Means of Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Second, I am a Methodist because I believe in the “means of grace.” John Wesley lived two centuries after the start of the Reformation. This gave him a unique perspective on the strengths and the weaknesses of the Reformation. On the positive side, Wesley was a strong supporter of the major emphases of the magisterial reformers. Wesley could affirm all the great solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. However, Wesley also understood that the restoration of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the emphasis on the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ in our salvation could, tragically, lead some in the church to adopt a more antinomian view regarding the life of holiness and the call to continue growing in Christ. Wesley saw that in the years since the invigorating message of the Reformation, the churches were doctrinally and theologically sound, but the lived experience of Christians was still at a very low ebb. Wesley responded by developing a more robust understanding of how God’s grace works throughout the life of a believer. He was a keen listener to the non-magisterial Reformers such as the pietists, as well as the earlier patristic Christians (eastern and western) who could assist him in this reflection. It is here that Wesley developed his views regarding the means of grace. Wesley defines the “means of grace” as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”1  Wesley goes on to identify three primary “means of grace” which God has given to us: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper. Now, quite a wide array of Christian groups accepts the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace.” They are widely understood as the general means by which Christians grow stronger in their faith and grow in the grace of Christ. In other words, they are God’s instruments to sanctify us. However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace. What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also preventing (prevenient), and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith. Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” have no power in themselves to save anyone. Rather, they have the power to convey all forms of grace precisely because Christ himself is present in prayer, in the reading of Scripture, and in the Lord’s Supper. So, for Wesley, there is no such thing as an autonomous person reading Scripture, or praying, or taking the Lord’s Supper. These are all done in the presence of the Risen Christ. Remember, Christ is the only true “means of grace.” The customary “means of grace” are given to the church as channels to Christ himself. So, we should exercise our free wills and avail ourselves of the full range of the “means of grace.” Wesley encouraged people to wait in the means of grace, not outside them. He wrote, “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.”2

Wesley conveys a deep reliance upon Christ not only in coming to faith, but in remaining in the faith. In Wesley’s journal he records a time in his life when he felt a complete lack of faith. He writes about it on March 4, 1738 (remember, Wesley’s heartwarming experience at Aldersgate does not occur until May 24, 1738). Wesley decided to quit preaching because, he reasoned, “how can you preach to others when you have no faith yourself.” Wesley asked his good friend Peter Böhler if he should give up preaching. Böhler famously replied, “Preach faith till you have it; and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”3  This captures well the importance of waiting in the means of grace, not outside the means of grace.

1. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Sermon 16, II.1, Means of Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 187.

2. Ibid., Sermon 16, III.1, Means of Grace, 190.

3. Ibid., vol. 1, 2, Journals from October 14, 1735 to November 29, 1745, Journal entry, Saturday, March 4, 1738, 86.

Comments

  • Jim Bradshaw says:

    Thank you, Dr. Tennent, for your articles on why you are a Methodist and Evangelical. I am a double dipped ATS graduate, grateful to God for my theological education and for my roots in United Methodism. As much as I appreciate, understand and believe the truths you wrote in these three articles, I personally could no longer argue why I am a Methodist and Evangelical. This is because saying such in my view misses the Kingdom prayer that Jesus gave his disciples in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, and also disregards the prayer Jesus prays in John 17. Although we will always need scaffolding (organization) in the life of the Church that Jesus is building until the perfect day, we must be careful that the scaffolding builds upon the Mountain of the Lord (Isaiah 2) whereby with one voice (the kerygma – Acts 2) we make one sound to the nations. Currently, our denominational and independent (too often divisive) reality undermines the best (One Church) with the good that each denomination/independent work presents in the ministry of the gospel. I believe the Gospel of the Kingdom (the kerygma) must be re-discovered, recovered and restored to the Church today with true apostolic understanding (the teaching/tradition/doctrine of the Apostles). One example of this need is the predominant emphasis of personal salvation (in evangelical circles) over God’s Kingdom plan of restoration. No one stream of Christianity has all the goods. And, convergence is not the answer either. There is so much more to discuss, but your blog stirred up these thoughts to share with you and your readers.

  • In a document posted on UMC.org, I found the following line under “The Repentance of Believers” by John Wesley.
    “And this repentance and faith are full as necessary, in order to our continuance and growth in grace, as the former faith and repentance were, in order to our entering into the kingdom of God.”

    From your post: “Christ is the only true ‘means of grace’.”

    Being a full believer of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, a formula came to mind:
    JC(R>HS>G)JC
    In the formula above, Jesus Christ leads us to repentance. Repentance opens the doors to the Holy Spirit. Once the Holy Spirit is in, Grace develops. As a result, our grace is rejoiced in Jesus Christ.
    If Grace is the same as the Holy Spirit, then I have to rethink the formula above.

    Blessings,
    Jeannie Belgrave
    MDiv Student
    Asbury Theological Seminary

  • Tom1st says:

    Genuine question here: By this rule, should we allow unbelievers who are ‘seeking’ to be permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper so that they can wait ‘inside’ the means of grace?

    Or am I missing something?

  • JAy. says:

    Another reason I love being a Methodist as well.

    In response to Tom1st, yes, and most Methodist churches I have attended state the requirement for communion to be “a desire to be in communion with Christ” (or similar wordings). Admittedly, this can create concerns, but I find the biggest concern to be children who are to young to follow the service and understand that Communion is more than “snack” or “crackers and juice” (both quotes from friends’ children).

    Conversely, the closed Communion was one of the main reasons I felt disillusioned with the Catholic church in which I was raised. God is present for all; God’s forgiveness is available to all. Who is the church to determine who can participate in something meant to bring us closer to God?

  • Mark Royster says:

    Wesley probably held the same standard for admission to Holy Communion as he did for admission to the class meetings, a sincere “desire to flee the wrath to come.” While the Anglican invitation to Holy Communion demands a repentant, intentional heart, and right relationships in the horizontal domain, it does not require conversion or the experience of saving faith: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbors and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in His holy ways, draw near and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort…”

    Wesley’s sermon on the Means of Grace assumes that the one using them is sincerely seeking, and waiting patiently for, the gift of saving faith. In this waiting Wesley differs from many evangelicals who would simply claim 1 John 1:9 or Romans 10:9,10 and consider it done, “by faith.”. But Wesley believed saving faith came when God gave it, not when people asked for it, no doubt drawing from his own experience of prolonged seeking prior to May 24th.

    This idea of waiting for the gift of salvation was also part of the American holiness tradition and the methods of the camp meetings and long-running revivals, where “mourners” would continue to seek salvation night after night, until the blessing came. Similarly, evangelists would often stay in town as long as was necessary to get the work done.

    There is a significant difference between the understanding of saving faith as a gift from God vs. a human choice. Wesley, I think, would have balked at the “decision for Christ” terminology of most evangelicals, though most Methodist have now adopted the decision model.

    Much depends on one’s view of prevenient grace. Does it enable the sinner to repent, or does it give the him/her the power to exercise saving faith? Wesley always saw saving faith as a gift received by the penitent when God gave it, often after weeks, even months of seeking. The design of the class meeting was compatible with this understanding, in the same way that the modern altar call fits the decision-for-Christ idea. The latter assumes that salvation happens more or less instantly in the moment the person drawn by the Spirit “accepts Christ.” Wesley constructed the class meetings to function more like the incubators to nurture what was often a more protracted process, supported and strengthened by the means of grace.

  • [...] “salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the sinner.” Means of Grace – Remaining in faith and avoiding antinomianism. Conversion – transformation [...]