Wesley’s Means of Grace

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Rev. Mary Lee DeWitt is a member of the national Board of Administration, served as a member of the Systems Analysis Task Team (SATT, 2009-2011), and pastors one of the congregations at New Horizons FMC in Sarnia, Ontario. At the 2011 General Conference of The Free Methodist Church in Canada  she gave the following presentation on the place of Wesley’s Means of Grace in relationship to discipleship – one of the central issues raised in the SATT report.

Students of grace and of Wesleyan theology and of our Manual will be familiar with the premise that “Grace is prevenient to holy living.” Grace is not a “gift” that gets extended to us from time to time, but it is the very presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives at all times enabling us to be a holy people, to be Christ-like. We cannot generate the will and power to live holy lives and love like Jesus on our own, but we can live in, respond to, and reflect what God extends to us, both back to God, and to others around us. This flow of grace and the means through which grace flows from God into our lives and into our innermost being has been wonderfully likened to water flowing through a channel or conduit.  

The reservoir of God’s grace – His availability to be ever-present within us, is a vast, unlimited, never-ending supply, fresh every moment of every day.  It is important and necessary to keep this channel of grace open, and it is here in this action of responsible grace where the issue lies that we are seeking to address. Being created with that often troublesome blessing of free will, we have the capability (or what Wesley called “liberty”) to stifle that flow of grace from our Father. We can choose, willfully or through neglect, to allow blockages in our channels of grace.  

Just like a water channel requires regular dredging to keep it free from silt and debris, the spiritual channels of experiencing the presence and power of God require regular attending to if we want to keep the silt and debris of living in a fallen world from settling in, constricting the flow.  Dredging, in the spiritual sense, is the intentional practice of and participation in those acts which would keep our grace channels open and flowing and that life-giving Living Water fresh within us.  

Wesley divided these acts of Grace into two categories:  Acts of Piety, and Acts of Mercy.  They reflect very well what Jesus said when asked about the greatest commandment.  His response was “Love God, and love your neighbour.”  

Acts of Piety are those acts that have proven to deepen the channels of our love relationship with God, our understanding of God and our responses to His love.   The list here is not exhaustive, but here are those most encouraged by Wesley:

  • Daily time in the Word – reading scripture, meditating on it, allowing God to speak through it to our hearts. 
  • Regular Prayer – good relationships require good communication and lots of it
  • The Lord’s Supper – where we act out Christ’s passion, and are humbled, and inspired, and thankful as we remember His sacrifice for a fallen world.
  • Corporate Worship – where we intentionally step out of our busy lives and gather with brothers and sisters to forget about ourselves and worship our God together with joy.
  • Fasting – an enormously powerful act of faith and commitment, where through self-denial we express to God our desire for more of Him, and that we want Him more than anything.
  • Practicing congregational life – meeting with others for encouragement, teaching, and accountability.

It’s probably very easy for us to see how the regular practice of these Acts of Piety would keep our channels of grace open – but what about Acts of Mercy?  

Acts of Mercy are those actions that deepen the channels of grace through loving service to others.  By practicing these acts of service, we mirror what God has done for us, and we receive incredible blessing as grace flows into us and through us.   Again, this list is not exhaustive, but representative, as we demonstrate our love for others by serving them and meeting their needs.  

We meet physical needs, making sure others have food to eat, clothes to wear, and a place to live.
We meet social and emotional needs, by practicing hospitality, and visiting those who are restricted in their movements, because of incarceration, illness, age, or other circumstances of life.
We meet educational needs, by instructing, mentoring and discipling.
And we meet spiritual needs, through sharing the good news, encouragement, prayer, discipleship, accountability – and as Wesley puts it here – to contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death.  

These Acts of Mercy are not something we do because it is the right thing to do, or out of some sense of duty, or, and I hesitate even to say this, because we would think we could EARN more grace or that we would get some kind of return for our investment in others.  They are means of grace, because as we serve others unconditionally, God’s presence and power flows into us, and through us.  It expands us. It shapes us into being more like Jesus.  Through Acts of Mercy, we understand God’s heart and love for us and for others, and we see His face in those we serve.    In the practice of acts of piety, and acts of mercy, we find ourselves, almost unaware, enabled to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves.

