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.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Basic Practices of Christian Faith 1: The Instituted Means of Grace


"Prayer, said Wesley, is 'the grand means of drawing near to God'; all other means are helpful 'as they are mixed with or prepare us for this.' Prayer thus pervades the other means of grace, as both preparation and content. But prayer also pervades the Christian life."[1] For Wesley prayer is the beginning and end of Christian life. It is the where we make ourselves available to God and God's grace that awakens the heart and moves the spirit to act as though Christ's life were our own. Without prayer there could be no Christian life or discipleship. As prayer, both private and public, opens us to God's gracious Spirit, it is the primary means for drawing us into first sympathy for, next service for, and finally solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and vulnerable. Prayer is the first means for awakening an awareness within us of where and with whom Christ lives and works in the world. It is the habit that moves the heart closer and closer to the heart of God in Jesus Christ. Prayer makes us susceptible to the good news that Christ has for the world through the poor. All the other means of grace derive their power from prayer.

Searching the scriptures by reading, meditating, hearing, attending the ministry of the word, either read or expounded is essential because the Bible is where we come into the presence of the God who is revealed in the Word. "The purpose of scripture for Wesley is stated in the preface to his sermons:

I want to know one thing, the way to heaven—how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri.

. . . scripture had primacy not only as an authority for theological reflection, but as a context which formed and shaped Christian life."[2] Scripture is, for Wesley, the heart of Christian life. He believed it to be the authentic word of God. Therefore, God's will and way for living is found within the pages of Scripture. The Bible is a gift from the living God given for the building up of God's people. As the word of God, Scripture is a means of grace, second only to prayer, because within its pages God and God's word, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is made available freely to everyone. As the word is read (or heard) and studied, it forms character and life into the image of Christ. All one needs do is open its pages and read. If one cannot read, one can listen to the word read to them.

Scripture is closely related to prayer because the one often leads people to the other. Reading Scripture often induces prayer as a response to the word. In fact, reading the prayers recorded in Scripture teaches one how to pray. Conversely, a disciplined life of prayer inevitably leads to disciplined reading and study of Scripture. Prayer and Scripture are closely related means of grace.


The Lord's Supper combines prayer, Scripture, and the breaking of bread as a means of grace that has the power to heal and transform. "For Wesley, the Lord's Supper invites an experience of faith which powerfully forms and shapes the affections, and a relationship with a God who freely gives God's own self out of love for sinners."[3] The sacrament tells the story of grace. In it is found the story of God's unlimited, universal, self-giving love for the world in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. In the broken bread and pungent wine the One who gave all he had, even his own life, to set all the world free from slavery to sin and death is re-presented. And, we are invited to become participants in God's grand project of salvation, liberation, healing, and transformation for the universe.

The Lord's Supper is an invitation to enter into the life of Christ for the world. It is a re-presentation of Christ's gracious life. "In the Lord's Supper God is experienced as the one who promises in faithfulness. A response of loving gratitude is evoked for this promise of new life, a response of joyful hope is evoked for both the expectation of present transformation and the assurance of feasting with God in the future kingdom."[4] Christ's offering of himself for the life of the world is an invitation for us to respond by offering us to Christ as channels of his grace in and for the world.

The Lord's Supper is "food for the journey." The bread and cup are offered to everyone who will receive it to fill them with the food they need to continue (or begin) their walk with Christ. In the bread and cup we take Christ's body and blood into our own bodies and blood. He becomes part of us and we take him into the world with us. His body and blood, represented in the bread and cup, connect us to all the generations of disciples that have gone before us. The Sacrament is our connection to Christ and the communion of saints who served as his faithful witnesses and passed the faith along from generation to generation. The Lord's Supper gives continuity to our discipleship by connecting us to our history in Christ. It gives life to the body and the spirit as it conveys prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.


