“Ye are gone away from Mine ordinances, and have not kept them.” (Malachi 3:7)
Are there any means ordained of God to be the usual channels of His grace? This question could never have been asked in the apostolic church, except by a heathen; for all Christians agreed that Christ had ordained certain outward means for conveying His grace into men’s souls. They confirmed this by their actions, for “they continued steadfastly in the teaching of the Apostles, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
But, in time, when the love of many grew cold, some began to mistake the means for the end, and found their religion in doing those outward works, rather 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,” loving the Lord their God with all their heart, and their neighbor as themselves; and being purified from pride, anger, and evil desire. Others imagined that although religion did not principally consist of these outward means, somehow these means would make them acceptable in God’s sight, even while they neglected the weightier matters of the law, such as justice, mercy, and love for God.
It is evident that, for those who abused them, these means did not lead to the end for which they were ordained. Rather, they only brought a curse on their head. Instead of growing more heavenly in heart and life, they became more the children of hell than before. Others, seeing that these means did not convey the grace of God to those children of the devil, began to assume that they were not means of conveying His grace at all.
Still, there were many more who abused the ordinances of God than those who rejected them altogether until certain men arose, men not only of great understanding, but who also appeared to be men of love, who were personally acquainted with true, inward religion. Some of these were shining lights, famous in their generations for standing against ungodliness. At first, they probably only intended to show that outward religion is worth nothing without the religion of the heart; that “God is a Spirit, and they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth;” that, consequently, external worship is a wasted effort without a heart devoted to God; that the outward ordinances of God are of great benefit when they advance inward holiness, but are useless when they do not advance it; and when they are used in place of holiness, they are an abomination to the Lord.
It is not strange, then, that some of these men, seeing the horrible profaning of the ordinances of God which had spread throughout the whole church and almost driven true religion out of the world, out of their fervent zeal for the glory of God and the recovery of souls from that fatal delusion, spoke as if outward religion were absolutely nothing, as if it had no place in the religion of Christ. It is not surprising at all that they did not always express themselves with sufficient caution; causing unwary hearers to believe that they condemned all outward means as unprofitable and not designed by God to be the ordinary channels of conveying His grace into men’s souls. It is likely that some came to this opinion who, not by choice, but by the providence of God, were cut off from these ordinances; perhaps wandering without a home, or hiding in dens and caves. These men, who experienced the grace of God in themselves though deprived of all outward means, might have concluded that the same grace would be given to those who purposely abstained from these means.
Experience shows how easily this idea spreads, especially among those who are thoroughly awakened from the sleep of death, and begin to feel that the weight of their sins is a burden too heavy to carry. These persons are usually impatient; and, trying to escape from that burden, they are always ready for any new method of relief or happiness. They have probably tried most of the outward means, and found no relief in them; though perhaps more remorse, and fear, and sorrow, and condemnation. It is easy, therefore, to persuade these that it is better for them to abstain from those means. They are already weary of their seemingly useless effort, and are glad for any excuse to cast aside that which their soul finds no pleasure in, to give up the painful struggle, and sink down into laziness.
Limitations of the Means of Grace
In the following discourse, I propose to examine thoroughly whether there are any means of grace. By this I mean those outward signs, words, or actions which are ordained by God, and appointed to be the ordinary channels by which He conveys to men His preceding, justifying, or sanctifying grace. I use this expression, means of grace, because I know of none better; and because it has been used in the Christian church for many ages, and in particular by our own church [the Church of England], which directs us to thank God, both for the means of grace, and the 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 principal means are prayer, whether in private or in the congregation; searching the Scriptures (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating on them); and receiving the Lord’s supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him. We believe these are ordained of God as the ordinary channels of conveying His grace into men’s souls.
The value of the means depends on their actual use for the purpose of religion; consequently, all these means, when separated from their purpose, are meaningless and useless. If they do not actually lead us to know and love God, they are not acceptable in His sight; instead, they are an abomination to Him, a stench in His nostrils. Above all, if they are used to replace the religion they were designed to serve, it is not easy to find words for this foolish and wicked turning of God’s weapons against himself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained to bring it in.
