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The means of grace in Christian theology are those things (the means) through which God gives grace. Just what this grace entails is interpreted in various ways: generally speaking, some see it as God blessing humankind so as to sustain and empower the Christian life; others see it as forgiveness, life, and salvation.
According to the Catholic Church, the means of grace that Christ entrusted to the Church are many. They include the entirety of revealed truth, the sacraments and the hierarchical ministry. Among the principal means of grace are the sacraments (especially the Eucharist), prayers and good works. The sacramentals also are means of grace.
The Church herself is used by Christ as a means of grace: "As sacrament, the Church is Christ's instrument. 'She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all', 'the universal sacrament of salvation'." The conviction that the Church herself is the primary means of grace can be traced back to Irenaeus, who was expressing a common conviction when he said: "Where the church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the church, and every kind of grace." However, as the Second Vatican Council lamented, "although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should".
Catholics, Orthodox and some Protestants agree that grace is conferred through the sacraments, "the means of grace". It is the sacrament itself that is the means of grace, not the person who administers it nor the person who receives it, although lack of the required dispositions on the part of the recipient will block the effectiveness of the sacrament.
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Lutherans teach that the means of grace are the ways that the Holy Spirit creates faith in the hearts of Christians, forgives their sins, gives them eternal salvation and causes them to grow spiritually. The efficacy of these means does not depend on the faith, strength, status, or good works of those who proclaim the Word of God or administer God's sacraments; rather, the efficacy of these means rests in God alone, who has promised to work through God's gift of these means to God's church.
For Lutherans, the means of grace include the Gospel (both written and proclaimed), as well as the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Some Lutherans also include Confession and Absolution as sacraments and as such a means of grace, although they are not counted as such by others because no physical element is attached to Absolution, as is the case in both Baptism and the Lord's Supper.
The Reformed refer to the ordinary means of grace as the Word (preached primarily, but also read) and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord's Supper). In addition to these means of grace recognized by the Continental Reformed (Dutch, etc.), the English Reformed also included prayer as a means of grace along with the Word and Sacraments (Westminster Larger Catechism 154; Westminster Shorter Catechism 88). The means of grace are not intended to include every means by which God may edify Christians, but are the ordinary channels he has ordained for this purpose and are communicated to Christians supernaturally by the Holy Spirit. For Reformed Christians divine grace is the action of God giving and Christians receiving the promise of eternal life united with Christ. The means of grace are used by God to confirm or ratify a covenant between himself and Christians. The words of the gospel and the elements of the sacraments are not merely symbols referring to the gospel, they actually bring about the reality of the gospel.
In Methodism, the means of grace are ways in which God works invisibly in disciples, quickening, strengthening and confirming faith. So, believers use them to open their hearts and lives to God's work in them. According to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, the means of grace can be divided into two broad categories, with individual and communal components:
The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace, Henry H. Knight III (Metuchen,N.J., The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1992)