Editor’s Note: William Burt Pope (1822-1903) was the greatest Methodist theologian of the 19th century. This excerpt from Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology is lightly edited.
As an institute of worship, the Church of Christ has its ordinary channels for the communication of the influences of the Holy Ghost to the souls of men. These are the Media Gratiæ, or Means of Grace. Though the Spirit is not bound to these, they are “generally necessary to salvation.” They are not, however, equally and in the same sense necessary. (1) The Word of God and (2) Prayer are unitedly and severally what may be called the absolute and universal means: as such they may be first discussed. The sacraments are economical means, distinct from the former, yet entirely dependent upon them for their virtue.
The Supreme Means: The Word and Prayer
These are the supreme means as they are the basis of all: they give their virtue to the ordinances of the Church, including the sacraments. They are united: the Word gives the warrant to prayer and all its objects; Prayer is the instrument which makes the Word effectual. But as means of grace they may be regarded separately.
The Word of God in the Scriptures contains the whole compass of that spiritual truth which the Holy Spirit uses as His instrument for the communication of every influence on which the salvation of man depends. As the revelation of God’s law He uses it for conviction; as the Gospel promise He uses it for salvation; as the depository of ethical truth He uses it for sanctification through all morality and the discipline of holy life.
Let us view this in the light of Scripture itself; and then glance at ancient and current divergences.
The Word of God in the Scriptures contains the whole compass of that spiritual truth which the Holy Spirit uses as His instrument for the communication of every influence on which the salvation of man depends.
I. The doctrine of the Word concerning itself is that it is the universal channel of grace; that it is not this of itself, through any inherent efficacy, but as the organ of the Holy Ghost; and that its efficacy is nevertheless in a certain sense inherent, as the Spirit’s instrument, though it may be resisted. These topics have been discussed, in their application, under the Administration of Redemption. Their bearing on the Word as chief among the means of grace may, however, be briefly considered.
1. The sufficiency of Scripture is declared throughout both Testaments. The praises of the law of the Lord abound in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. (Ps. 119) One of them expatiates on the subject by taking all the ten names given to the Law and applying them to every phase of human need and religious experience. In the New Testament we have not one passage only, but a pervasive testimony. What St. Paul says of the Scriptures generally, that they make wise unto salvation, (2 Tim. 3:15, 16) and are profitable for every function of grace, for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, must be true of the supreme Scripture, the words of Christ, which are and comprise in themselves All the truth. (John 16:13) He therefore prays, Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy Word is truth. (John 17:17)
2. The fallen estate of man forbids the thought that the mere presentation of truth should save him. He has an organ or faculty to receive it, for it is as much adapted to his soul’s need as bread is to the need of his body; but the organ or faculty itself needs quickening. Hence the inherent power of the Word requires the influence of the Spirit to make it effectual. The Apostle Paul declares that his preaching was in demonstration of the Spirit and of power generally; but he also declares that the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God; (1 Cor. 2:4) for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:14) The language or alphabet of the doctrine of the Holy Ghost must be taught to him who shall understand His consecutive and general teaching. He appeals, as the Lord appealed: why do ye not understand My speech (λαλιὰν)? even because ye cannot hear My word (John 8:43) (λόγον). A man must submit to the doctrine of sin generally, which is hearing Christ’s word or testimony concerning Himself and the sinner’s relation to Him, before he can receive the full exposition of that doctrine as it is salvation.
3. But there is an inherent efficacy in Scripture, as applied by the Spirit. It is the universal means of grace, though men may resist it. The Word of God is as efficacious as it is universal and sufficient. It is its inherent efficacy that detects unbelief and convicts it: it is not only effectual in saving, but in condemning also. It is the same Gospel power of God which is a savour of death unto death, and a savour of life unto life. (2 Cor. 2:16) The Scriptural doctrine of the Divine Word as the means of grace will not allow it ever to be made of none effect. (Matt. 15:6) It is an instrument that never fails. Regarded as the Word spoken to mankind, it cannot be without its power. The Spirit is never absent from the Word: in it He lives and moves, and through it He sheds an infinite variety of influences on all who either reject or receive it. Regarded as the means of grace within the Church, it has a sacred, specific, and always present grace accompanying every truth and every promise. The Spirit is in the Truth, as the virtue was and is in Christ: ready for impartation to every touch of faith. The self-evidencing energy of the Bible is its sure credential. No living man can say that it has utterly failed to find him out, and move his inmost being, and work upon his deepest convictions.