Likewise, all outward means, if separated from the Spirit of God, are unable to assist us either in knowing or loving God. Unquestionably, whatever help that is given on earth, He alone gives. It is He alone who, by His own power, works in us what is pleasing in His sight; and all outward things, unless He works through them, are only weak, impoverished elements. Therefore, whoever imagines that there is intrinsic power in any of these means errs greatly, not knowing the Scriptures or 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, or the sound of it, or in the bread and wine received in the Lord’s Supper; it is God alone who is the Giver of every good gift, the Author of all grace. We know also that He would be able to give the same grace even if there were no such means on earth. In this sense, we can affirm that with God there is no such thing as means; since He is able to do whatever pleases him, either by any means or by none at all.
We also agree that the use of these or any other means will never atone for one sin; for it is the blood of Christ alone that reconciles a sinner to God; there being no other propitiation for our sins, no other fountain where we can be cleansed from sin and uncleanness. Every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit except 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 is intended by the expression some have used, “Christ is the only means of grace,” than that He is the only cause of it, it cannot be disputed by any who know the grace of God.
Further, we agree, though it is a sad truth, that many of those who are called Christians still abuse the means of grace to the destruction of their souls. This is certainly the case with all who are content with a form of godliness, but without its power. Either they assume they are Christians already because they do this or that (although Christ has not yet been revealed in their hearts, nor the love of God poured out in them), or else they suppose they will become so simply because they use these means. They imagine (even though they may be hardly aware of it) either that there is some kind of power in them by which, sooner or later, they will be made holy; or that there is a kind of merit in using them, which will move God to give them holiness or accept them without it.
They understand so little of that great foundation of the entire Christian building, “By grace are ye saved.” You are saved from your sins, from their guilt and power, and you are restored to the favor and image of God, not because of any works or merits of your own, but by the free gift of God’s mercy through the merits of His beloved Son. You are saved, then, not by any power, wisdom, or strength which is in you; but only through the grace or power of the Holy Spirit.
The Biblical Emphasis of the Means of Grace
But the central question remains: “We know this salvation is the gift and the work of God; but how can I gain it?” If you say, “Believe, and you will be saved!” he answers, “True. But how must I believe?” You reply, “Wait on God.” “But how am I to wait? Am I to wait for the grace of God by using these means, or by laying them aside?”
It is not possible for the Word of God to provide no direction regarding so important a point; or for the Son of God, who came down from heaven for our salvation, to have left unanswered a question that is so important to our salvation. We must only consult the oracles of God to see what is written there. If we abide by their decision, no doubt can remain.
According to Scripture, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it by the means that He has ordained. First, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in prayer. This is the direction of our Lord himself. In His Sermon on the Mount, after explaining what religion consists of, and describing the main parts of it, He adds, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8). Here we are clearly directed to ask, 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 desire to enter into His kingdom.
So that no doubt might remain, our Lord emphasizes this point in a more peculiar manner. He appeals to every man’s heart: “What man is there of you, who, if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or, if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask Him?” (7:9-11). Or, as He expresses himself on another occasion, “How much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” (Luke 11:13). Our Lord directs them to use this means, and promises that it would happen as He said; that by asking they should receive the Holy Spirit.
The absolute necessity of using this means, if we want to receive any gift from God, also appears from that passage which immediately precedes these words: “And He said unto them,” whom He had just been teaching how to pray, “Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and shall say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves: And he from within shall answer, Trouble me not; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity, he will rise, and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you” (Luke 11:5, 7-9). How could our blessed Lord be more clear that, by persistently asking, we may receive from God that which we otherwise would not receive at all?
“He spake also another parable, to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint,” until by this means they should receive from God whatever they asked of Him: “There was in a city a judge which feared not God, neither regarded man. And there was a widow in that city, and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of my adversary. And he would not for a while; but afterwards he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest, by her continual coming, she weary me” (Luke 18:1–5). Our Lord explained this himself: “Hear what the unjust judge saith!” Because she continues to ask, because she will not be denied, therefore I will avenge her. “And shall not God avenge His own elect, which cry day and night unto Him? I tell you He will avenge them speedily,” if they pray and do not give up.