Now, having explained these historical Wesleyan “means of grace,” one might wonder why we need a resolution about them. At first blush, this resolution might give us cause to scratch our heads and wonder just what the Task Team was up to in all those meetings.  Was this all we could come up with?   Was this the best we could do? All that time, all those headaches, all the money spent to bring the team together, and THIS is the recommendation?  Surely we already do all this, don’t we?  Do we really have to vote on it?  It’s like bringing forward a referendum to keep Hockey and the Maple Leaf as part of the Canadian ethos, or to remain devoted to Mom and apple pie. In many ways that would seem true, but as we as a task team dug deeper into the themes that arose from the data we collected, and into the data itself, it became disturbingly evident that Christian development and discipleship were by no means the given that we supposed them to be within our movement.  The evidence suggests that we are losing them.  

It also became increasingly impressed upon us that we must recover these integral components of intentional discipleship at the core of who we are if we desire to continue to grow and thrive as a movement, and to accomplish the mission God has on His heart for us to do in Canada and beyond.  As Methodists, we can and should be methodical in championing these prescriptive disciplines in our practice, preaching, and discipleship.  Although we recognize, that we have limited ability to inspire the people of our congregations through such a resolution, we believe that asking Pastors and Leaders to embrace these practices will generate a hunger for the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, and grace will indeed begin to flow in greater measure into our people, our churches and our communities with incredible results.

I would like to get a little personal here, in hope of demonstrating this. Being part of the SATT, and being steeped in the prayer, discussion and discoveries around these immerging themes, I’ve been personally challenged in my own exploration and practice of these Wesleyan Means of Grace.   The challenge was there for me not because of any disagreement with the means themselves, or with the integral role they play in our development into Christ-likeness, or even because of a lack of availing myself of these means in my Christian journey, but because of the word “practice”.  Practice is a term I am well acquainted with, having taken piano lessons for 10 years.  I can still hear the pitch of my mother’s voice as it wafted into the peripheries of my awareness as I was reading a book, or watching TV, or doing something infinitely more interesting than sitting on a hard piano bench going over scales and arpeggios… “Have you practiced your lesson today?”  I knew there would be no rest until I had set aside what I was doing, and practiced that lesson.  Although I love music, and loved to play, and even loved the practice once I got started, it took intentionality to actually get on that bench.   It was because of this understanding of the word “practice” that I was challenged to enter into a deeper, more intimate acquaintance with the intentional, disciplined practice of these means of grace, and this is what I have found.  

In the months that I have been intentionally practicing these disciplines – and I have by no means practiced them perfectly – God has worked in incredible ways in me and through me. I hesitate to share this, for fear I may be implying I’ve become some kind of super spiritual Christian.  Please believe me, I have not!    But allow me to share a story that came out of new practice of these disciplines.  

A few months ago, I was led into an extended season of fasting and prayer. The first few days were difficult, but by the end of the first week, it was almost fun!  But then my time with God began to change.  We began to cover new ground.  We began to go deeper into the dredging, so to speak, and it was hard, and it hurt.  There were things in me that needed attention in my attitudes and awareness, and practice, but as we dug deep, as painful as it was, God’s grace continued to flow in ever increasing and healing and strengthening amounts, more than meeting my need.  During this time I met a young woman from our neighbourhood.  At first glance she seemed ordinary enough – a young mom with two small children. In talking with her I found out she was a recovering drug addict who had had two older children removed from her care, and that she had also lost these two younger children, but had just reclaimed them from social services.  In her distress at seeing her children taken away from her, and knowing her life needed drastic transformation, she turned to Jesus.  She knew He was helping her, but knew little about Him, and was hungry to know more. I began to mentor her and lead her though the discipleship materials we use at New Horizons, and she opened up to God like a flower opens to the sun. We prayed together, at first only myself praying, then she, in one or two sentence prayers pouring out her heart to God in such simple honesty  that it touched and humbled my heart. I challenged her to begin to meet with God daily in prayer and to journal her thoughts as she worked through the basics of discipleship. I continued to fast and pray.  

