God blesses us through the Sacraments and many other ways as we respond in obedience.
Wesleyan spirituality includes a particular method for growth in God’s grace (which is why Wesleyan Christians are often called Methodists). This method begins with what has traditionally been called the General Rules, what we now call the Covenant of Christian Character.1 These rules are not a legalism, but a help in our growth in grace and Christlikeness.
Within these General Rules we find what Wesley referred to as the means of grace.2 Through our Covenant of Christian Character we commit to attend “faithfully all of the ordinances of God, and the means of grace.”3 Means of grace are things that we do or participate in, which open us up to God and position us so that we might be drawn closer to God. Then God graciously works through them to transform and make us more like Christ—all of this by faith and by faithful observances.
Outpouring of grace
I recall the joyous time for one young family when their baby girl had just been born. I remember sitting down to talk with the parents about whether their little girl would be dedicated or baptized. As I explained the differences between the two, I recall the moment when “the light went on” for the young mother and she said, “You’re saying that something really happens in baptism?” Yes! What an exciting Pentecost Sunday when, not only that newborn girl, but also her two older brothers experienced the grace of God poured out through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Baptism, as a sacrament, is a means of grace. We say of sacraments that they are outward signs of an inward grace and a means whereby we receive the same. That is to say, every time we faithfully baptize, either an infant or an older convert, God is present, pouring out His great grace.
Sharing the cup; breaking the bread
This is true with the sacrament of Holy Communion, as well. Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and . . . remains in me, and I in them” (John 6:54 and 56). St. Paul tells us, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in [an intimate communion with] the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in [an intimate communion with] the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
The Wesley brothers referred to Holy Communion as the “choicest instrument” through which God “Doth all His blessings give.” They said:
Fasting he doth, and hearing bless,
And prayer can much avail,
Good vessels all to draw the grace
Out of salvation’s well.
But none, like this mysterious rite
Which dying mercy gave
Can draw forth all His promised might
And all His will to save.4
How amazing. Yet, as the hymn indicates, the sacraments are not the only means of grace. John Wesley listed and categorized several. Some were instituted by God in Scripture for the church “catholick:” the whole church in every age, place, and denomination. Others varied depending on time, place, culture, and so on.
Embracing the means
Henry Knight provides a listing of these means of grace in The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace. They include universal obedience, keeping all the commandments, watching, denying ourselves, taking up our crosses daily, exercise of the presence of God, prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and Christian conference.5
Let me touch on just a few that stood out during our local church’s recent study.
Many can testify to the Scriptures as means of grace—how God has spoken a timely word through Scripture into their heart and life, how God has given them guidance, or how God has shaped them as Christians through the Scriptures. But what about the idea of keeping the commandments as a means of grace? Aren’t law and grace opposites?
Keeping the commands
Certainly, when we view the words of Scripture as commands, we see law. But what if we view them as promises? After all, if God commands something, God will provide the grace to accomplish it. So, for example, when we read, “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20:17), and we view it as a command, we find the law and standard by which we are to live.
When we read the very same words as promise, “You shall not covet,” we find the gospel declaring that, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit will write this very law upon our hearts, transforming and empowering us so that we no longer covet. That’s God’s grace making us more like Christ as we seek to keep the commandments.
Praying in faith
Sometimes prayer is viewed as a one way street—a means of informing God about the things that we need or want. But there is so much more to prayer. Wesley quoted the Lord as saying, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find,” and then commented: “Here we are in the plainest manner directed to ask in order to, or as a means of, receiving; to seek in order to find the grace of God.”6
Wesley taught that we should pray extemporaneously, unrehearsed prayers that just come to our minds as we are praying. He also taught that we should pray the written prayers of the church. Both were extremely important to Wesley.
I recall a fellow pastor who made a (false) distinction between reading a prayer and praying a “real” (i.e., extemporaneous) prayer. He thought the latter one was spiritual and the other was dead. Curiously, this same pastor was known to “get blessed” as he sang hymns that were not extemporaneous but written, and often written prayers put to music.
One seldom hears complaints about singing prewritten songs in worship. Perhaps, we could find in the written prayers of the church (some of which have been prayed around the world since the early centuries of the church) a deeper understanding of God and the kinds of things that we should be praying about. Perhaps, as we faithfully pray both kinds of prayers we will find ourselves being shaped into Christlikeness by the grace of God.
Through which spiritual disciplines have you experienced the grace of God in your life?
Are there means in which you might participate? What other activities have you found to be means of experiencing the grace of God? May we all find God at work in our lives, making us more like Christ as we seek to attend “faithfully all of the ordinances of God, and the means of grace.”7
Todd A. Stepp is senior pastor of Heartland Church of the Nazarene in Floyds Knobs, Indiana, and president of the Wesleyan-Anglican Society.
Holiness Today, March/April 2017
1. Manual, 2013-2017, Church of the Nazarene (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, 2013) 37-40.
2. Wesley, John, “The Means of Grace,” The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial ed., Vol 1 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1984) 376-397.
3. Manual, 38.
4. “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper,” Hymn 42, in J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (London: Epworth Press, 1948) 208.
5. Knight, Henry H. III, The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace (London: Scarecrow Press, 1992) 5.
6. Wesley, 384.
7. Manual, 38.