Article 17: God's Use of Means in Regeneration
Just as the almighty work of God by which he brings forth and sustains our natural life does not rule out but requires the use of means, by which God, according to his infinite wisdom and goodness, has wished to exercise his power, so also the aforementioned supernatural work of God by which he regenerates us in no way rules out or cancels the use of the gospel, which God in his great wisdom has appointed to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul. For this reason, the apostles and the teachers who followed them taught the people in a godly manner about this grace of God, to give him the glory and to humble all pride, and yet did not neglect meanwhile to keep the people, by means of the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the administration of the Word, the sacraments, and discipline. So even today it is out of the question that the teachers or those taught in the church should presume to test God by separating what he in his good pleasure has wished to be closely joined together. For grace is bestowed through admonitions, and the more readily we perform our duty, the more lustrous the benefit of God working in us usually is and the better his work advances. To him alone, both for the means and for their saving fruit and effectiveness, all glory is owed forever. Amen.
Article seventeen, although lengthy, simply reminds us that the Scriptures themselves connect the divinely appointed ends (the salvation of God's elect) with the divinely appointed means–the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.
Therefore, as Christians, we must not only believe the correct things about God and his grace as taught us in his word, but that we must also ever be on our guard not to separate that which God has joined together. God does not effectually call his elect to faith in Christ, nor does he give us the new birth, through any means other than those which he has prescribed in his word.
This means that there is a spiritual marriage between divinely appointed means and ends, a marriage in which we dare not attempt to divide what God has so clearly joined together. This, of course, was the error of the Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation, who sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit apart from the text of Holy Scripture, the same error made by many Charismatics and Pentecostals today. Everything we need to know about how God saves sinners has been revealed in God's word and is confirmed through the two divinely appointed sacraments.
Since the Holy Spirit works in and through the word and the sacraments, we must seek God to do the things he has promised to do through the means which he has prescribed, and only through the means he has prescribed. This is why the Canons contend that “it is out of the question that the teachers or those taught in the church should presume to test God by separating what he in his good pleasure has wished to be closely joined together.”
We cannot expect God’s blessing if we divorce the work of the Spirit from the word, or expect the Spirit to work apart from the word and sacraments. This is not to say that God cannot work outside of these means (and ordinarily he does not), but that he has bound himself to these particular means. We can expect God’s blessings only if we trust in God’s promise, power, grace and mercy, and reject all humanly devised efforts and techniques.
Therefore, when all is said and done, we are left with the two things God has prescribed—word and sacrament. These are the weapons and instruments of our spiritual warfare. When we trust in the power of God to work in and through the means he has prescribed, there we will see God advance his kingdom. Let no man divide that which God has joined together!