Wesley’s Greatest Hits: The Means of Grace
Luke 18:1-7; Malachi 3:6-7
If there is one word that more than any other sums up Wesleyan theology, that word would be “grace.” While other pastors and theologians of his day preached of the wrath and judgment of God to frighten people into the pews of the churches, Wesley took a different approach. The grace of God, he said, should so overwhelm us that we respond willingly out of love. Which is not to say Wesley didn’t believe in a judgment day and the consequences of failing to believe in, and follow, Christ. As we learned last week, Wesley very much believed in the need to respond to Christ and accept Christ as Lord and Savior. But faith should come from an understanding of God’s grace and love, not from fear. We can read or hear about God’s love, but how can we truly understand and experience the depth of love God has for us? Is that even possible? For the next few weeks, we’re focusing on “Wesley’s Greatest Hits,” that is, hearing in today’s language some of John’s best-known sermons, containing his thoughts on what he considered to be the most important aspects of our faith. Today’s sermon: The Means of Grace.
What does the gospel tell of us grace? Are there any means ordained of God as the channels of his grace, that is, outward means ordained by Christ by which he conveys his grace into our souls? From the beginning of the church, the answer has been “yes.” Those first followers engaged in a constant practice of gathering together, sharing with one another, learning from the teaching of the apostles, breaking bread together, and praying with and for one another. But in the process of time, some began to mistake the means for the end, to place religion in the routine of doing certain things than in a heart renewed after the image of God. They have forgotten that the end of every commandment is love, out of a pure heart, with a wild, wide-open faith that comes from loving God with all their heart and their neighbor as themselves. Those who observe religion out of a sense of obligation rather than love are so far from receiving the blessing that comes to children of God. Outward religion is worth nothing without the religion of the heart, a heart devoted to God. Those who truly worship do not engage in external worship which is a lost or wasted labor; instead, their worship comes from inside, experiencing the grace of God in themselves. For those whom worship is a labor, they feel the weight of their sins a heavy burden. They are impatient at their present sense and want to escape from it and have probably tried any new proposal of ease of happiness and have found no relief – instead, they have just found more remorse, more fear, more sorrow, and more condemnation. They become weary of trying, and so they just stop.
How can we experience the love of God in a way that leads to relief and joy and peace? The answer is by means of grace, the channels by which God conveys to us prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace and the channels by we become convinced of God’s love. These means of grace have been used in the Christian church for many ages, and the chief of these means are prayer, searching the Scriptures, receiving the Lord’s Supper, and others by which we convey God’s grace to others. It is important, however, that we understand these are nothing, less than nothing really, if we do them out of a sense of subservience to religion, thinking our salvation comes from the observance of them. That is an abuse of the means of grace that will lead to the destruction of our souls. It is the form of godliness without the power. It will lead them to presume they are Christians because they do these things when, in fact, Christ has never been in their hearts. Every true believer in Christ is deeply convinced there is no merit in these works alone – no merit in prayer, in reading the Bible or hearing the Word of God, in Holy Communion, or in anything else – unless they are the result of love.
The foundation of our faith is that by grace we are saved, saved from our sins and from guilt and restored to the favor and image of God. Observing the means of grace which I am about to discuss will not save us. Engaging in these means of grace will not atone for a single sin; forgiveness for sin comes through the blood of Christ alone. Praying, reading the Bible, doing good – none of these make us Christian. Nor are they the only means by which God is able to extend His grace to us. But the main issue still remains. We know salvation comes only by faith, but what are the best means by which we might gain in power, wisdom, and strength when it comes to our faith? The answer is to wait upon God and in the waiting do all we can to grow in closeness to, and understanding of, God.
First and foremost, while we wait on God to give us a deeper faith, we are to wait in prayer. Jesus, at the end of his great sermon we know as the Sermon on the Mount, said: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asks, receives; and he that seeks, finds; and to him that knocks, the door shall be opened.” If we would receive any gift from God, prayer is an absolute necessity. Jesus told a parable about the need to pray and not lose heart. The parable was about a judge and a widow with a request. The judge repeatedly refused the request, but the widow kept asking and bothering him to the point where he gave in simply to get rid of her. God and prayer are like that. We need to be persistent in asking, seeking, and knocking. In short, make God so tired so hearing your prayer requests that He grants them just to shut you up.
