What the Means of Grace Have to Do with Jesus

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The idea of the “means of grace” refers to divinely instituted means by which we can grow spiritually and includes all the ways God uses to extend His grace into our lives so that we become more like Him. Another way of putting this is that the means of grace conform us to the image of Jesus Christ—the goal of the Christian life. The concept is rooted in Scripture, though the phrase “means of grace” arises in later Christian tradition. It is taught in question #68 of the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism and in ­question #154 of the 1647 Westminster Catechism. Indeed, the phrase “means of grace” has a long history in both Roman Catholic and Puritan theology. But in the ­eighteenth century, John Wesley made it central to the process of sanctification among the people called Methodists. Prayer and reading God’s Word lead Wesley’s list, among others like fasting and taking the Eucharist, serving the poor, and so forth.

It is vital to point out as a foundational truth that Jesus Christ is the fountainhead of all the means of grace. In the opening pages of his sermon “The Means of Grace,” Wesley warns us all not to confuse the means of grace with either the source or the end of grace. The means separated from the end is “less than nothing and vanity.” In fact, Wesley says that doing a lot of religious activity in and of itself is to turn “God’s arms against himself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in.” In other words, there is no inherent power—like some kind of magic—in the means of grace, even though God ordained them, because we cannot confuse the means for the end. There are many means of grace, but only one end of grace; namely, Christ Himself. And there is only one source of grace—the triune God, though our focus here will be upon Christ as the central means of grace. So, the means of grace do not begin with what we do but who He is, lest we get off on the wrong track at the outset. This is why our text for this chapter is Colossians 1:15–23 and the following section is called The Preeminence of Jesus Christ. In practicing the means of grace, we are to be seeking Jesus.

The Preeminence of Jesus Christ

Colossians 1:15–20 (Christ Hymn) and 21–23 (Admonition)

The passage found in Colossians 1:15–20 is likely an early creedal hymn about Christ that Paul inserts into this part of his letter. There are quite a few of these creedal hymns in the New Testament (including Luke 1:47–55; 68–79; ­2:29–32; Heb. 1:5–12; Eph. 5:14; 2 Tim. 2:11–13; and Rev. 4:8, 11; 5:9–10, 12–13). So, we have right in the New Testament a glimpse of very early Christology from the earliest hymns of the church. Isn’t it wonderful how the early church would embed doctrine and theology together in an act of worship?

This hymn (vv. 15–20) celebrates Christ’s supremacy over creation and redemption. We become sharers in His preeminence and glory because we are “in Christ.” The last few verses, 21–23, are the application of the hymn to our lives, and this is precisely how I will use this early hymn in this chapter.

There are many suggestions about the background of this hymn, but I think the most convincing explanation is that this is a Christological hymn written in light of the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2. In other words, it is the creation account from Genesis set as an act of worship that puts Christ at the center of both creation and redemption. The hymn makes five central affirmations about Christ and one grand proclamation to undergird all the others.

1. Christ is the image of the invisible God—v. 15
2. Christ is the firstborn over all creation—v. 15
3. Christ is the creator and sustainer of all things—vv. 16–17
4. Christ is the head of the church—v. 18
5. Christ is the reconciler of all things—v. 20

Because He is the Lord of both creation (vv. 15–17) and redemption (vv. 18, 20), we have woven in with these five the summative statement of them all in verse 19, which declares that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This full-throated declaration of the deity of Christ is repeated in Colossians 2:9, so I don’t see this as just another declaration in the list but the very foundation that makes the other five possible. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh.

This passage (with these central five affirmations plus the grand proclamation) forms one of the most important bedrock Christological passages in the New Testament. This hymn was crucial in the discussions leading up to the formal understanding of who Christ is by the early church. In this chapter I will focus on the first, second, and fifth of these.

Christ Is the Image of the Invisible God—v. 15

Christ has made the invisible God fully visible and manifest. The apostle John makes this point in his gospel when he declares that “no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). This hymn takes it a step further by declaring that Jesus is the perfect image or reflection of God. The doctrine of the image of God is foundational to the creation account: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female, he created them” (Gen. 1:26–27). The phrase “image of God” is applied to no other creative act of God other than the creation of man and woman. This separates us from the rest of creation. We represent God’s imprint, His presence in the world. To be created in the image of God means, among other things, that we have been called to be ­coregents with God in extending (via our faithful stewardship and dominion) His rule and reign into the world. But, as image-bearers we have marred that image and exchanged our dominion role for one that places us in bondage to sin. The phrase “image of God” is never mentioned in the Old Testament after Genesis 9:6. Now, in Christ, the image of God has been fully restored and made manifest in Christ who reflects the image of God in a singular way. Because Christ is fully God and fully man, He not only reflects God’s ­revelation of Himself to us but also shows us what we are destined to be as image-bearers. Jesus is the revelation of both God and man to us!

