The concept of the means of grace is central to John Wesley’s understanding of the Christian life. In fact, the means of grace are so central that it is no exaggeration to say that Wesley’s theology of discipleship is a theology of the means of grace.
Means of grace are practices of discipleship through which we can receive the power of the Holy Spirit. These include practices of worship (such as the Lord’s Supper or hearing the Word preached) and practices of devotion (like prayer or fasting). They can also include other aspects of our discipleship, such as the fellowship of a small group or outreach ministry with the poor. One of Wesley’s chief examples of the means of grace, in fact, is the practice of visiting the sick.
Many people are familiar with Wesley’s categories of “instituted” and “prudential” means of grace. Or else they might have heard of his terms “works of piety” and “works of mercy,” which are common phrases he uses to describe the means of grace. Much less well-known is a category of Wesley’s in which I’ve become interested lately: the general means of grace.
The general means of grace are only named as such once in Wesley’s writings. His mention of them by that name comes in the annual conference Minutes of 1745. The passage in question goes like this:
Q. 11. How should we wait for the fulfilling of this promise [of entire sanctification]?
A. In universal obedience; in keeping all the commandments; in denying ourselves, and taking up our cross daily. These are the general means which God hath ordained for our receiving his sanctifying grace. The particular are prayer, searching the Scripture, communicating, and fasting.
You’ll notice that he also mentions what he calls “particular” means of grace here. They are what he elsewhere calls either instituted means of grace or works of piety. His reference to them as particular means of grace is related to the fact that they are discrete actions in which we engage through our worship or devotion. The way he divides them from the general means of grace also gives us a clue as to the nature of the general means themselves. Rather than discrete actions, the general means of grace are those practices of a contemplative nature that are related to our spiritual intention. Items in his list such as “universal obedience” or “denying ourselves” are markers of what it means to have one’s heart turned fully to Christ.
Wesley refers to the general means of grace by that specific term in just this one place, to my knowledge. But the concept of the general means of grace is all over his writings. (See the sermon, “Self-denial,” for instance.) The more I looked into the way Wesley talks about the general means, the more I was struck that he seems to believe that a robust practice of the general means of grace is necessary for any of the means of grace to be effective. For instance, prayer or fasting or receiving the Lord’s Supper can only ever have real spiritual benefit if one’s heart is rightly oriented. And what it means for the heart to be rightly oriented is for the person to embrace those general means of grace that together constitute a faithful disposition toward the God whose grace is mediated through them.
I’ve written an essay on the general means of grace that appears in this month’s issue of Methodist History. (I will post the article when it appears online on the General Commission on Archives & History’s website.) There has been very little scholarly work done on the general means of grace, which is what led me to develop the essay into something I could publish for others to read. I’m indebted to Ole Borgen and Henry H. Knight III , both of whom take up the concept to an extent in their major works on Wesley’s theology of the means of grace. (It was the work of Borgen and Knight that led me to investigate the concept in Wesley at all; otherwise I might have simply overlooked it as a separate and distinct category in Wesley’s theology of the means of grace.)
I think a thorough understanding of the general means of grace must be had for Wesley’s overall theology of the means of grace to really make sense–they become the link between the practice of discipleship and the transformative power of grace when the “responsive” character of grace is taken into account in the Wesleyan logic. And I also think the general means of grace provide a resource for those whose spiritual inclinations lean in a more contemplative direction. Wesley’s theology of discipleship can seem very busy, and indeed it is. There is also room in it for contemplation too, though. In a couple of places, Wesley mentions one of the general means of grace that he calls the “exercise of the presence of God.” It is a wonderful phrase that points to our calling to witness the goodness and beauty of God simply by beholding that beauty and goodness in our present awareness. That’s something that doesn’t require outward activity but in fact can be best done simply by sitting still and contemplating God’s eternal majesty.
[Update as of 10/8/13: My article has now appeared online via Methodist History’s website. You can access the relevant links here.]