Means of Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an EvangelicalJuly 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.
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