes this by loosening our grip on the “me-centeredness” of our lives. That can’t be done by reading about sacrificial love in a book; it can only become real for us through the channel of service, which God uses to rewire our hearts in love for the people that Jesus died to save.
Using the Means of Grace
Simply knowing the means of grace will help you about as much as knowing that Jesus is in the other town, yet refusing to go to him. That is why Christians in history have talked about using the means of grace. But remember: the means of grace are not a ladder that lets us climb higher by our own strength; they are God’s chosen channels for receiving what God himself supplies. When you use the means of grace, you are not forcing God’s hand. You are placing yourself in the path of God’s grace, trusting that he will come to meet you where he said he could be found.
This is how Paul put it: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
The means of a grace gives us a grace-effort sandwich, with grace bounding us in on both sides. We come to the channels of grace because of God’s prior work in our lives: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” But we don’t rest on our laurels. “On the contrary, I have worked harder than any of them.” Yet when we are done, we cannot take credit for anything. “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Speaking about the means of grace, one pastor famously said: “You can put up the sails, but you can’t make the wind blow.” And then he added: “One thing is sure, though. If you never put up the sails in faith, you will never catch the wind of grace either.” God has given us the means and end. He calls us to embrace the channels of grace that he has supplied, that by so doing, he might continue to pour more of his grace into our lives.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.