VI: The Means of Grace: Practices God Uses to Make us Holy

Section VI: The Means of Grace: Practices God Uses to Make us Holy

Christian disciplines or practices have played a significant role in the life of the Wesleyan movement. In fact, the Wesleys and their followers received the name “Methodist” because they prescribed certain methods or practices for growth in Christlikeness. Wesleyans refer to these practices as “means of grace”—that is, means through which God’s grace works to make us holy. We are called to participate in the means of grace, for without such participation we limit our capacity to be recipients of sanctifying grace. As with the new birth, God will not make us holy without our willing and responsible participation. But, to be clear, Wesleyans strongly affirm that people cannot become holy through their own efforts. The actual work of transformation is ultimately God’s work. The desire for growth comes from God, the ability to respond and act in obedience is inspired by God, and the growth itself is empowered by God. 

To illustrate this point, consider the metaphor of a sailor and a sail boat. The sailor has not created the boat, the water in which it floats, the wind that propels its sails, or the laws of physics that allow sail boats to sail. Nor can the sailor control the wind. What the sailor can do, however, is learn to read the wind and steer the rudder in such a way that the sail is properly attuned to the power and direction of the wind. That is, the boat will never sail from one place to another without the efforts of the sailor, but it is never actually the sailor who moves the boat. It is only the wind that does so. Such are the means of grace: they are the practices in which we may participate by which the Holy Spirit propels us forward in the life of faith.

The means of grace can be roughly divided into three categories: sacraments, works (or acts) of mercy, and works (or acts) of piety. The sacraments are important means of grace for the Wesleyan tradition. In keeping with the teachings of the Church of England and most Protestant churches, the Wesleys affirmed two sacraments—baptism and holy communion—as practices ordained (thus often called “ordinances”) by Christ himself as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.” In other words, they believed that by the Spirit we are the recipients of grace through our obedient participation in the sacraments.36 So important was the celebration of communion to the Wesleys that they advocated daily attendance at the Lord’s Table and, in 1745, they published a collection titled Hymns on the Lord’s Supper that includes 166 hymns!37

Works of Mercy are means of grace through which we extend God’s love to those in spiritual, physical, and material need. Both in Scripture and the Wesleyan tradition this includes caring for widows, orphans, strangers, and those who are naked, hungry, and imprisoned (Zech 7:10, Matt. 25:31-46).38 There are numerous ways in which the Wesleys and their followers participated in works of mercy. For example, it was the practice of the early Methodists to visit the sick weekly. They also regularly gathered alms (the money often saved by fasting or skipping meals or giving up tea for water) which they then distributed among the poor. Wesley himself would on occasion take to the streets and go door to door begging for money to provide food and clothing for the poor, one time doing so for an entire week through the snow filled streets of London. He was in his 80s! Early Methodists also regularly visited prisons to talk and pray with prisoners and to bring them food and clothing. Wesleyans engaged in acts of mercy as a means of participating in God’s love for those in need and in obedience to clear scriptural mandates. But they also understood acts of mercy as means of grace—means that God has established for our own growth in holiness. In other words, for us to grow in Christlikeness, as God has intended, we must engage in activities through which God’s mercy is conveyed to others.

Works of Piety are additional communal and individual practices that lead to growth in Christlikeness. Individual acts of piety are means of grace practiced by believers, such as prayer, Bible reading, devotional reading, and fasting, just to name a few. The Christian spiritual formation movement has been influenced by the theology and practices of the Wesleyan tradition and may be looked at as a rediscovery of the importance of disciplines for growth in holiness.

Communal works of piety are any means of grace that believers do together that inspires and empowers growth in holiness. We believe that the Holy Spirit is present and at work in us whenever we gather together in the name of Christ for worship, accountability, prayer, and Bible study. The Wesleyan tradition has been very creative in developing communal acts of piety, such as covenant renewals, love feasts, and watch night services.

Small Groups: Likely the most significant of the communal means of grace, especially in early Methodism, was participation in class meetings and bands. These were small groups into which believers were organized for growth in holiness. In these meetings, believers found weekly support, encouragement, and spiritual direction. These groups especially provided accountability for believers’ in their participation in all the means of grace. They formed the backbone of the early Methodist movement, and many scholars consider the formation of the network of such groups to be the chief reason for the success of early Methodism.




36.  In this respect, the Wesleys held to an understanding of the sacraments quite different from the memorialist view of many contemporary evangelical Christians for which baptism and communion are events through which we remember and/or make testimony to what God in Christ has already done for us. So, for instance, they affirmed the practice of infant baptism as a legitimate means of salvific grace for children, with the proviso that they be raised to grow fully into their baptism through proper training, encouragement, and participation in the fellowship of Christ—the Church! They also advocated frequent attendance at communion for those believers earnestly seeking growth in holy love. The first Methodist group in Oxford, of which the Wesleys were a part, by rule sought communion a minimum of once daily. Later, in recognition that this was not possible for most believers, much less itinerant preachers such as themselves, the Wesleys adjusted the expectation for all Methodists to participation only once per week. Nevertheless, the Wesleys never ceased advocating both the duty and practical benefit of “constant communion.” Third, the Wesleys assumed that the Lord’s Supper would involve not merely words of institution, but also confession of sin, words of absolution, passing of the peace as signs of reconciliation with God and others, consecration of the bread and wine, and symbolic re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Finally, in this instance out of step with Anglican teachings and practice, John Wesley advocated what today we call an open table—the belief that communion should be made available to both believers and nonbelievers alike. Because Christ is truly present at the table in the Lord’s Supper, he believed, even nonbelievers might come to the table and encounter the living God.
37.  See John Wesley’s sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion,” and Charles’ and John’s Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, republished in 1995 by the Charles Wesley Society.
38.  As the Methodist movement grew, they would take on more ambitious projects such as homes and schools for widows and orphans and support for the development of small businesses among the poor.