He has also given us a direction to wait for the blessings of God in private prayer, together with a promise, saying, “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” (Matthew 6:6).
Second, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it by searching the Scriptures. Our Lord’s direction, with regard to using this means, is plain and clear. “Search the Scriptures,” He said to the unbelieving Jews, “for they testify of Me” (John 5:39). For this very purpose He directed them to search the Scriptures, that they might believe in Him. That God’s blessing accompanies the use of this means appears from what is recorded concerning the Bereans; who, after hearing St. Paul, “searched the Scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believed,” or, put another way, found the grace of God in the way which He had ordained (Acts 27:11, 12). It is likely that for some of them faith came by hearing, and was only confirmed by reading the Scriptures. As we observed earlier, under the general heading of searching the Scriptures, both hearing, reading, and meditating are included.
This is a means by which God not only gives, but also confirms and increases true wisdom, as we learn from the words of St. Paul to Timothy: “From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15). The same truth (that is, that this is the great means God has ordained for conveying His grace to man) is found in the words which immediately follow: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God;” consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true; “and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” so “that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (vv. 16, 17).
It should be observed that this is spoken directly of the Scriptures which Timothy had known as a child; which must have been those of the Old Testament, for the New was not yet written. St. Paul then was far from making light of the Old Testament! See here, you who put such a small value on one half of the Word of God! The Holy Spirit clearly declares that half “profitable,” as a means ordained of God.
Nor is this profitable only for the men of God, those who already walk in the light; but also for those who are still in darkness, seeking the One they do not know. And so St. Peter says, “We have also a more sure word of prophecy.” Literally, “And we have the prophetic word more sure;” confirmed by our being “eye-witnesses of His Majesty,” and “hearing the voice which came from the excellent glory.” And to that prophetic word, which he calls the Holy Scriptures, “ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the Day-star arise in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). Let all who desire that day to dawn in their hearts wait for it by searching the Scriptures.
Third, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it by partaking of the Lord’s supper, for this also is a direction the Lord has given. “The same night He was betrayed, He took bread, and brake it, and said, Take, eat; this is My body;” that is, “the sacred sign of My body:” “This do in remembrance of Me.” Likewise, “He took the cup, saying, This cup is the new testament,” or covenant, “in My blood;” the sacred sign of that covenant; “this do ye in remembrance of Me.” “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord’s death until He come” (1 Corinthians 11:23, etc.). By these visible signs, you show your solemn remembrance of His death until He comes in the clouds of heaven. Only “let a man examine himself,” whether he understands the nature and design of this holy institution, and whether he really desires to conform to the death of Christ; and then, without doubting, “let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” (v. 28). Here the direction given by our Lord is repeated by the Apostle: “Let him eat; let him drink” (both imperative in the Greek); words not implying a permission only, but a clear command to all those who either already are filled with peace and joy in believing, or those who can truly say, “The remembrance of our sins grieves us, the burden of them is intolerable.”
That this is also an ordinary means of receiving the grace of God is evident from those words of the Apostle which occur in the preceding chapter: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion,” or communication, “of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Is the eating of that bread and the drinking of that cup then not the outward, visible means by which God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, which were purchased by the body and blood of Christ for us? Therefore, let all who truly desire the grace of God eat of that bread and drink of that cup.
Objections to the Use of the Means of Grace
As clearly as God has pointed the way in which He will be sought after, countless objections have been raised against it. It is necessary to consider a few of these; not because they have weight in and of themselves, but because they have often been used to mislead those who were running well until Satan appeared as an angel of light.