This is the crucial bridge upon which all the means of grace are focused to conform you and me as image-bearers (marred by sin) into the full image of Christ (free from the bondage of sin). Therefore, the means of grace have been given to us to fully restore the image of God in us. The means of grace are God’s great mirror repair job!

The image of God explodes afresh in the New Testament, but it is now focused on Christ as the image of God. It is not just here in Colossians 1:15 but also in 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Romans 8:29. From the recommissioning of Noah until the coming of Christ, the image of God is portrayed through a kind of anti-image, where we are not regarded as image-bearers but as idol-bearers. The Old Testament is filled with the phrases “false image,” “graven image,” “idolatrous image,” and so forth. But doesn’t a false image imply that there must be a true one, of which this is a departure? The image that idolatry mars is the image of God. We who were made in the image of God have turned and are fashioning false images of God, using stone, wood, metal, and eventually bank accounts or whatever else we reflect and value. All idolatry is a kind of anti-image bearing. The means of grace are designed to deliver you and me from all idolatry and fully restore the image of God in us.

Our text reminds us that Jesus Christ is the image of God in human flesh. Christ comes as a second Adam (Rom. 5:12–21), and He comes, in part, to fully restore the image of God, which has been mangled and severely damaged through idolatry. In the New Testament, the whole notion of the image of God is applied supremely to Jesus Christ, who is the ultimate visible representation of the invisible God of the universe. As the fullness of deity, Jesus perfectly images God in all His fullness, but as the fullness of humanity, Jesus perfectly shows us what it means to bear God’s image in our redeemed humanity. The New Testament teaches that Jesus in both His deity and His full humanity manifests the true, unbroken image of God because the two natures of Christ—His humanity and His deity—are united in the one person. You cannot separate them. God has stepped into this world. We call this the incarnation. G. K. Chesterton once famously said that even those who reject the doctrine of the incarnation are different for having heard of it. It is in Christ that the entire broken world is refashioned and, once again, restored to reflect God’s image. As the perfect image of God, Jesus Christ completes the original vocation of humanity and thereby shows us who we were originally intended to be. Christ is God’s image in the world, fully active, fully alive, in a way we have not seen since the dawn of creation. The means of grace are given to conform us back to that unmarred image seen in the restored humanity of Christ as the second Adam.

Christ Is the Firstborn over All Creation—v. 15

This phrase has caused great confusion in the church, because calling Christ the “firstborn” seems, on a superficial reading, to undermine traditional, orthodox Christology that affirms the preexistence of Christ from all eternity (Heb. 1:6; Rev. 1:5). What does it mean to affirm that He is the “firstborn over all creation”? The term ­firstborn is used in a way it would be understood by a Jew in the first century. The term appears 130 times in the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. A survey of those 130 times reveals that there are two ways it is used. The first, obvious way, is a biological firstborn child who is born and is temporally prior to other children who are born in a family. But the second way is a declared title, a manifest position that has nothing to do with biology. For example, in Psalm 89:27 God says of David, “I will make him the firstborn” (i.e., David is granted an exalted position and a greater inheritance symbolized by firstborn even though he is not God’s biological offspring at all, nor the biological firstborn of his own family, having seven older brothers). Thus, one could be “appointed” or “declared” a firstborn as a title or position.

The phrase “firstborn over all creation” has three dimensions to it. First, it refers to the special prerogative given to the eternally begotten Son. As the firstborn son he is granted an inheritance, one aspect of which is that he is the Lord over the creation. When the Bible uses a word like firstborn, it does not mean that there was a time when the Son of God did not exist. It means rather that He is granted the inheritance of the whole creation, including all the nations, as the eternal Son of God and is therefore eternally begotten.

Second, the word firstborn is also shorthand for the doctrine of the incarnation, and this does have a temporal aspect to it. As the incarnate one, He did take on human flesh in real time and space, born as the God-man through the womb of Mary. God became a man—with no compromise in the full force of that declaration! God in Jesus Christ enters into the creation of His own making. As Adam was in a certain respect the firstborn of the first creation, Jesus Christ, as the second Adam, is the firstborn over the new creation.

