Waiting “in the means of grace”: Wesleyan catechesis, part 2March 30th, 2011
The last blog explored how we cannot begin the road to catechesis until we first recognize God’s prior action in our lives. For Wesleyans this is normally captured in the doctrine of prevenient grace. This is that grace which “goes before” or “leads the way” whereby God acts to free our human will from the bondage of depravity (non posse non peccare) so that we can then freely choose according to God’s will.
It is here that Wesley inserts 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” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace). 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 freed 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.”
We learn through this that catechesis for Wesley is fundamentally relational. It is about drawing us near to Christ himself. In Wesley’s journal we read about a time in his life where 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.” This captures well the next step in Wesleyan catechesis; namely, waiting for God in the means of Grace, not outside the means of grace. So, brothers and sisters, however you “feel” keep reading, keep listening, keep praying, and keep coming to the Lord’s Table.
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