Quite simply, baptism and communion are separate from grace and are not a means to it. The rituals of the church do not confer grace, and they cannot merit salvation. It would be more proper to say the ordinances are the signs of grace, not the means of grace.
Water baptism is not a means of grace; it is the outward expression of an inner change. It is an act of obedience after salvation has occurred. The examples of water 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). Crucial to our salvation is faith in the heart, not water on the skin.
Communion or the Lord’s Supper is not a means of grace; it 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 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 and not a means of grace: “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). The danger in saying that God’s grace comes to us through a “means” or a “channel” of human activity is that it subtly mixes works with grace, something Paul warned against in Romans 11:6. The teaching that grace comes through baptism or communion is a sacramental view of the ordinances, and it undermines the meaning of grace. Grace is a free gift bestowed on the underserving. Sacramentalism says, “Unless you do these things, you don’t get the grace.” And that’s tantamount to saying you must earn salvation.
The Roman Catholic Church claims to teach salvation by grace; however, Catholicism tempers that doctrine by also teaching that God’s grace is channeled through the sacraments. In other words, baptism and the Eucharist are two of the means of grace—through those rituals God gives the grace to eventually save a person. Receiving the sacraments will merit God’s grace; no sacraments, no grace.
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.” Any time we add human effort to Christ’s work on the cross, we imply that Jesus’ death was somehow, in some degree, insufficient to save.
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. They are not means of grace.
Religion always seeks a work to do. But Jesus is our rest (Matthew 11:28; Hebrews 4:10). His finished work on the cross and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit in the heart are what saves. 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).