Early in ministry, John and Charles Wesley faced this question: How should we wait on the presence of God? The English Moravians were so afraid of anything that could be mistaken as earning their way to heaven, that they recommended people sit quietly, waiting for God to make the first move. The Wesleys resisted this emphasis on stillness, instead teaching people to use the practices God established in Scripture. Both the Wesleys and Moravians, however, resonated with Psalms 42:1-2, NRSV:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God?*
They agreed the goal of the Christian life was to see the face of God. But, for the Wesleys, this goal drives us to ask, seek and knock, to look for paths leading to God. For the Wesleyan Methodist Connection and Pilgrim Holiness Church birthed from the Wesleys’ teachings, the means of grace were how to seek God’s face.
The means of grace are the places where God normally appears and has told us to wait for his presence.
But it’s easy to get distracted while using the means of grace to meet God. Sometimes we fall in love with the practices, wanting others to see how good we are. Other times, we embrace a stillness like the Moravians hoping to experience God directly. There is value in this, but it should not be the only way we seek to hear from God.
What does it look like to practice the means of grace? How can we learn to wait for God in the paths he has given us? For answers, we’ll look at John Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace and their importance in the early Wesleyan Methodist Connection and Pilgrim Holiness Church.
John Wesley, in his sermon “The Means of Grace,” defined them as the “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.”
The means of grace
He proclaimed, “The chief of these means is prayer … searching the Scriptures; (implying reading, hearing, meditating;) and receiving the Lord's Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him.” The means of grace aren’t limited to the practices John chose to highlight in this sermon.
The Wesleyan Methodist Connection listed five instituted (ordained of God) means of grace in their first discipline: Prayer, Searching the Scriptures, The Lord’s Supper, Fasting and Christian Conference. The importance of these means is reinforced in the Pilgrim Holiness Church’s 1922 manual, which defined neglect of the means of grace as a breach of the covenant of membership. The danger of having membership tied to the practice of the means of grace is that people might practice them without seeking the facing of God — what John called having the form of godliness without the power.
“The Discipline of The Wesleyan Church” describes baptism and The Lord’s Supper as ordained means of grace. We encourage growth in “knowledge, love and grace of God” through additional means of reading Scripture, prayer, preaching and worship.
John Wesley feared Methodism would one day hold to the outward form of godliness but deny its power.
The form without the power
John Wesley feared Methodism would one day hold to the outward form of godliness but deny its power (cf. 2 Timothy 3:5). John and Charles Wesley, who were both priests in the Church of England, feared that many in the church had the form of godliness without the power because they made the means of grace an end.
On the other hand, they feared the Moravians wanted the power without the form, thus their emphasis on stillness where they abandoned the means of grace. The Wesleys thought both form and power were needed; making the means an end and abandoning the means of grace were unhealthy.
Practices for today
The way to develop (or even begin) a relationship with God is practicing the means of grace while seeking God’s presence. What would this look like?
For me, it might look like this. When I get up in the morning, I sit quietly with my Bible opened to a passage I want to read. After I have calmed myself, I invite God to speak to me, slowly read the text and listen for what God wants to say to me. Too often, I can fall into the pattern of completing my reading so I can check it off my list instead of coming to meet and hear from God.
The means are not limited to our practice that show our love for God (works of piety). They’re also marked by the ways we love our neighbor (works of mercy). To get a sense of this, think about Matthew 25. When Jesus says that when you do this to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me, he’s saying, this is one of the places you can meet me. It shouldn’t make us feel guilty, it is an invitation to meet with God. This is one of the places God normally appears. As I enter these spaces, I should listen for God’s voice.
Being with God is the goal of the means of grace and provides an opportunity to listen for his still small voice, learning what he wants for me. Maybe it’s a word of encouragement or possibly something to do. Whatever it is, each meeting with God shapes our lives and stories, and we find ourselves drawn to the means of grace, so we might meet with him.
*New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.