Wesley’s Sunday Service, Part II

October 8, 2010

The Sunday Service: Worship as a Means of Grace

“Wesley’s vision of the sanctified life was not a universalized or abstract vision, it assumed the specific liturgical, communal, and devotional contexts within which he framed it,” Maddox explains.[1] A holy person was formed by holy habits of worship and service and shaped by their friendships and study.  These aspects of the believer’s life, according to Wesley, worked together to form him or her into a faithful disciple by the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  For Wesley, the justification of the believer before God at baptism was instantaneous. [2] Following this justification, however, the believer’s salvation progressed over time as the he or she matured and interacted with the grace bestowed by God.[3] Wesley termed these points of interaction with God’s grace moving the Christian through a process of salvation the means of grace.[4] By heartfelt engagement with the means of grace, which included The Lord’s Supper and practices of communal worship, and accountability to the society’s rules, as well as private practices such as prayer, scripture reading, works of mercy, and private prayer, the disciple not only received the grace of God, but gained an outlet for response to God’s grace.  Thus, these means are not works done to “earn” salvation, but to participate in salvation, the continual transformation of the Christians life into the image of Christ.[5]

Henry Knight helpfully points to a two fold concern of Wesley that through the means of grace, Wesley’s followers, “experience not only the Presence of God (which empowers them) but also the identity or character of God (which provides the pattern for their lives.”[6] Wesley believed these means were not only efficacious for opening the channel of God’s grace for participation by Methodists, but were effective in provoking a response on the part of the believer.  More traditional practices may convey the experience of the presence of God, which Wesley continued to hold as important. However, Wesley added characteristically Methodist practices with the conviction that these new practices would inspire Methodists to open their lives more fully toward the reception, or imprint, of the character of God along with the reception of the presence of God.  In essence, Wesley sought to encourage Anglicans (and later Methodists) to continue living out their thanksgiving by using the means of grace, generally, to be transformed from glory to glory.[7]

We see this understanding of grace conveyed most clearly in Wesley’s thought concerning the Lord’s Supper.  Maddox points out that Wesley denied any system substituting “spiritual” communion for the understanding of Christ’s grace mediated to us through the Lord’s Supper.  For Wesley, the meretricious grace provided by Christ through the Lord’s Supper is made effective by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Though the Lord’s Supper is considered a special, extraordinary means of grace for Wesley, this understanding of Eucharist sheds light on Wesley’s understanding of all the means of grace, in so far as the Lord’s Supper opens a channel for the Christians participation in Christ’s meretricious grace by way of the Holy Spirit.  With this understanding, we turn to examine corporate worship as a means of grace.

Considered along side the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace is the corporate worship of Christians.  Wesley emphasizes the specific liturgical framework of worshiping as a provision that sustains a life of continually growing holiness and discipleship.  Even while the Methodist movement existed within the Anglican Church, we see Wesley’s stringent requirement that the people called Methodists worship as regularly as possible within their Anglican parishes in addition to attending class meetings, bands, and services conducted at preaching houses.  The communal work of worship provided spiritual nutrients and sustenance that Wesley believed Christian believers could not spiritually live without.[8] Far from being a formal, but non-formative act, Wesley considers the worship of the community to be an act of liturgical catechesis and Christian formation.

Similarly, Henry Knight and Stephen Land point out that worship, as a means of grace and as a practice of spiritual discipline, continually turns the Christian toward the love of God they found in the Christian story.  This story shapes the affections and therefore the dispositions of the Christian toward more faithful discipleship.[9] Within the structure and story of the liturgy, as well as through the other means of grace, Wesley believed that the Christian story was enacted and thereby imprinted onto the worshiper. Thus, as Land and Knight point out, Wesley believed that corporate worship as a means of grace equipped Christian disciples to grow in holiness as witnesses to that story of love and faithfulness.  Through this formational participation in the revelation of Christ found in scripture by the means of grace, “the affections were formed and shaped as one worshiped over time.”[10]

As the Methodist movement in both Britain and America began to splinter away from the Anglican Church, we see Wesley making a concerted effort to provide means of corporate worship for the people called Methodists.  The Sunday Service for the People Called Methodists in America is the most obvious example of such a provision.  Many Methodists in America had grown away from the Church of England prior to the Revolutionary War.  This resulted in a distinctly American style of worship centered on freedom, personal piety, and the presence of God.[11] For the Methodists in America, the separation of the colonies from Britain cemented and formalized the already present division between the Methodists in America and the Church of England.[12] Wesley still wanted to provide a resource offering the nutrients of the liturgical tradition to those Methodists now separated from the Church of England.  In the Sunday Service we see Wesley holding together both the liturgical tradition and a less formal, but no less formational, style of the Methodists in North America.[13]

[1] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 192.

[2] We see this contained in Article IX of the Sunday Service, Of the Justification of Man. Through the justification of Christ Christians are justified before God immediately upon receiving Christ’s grace.

[3] In Wesley’s revised Article XVII, On Baptism the language of regeneration and new birth is used. Such language will be preferred by Wesley when referring to sanctification and he will emphasize the language of ‘maturity’ with regards to growth in grace.

[4] I say certain here simply because Wesley would affirm God’s grace working in the lives of believers in many ways. However, the believer can be certain of the means of grace as points of participation in God’s transforming love. The specificity of the means of grace is not meant to close off access to God’s gracious gifts or love, but meant to point Christians toward those practices and locations where they would most certainly receive and be able to respond to God’s grace. (Maddox, Responsible Grace, 195)

[5] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 194.

[6] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 194.

[7] In the General Thanksgiving offered in the Book of Common Prayer, used by Wesley, thanks is given for the means of grace in correlation with the hope of glory. The apostle Paul tells the Corinthians that they are being transformed “from glory to glory,” through lives of Christian discipleship (2 Corinthians 3:18). In Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace, we see his formula for believers living out that same maturation encouraged both in scripture and emphasized the early church. Westerfield Tucker points out that Wesley expected this General Thanksgiving to be included in every day prayer services. (Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 6).  And we can see how the language of such a prayer shaped Wesley and those who received these words thoughtfully.

[8] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 205.

[9] Knight and Land, On Being a Witness, 80.

[10] Knight and Land, On Being a Witness, 86.

[11] Westerfield Tucker, American Methodists, 9.

[12] Wesley acknowledges that the providence of God has seen fit to separate the American Methodists from the Church of England in his Letter to Our American Brethren sent with the Sunday Service in 1784. Likewise, Wesley ordains priests and superintendents for the American colonies who are now officially without the hierarchical structure and Episcopal oversight of the Church of England.

[13] Maddox, Responsible Grace, 206-207.


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