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It was, without
question, a shock to my system.  My wife

and I moved to England for my doctoral work in 1977.   I came as a person on the way to ‘full
ordination’ in the United Methodist Church in America.   Now the two churches I had been part of
since birth, Wesley Memorial UMC in High Point, N.C. and Myers Park UMC in
Charlotte, N.C. were both large churches with very traditional liturgy.  I had been raised a high church Methodist,
who regularly partook of the creeds, the responsive readings, the Gloria Patri,
the Doxology, the reading of several Scriptures, Holy Communion, the sermons,
the prayers of the people,  the offering,
and of course the singing including both congregation hymn singing and anthems
etc. by the choir.  I was used to robed
ministers and liturgically rich services.  
When I got to Durham England, I was nearly immediately put on the Durham
and  Darlington circuits as
preacher,  but what I found in these
various churches was a shock.   Their
worship services consisted of the ‘hymn sandwich’  as they put- 
a hymn, and a prayer, and a hymn, and a Scripture, and a hymn and a
sermon, and a hymn, and an offering, and a hymn.  Did I mention hymns!   And we sang lots of verses of lots of hymns (often
to tunes I had never heard before, and some of which I never wish to hear
again).    I love and loved music, having
been a musician all my life, but this was like going to a song fest and hoping
a worship service broke out.  

I
asked my senior pastor at Elvet Methodist in Durham—- How come it’s like
this?  He explained in some detail that
Methodists in England had to define their ethos and identity over against the
dominant Church of England, as well as the highly liturgical Catholic Church.  The result was very low-church Protestantism.  I was even told ‘Don’t ask them to recite a
creed’  they will think you are a closet
Anglican or Catholic’.    Wow.   In America by contrast, where there was no
high church denomination dominating the religious landscape, Methodists didn’t
feel they needed to denude the service of liturgy.   They could just be themselves as Mr. Wesley
had encouraged.  Indeed, he had even
encouraged them for years to go to both the Methodist and the Anglican
services.  

To
ask what spiritual formation looks like for Methodist individuals depends on
where they are located, and what sort of Methodism they have experienced.   Methodism in Singapore doesn’t look the same
as Methodism in India, or in Zimbabwe or in England, or in Estonia or in
America.   I know, because I’ve been to
all those places and many more where there are Methodists.   Because of these varieties of Methodist
practices, we must concentrate in this second half of the book  on things both the Bible and Mr. Wesley
suggested all good Methodists should do to improve and grow their spiritual
lives.  The right place to start is with
what Wesley says about ‘the Means of Grace’.  
What are the means of grace for ordinary, normal Methodists?

 

WESLEY
ON THE MEANS OF GRACE

            One of the
questions John Wesley regularly had to answer during the revival in the 18th
century is— since salvation comes through preaching the Gospel, do we have
any need of, and are there any ‘ordinances’ 
we must follow?    By this question was meant, are there any
means of grace ordained by God that Christians are obliged to use and practice
in order to grow in Christ, or do they just need to keep listening to the
preacher, since preaching and hearing was how grace and the new birth came to
people in the first place?  

Before
we answer that question, it is important to note that Wesley believed that
preaching the Word of God is indeed a means of grace.  He would want to do nothing to minimize
that.   To those worshiping at Bedside Baptist or
Posturpedic Presbyterian or St. Mattress Methodist, which is to say, staying at
home in bed on Sunday, Wesley exhorted such lazy Christians that while they can
come in contact with general revelation in all of creation, the one place they
can most assuredly come in contact with the special revelation of the Gospel is
in church, or in revival meetings, and they dare not neglect the
preaching.   But what of other means of
grace?

            At the beginning of his famous sermon on ‘The Means of
Grace’ Wesley rightly cautions about the danger of mistaking ‘the means’  for ‘the ends’.   He warns that

“Some began to mistake the means
for the end, and to place religion rather in doing those outward works,
than in a heart renewed after the image of God. They forgot that “the end
of” every “commandment is love, out of a pure heart,” with
“faith unfeigned;” the loving the Lord their God with all their
heart, and their neighbour as themselves; and the being purified from pride,
anger, and evil desire, by a “faith of the operation of God.” Others
seemed to imagine, that though religion did not principally consist in these outward
means, yet there was something in them wherewith God was well pleased:
something that would still make them acceptable in his sight, though they were
not exact in the weightier matters of the law, in justice, mercy, and the love
of God.”