Fasting, or abstinence, serve to focus the attention on the need for God. "Wesley identifies five grounds or reasons for fasting: sorrow for sin, bodily health, avoidance of excessive consumption, self-punishment, and as an aid to prayer. The union of fasting to prayer was especially important for Wesley, who saw it as a means

of confirming and increasing, not only virtue, not chastity only (as some have idly imagined without any ground either from Scripture, reason, or experience), but also seriousness of spirit, earnestness, sensibility and tenderness of conscience; deadness to the world, and consequently the love of God and every holy and heavenly affection.[5]

For Wesley, fasting is a means for removing barriers that we erect between ourselves and God. It is a real emptying of self that makes room for God and the Holy Spirit to replace sinful habits and attitudes with holy habits. Fasting is a means for maintaining a healthy orientation away from sin and toward the cross. It teaches self-denial and discipline that facilitates prayer and searching the Scripture.

Fasting is also one of the means of grace that helps create a concrete connection between the life of following Christ and living in solidarity with the poor. It allows those who practice it to experience some of the suffering and sorrow that are a normal part of the life of poverty; namely never having enough of what one needs for life and always feeling hunger. Fasting can lead to a life of simplicity. Wesley believed "fasting is the avoidance of excessive consumption of food, along with a 'carelessness and levity of spirit' and an increase in 'foolish and unholy desires, yea, unclean and vile affections' which accompany such consumption."[6] Fasting helps lead us away from dependence upon things and consumption of things, which can lead to idolatry, and leads us into a deeper relationship with Christ and the simplicity of his life. It can help set us free from our "stuff" so we can more faithfully, and without fear, draw closer to the poor. Fasting allows those who have more than enough to voluntarily give away what they have so that others may have what they need.


The last of the instituted means of grace important to Wesley and the Methodists is "Christian conference, which includes both the fellowship of believers and rightly ordered conversations which minister grace to hearers." Like the Lord's Supper, Christian conference is a corporate means of grace. Christian conference, a term rarely used today, is simply Christians gathering into groups for the purpose of mutual support and accountability. It is a fundamental expression of Christian tradition extending back to Jesus and the community of disciples he gathered around him. The first thing Jesus did as he began his public ministry was to call a group of disciples to share the load of mission and ministry God had given him (Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-42) Jesus knew the life to which God had called him could not be faithfully lived alone. He needed the support, love, prayers and accountability of others.

If this was true for Jesus, it is all the more true for ordinary human beings. Christian conference is simply the practice of living in Christian community. It is the acknowledgment that if we are to faithfully live in the world as disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need the company, support and love of others.

The most important expression of Christian conference for the Methodists was the Class Meeting. They were small groups within the Societies. Wherever Wesley preached and perceived his message had an effect on people in the crowd, he formed a society consisting of people desiring to "flee the wrath to come." This was the key to his success as a leader of an evangelical revival. He gave people a means of support and formation in their new-found Christian faith. The society was the means for organizing and forming people into Christians.

Each society was divided into smaller groups of up to twelve. In the class meetings women and men met together weekly. The group had an appointed leader (the Class Leader). Weekly meetings consisted of prayer, singing of hymns, reading of Scripture, and a time of examination during which each member was given an opportunity to share with the Leader their walk with Christ during the preceding week. The meeting was conducted by the class leader and the time of accountability guided by the General Rules.[7] Members received spiritual, emotional, and physical support while they were encouraged to be steadfast in their life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Henry Knight maintains: "The voluntary communities of Methodism were concerned with the maintenance and advancement of the Christian life. While they embodied ‘Christian conference,’ an instituted means of grace, Wesley continually called them prudential . . ."[8] The Societies and Class Meetings provide a connection between the Instituted Means of Grace with the Prudential Means of Grace.

[1] Knight, 116.

[2] Knight, 148-149.

[3] Ibid., 142.

[4] Ibid., 144.

[5] Ibid., 120-121.

[6] Ibid., 121.

[7] The General Rules are: 1. "By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced. . . . 2. By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their own power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all [people] . . . 3. By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are: The public worship of God. The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded. The Supper of the Lord. Family and private prayer. Searching the Scriptures. Fasting or abstinence. . . ." The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church

[8] Knight, 95.


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