How does Christ communicate his benefits to his people, to the church? Does he use means? Mystics deny this; Rome insists that they are essential and tied to the sacramental power of the institutional church’s priesthood. The Reformation adopted a position in between this mystical undervaluation and magical overvaluation of the means of grace.
According to the Reformation, Christ is the complete Savior, the only mediator between God and humanity, but he also instituted an official body of ministers (not priests!) to proclaim the Word of God. The Reformation changed the medieval Roman understanding of grace from a sacerdotal power to a spiritual power of the Word. Not the church but Scripture was regarded as the means of grace. Yet against mysticism, which denied the necessity of the means of grace in Word and sacraments, the Reformation understood the Word and sacraments to be God’s ordinary means of imparting grace. The church is the mother of believers, and the offices are instituted for the administration of the Word and sacraments. Means of grace may never be detached from the person and work of Christ nor from the church he instituted on earth.
The most important means of grace is the word of God. Since the Word contains both the law and the gospel, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, it has a universal significance even beyond its public proclamation in church as a means of grace. For this reason, we must distinguish between the “word of God” and Scripture. The “word of God” does not come only in the form of Scripture and its public proclamation; it also comes to us indirectly, secondarily, having been absorbed from Scripture into the consciousness of the church or a society of people. Above all, it is not merely a sound but also a power and the accomplishment of God’s will (Isa. 55:11).
The Word is differentiated into law and gospel. The law finds its end in Christ, who sets believers free from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13; 4:5) so that they may walk according to the Spirit and delight in God’s law in their inner selves. Antinomianism exacerbates the antithesis between law and gospel, while nomism weakens or cancels the antithesis. Rome equated the old and new covenants with law and gospel respectively, and denied the presence of the gospel in the Old Testament and that of the law in the New Testament, but by accepting its laws and threats turned the gospel into a new law, thereby erasing the Pauline antithesis of law and gospel.
The Reformation, however, held to the unity of the covenant of grace in its two dispensations while at the same time sharply contrasting law and gospel. According to the Reformed tradition, law and gospel describe two revelations of the divine will. The law is God’s holy, wise, good, and spiritual will, which on account of sin has now been made powerless, fails to justify, and increases sin and condemnation. The gospel, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, has Christ as its content and conveys grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, freedom, and life. The law proceeds from God’s holiness, is known from nature, addresses all people, demands perfect righteousness, gives eternal life by works, and condemns. By contrast, the gospel proceeds from God’s grace, is known only from special revelation, addresses only those who hear, grants perfect righteousness, produces good works in faith, and acquits. Faith and repentance are always components of gospel, not of law. The gospel, therefore, always presupposes the law and differs from it especially in content.
Since the law is an expression of God’s being, humans are naturally subject to it. The law is everlasting; it was inscribed on Adam’s heart, is again engraved on the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit, and in heaven all believers will live according to it. While the law no longer makes demands upon the believer as a condition for salvation, it is still the believer’s object of delight and meditation. Accordingly, the law must always be proclaimed in the church alongside the gospel.
Besides the relationship between law and gospel, there is often disagreement over the power and efficacy of the Word, as well as the relationship between Word and Spirit. Nomism (Judaism, Pelagianism, rationalism, Romanism) considers the special supernatural power of the Holy Spirit superfluous, while antinomianism (Anabaptism, mysticism) expects everything from the inner light of the Holy Spirit and finds in the Word only a sign and shadow.