Stick around something other than an Anabaptist-derived church long enough, and you’ll probably hear the phrase that the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or the Eucharist or communion)—are “means of grace.” This thought used to trip me up a lot, as good Lutherans and Presbyterians would teach that the waters of Holy Baptism, as a means of grace, somehow miraculously channeled salvation-power to little babies and broke the stranglehold of the sinful nature.
This line of thinking sounds rather ludicrous, if not at least difficult to understand, as long we think of God’s grace as some sort of “justification juice.” But grace is not an ethereal, impersonal substance hiding between the layers of matzo your church uses for the Supper. It is rather the personal favor and benevolence of a holy God upon needy sinners. Douglas Wilson, pastor of
But how is it possible to see the sacraments as efficacious, which the Protestant fathers certainly did, but at the same time recognize that they have no magical power in themselves? We must not think of ourselves as empty receptacles and the sacraments as filled decanters, full of spiritual juice, which are then poured into us. Rather than seeing the question of the sacraments as this kind as an ontological and metaphysical question, we have to see it as a covenantal and relational question. We are persons communing with God, who is tri-personal, and we do so in the sacraments. They are therefore performative acts. A man might say the words “I do” a million times during the course of his life, but when he says them in a church in front of witnesses with his bride across from him, the words are a performative act, and they change everything.
Grace is not a fluid that can fill up a reservoir. Grace is a covenantal relationship between two persons. Now the Scriptures do tell us that grace can be both added and multiplied. “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Pet. 1:2; cf. 1 Pet. 1:2;
Thus the sacraments are “means of grace” in that by means of them we are offered, free of charge, all that Christ has purchased and accomplished. When we undergo baptism or later on look back upon it, we see God’s favor in including us in his covenant people and promising us remission of sins, holding out Christ’s death and resurrection to us even when we were yet too young to do anything good or bad (Romans 4:5; 5:6-8). We’re like infantile
We may even do well so as to say that the sacraments aren’t even means of grace, that is, God’s benevolent favor, but rather we might say that they are grace themselves. They are an undeserved gift, because the whole of them bring to us the person and work of Jesus the Son as ordained and offered by the Father and understood and sealed to us by the Spirit, so that we may be brought to faith and nourished in it. “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
 Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the Covenant