How Do We Receive God's Blessing?
About ten years ago my dad was diagnosed with stage-four cancer, the treatment was very aggressive with radiation. The idea was to kill the cancer cells before they could kill him—it was painful, he couldn’t swallow and even drinking fluids was miserable. This is the best example I can think of to illustrate the old saying “the end justifies the means.” The end (not dying) justifies the means (exposure to deadly radiation). I’m very thankful that it worked, and we’ll be celebrating his 81st birthday this summer.
When we’re talking about how God applies His blessing to us, we call it the “means of grace.” “Means” is the way He does it, the action or vehicle for how grace is personally given to each of us. Even though it's God who does the work—it's God who makes it effective—He has assigned His people (the church) the job of administering the various treatments. It's like radiation, the doctors and medical teams push the buttons and talk to the patients, but the power of the treatment lies completely in the emission of electromagnetic waves and subatomic particles.
Thankfully, the means of grace aren’t as obviously dangerous as nuclear radiation treatment! instead, God has chosen some very ordinary elements and procedures for applying His work of salvation to us. They are so simple, you might even make the mistake of thinking they have no truly effective power—like they’re merely a symbolic cure, a placebo—but that would be a grave error. These are the most powerful mediums on earth. They are: God’s proclaimed Word, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.
These are the most powerful mediums on earth: God’s proclaimed Word, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.
It all starts with GOD'S WORD. God speaks and whatever He says happens. “In the beginning” God spoke the entire universe into existence. It's the power of God’s Word at the heart of all the means of grace. When we hear the Gospel—that God sent His Son into the world to live a perfect life, die on a cross for the forgiveness of all mankind’s sin, raise from the grave, and go back to heaven—when we hear about Jesus and realize He did it for us, when we receive the promise of salvation by faith—that’s a means of grace. God's proclaimed Word. Someone tells us what God has promised, and when we believe the gift of God’s love is for us because of Jesus—that’s when the miracle happens. Call it justification, reconciliation, redemption, being born again, or any number of marvelous religious words—that’s the moment we receive God’s grace. We are saved by grace through faith.
So God’s people are to shout the Gospel from the rooftops to all people in every nation and in every language so everyone can know about His salvation. But that’s so intangible. There’s nothing to hold onto, nothing to sink our teeth into. God created a physical, material world—it shouldn’t surprise us that He wants to use things we can see and touch and taste as vehicles for His mercy and love. He wants to locate His grace in a specific time and place—Christianity is incarnational, it's all about the mysterious connection of material and spiritual.
BAPTISM. Jesus said to make disciples and teach them all about Him, but He commanded us to do some other things, too. He also told us to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. To baptize means to wash—in baptism we are washed clean, born again, sealed by the Holy Spirit, re-created as new beloved child of God—we are connected to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In the simple water ritual, where the Word of God’s promise is connected to water and applied to us—then—Boom! That’s when the grace of God is applied to us with all the promises that are for us in Jesus. "This baptism which now saves you," says 1 Peter 3:21. "There is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" according to Acts 2:38. Keep in mind, it's God who washes us in baptism, He's the one doing the true baptizing. We’re still saved by grace through faith—but in baptism, we have a specific moment to look back on. It’s like our spiritual birthday. It's the day we're adopted, the day we become a citizen of heaven.
ABSOLUTION. Jesus gave the keys of Heaven and the power to forgive sins to the church—did you know that? In John 20:23 Jesus said to His disciples, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” In Matthew 16:19 He said it like this, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” When we confess our sins to each other, we are also to speak forgiveness. It’s one thing to pray in your own head, or whisper to God and ask for Him to forgive you—which you should do, and He promises that He will. However, it’s a completely different experience to confess your sins to your wife, or to a friend, or to your pastor—and have them look you in the eyes and give you absolution. Once again, it’s words—words are powerful, and in this case the words “your sins are forgiven” when spoken in Christ’s name are a means of grace.
LORD'S SUPPER. On the night when Jesus was betrayed He took some bread and thanked God for it, then he broke it saying, “this is my body which is given for you—take, eat—Do this in remembrance of me.” And then He took a cup of wine, thanked God for it, and said, “Drink of this, all of you—this is my blood which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” He said the bread is His body that was broken for us, so we take Him at His word and believe that it is. He said the wine is His blood, shed so that we can have forgiveness of our sins—so we believe it is. "Is" means "is"—simply because God said so. He also told us to keep eating the bread that is His body and drinking the wine that is His blood until He comes again—so we do. We celebrate Holy Communion to remember His death that was for us. We do it to receive the forgiveness of sins that His blood offers us. We proclaim the mystery that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again—for us—we receive the promise in our mouth, we taste it on our tongue. It's a visible word of Gospel. Physical. Tangible. Are you in need of forgiveness? Healing? Comfort? Strength? Does your faith need to be stronger? Take. Eat. Take. Drink.
These are the gifts of God for the people of God. These are the means of grace whose power comes from the promises of God in Christ, but which are distributed by the local church because Jesus told us to. In this case, it is not the end that justifies the means—it is the means which justifies in the end.