Reflections on Sermon 16: “The Means of Grace”

Reflections on Sermon 16: “The Means of Grace”

“Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord Almighty.” —Malachi 3:7

I once received a gift for Christmas with some assembly required. It was packed in twist ties and styrofoam inside a glued and stapled box, inside wrapping paper, inside decorative (evidently steel-belted) ribbon, with a list of instructions in four languages, none of which used words commonly spoken in central Illinois. Putting this gift to use was clearly going to require some effort on my part, maybe even the help of a dictionary.

Was it still a gift? Was I earning the gift or paying for it by expending the effort necessary to cooperate with the gift-giver?

Grace, in all of its phases, is an unmerited favor from God. Are there “any means ordained of God, as the usual channels of his grace?” If these means of grace involve effort on our part, are they still free gifts of God’s grace? In his sermon entitled “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley answers with an emphatic, “yes.” He cites and expounds upon the three practices engaged in by the first Christians as seen in Acts 2:42.

Wesley navigates a middle way between the “quietism” of the Moravians and Quakers and the “lifeless, formal religion” he saw propagated in the Church of England. The quietists believed any practice or effort exerted on our part rendered ineffective the grace of God, which could only be received in stillness and waiting. For quietists, the involvement of the body negates the spiritual benefit. 

Wesley regularly critiqued the Church of England, on the other hand, for falling into a sacramentalism that acted as if the very operation of the means of grace (Scripture readings, rote prayers, the Lord’s supper) made the spiritual benefits automatic. After attending a Sunday service in Kirk on May 19, 1776, Wesley wrote in his journal that the formality of the service was in “no way calculated either to awaken sinners, or to stir up the gift of God in believers.”1 

Wesley closed his sermon with a four-fold instruction:

  1. Remember “that God is above all means.” He is not captive and can choose to interact however, whenever, and with whomever He chooses.
  2. There is no power nor merit inherent in any of these means. “Separate from God, it is a dry leaf, a shadow.” We engage these means of grace, because “he directs me to wait in this way” for “his free mercy, whereof cometh my salvation.”
  3. “In and through every outward thing, look singly to the power of his Spirit, and the merits of his Son.”
  4. After practicing these means, be careful not to congratulate yourself. “If God was there, if his love flowed into your heart,” the outward work is forgotten as “you see, you know, you feel, God is all in all.”

Wesley believed, taught, and practiced the full cooperation of the body and spirit with the grace of God, especially emphasizing the use of the means of grace ordained by God Himself. Just as the early Christians practiced Scripture reading, breaking bread, and prayer, so should we approach the channels of grace with all our heart, mind, and might. 

Scott Sherwood is the district superintendent of the Northwestern Illinois District Church of the Nazarene.

To read the full text of the sermon, click here.

[1] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Journals, electronic ed. (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 2000).