What
Wesley is warning against in this paragraph is mere formalism, a sort of faith
that thinks, ‘if I just participate in the ordinances, if I just go to church,
if I just take the sacraments,  I am a
good Christian and will be saved’.  That
would be mistaking the means for the ends, which is of course the grace and
salvation of God.   John Wesley did not believe
that even the sacrament of baptism automatically conveyed grace to the
recipient regardless of his spiritual state, but he did firmly believe they did
so for those who were open to receiving the grace of God.  Wesley warns not merely against mere
formalism, but also against those who think we need no forms or liturgy at all
to worship God.  The abuse of the means
of grace does not rule out their proper use, was Wesley’s view.   

But
what exactly does Wesley mean by, and include in the ‘means of grace’?   This may come as something of a surprise,
even to some Methodists today.   First,
the definition Wesley insists on is
this:  “By “means of grace” I understand
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.”  
He
does not deny there are other, extraordinary channels of grace, but here he is
referring to the ordinary ones, the very ones that normal Christians have a
chance to encounter normally, even on a day by day basis.

            If you were expecting Wesley to suddenly break forth into
a long harangue about baptism and the Lord’s Supper,  you will be surprised to learn that the first
words out of his mouth are “The chief of
these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation;
searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating
thereon); and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in
remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary
channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”

            In fact, Wesley
is not going to talk about baptism at all in this context!  Why not? Because it is a one time and one
time only ordinance per person, and almost every single person Wesley addressed
in England, whether churched or not, had at least be christened as an infant and
listed in a church registry. If you have already been baptized, this cannot be
a means of grace for you going forward or thereafter.   

Indeed,
the Anglicans considered the whole country their parish, and you were on their
contact lists even if you were an ardent Baptist.   I never will forget how my wife and I
regularly got the Anglican parish letters and announcements in the mail, quite
unsolicited and sent to the caretakers house at Elvet Methodist Church.  They were claiming us as part of their parish
flock, even if we only went to the Methodist Church.  That’s the way it is when you have an
official State Church in various European countries.   Wesley then is going to discuss ‘means of
grace’ from the perspective of an audience for whom baptism could not or no
longer be a means of grace in the future.

 Notice the three means of grace he expects his
audience to participate in regularly: 1) prayer both individual and collective
prayer;  2) searching the Scriptures, or
as we might call it Bible study and devotional reading of the Bible, and
finally; 3) ‘constant’ communion.  Dealing
with the three means of grace Wesley mentions in this sermon is going to take
some time, so we will be treating all three in an introductory way here and prayer
in some detail in this chapter, and in subsequent chapters we will deal with
searching the Scriptures and Communion in more detail.

Lest
someone take a magical view of any of these three means he stresses once more, “Whosoever, therefore, imagines there is
any intrinsic power in any means whatsoever, does greatly err, not knowing the
Scriptures, neither the power of God. We know that there is no inherent power
in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the
sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord’s Supper; but
that it is God alone who is the Giver of every good gift, the Author of all
grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby, through any of these, there is
any blessing conveyed to our soul. We know, likewise, that he is able to give
the same grace, though there were no means on the face of the earth.”  
 Here of course Wesley is arguing against
Catholic theology in particular when it comes to the Lord’s Supper.  The grace and power lies in God, not in the
elements or the activities in themselves.
 Thus a magical view of what the
‘means’ can accomplish apart  from a
receptive heart, a heart of faith, is avoided.

Furthermore,
Wesley wants to stress that partaking in these means is not meritorious. It
does not earn one brownie points in heaven, much less earn one salvation or
years off of purgatory.  Wesley adds this,  “The
use of all means whatever will never atone for one sin; that it is the blood of
Christ alone, whereby any sinner can be reconciled to God; there being no other
propitiation for our sins, no other fountain for sin and uncleanness. Every believer
in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit but in Him; that there is
no merit in any of his own works; not in uttering the prayer, or searching the
Scripture, or hearing the word of God, or eating of that bread and drinking of
that cup. So that if no more be intended by the expression some have used,
“Christ is the only means of grace,” than this, — that He is the
only meritorious cause of it, it cannot be gainsayed by any who know the grace
of God.” 