The first and foremost of these objections is, “You cannot use these means without trusting in them.” But where is this written? I expect you to show me a basis in Scripture for your assertion. Otherwise, I will not receive it, because I am not convinced that you are wiser than God. If what you say is true, then Christ must have known it. And if He had known it, He surely would have warned us. Therefore, because there is not the slightest evidence of this in the whole revelation of Jesus Christ, I am as fully assured that your assertion is false, as I am that this revelation is of God. They suggest, “Abandon these means for a short time, to see whether or not you trusted in them.” So I am to disobey God, in order to know whether I trust in obeying Him? But they claim, “If you are troubled when you stop using them, it is evident that you trusted in them.” By no means. If I am troubled when I willfully disobey God, it is clear that His Spirit remains in me; but if I am not troubled by willful sin, it is just as clear that I have been given up to a reprobate mind. But what do you mean by “trusting in them?” Is it looking for the blessing of God in them, believing that, if I wait in this way, I will attain what I otherwise would not? This is what I do! By the grace of God I will so trust in them until the day of my death. And since God has promised to bless me in this way, I trust it will be according to His word.
Second, it has been objected, “This is seeking salvation by works.” But what is seeking salvation by works? In the writings of St. Paul, it means either seeking to be saved by observing the ritual works of the Mosaic law; or expecting salvation for the sake of our own works, by the merit of our own righteousness. But how is either of these implied when I wait in the way God has ordained, expecting that He will meet me there, because He has promised to do so? I expect that He will fulfill His word, that He will meet and bless me in this way. Yet not for the sake of anything I have done, nor because of my own righteousness; but only through the merits, sufferings, and love of His Son.
Third, it has been argued that “Christ is the only means of grace.” I answer that this is simply playing with words. Explain your terms, and the objection vanishes. When we say, “Prayer is a means of grace,” we mean a channel through which the grace of God is conveyed. When you say, “Christ is the means of grace,” you mean the only price and purchaser of it; or, that “no man cometh unto the Father, but through Him.” And who denies that? This objection is separate from the question.
Fourth, “But does the Scripture not direct us to wait for salvation? Does David not say, ‘My soul waiteth upon God, for of Him cometh my salvation?’ And does Isaiah not teach us the same thing, saying, ‘O Lord, we have waited for Thee?’” This cannot be denied. Since it is the gift of God, we are to wait on Him for salvation. But how are we to wait? If God himself has appointed a way, can you find a better way of waiting for Him? The Prophet’s own words put this beyond question. For the whole sentence reads: “In the way of Thy judgments,” or ordinances, “O Lord, have we waited for Thee” (Isaiah 26:8). And David waited in the very same way, as his own words testify: “I have waited for Thy saving health, O Lord, and have kept Thy law. Teach me, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, and I shall keep it unto the end.”
I will mention one more objection, because it has been so frequently raised. “Does St. Paul not say, ‘If ye be dead with Christ, why are ye subject to ordinances?’ (Colossians 2:20). Therefore, a Christian, one that is dead with Christ, does not need to use the ordinances any more.” So you say, “If I am a Christian, I am not subject to the ordinances of Christ!” Surely you must see that the ordinances mentioned here cannot be the ordinances of Christ. They are the Jewish ordinances, which a Christian is certainly no longer subject to. The same appears from the words immediately following, “Touch not, taste not, handle not;” all evidently referring to the ancient ordinances of the Jewish law. This objection is the weakest of all. And, in spite of all this, that great truth stands unshaken, that all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it by the means which He has ordained.
The Order of Using the Means
We recognize that there is an order that God usually uses in bringing a sinner to salvation. One who is spiritually unconscious is going along in his own way, not having God in his thoughts, when God comes on him unexpectedly, perhaps by an awakening sermon or conversation, perhaps by some act of providence, or even by a sudden stroke of His convicting Spirit, without any outward means at all. Now having a desire to escape from the judgment to come, he purposely goes to hear how it may be done. If he finds a preacher who speaks to the heart, he is amazed, and begins searching the Scriptures to see whether these things are so. The more he hears and reads, the more convinced he is; and the more he meditates on this day and night. Perhaps he finds some other book which explains and enforces what he has heard and read in Scripture. By all these means, the arrows of conviction sink deeper into his soul. He also begins to talk about of the things of God, which are always in his thoughts; and even to talk to God; to pray to him; although, out of fear and shame, he hardly knows what to say. Doubting whether God will listen to a sinner like him, he wants to pray with those who know God in the congregation. Here he observes others going up to the table of the Lord. He considers, “Christ has said, ‘Do this!’ But I am too sinful. I am not worthy.” After struggling with these thoughts awhile, he breaks through. And so he continues in God’s way, in hearing, reading, meditating, praying, and partaking of the Lord’s supper, until God, in the way that pleases Him, speaks to his heart, “Thy faith hath saved thee. Go in peace.”