Second, while waiting on God, search the Scriptures. The Bible is a means of grace. Christ said, “Search the Scriptures because they testify on my behalf.” In the original Greek, the phrase, “Search the Scriptures,” is an imperative command. Christ’s directive is as clear as words can make it. Scripture is a means by which God reveals, confirms, and enlarges our wisdom. All Scripture is inspired by God. How do we search Scripture? We read it, meditate on it, study it individually and with others, and hear it proclaimed in the preaching of it.
Third, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it by partaking of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord himself gave the instruction in 1 Corinthians 11: “On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and broke it, and said: ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this also in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’” In the Greek, this is another imperative. “Do this,” Jesus commanded. These words do not imply a merely permission only. This time is sacred, a sacred reminder and symbol of the new covenant, through which the Holy Spirit conveys to us God’s grace, righteousness, peace, and joy.
These are the primary three means of grace that God has ordained we use. Now, we need to inquire into how these means should be used. At the start, God guides us individually. We hear the words of a sermon, we read something in the Bible or some other devotional book, we begin to talk to God in prayer. But the more we hear and read, the more we meditate, the more we pray, the more we begin to talk with others about the things of God that are constantly uppermost in our thoughts. We learn about the means of grace from others, and we recommend the means of grace to others. We are encouraged by others and we encourage others to seek and to let God lead and open the way.
As to the manner of using these means of grace, first above all seek God and remember that God can use any means He desires to impart His grace and bring us to deeper faith. Do not limit the Almighty. He works whatever and whenever He chooses. Every moment, then, look for God’s appearance! He is always ready, always able, always willing to save. Second, before you use any of the means of grace, remember that they have no power in themselves. These are not a means in themselves, mere words to be recited. A means is, in itself, a poor, dead, empty thing. A means separate from God is a dry leaf, a shadow. But because God invites, we respond. There is no power in the deed itself; the only power is in the Spirit of God. Third, in using all the means of grace, seek God alone. In and through every outward thing – prayer, Scripture, the Lord’s Supper – look to the power of the Spirit and put your trust in Christ alone. Finally, as you use these means of grace, be careful how you evaluate yourself. Do not take pride in them or glorify yourself on account of them. This attitude will turn everything to poison. Give God your praise, stay fast in His steadfast love, and encourage others in your faith. May God be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.
This sermon shows Wesley’s expansive view of God’s grace. At the heart of Methodist theology and practice is a profound understanding and experience of grace, which is defined as "the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit." Grace pervades all of creation and is universally present. Wherever God is present, there is grace! In our faith lives, Wesley describes three movements of grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. Prevenient grace is the grace we receive from before birth and is not dependent on faith. It is an inward pull toward God or a higher power, and a glimpse of a life that offers something more than the life we have in the present. Prevenient grace prepares us for justifying grace, which is forgiveness for sin that comes with repentance, a belief in Christ, and acceptance of the gift he offers through death on the cross. Justifying grace points to our future, which is realized through the process known as sanctifying grace. In sanctifying grace, God, through the Holy Spirit, works within us to transform us into becoming more Christ-like in our thoughts, words, and deeds. But grace involves both gift and response. The gift comes from God, the response from us. “Means of grace” are practices that assist us to respond more fully – and Wesley spoke of two categories of means of grace. The first he called acts of piety. These are the ones discussed in this sermon: prayer, studying Scripture, and acts of worship including Holy Communion. The second he called acts of mercy. These involve allowing God’s grace to grow within us as we find ways to share God’s grace with others. Wesley believed that these means of grace operated as channels between us and God – and when we do these things in praise of God, the channels open and allow us to experience God’s grace more fully and more powerfully. Wesley concluded his sermon with the promise that as we pray, read, study, worship, and love others, we will cease to think of these practices as commands of Christ and they will flow into our heart. Then, he assures us, “You will see, you will know, and you will feel that God is all in all.” Amen.