This
is a salutary warning even for us today, for the temptation is to believe that
‘if I just engage in these spiritual practices and this much prayer and this
much church attendance, God will have to reward me for this and bless me for
this.’  A modern sort of example of this
sort of misguided thinking is the ‘Prayer of Jabez’ sort of approach to things,
whereby if one simply follows that prayer, God is somehow forced or compelled
to ‘enlarge one’s territory’ make one prosperous and so on.  This sort of magical view, even of prayer is
being avoided by Wesley.  You can pray
until you are blue in the face and with all sincerity, but if it is not God’s
will to do X, Y, or Z that you are pleading for,  it isn’t going to happen just because you
recited some Biblical prayer with all your heart.   That approach is what my old pastor called
‘rabbits foot religion’ and it is not the religion Wesley urges his Methodists
to practice to improve their Christian life.

Wesley
is also writing against those truly low church Protestants who kept saying all
you have to do is believe to be saved, so skip all this stuff about practicing
the means of grace.  Wesley’s answer
is— “If you say, “Believe, and
thou shalt be saved!” He answers, “True; but how shall I
believe?” You reply, “Wait upon God.” “Well; but how am I
to wait? In the means of grace, or out of them? Am I to wait for the grace of
God which bringeth salvation, by using these means, or by laying them
aside?”
 

That
phrase ‘wait actively’ is in fact a key phrase for understanding Wesley’s view
about how Methodists should practice their religion and grow in grace.  We should participate in the normal means of
grace as often as we have time to do so, is Wesley’s basic view.  Wesley first then provides several telling
examples from the teaching of Jesus to make clear that we should always pray
and never give up praying.  Indeed,
Christ commanded us to pray saying “”Ask,
and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be
opened unto you: For everyone that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh
findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” (Matt. 7:7, 8) 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, the pearl of great
price; and to knock, to continue asking and seeking, if we would enter into his
kingdom.”

Here
it will be wise to pause for a moment and meditate on why we pray, both
according to the Bible, and according to Wesley.  Firstly we do not pray to inform God of
something he does not know.  Anyone who
knows their Bible knows that God is all-seeing and all-knowing.  Prayer then cannot be a matter of reminding a
deity that is so old he has senior moments of something he forgot, or
browbeating a truculent and reluctant deity to do something he was otherwise
not planning on doing.  These sorts of
views of prayer did characterize some ancient pagans, but not  God’s people at their wisest and best.

Why
then pray besides the obvious fact that God has commanded it?   The
answer is that God uses prayer to work out his will in the world, and through
prayer it is WE who become informed
about what we do not know or see, and we become God’s agents of redemption,
healing, and hope in the world.  But this
is not all, for what I have just been talking about is prayers of intercession
or petition.  Of course there are other
sorts of prayers as well that God uses to shape our own spiritual lives—-
prayers of praise, and thanksgiving and prayers of repentance and
lamentation.  And of course it also true
that a function of prayer is to not merely better inform us about God’s will,
but to actually draw us closer to God himself. 
People who love each other wholeheartedly are always talking to one
another.  They are in ongoing living
relationship and conversation with one another, and so it should be between us
and God. The question is— Are we listening to God when we pray, rather than
just talking all the time?

Wesley
stresses that God responds to both corporate and private prayer. In regard to
the latter, Wesley urges “A direction,
equally full and express, to wait for the blessings of God in private prayer,
together with a positive promise, that, by this means, we shall obtain the
request of our lips, he hath given us in those well-known words: “Enter
into thy closet, and, when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is
in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee
openly.” (Matt. 6:6)

One
of the most interesting things Wesley goes on to point out, is that Jesus is
not talking merely about the prayers of born again Christians here.  Indeed, there were none when Jesus said this!  He
is simply talking about people asking in sincere trust for God’s help, and
Jesus says clearly that God hears and responds to such prayers. Were this not
the case, there would be no point for unbelievers to ever pray a sincere
prayer. 

Sometime
ago, a not very wise but very public TV minister was asked if God hears the
prayers of non-Christians, of say agnostics or Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Buddhists
and his curt answer was an emphatic no. 
The problem with this is that Jesus himself says otherwise, so long as the prayer is directed to the
right deity, the God of the Bible. 
Wesley
makes mincemeat of such a bad theology of prayer citing James 1.5 and 4.2
saying, “The gross, blasphemous
absurdity of supposing faith, in this place, to be taken in the full
Christian meaning, appears hence: It is supposing the Holy Ghost to direct a
man who knows he has not faith (which is here termed wisdom), to ask it
of God, with a positive promise that “it shall be given him;” and
then immediately to subjoin, that it shall not be given him, unless he have it
before he asks for it!  But who can bear
such a supposition?”

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