Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wesley - "The Means of Grace" 1

Yesterday I started paraphrasing one of John Wesley's sermons, "On a Catholic Spirit." However, I found that someone else has already done a fine job of that here. There are a few other Wesley resources there in modern English.

A man named Teddy Ray has also done three of Wesley's sermons in contemporary English ("Salvation by Faith," "The Almost Christian," and "Awake, Thou That Sleepest"). Ken Kinghorn has published all of them in modern English in three volumes.

Rather unmotivating, but I'm willing to give a new sermon a try, one that isn't represented above on the web (Kinghorn's is only in book form). I thought I'd start over with one that Wesley Seminary MDIV students read in their first semester spiritual formation course, "The Means of Grace."
Scripture: Malachi 3:7
"You have gone away from my decrees and have not kept them."

I. 1. Are any decrees from God now, since the gospel brought life and immortality to light? Under the Christian dispensation, are there any usual channels, any means of grace that are ordained by God now?

This question would never have been asked in the early church by the apostles, except by some pagan who came to Christ out of the blue with no knowledge. On the contrary, the whole body of Christians were agreed that God had instituted certain outward means, certain paths by which he conveyed his grace into the souls of humanity. [1] The early church's constant practice of these sorts of actions makes this claim beyond dispute for as long as "all believed and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44). And, "They continued firmly in the teaching of the apostles, in breaking bread together, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42).

2. But in time, when "the love of many waxed cold" (Matt. 24:12), some began to mistake the means of grace for an end in itself. [2] They began to think that faith and religion [3] was about those outward actions themselves rather than having a heart that is renewed to be like God, for the image of God in us to be renewed. [4] They forgot that the goal of every commandment of God is "love, from a pure heart" with a "faith that isn't faked" (1 Tim. 1:5). The goal is for us to love God with all our heart and our neighbor like ourselves. It is to be purified from pride, anger, and evil desire by "faith in the working of God" (Col. 2:12).

Nevertheless, some seemed to think that there was something about these outward actions in themselves that would make them pleasing and acceptable to God, even though the heart of faith does not lie in these outward means, even though they did not show the same concern for the more important commands of God--justice, mercy, and the love of God.

3. In this case, it is clear that individuals who abused these means of God's grace were not using them in the way that God intended them to be used, for the reasons God instituted them. Rather, that which was meant to make them whole actually became a cause of failure. They were so far from receiving any blessing from them. Rather, they were bringing down a curse on their heads. So far from growing "more heavenly," more like God in their hearts and the way they lived--the purpose of these outward actions--they became "twice as much a child of hell" as before (Matt. 23:15).

Then as an over-reaction, when others saw that these actions did not change these children of the Devil, they began to say that these actions were not tools for facilitating God's work in us at all, that they were not means of grace at all.

4. In most of Christian history, the number of those who abused these channels of God's transforming power was far greater than those who ended up despising them. Yet in recent history, certain individuals have arisen who would also throw them away who have made this way of thinking into a more significant movement. [5] Here I have in mind individuals of great understanding, sometimes with considerable learning, people who seem to be people of love. These are people who in practice are well acquainted with true, inward religion. Some of them have been shining lights, people who were famous in their time, people who have stood in the gap against the tide of ungodliness, the kind of people that the church of Christ needs.

At first, these holy and noble individuals did not intend to do anything more than to show that outward religion is worthless unless it also involves a religion of the heart, because "God is a Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and truth" (John 4:24). Therefore, external worship is worthless unless it is accompanied by a heart devoted to God. But if it is accompanied by this heart, then these outward actions God has put in place bring a great benefit. Then they advance us in holiness (being pure in our hearts).

But when these actions do not advance inward holiness, they are useless and pointless. They are less than pointless. Indeed, when they have nothing to do with our hearts, they are a complete abomination to the Lord....

[1] It might be helpful to get on the table right off the bat what Wesley is talking about here. He is talking about actions like prayer, searching the Scriptures, communion. As "means of grace," Wesley believed that God especially transformed people as they prayed, read the Bible, and partook of the Lord's Supper. As will be clear, he did not think this happened automatically, but he would have said people were transformed more often when doing these things than when doing other things.

[2] Here Wesley might have had in mind both the Roman Catholic Church of his day as well as, no doubt, many in his own church, the Church of England or Anglican Church. Wesley of course lived in the 1700s.

[3] The word religion has taken on a negative connotation today, so I have added the word faith here. It is important to realize that this condemnation of the word "religion" is just a recent fad of language in certain Christian circles. To critique Wesley for using the word religion is only to be ignorant of how the connotations and meanings of words change over time.

[4] The image of God in us for Wesley especially refers to the part of us that, when God restores us, is like God, especially when it comes to goodness (the moral image of God in us).

[5] I have considerably expanded this sentence to give context. Wesley is thinking here of the Anabaptist movement of the 1500s, 1600s, which continued in his day and has persisted to the present. They would reject "means of grace" altogether as a concept.


Rick said...

Why then did some in the Wesley family of churches (such as the Wesleyan Church) stop doing the Lord's Supper as often, as opposed to others in the family (UMC)?

Paul Tillman said...

Not quite the summaries that you are doing, but since you mentioned other people updating John Wesley's sermons, I did two this past year: "On Visiting the Sick" and "The Almost Christian" at http://oakdalechurch.org/media/sermon-archive/john-wesley-today/

In the future, I intend to add more sermons to the "John Wesley for Today" series.

jesse chupp said...

Frequency of Communion varies in proportion to its place in doctrine.