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.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Wesley and The Means of Grace

The means of grace are those spiritual disciplines that are described in Scripture and which have been practiced by people of faith for millennia. Wesley summarized them for the people called Methodist as works of mercy and works of piety. The works of mercy are doing no harm, avoiding evil, and doing all the good one can. Today these works of mercy may be described as acts of compassion and acts of justice. The works of piety include private and family prayer, searching the Scriptures, The Lord's Supper, the public worship of God, Christian conference, and fasting or abstinence.

Henry H. Knight III provides three categories that are useful for understanding the means of grace and their place in Christian life in the Wesleyan tradition:[1]


1. Universal obedience.
2. Keeping all the commandments.
3. Watching.
4. Denying ourselves.
5. Taking up our cross daily.
6. Exercise of the presence of God.


1. Prayer: private, family, public; consisting of deprecation, petition,
intercession, and thanksgiving; extemporaneous and written.

2. Searching the scriptures by reading, meditating, hearing, attending the ministry of the word, either read or expounded.
3. The Lord's Supper.
4. Fasting, or abstinence.
5. Christian conference, which includes both the fellowship of believers
and rightly ordered conversations which minister grace to hearers.


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.

The emphasis of this paper will be on the Instituted and Prudential means of grace and the relationship between them. They are disciplines Wesley practiced throughout his adult life. He found them to be the means given by God to enable all Christians to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12b-13). In other words, the means of grace listed above are given in order to help women and men to live out the commandments of Christ: "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength...You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30-31).

Wesley believed "first, the Christian life is most fundamentally lived as a response to God's love for us. To know God truly is to experience that love. Second, our love for God and our neighbor are core affections, emotions, or tempers which govern the Christian life."[2] The means of grace are the means to living out this love. As they are faithfully practiced, the relationships of love for God and for neighbor are nurtured. The Christian is formed as an individual and as a member of the community known as the Church. Through the means of grace God's love and our love become real, tangible, and visible through lives lived in the world and with in the community of the Church.

The means of grace draw us out of ourselves and into the world as channels of God's love. They form us, by grace, into the image and likeness of Christ. They draw us closer to one another in love. As we are drawn closer to our sisters and brothers and neighbors, we are drawn closer to Christ. This begs the question, "With whom does Christ explicitly identify himself? Among whom is Christ found to be living in every age?" The poor, the outcast, the weak, and the vulnerable. The means of grace teach us the love of God and neighbor and pulls us toward the people among whom God in Jesus Christ lives. Their ultimate purpose is to form us in such a way that we become capable of forming relationships of fellowship, service, and solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts of the world. This is how God would have us "work out our salvation."

This was the experience of John Wesley and the early Methodists. Wesley chose to live among the poor because he took Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25:31-46 seriously. He visited in their homes. He slept in their beds. He ate with them and tended to their needs when they were sick. "Wesley was, if nothing else, the theologian of experience. This did not mean for him a concentration upon isolated moments of interior religious excitement, but rather the immersion in lived experience, in the texture and duration of sensory involvement. If you want to know what love is, you live the life of love and reflect on the vicissitudes of this journey through time. Similarly, if one is to know something of poverty one must spend the time and energy to be with the poor and to appropriate what is encountered there."[3] Wesley eventually maintained that visiting the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned was as much a means of grace as prayer and receiving the Lord's Supper.[4] He saw ministry and life with and for the poor to be what Paul meant by "working out your salvation."

With such a heavy emphasis on the practice of the means of grace, are Wesley and the Methodists in danger of encouraging a form of "works righteousness?" Can the means of grace become a means for earning salvation? Yes, this is a danger. It emphasizes the importance of faithful teaching, preaching, and study of the Bible. It must be understood that the means of grace are simply that, "means" of grace and not grace itself. When they become means in and of themselves the focus moves from Christ and his righteousness to ourselves and our righteousness. "Grace is relational and personal, not mechanistic and institutional; means of grace do not in effect possess the Holy Spirit, but are means used by the Spirit."[5] The means of grace flow out a relationship with God. They serve to nurture and expand that relationship. They are the ways by which we make ourselves available to God and God's life-giving love in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The means of grace become mere formalism when practiced in the absence of such a relationship; or with little or no attention paid to such a relationship with the living God.

[1] Henry H. Knight III, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace, (Netuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992), 5.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., Good News to the Poor: John Wesley's Evangelical Economics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 53.

[4] Ibid., 54.

[5] Knight, 30.


Blogger Brett Royal said...

good thoughts

3:46 PM


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