Wisdom of Wesley: the Means of Grace

James 2:14-26

Showing faith

14 My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it? 15 Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. 16 What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? 17 In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.

18 Someone might claim, “You have faith and I have action.” But how can I see your faith apart from your actions? Instead, I’ll show you my faith by putting it into practice in faithful action. 19 It’s good that you believe that God is one. Ha! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble with fear. 20 Are you so slow? Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all? 21 What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions. 23 So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend. 24 So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone. 25 In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute shown to be righteous when she received the messengers as her guests and then sent them on by another road? 26 As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Over the summer we are going to be taking some time to explore the sermons of John Wesley. In addition to being the founder of the Methodist church, Wesley had an influence on Jacob Albright, Martin Boehm, and Philip Otterbein, the founders of the Evangelical United Brethren (the United in United Methodist). It is good to study Wesley not only for this historical significance, but also because Wesley was able to take the learned theological ideas of Oxford and make them accessible to the coal miners, factory workers, and other everyday people. Wesley was good at bringing God’s message to everyone, a talent that is needed as much today as it was in 18th century England.

Each week we will be looking at the ideas from one of John Wesley’s sermons. We will connect it to scripture and also to our lives today. It is my hope that in doing so we can better understand our roots and we can benefit from Wesley’s wisdom as it applies to our faith.

Have you ever wondered why we need to go to church each week? Why we need to be a part of a small group? Why we need to pray? Why we need to give money? If you have you are certainly not alone. At one point in time or another I think all of us have wondered about these things. Do we do these things because they are necessary for salvation or just a habit?

One of the tensions in the Christian faith is around what is needed for salvation. There are two extremes to this question. One extreme centers around the actions of the believer. Here the focus is on what an individual does and that one’s actions have a direct result on one’s chances at salvation. At the other end of the spectrum is an idea that salvation comes from God. God’s sovereignty and reign is absolute, therefore nothing we can do can change this source of salvation. Our actions, or works (the term we see in the scripture), do not matter. It is God and God’s grace that offer salvation to use.

For those who fall closer to the first side, believing in the importance of actions, the tension is how much does what we do matter and how do we avoid believing that salvation depends on what we do and unintentionally diminish the role of Christ. One of Martin Luther’s critiques of the Catholic Church of the sixteenth century was that it was too focused on “works righteousness”, the idea that it is our works that make use righteous. When we think like that we over-inflate ourselves and in turn diminish God.

For those who fall on the other end of the spectrum, the question becomes do our actions matter at all. If it is solely what God does, then what need at all is there for our actions. Once we have been saved by Christ, does it matter what we do next? In his sermon “The Means of Grace,” John Wesley addressed just such concerns among people who looked poorly on outward expressions of faith (works), and instead focused solely on the internal faith in God, belieiving that the outward actions were meaningless.

What Wesley did in his sermon, and throughout his teachings was try and strike a balancing act on this question. He wants to both validate the importance of God’s grace, but to marry successfully to the importance of our actions. When it comes to grace, Wesley thought of grace in three different ways: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. Prevenient grace, is the grace of God that is at work in our lives even before we are truly aware of God. Justifying grace is the grace that delivers our spiritual salvation. This is the grace that is present when we give our lives to Christ. Sanctifying grace is the ongoing grace in our lives that is delivered to us after we have chosen to follow God. It comes to us through what Wesley calls the “means of grace.”

Here is what Wesley says specifically about this topic:

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. 

I use this expression, means of grace, because I know none better; and because it has been generally used in the Christian church for many ages; -- in particular by our own Church, which directs us to bless God both for the means of grace, and hope of glory; and teaches us, that a sacrament is "an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same." 

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. 

For Wesley, our actions: prayer, worship, Bible study, communion, are both part of how we receive God’s love but also are a part of our response to God’s love. Grace, for Wesley is really a loving relationship between God and humanity. One of the principles of a relationship is that it is not a one-time event but a series of events, something that occurs over time. Salvation is like a wedding, a one-time event. By contrast, a marriage is more than that just that singular event but rather lasts a life-time.

Anyone who has been married knows that doing something once is never enough. You cannot tell your spouse you love them once and never mention it again. You cannot buy them flowers once, cook them dinner once, or even take out the garbage once and think that this singular act will be consider a full expression of your love. Instead, you spend every day finding new ways to say “I love you” and new ways to deepen that relationship.

The same is true with God. The means of grace are the ways that we find to continue to say “yes” to God and to tell God “I love you.” We go to worship, we pray, we sing in the choir, we teach Sunday school, we feed the hunger and clothe the naked all because of what God has done for us. God loved us before we knew about God, before we maybe deserved that love. Know that we have accepted that love and said “yes” to God, our life going forward is one attempt after another to return the favor, not because we can ever repay the debt, but because we want to.

We all have a story of how we have experienced God’s grace in our lives. We are all here because of how God has loved us. The reason we do all these things, go to church, give our time, our talents, our money, is because we want to love God as much as God love us. It is not something we will ever be able to do, but we will keep trying, each and every day.

Questions to Ponder:

What are the things you do in your life to stay in love with God?

What are ways that you experience God in your life?

How can you do more to open yourself to God’s grace?

Prayer:

God of grace and God of glory, on your people pour your power. Bless each one of us with your grace and love. Help us to live our lives in response to that love. May we be able to overcome our own selfish needs and desires so that we might be instruments of your love in the world.  Amen