As someone deeply indebted to the Wesleyan tradition and whose theology is profoundly shaped by Wesley I have been deeply influenced by the idea that there are means of grace that we as Christians use and participate in that has a markedly positive impact on our life of service and obedience to Jesus Christ. Prayer, reading the Scriptures, Holy Communion, acts of mercy, etc. are all ways that our life in Christ is made deeper. However, even though one might consider my theology to be practically Wesleyan where the rubber meets the road, my reading of the Scriptures and my usage of theological language has changed enough that I can not be directly identified as Wesleyan in the way I express the Christian faith. One of those changes that has occurred is my issue with the language “the means of grace.”
John Wesley defines the means of grace as follows:
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.1
My shift from this definition pertains to the metaphorical language of “channels” and the way we understand grace. It has become my increasing conviction that in the New Testament, and especially Paul, that the language of grace is used to principally referring to God’s loving, life-giving self-giving of Himself in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. While occasionally the language of grace can be used to understand the effect this has on believers, the unmerited gift that God has given to us is principally understood to be Himself, both in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and in the Indwelling of the Spirit. Consequently, we can not readily split up grace into prevenient, justifying, or sanctifiying grace, although we might can think of the way God’s giving of Himself might enable unbeliever to come to know Him, to come to have the word of God “Let there be righteousness” spoken over them, to be dramatically changed and transformed so as to be ready to do the will of God. However, these are more appropriately the effects of grace, we might say. Beyond just this becoming an exegetical conviction of mine, there is also a practical concern with the way that we use grace in Christian circles to refer to various other things, such as power, or forgiveness, or warm fuzzy feelings, or nice words, etc., and so thereby dilute the theocentric emphasis on God’s activity in the Gospel.
Consequently, by defining God’s grace in His self-giving, that means that the freedom of God precludes us from being able to create any channels by which we can make God comes to us. Even if God comes to us faithfully by the means He promised to come to those who love Him, prayer, reading Scriptures, acts of mercy, etc. do not themselves have a power to make God come to and meet us. God’s gracious self-giving is always His own initiative and we have no way to make God comes to us simply in virtue of any specific type of action we take. So, there is no such thing as a means of grace.
Nevertheless, I do think there is something very significant about what Church tradition has historically called the means of grace. They do bear a pronounced effect on our lives, for our well-being and for our obedience to God. However, I have come to think of the benefits of the “means of grace” being categorized in two different ways: (1) pedagogical means of being taught from God and, to use a metaphor, (2) the well-buckets of Spiritual life. For the first one, I use this to refer approximately to what happens before a person genuinely comes to Christ beyond simply believing in His name but to genuinely believe in Him as the one whose words come from the Father and give life. As Jesus says in John 6.44-45, no one comes to the Jesus unless the Father drawns them, which happens through being taught by God. When people read the Scriptures with an eye to knowing who God is, when they pray with what has been known to them about God, when they perform works of mercy, etc. they are coming to being taught by the Father in heaven. Insofar as these are people who have some sense of faith in God but they haven’t transitioned to deeply knowing and loving God, these various ordinances, to use Wesley’s language, allow people ot be instructed from the Father so that they can come to be able to truly recognize and know Jesus as He is. This isn’t quite Wesley’s idea of a converting ordinance, as I don’t consider a person who believes in the name of Christ but does not fully believe in Him to be on the outside of God’s grace or the Church. Nevertheless, the purpose of these ordinances here is to bring people to a truer understanding of God and His will, allowing them to truly understand and come to Jesus as the Incarnate embodiment of God and the full expression of the Father’s will.
The second category is where the real significant difference takes place in my mind. When God gives Himself to us, we don’t simply get God’s presence in our lives, but new creation and a new life emerges within us. The Spirit of grace provides us the gift of life. However, simply because God has given us life doesn’t mean everything automatically changes in the way we live our lives. We must learn to bring this life to bear in the day-to-day activities and thinking. Through prayer, Scripture, works of mercy, Holy Communion, etc., we are taking the springs of living water in our life and we are pulling out from it to bring newness to various areas of our life. It is through these various actions that we splash the whole of our natural lives and other people’s lives with the waters of this new life. The wells of life that have run dry and the wells of life that have been poisoned are filled with this gift of new life through these actions. For instance, when we pray in the Spirit, we are bringing forth the desires of the Spirit into our hearts and minds. It is through these actions that we put to death the deeds of the flesh, that we take captive every thought in our lives, that we experience liberation from the oppression laid within our hearts. Put differently, we might say the well-buckets of Spiritual life are means of spiritual growth and maturity.
The value of seeing it this way is this: we don’t have to try to explain how specific actions convey grace to us. Rather, we recognize that these actions when done by those who believe in Jesus is simply the act of taking what God has graciously given to us through Himself and bringing it to bear fruit throughout our lives. It is through these acts of religious devotion that we sow the fruit that the Spirit desires to reap in, through, and for us. With this in tow, we can have a robust synergism that does not invade or diminish God’s agency and initiative, but takes the gifts from God’s self-gifting and brings to be bear throughout our life. The other value of seeing it this way is that is more readily coheres with the metaphors that Jesus and Paul use in terms of water and agriculture. Rather than trying to create an alternative metaphysical language of “means” that doesn’t readily fit with the Scriptural language, this way of framing these actions can be made to be more readily understood within the thought-world of the Scriptures. While we can employ alternative, metaphysical language like that of cause-and-effect to try to explain these metaphors, by keeping our understanding of the significance of these acts of devotion more closely attuned to wider array of the Scriptures beyond simply the narrow usage of the word “grace,” we keep our understanding of them more firmly rooted.
Finally, and this may ruffle feathers a bit but I do think it is important, the value of this language is that we can stop thinking the means of grace are the way that we “abide” with God. Jesus says that those who abide/remain with/in Him are these who keep His commandments, which is summarized in loving each other as Christ loves us. It is living in love, not the means of grace, that allows us to abide in Jesus. Certainly, prayer, Scripture, acts of mercy, Holy Communion, etc., are instrumental in our spiritual growth so that our love for God and others grows strong, but our remaining in Christ to obey His command. To that end, we might say they can help us to live in such a way as to abide with Christ. Through this way of understanding what has been traditionally referred to as the means of grace, we don’t have to try to insert their significance into Jesus’ language when Jesus explicitly describes the means of abiding to be something else.
I don’t by any means bristle at the phrase “means of grace” and can appreciate what people are trying to get at, but I do think there is a better way to help us to think about our acts of devotion.