Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Basic Practices of Christian Faith 2: The Prudential Means of Grace

This is part 3 of 4 from my thinking on the relationship between the means of grace and ministry with the poor as essentials for faithful discipleship.

Knight differentiates between the instituted and prudential means of grace:

The instituted are those which are appointed by God as means of grace, . . . The instituted means belong to the universal church in all eras of history and in all cultures. In contrast, the prudential means of grace vary from age to age, culture to culture, and person to person; they reflect God's ability to use any means in addition to those instituted in accordance with different times and circumstances.[1]

As we look at the instituted means of grace we can see how the prudential means flow from them. The instituted means of grace lead to, inspire and empower the prudential. While the instituted means remain constant throughout history, they provide the foundation upon which the prudential means build faithful disciples within their particular times and cultures. The prudential means of grace are the practices that lead disciples most directly to encounter Christ in the world. Which is to say they lead disciples into the world of the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sick.

For Wesley the commonly held prudential means were:

1. Particular rules or acts of holy living.
2. Class and band meetings.
3. Prayer meetings, covenant services, watch night services, love feasts.
4. Visiting the sick.
5. Doing all the good one can, doing no harm.
6. Reading devotional classics and all edifying literature.

Each is derived from and informed by prayer and searching the Scriptures. The "particular rules or acts of holy living" were founded upon the acts of Jesus. The understanding of Wesley being that those seeking to be disciples of Jesus need to do what Jesus did and taught. The essential rules were the general rules cited above. In them is contained a practical summary of how to live out the commandments to love God and love the neighbor. It is also important to understand the rules were not intended to be proscriptive or legalistic. They were meant to serve as a guide for living; a sign that points beyond itself to a destination. The rules were a means for forming Christian character and holy habits. They were a means for helping disciples live in the presence of God.

The Class and band meetings were the place society members made sure their discipleship (as defined by the rules) happened. They were places for the mutual support and accountability needed to form Christian character. The class meetings and bands were intended to help the Methodists have the form and power of religion so that they could live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

Prayer meetings, covenant services, watch night services, and love feasts were occasional community building events that brought Methodists closer to one another through prayer and the reading of Scripture. They shared their struggles with each other, prayed for each other, shared faith stories, sang hymns, and celebrated together in the presence of God. One of the important purposes for these occasional events was to help the Methodists remember who they were and whose they were; they were beloved children of God chosen and called to love and be loved to be channels of divine grace for the world.

Visiting the sick and doing all the good one can were essential means of grace for Wesley:

. . . By whom is this duty to be performed? The answer is ready: By all that desire to "inherit the kingdom" of their Father, which was "prepared for them from the foundation of the world." For thus saith the Lord, "Come, ye blessed; – inherit the kingdom; – for I was sick, and ye visited me." And to those on the left hand, "Depart, ye cursed; – for I was sick, and ye visited me not." Does not this plainly imply, that as all who do this are "blessed," and shall "inherit the kingdom;" so all who do it not are "cursed," and shall "depart into everlasting fire?" [2]

Wesley saw visiting the sick and doing all the good one can as clear commands of Christ. They are implied in the commandments to love God and love the neighbor. And they are explicitly named by Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46. (A text Wesley took very seriously and which guided much of his ministry.) It is in Matthew 25 that we find Jesus explicitly identifying himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the ill clad, the sick and imprisoned. Not only does Jesus identify himself with them but he says our eternal salvation hinges on our treatment of them. Therefore, visiting the sick and doing good are not simply nice things we do when we feel like it. They are imperative to Christian life.

Here we have an explicit connection between practice of the means of grace and the imperative for ministry with poor. Jesus clearly states in Matthew 25 that when we feed the hungry, quench the thirst of the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned we are serving Christ himself. Christ is found among the poor, the strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Christ is alive and incarnate among the ones living at the margins of the world. The means of grace, when practiced in the spirit of Christ, within the body of Christ, will bring us to Christ who is in and among the poor.

The means of grace exist for us because we live in a broken world that is ruled by sin that distorts the righteousness and justice of God. Wesley, influenced by the writings of the Eastern Church, believed sin was like a contagion that has infected the universe.[3]

Like the West, Eastern theology from its beginning saw the Fall as a result of human preference to compete with God as God's equal rather than accepting our need for participating in the Divine gifts. However, they understood the results of the Fall differently. First, they rejected the idea of human posterity inheriting guilt from the Fall; we become guilty only when we imitate our Parent's sin. Second, they argued that the primary result of the Fall was the introduction of death and corruption into human life, and its subsequent dominion over humanity. Finally, while early Greek theologians clearly believed that the death and disease thus introduced have so weakened the human intellect and will that we can no longer hope to attain the Likeness of God on our own, they did not hold that the Fall deprived us of all grace, or of the accountability for responding to God's offer of restored communion in Christ. That is, a characteristic Eastern Christian affirmation of co-operation in diving/human interactions remains even after the Fall. In this sense, they base their anthropology more on Creation than on the Fall.[4]

Human beings are created in the image of God; to live in relationship with God as reflections of God's divine image and will. Sin distorts the human heart and soul, thus distorting the capacity to reflect the image of God. Consequently, human beings are rendered incapable of living in relationship with their Creator apart from grace. The natural, political, and moral image of God are corrupted and lead to make corrupt choices and decisions. The natural orientation of this distorted image is transferred from God to the self. Only grace has the power to renew the image of God and restore the proper orientation of the heart.[5] To the corrupt human heart that which is false becomes truth, that which is evil becomes good, that which is unjust becomes just. Wesley believed that only by grace, incarnate in Jesus Christ, can right relationship with God be restored.



[1] Knight, 3.

[2] John Wesley, "On Visiting the Sick," in The Works of Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. Thomas Jackson, 3rd ed., 14 vols. (London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872; reprinted Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers (Compact Disc), 1995), VII:123.

[3] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 65-67.

[4] Ibid., 66.

[5] Runyon, 14.

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