The Spirit is never absent from the Word: in it He lives and moves, and through it He sheds an infinite variety of influences on all who either reject or receive it.
II. It will be enough to indicate some more or less prevalent errors belonging to two entirely opposite types.
[Error] 1. There has never been wanting a tendency to make the Scriptures sufficient of themselves, without any supernatural accompanying influence, to effect the salvation of men. The ancient Pelagians and semi-Pelagians regarded the Word of God as the intellectual and moral discipline which best suits the spiritual nature of man, its honest use leading sincere inquirers to perfection. As human nature retains its original elements unimpaired, its natural powers are supposed to be sufficient under the influence of truth to guide to salvation. Modern Rationalism has the same general estimate of the Word of God: not regarding it as in any specific sense the means of grace, but only as one among many instruments of moral discipline.
[Error] 2. The highest mysticism of every age seeks through means to rise above means and become dead to them. To the more Scriptural mystics of every communion the Word is to be valued by its substance of truth; which exerts its influence upon the mind, but only in order to raise it to the higher intuition of God. Meditation on the principles and truths of the Word leads to Contemplation which leaves all words, thoughts, and images behind. This is the line beyond which mysticism becomes unsafe.
[Error] 3. The doctrine which makes the Divine sovereignty its supreme principle holds the Word to be the means of an absolute and irresistible grace. Whatever effect it produces is produced by the effectual operation of One who cannot be resisted. The Holy Ghost, as a personal Spirit, free in all His acts, and applying redemption only to those whose names are already written in the Book of Life, uses the Word to accomplish His purposes, or accomplishes them without it, as seemeth good to Him. When the Word is used, it is literally His Channel of grace to the souls predestined to salvation.
4. The doctrine which we hold combines all that is good is them, and rejects the evil. It gives a high, indeed the highest, place to the Scripture as the instrument of all grace. It pays its tribute to the Spirit Who alone makes it such. But it regards the Spirit’s operation as operating not simply and alone through the Word, but also in it and with it, for salvation.
Prayer, or communion with God, is not generally reckoned among the Means of Grace, technically so called. It is regarded rather as the concomitant of the others. But, while it is undeniably true that Prayer is a condition of the efficacy of other means, it is itself and alone a means of grace. In many respects, it is the highest, simplest, most universal, most comprehensive, and most effectual of these means.
1. It is the most universal. Wherever the creature is found, Ask and it shall be given you (Matt. 7:7) is the law that governs its relations to the Creator. The mediation of Christ, which embraces or wraps round the history of all mankind, has established this never-failing medium of communion between the Supreme and every human being. The constitution of nature is framed with reference to this law, and all the acts of Providence suppose it. No philosophical speculations can avail to disturb the original ordinance, though none can avail to explain it. In the whole compass of the Word of God the question never rises as to the difficulty of adjusting the fixed economy of things to this everlasting interference with it: in fact, this everlasting interference is part of the fixed economy. However much the question may be argued, here is the very last word on the subject. The Personal God is the Hearer and Answerer of prayer: as His existence is always postulated and never proved, so His regulation of all things on earth according to the Pre-established Harmony of petition and supply is taken for granted throughout. Prayer is the eternal medium of grace, as grace is distinguished from gifts that are bestowed independently of the creature’s will: though, strictly speaking, much of that grace is independent also.
The Personal God is the Hearer and Answerer of prayer.
2. It is all-pervading. The Word by which man lives is made the channel of blessing when its promises are pleaded in prayer. Sacraments derive from this their efficacy. And it is adapted to all conditions of life; private, social, and common prayer open and keep open their several channels into the individual soul, the family, and the congregation. But, while prayer pervades all other means, it extends beyond them all. There is no moment of life, there is no occupation, nor can the petitioning spirit be found in any place, where the turning of the soul to God may not be attended by the full virtue of this everlasting ordinance.
3. Hence we see the importance of uniting the Word and Prayer most closely as the abiding, pre-eminent, and essential means of grace. They do not disparage the other means; but must not by them be superseded.