By observing this order of God’s working, we learn what means of grace is appropriate for any particular soul. If any means will reach a careless sinner, it is probably hearing, or conversation. To the careless, therefore, we might recommend these, if he ever has any thoughts about salvation at all. To one who begins to feel the weight of his sins, not only hearing the word of God, but reading it too, perhaps along with other serious books, may be a means of deeper conviction. You could also advise him to meditate on what he reads, so that it may have its full effect on his heart, and to discuss it with others who walk in the same way. When trouble and heaviness take hold of him, you should urge him to pour out his soul to God; and when he feels the worthlessness of his own prayers, remind him to go into the house of the Lord, and to pray with those that fear God. If he does this, he will learn the Lord’s last command, and this is the time when we should reinforce the leadings of the Holy Spirit. This way we can lead him, step by step, through all the means which God has ordained; not according to our own will, but as the providence and the Spirit of God prepare the way.
Yet, since we find no command in Scripture for any particular order to be observed, so neither do the providence and the Spirit of God follow a certain order. Rather, the means by which different men are led and find the blessing of God are varied and combined together in different ways. Still, our wisdom is to follow the leadings of His providence and His Spirit; to be guided in this (especially as to the means by which we ourselves seek the grace of God), partly by His outward providence, which gives us the opportunity of using a variety of means, and partly by our experience, to know by which means His Spirit is most pleased to work in our hearts. In the meantime, the certain and general rule for all who long for the salvation of God is this: whenever opportunity allows, use all the means which God has ordained; for who knows exactly how God will meet you with the grace that brings salvation?
The Manner of Using the Means
As to the manner of using them, which determines whether they convey any grace at all to the user; we would be wise, first, to remember that God is above all of these means. Be careful not to limit the Almighty. He does whatever He pleases, and at the time of His choosing. He can convey His grace, either with or without any of the means He has appointed. Expect His appearing at every moment! Whether it is at the time when you are using His means; or before, or after that time. Even when you are prevented from using them, He is not. He is always ready, always able, always willing to save.
Second, before you use any means, let it be deeply impressed on your soul that there is no power in this. Separate from God, it is only a dry leaf, a shadow. Neither is there any merit in using this; nothing inherently pleasing to God; nothing by which I deserve any favor from Him. But because God commands it, I do it; because He directs me to wait in this way, I wait for His free mercy, from which comes my salvation. Settle this in your heart, that the work itself is of no benefit; there is no power to save but in the Spirit of God, no merit, but in the blood of Christ; therefore, even what God ordains conveys no grace to your soul if you do not trust in Him alone. On the other hand, he that does trust in Him cannot fail to receive the grace of God, even if he were cut off from every outward means, or imprisoned in the center of the earth.
Third, in using these means, desire God alone. In every outward thing, look only to the power of His Spirit and the merits of His Son. Take care that you do not focus on the work itself; if you do, it is all wasted effort. Nothing less than God can satisfy your soul. Remember to use all means only as means; as ordained not for their own sake but in order to renew your soul in righteousness and true holiness. If they actually lead toward this, all is well. If not, they are only dung and dross.
Finally, after you have used any of these, take care not to congratulate yourself as though you have done some great thing. This is turning it all into poison and increasing your sins. Remember, if God is not there, what does this accomplish? If God is there, if His love flows into your heart, you will, in a sense, forget the outward work. You see, you know, you feel that God is all in all. Be humbled. Bow low before Him. Give Him all the praise. “Let God in all things be glorified through Christ Jesus.”
This sermon by John Wesley, edited for conciseness and readability, was originally published in A Timeless Faith: John Wesley for the 21st Century, edited by Stephen Gibson.