The Lutheran Difference: The Means of Grace

So I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure if I should include this entry or not.

See, here’s the thing: I’ve been raised in a Lutheran bubble. My dad was a pastor and his dad was a pastor too. I attended my dad’s church all throughout my childhood and youth. When I went to college, I went to one that was affiliated with our denomination. Same thing with my seminary education. I didn’t do any sort of “spiritual experimentation” when I was younger. The closest I ever came was a brush with Lutheran-flavored Pentecostalism when I was in high school. In other words, I had a very insular upbringing, at least in terms of what’s out there in other denominations.

All this to say that I’m not very familiar with the lingo that’s out there in non-Lutheran circles. I knew I needed to tackle the means of grace at some point, but I wasn’t sure if people would be like, “I’ve never heard of that before” or if people would be like, “Really? You thought you had to explain this?”

But I decided to err on the side of caution. If this is something you’re familiar with, please forgive me, but I’m going to approach this subject the same way I do with my confirmation students: by talking about pipes.

water pipesActually, it’s a mental exercise of sorts. I put the students in charge of an imaginary town. Their job is to provide water to all of the residents. And I encourage them to get creative in their answers. How would you make sure that all of your residents receive the water they need when they need it? After listing off all the wild and wacky ideas, we then turn to how water is actually delivered in most cities: through pipes. There’s a giant reservoir somewhere that’s filled with water. The cities will then send that water through pipes to each individual resident’s home, where it comes out of a faucet on their end. Why do they do it that way? Because it’s the most efficient method to deliver such a vital need. A resident doesn’t have to wait. They can get as much water as they need whenever they need it.

So what does this have to do with anything? Well, that’s a perfect example of what the means of grace are. In this case, “means” refers to the way something is delivered. And hopefully, grace is self-explanatory at this point. In other words, to Lutherans, the means of grace are the methods by which God has chosen to deliver forgiveness to His people. God has a huge reservoir of love and forgiveness that He wishes for His people to have. The means of grace are the pipes that He has chosen by which that forgiveness is delivered.

So the next question that should leap to mind is this: what are those pipes and how many are there? Well, it depends on how you want to count them. Technically, we say there are two: Word and Sacrament. Although you can break down that latter one into the individual sacraments if you want, which can get tricky for Lutherans, but more on that next week.

We’ve already talked about how Lutherans view the Bible. But this is another layer in our understanding of it. God’s Word is one of the means of grace. It’s a way that God chooses to deliver the forgiveness that Christ won for us on the cross. When we read in the Bible about what Jesus did for us, when we hear the Word of God proclaimed that He loves us and our sins are forgiven, grace pours into our lives via that metaphorical pipe.

The same is true when it comes to the Sacraments. For Lutherans, sacraments are forgiveness delivery vehicles. They are a way that God’s forgiveness is distributed to the people who need it. Again, we’ll get into that in more depth next week and in the weeks to come.

Now here’s the thing that I always remind the kids in confirmation: in any water delivery system with pipes, there are two valves on each pipe (well, more than two, probably, but for the sake of this discussion, I like to simplify). There’s the master valve back at the reservoir and there’s the faucet at the end of an individual pipe.

The master valve was cranked open by God  when Jesus died and rose. That is what started the flow of forgiveness through the pipes. But it’s up to us about how often we make use of those means. We can crank our faucet open so that the grace gushes into our lives. Or we can spin the valve the other way so that it’s only a measly trickle. Or, to put it more bluntly, we can dive deeply into God’s Word and swim in the grace we find there. We can participate in the sacraments and use them to strengthen and buoy our faith. Or we can be stingy in our study of the Word and negligent in our use of the sacraments.

So there we go. Again, if this is a concept that’s taught outside the Lutheran walls, I apologize. I just had to be sure. Next week, though, we’ll start talking about one of the things that really sets Lutherans apart from other Christians, and that’s our understanding of the Sacraments.

Author @JohnWOtte explains how Lutherans understand the means of grace: it's all about pipes. Click To Tweet


One Comment:

  1. Very interesting, I’m glad you decided to cover this point. I’d guess that it is quite different from non-Lutheran explanations of grace. The Baptist community I came from definitely talked about reading Scripture as if it were a means of grace, but they never used any similar terminology.

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