Third, the phrase is also shorthand for His status as the resurrected one; He is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Jesus Christ is the first to be resurrected as we will all someday be resurrected. Therefore, Jesus is the firstborn of this new redeemed humanity. Our resurrection is all linked to His resurrection since He is the head, the firstfruits, and firstborn of the redeemed community.

Just as Christ reclaims and makes manifest what it means to be in the unblemished image of God and the means of grace are given to reconform us to the image of God, so, too, Christ being declared the “firstborn over creation” is about us reclaiming our rightful inheritance in Christ. In the Old Testament, being a firstborn son carried a special place of privilege with special claims to inheritance. In the incarnation God sends His firstborn Son, Jesus Christ—the only begotten one—to earth to reclaim His lost children and adopt us as His sons and daughters, declaring us all to have the inheritance of firstborn sons because we are now in Christ. Romans 8:23 declares that we are awaiting our full adoption as sons by which we can claim our full inheritance. Hebrews 12:23 calls us “the assembly of the firstborn.”

If you are a woman reading these passages, it is good and right for you to celebrate that you are an elect daughter of the Most High God. But, as a woman, you are still a full inheritor of the claims of sonship, which is bound up with Christ’s title as the firstborn. All women are declared inheritors of sonship, even as they are also daughters. Women are “daughtered sons.” Men, also, though we are biologically sons, are full members of the bride of Christ. My being a male no more robs me of being part of the bride of Christ than being a woman robs our female readers of being part of the inheritance of sonship as part of the theology of the firstborn. It is not about biology but a declared status about our inheritance. God is beyond human gender, but He uses the relational language of fatherhood and sonship in order to communicate His redemptive purposes. If you are in Christ, you are inheritors of all the inheritance that Christ embodies and the means of grace have been given so that every one of you can claim your inheritance.

Christ Is the Reconciler of All Things—v. 20

In Colossians 1:19 Paul says, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” He repeats it in Colossians 2:9—“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” which is the grand takeaway or central theme that makes all the others possible. The fifth and final declaration is that Christ is the reconciler of all things. Jesus is the fountainhead of cosmic reconciliation. Paul says in 1:20 that God is working “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” Just as there are three dimensions to Christ’s title as firstborn, there are three dimensions to His work of cosmic reconciliation.

First, it is an eschatological, or “end time” statement, pointing to the end point in human history when God will set all things right. Even those opposed to Him will eventually acknowledge His lordship in the way we see expressed in the famous passage in Philippians: “Every knee should bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10–11).

Second, it is a truth declaration like the angels on the day of resurrection: “He is not here, He is risen.” The Colossians hymn declares a cosmic truth to the world that Jesus is the reconciler. Paul is speaking about what is, not about the myriad ways people may or may not reflect this truth.

Third, it is a long-view, aspirational, historical statement. Even in the face of the unbelieving world, Paul is anticipating the global mission of the church, which will bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. The gospel is, at heart, a message of reconciliation! All three of these dimensions celebrate the supremacy of Christ’s identity as the fountainhead and sole source of God’s work of reconciliation.

The means of grace are not just about what God does in your heart. They are also enabling you to embody reconciliation. Many of you are carrying around inside of you deep hurts, disappointments, betrayals. We all see the challenges of racism in the world. This has given birth to anxiety, anger, the inability to trust anyone, cynicism, and for some, a foreboding sense of despair. The means of grace move us toward reconciliation, with our past, our parents, all races of people, and all those with whom we have a broken relationship, and most of all, with God Himself.

Christ came into this world for you. Listen to Paul’s words of application after the end of this amazing Colossians hymn: “He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (1:22). The whole universe is moving toward reconciliation. God is the victor over all the world’s brokenness and all the ways we mar the image of God. The means of grace are given for that very purpose.

So, in summary, Jesus Christ is the means of grace through which we become conformed, once again, to the image of God. The means of grace enable us to fully claim our inheritance “in Christ” through which we are sharers in the full rights of the firstborn. And the means of grace enable us to move from being alienated from God to being reconciled to God and one another.

Did you enjoy this entry? One of our latest resources, Seeking Jesus: Finding Life in the Means of Grace by Timothy Tennent, reminds us that the purpose of the means of grace is to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ. We pray because, in praying, we become more like Jesus. We worship and we do works of mercy because Jesus modeled this consistently and perfectly. Seeking Jesus through the means of grace helps us fulfill our vocation to become the image of God in our world—not by self-striving but by allowing Christ to be formed in us.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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