John Wesley was a great theologian of the grace of God, and he knew that grace is an invisible movement in which God sovereignly invades the heart of a believer. You can call it experiental or individualist or pietistic or emotional or whatever else you want to call it, but in all his preaching, Wesley sought only this one thing: to bring the soul into direct contact with the gracious God. The first lines of the first sermon in his Standard Sermons are classic in this regard:
All the blessings which God hath bestowed upon man are of his mere grace, bounty, or favour; his free, undeserved favour; favour altogether undeserved; man having no claim to the least of his mercies. … For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand. “All our works, Thou, O God, hast wrought in us.” These, therefore, are so many more instances of free mercy: and whatever righteousness may be found in man, this is also the gift of God.
This is Wesley praising God, but you can hear a lot of doctrine in the doxology: the classic Protestant teaching on grace rings out in these lines, and behind it the patristic (perhaps especially Augustinian) confession of our radical dependence on God, both as creatures and sinners. The comprehensive and consensual character of Wesley’s preaching is what marks him as a doctor of the universal church, a man who modeled what he called “a catholic spirit” and cautioned against bigotry in church matters. He was an Anglican Christian of the decidedly Protestant and evangelical variety, and without being a jerk about it, he commended his faith to all who would listen.
It’s that evangelical note that sounds so strongly when Wesley talks about grace. To be more precise, it’s his insistence that (1) we need to encounter God directly, and that (2) it’s all up to God’s initiative. Around 1740, Wesley had to engage in some controversy with preachers who shared these two presuppositions but drew erroneous conclusions. “Since this mystical encounter is all up to God,” they argued, “we should remain totally passive in awaiting it.” No prayer, no Bible study, no church attendance, no communion, no nothing but waiting for God to reach down and touch us. Let grace be grace, by doing nothing!
Wesley confronted this error in many ways, but his best work on the subject is Sermon 16, on The Means of Grace.
Wesley defines a means of grace as “outward signs or words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men …grace.” He says there are many of them, but the main ones are prayer, Bible study, and the Lord’s supper. Since God has ordained these things as his ordinary channels of grace, we know this is where grace is to be expected and awaited. We all agree we’re waiting on God’s initiative. The only question is, should we wait IN the means or OUT of them?
In them, obviously, says Wesley. Count on God to show up, and camp out in the ordained means.
In fact, if you want to call this direct encounter with God “mystical,” Wesley would parse that famously vague word with considerable precision. “Mystic” is mostly a bad word for Wesley, and he defines it as “neglecting the means of grace,” or seeking immediate encounter with God outside of those ordinary channels ordained by God. Notice that Wesley agrees with the mystics that we need to encounter God personally and inwardly; he draws the line, however, in any abandoning or neglecting of the means of grace.
Four other things to note about this category of “means of grace.” First, “God is above all means,” and we should “retain a lively sense” of that. He has ordained certain ordinary channels, and it is unfaithful of us to be found waiting anywhere else for him but where he has promised to meet us. But he himself is not bound: “He doeth whatsoever and whensoever it pleaseth him. He can convey his grace, either in or out of any of the means which he hath appointed. Perhaps he will. “Who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counsellor?” Look then every moment for his appearing! Be it at the hour you are employed in his ordinances; or before, or after that hour; or when you are hindered therefrom: He is not hindered. He is always ready, always able, always willing to save. “It is the Lord: Let him do what seemeth him good!””
Second, these “outward” signs include prayer, which we tend to think of as inward. But the words of prayer, spoken or unspoken, solitary or congregational, are “outward” in the sense of things that are not ourselves, so they are subject to the same manipulation and externalization as the other means: “We know that there is no inherent power in the words that are spoken in prayer, in the letter of Scripture read, the sound thereof heard, or the bread and wine received in the Lord’s supper, but that it is God alone who is the giver of every good gift, the author of all grace; that the whole power is of him, whereby, through any of these, there is any blessing conveyed to our souls.”
Third, while Wesley is mainly talking, in Sermon 16, to those who are tempted to make too little of the means, he is just as worried about those who make too much of them. In particular, churchgoers who take the means to be replacements for the grace itself, who mix up the means for the end. Wesley famously complained in the preface to his printed sermons that in his day and age, “mere outside religion… has almost driven heart religion out of the world.” Wesley had a full supply of his strongest warning language against this error: “Above all, if they are used as a kind of commutation for the religion they were designed to subserve, it is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness of thus turning God’s arms against himself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in.” This is not waiting in the means but resting in them: trouble!
Finally, when Wesley lists prayer, Bible study, and the Lord’s supper as the chief means of grace, he lumps together two things we would normally put in the category of “spiritual disciplines” and one thing we would put in the category “sacrament” or “church ordinance.” As is so often the case with reading Wesley, what initially seems like naivete or theological confusion turns out to be profound theological intuition. I have found this wider category, means of grace, to be a fruitful way of thinking about a whole range of things from disciplines to sacraments to general revelation. Get a solid grip on grace, then ask about the means by which God ordinarily channels it to us, and many things in heaven and earth start making more theological sense: maybe even heaven and earth themselves.