Why is prayer a means of grace? This is an interesting question, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism simply states that prayer is a means of grace: “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation” (Q&A 88). But why? To give a true answer to this question, we must understand what is meant by a “means of grace.”
Theologians define the media gratia, or means of grace, as the channels by which God works His grace into our hearts. Like the pipes delivering the water into your home’s faucets from the local reservoir, God bestows the blessings of our salvation by using these “outward and ordinary means,” as the catechism states. Perhaps we see God’s use of means most clearly—and receive help in answering our question—by looking at the first two means that the catechism mentions, which are the Word of God and the sacraments.
By the preaching of the Word, the Lord brings salvation to sinners as His Spirit grants them faith to hear and believe (Rom. 10:17). He then further uses the Word to sanctify His people. As Paul told the Ephesian elders, “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32, emphasis added).
Likewise, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are instruments that the Lord uses to bring fully the benefits of salvation to His people. Clearly, we are not speaking of receiving salvation via participating in the works of the sacraments, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Rather, by faith already granted and justification already received, the Lord delivers to us the full benefits of our salvation in the sacraments. Our baptism is a sign and seal of the forgiveness of our sins (Acts 2:38). The Lord’s Supper is a “cup of blessing” that offers to us “participation in the blood of Christ” and “bread that we break” that is “a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16). Sanctifying and strengthening grace is experienced through the sacraments.
Coming then to prayer, we similarly see in Scripture that it is a channel through which our Father in heaven blesses us. The psalmist says,
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my plea for grace. (Ps. 86:6)
This simple yet profound heart cry shows the psalmist, much like the catechism answer above, assuming that prayer is a means for seeking grace. Yet to return to our question, why is prayer a means of grace? As Christians, we are to confidently draw near to the throne of grace where Christ our sympathetic High Priest is seated, knowing as we pray to Him that He will grant us grace in time of need (Heb. 4:15–16). Paul prayed that the church in Ephesus would be strengthened to know the boundless love of God (Eph. 3:14–19). Praying causes saints to grow into a spiritual community (Acts 2:42). Prayers for unbelievers are offered so that Christ might bring the grace of salvation to them (Rom. 10:1).
Prayer itself is dependent upon the Word of God. In breathing in the Word of God through hearing it preached or reading its wondrous truths, we are being filled with God’s Spirit. Then, as we pray, we are exhaling the Spirit’s words and God’s will back to the Lord. What a wonderful means of experiencing grace that makes prayer to be!