Question: "Are baptism and communion means of grace?"
Answer: Quite simply, baptism and communion are separate from grace and are not a means to it. It would be more proper to say the ordinances of the church are the signs of grace, not the means of grace.
Baptism is the outward expression of an inner change. It is an act of obedience after salvation has occurred. The examples of baptism in Scripture all show that baptism happened after the person was born again (e.g., Acts 8:26–39). Being immersed in water (or being sprinkled with water) cannot change a person’s heart; that is the Spirit’s work. “The Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Communion is a memorial of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice and a picture of our fellowship with Him. At the Last Supper, when our Lord shared the Passover with the disciples, He said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Jesus was telling them (and us) not to forget His sacrifice on the cross. It was Christ’s death that provided for the remission of mankind’s sin. There is never a word in Scripture about forgiveness or saving grace being applied through taking communion.
Paul also bears out the fact that communion is a memorial: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Eating the bread and drinking the cup are acts of obedience to the Lord, but they not a means of grace.
Grace, by definition, is free. It cannot be earned (Romans 6:23). Grace is the blessing of God bestowed on the undeserving, and it is by grace that we undeserving sinners obtain everlasting life. Salvation comes not by anything we could ever do, but by the finished work of Christ (John 19:30). Because of our sin nature, we can never be good enough to satisfy God’s holy standard. It is only by accepting Jesus’ atoning sacrifice at Calvary that we are, by grace, redeemed.
The Roman Catholic Church claims to teach that salvation is by the grace of God; however, Catholicism also teaches that God’s grace is channeled through the sacraments. In other words, baptism and the Eucharist are the “means” by which God gives us the grace to eventually be saved. Performing the sacraments will merit God’s grace; no sacraments, no grace.
This doctrine is just another form of salvation by works. The Bible does not teach that a human priest or a ceremony holds inherent power to forgive sin. Quite the contrary. “Power belongs to God” (Psalm 62:11), and “with [God] there is forgiveness” (Psalm 130:4). And “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law” (Romans 3:20).
To teach that we are saved by grace is biblical. But to then qualify that teaching by requiring a ceremonial “means of grace” is double-talk. The biblical definition of grace specifically excludes human effort: “If by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). If grace only comes via religious deeds we perform, then it cannot truly be called “grace.”
Thus, grace and works are mutually exclusive. Baptism is a work. Receiving communion is a work. We are not saved by works (Ephesians 2:8). Those who have been saved by grace will obey the Lord—saved people will be baptized, and saved people will take communion. In this way, the ordinances are “signs of grace”—evidences of a new life.
Religion always seeks a work to do. But Jesus is our rest (Matthew 11:28; Hebrews 4:10). Some men came to Jesus once and asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28). Jesus’ did not tell them to be baptized or to take communion. Rather, Jesus pointed to faith as the only “means of grace”: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29).