One day she came in bursting at the seams – she had read the chapter about being baptized, and when could that happen for her? We discussed what baptism meant, and I gave her the task of writing her testimony to share and promised to help. We set the date and I encouraged her to invite her family and friends. To make a long story short, my friend Connie was baptized in January.  The presence of God in that auditorium, and the testimony she shared of a life of drugs and dealing drugs, of jail time and abuse, of meeting Jesus and how she had been rescued from what she was convinced would be certain death, and her desire to be baptized and live for Him, electrified every person in attendance that day, including her family and friends who came and sat right down front, and took it all in.  Connie and I continue to meet and she continues to grow.  She has a heart for her neighbours and family to see them come to Jesus.  She has brought some of them to church.  

Recently Connie asked me for another copy of our discipleship book because she had told her brother he needed Jesus, and he was curious about what she was learning, and said he’d listen to her if she could mentor him through the materials, and would that be all right?  Could she do that? I shared with her about fasting in prayer, and about being a conduit for God’s Grace and love, and her eyes got big, and she could hardly wait to get started.  The following week she told me that God had told her to quit smoking, so she was on the patch.  Once again, my heart was humbled, because there were things in my life that were not so good for me, either – and I was still trying to rationalize them, while she, in simple obedience, just got on with it.  Grace was being returned to me tenfold through the one I thought I was discipling. At this point (May 2011) Connie is three months smoke-free. This week we started a small group together made up of more young moms, mostly friends of Connie that she invited, who want to know more about this Jesus who has transformed her life so dramatically.  I continue to pray.  

After Connie’s baptism, I challenged my small group in the area of spiritual disciplines.  At the end of March, I was impressed to begin another week of fasting and prayer, during which God prepared me to be a conduit for his love and grace. Immediately following that week, I had the privilege of ministering to a large, rather dysfunctional, family of about 30 immediate members, previously unknown to me, as one of their own struggled and ultimately died from cancer. I officiated at the funeral, and we provided lunch for them back at the church. Some of the family have started coming to church and they have lots of questions. My small group is beginning to build bridges there. That same week I met a woman, about my age, recently moved to Sarnia, low income, and freshly released from hospital from a nervous breakdown, who told me she had heard that “your church does good things in the community”. She came first to our small group, then to church that Sunday, and since then she’s continued to attend both,  finding community and opening up to the love of Jesus as she is embraced by the group.  I also met with a slightly younger woman who believes in God, but doesn’t know about this Jesus thing.  I challenged her, as she prayed to God, to open dialogue with the Son, tell Him her doubts about Him, and see what happened.  She’s been, as she says, hearing things in the sermons now that speak right to her, like someone has been spying on her life.  She’s beginning to think there might be something to this Jesus thing after all.  She started attending our small group, and has questions – lots of questions.  I continue to marvel at the way God moves, and the coincidence that all these people came into our lives after we began to intentionally practice just some of these historic Wesleyan means of grace.

I want to be clear about something. None of this is of me.  I only wish to give an example of how the intentional practice of these means of Grace opened up floodgates resulting in real people, lost people, connecting with God, and also share how the intentional practice of these means of grace is bringing about a change in me. I am humbled by how much love God has given me for these folks who He is bringing across my path because I realize how pitifully small the love I thought I had really was, and I know I’ve only just begun to love compared to the Love of Jesus. If this is what can happen when we get intentional in regards to opening up our grace channels, I’m going to continue to dredge.  I don’t want this to stop.  I want more, and, I believe that we all, as a denomination, want more, too.  If we are correct in thinking there is co-relation here, then this initiative must go forward. Here are some questions to reflect on, both corporately and personally, as leadership within this denomination:

Are we in agreement that Wesley is onto something here in identifying these means of grace?  If so….
Are there some of these ‘means’ we are missing or neglecting in our own spiritual practices?  What have been/are the ongoing results of that?
Are there ‘means’ that we are missing or neglecting in our discipling practices?  What has been/are the results of that to our churches and the people in our communities?

If we agree to this, there is still much work to be done in thinking about how committing to these practices will be encouraged, not only in the leadership, but in our congregations.  It will require the development of resources, and reporting processes.  There will need to be intentionality in our resolve, and in our accountability.  However, that resolve can start here, today.  We need voices of accountability calling us from our busy-ness to practice these means of grace, and to intentionally engage in them, together in community.

Rev. Mary Lee DeWitt is the Associate Pastor at New Horizons Free Methodist Church in Sarnia, ON