The Means of Grace

What are the “means of grace”? What does that phrase mean?

The phrase “means of grace” isn’t unique to United Methodism—other Christian communities use it as well. United Methodists and other Methodists worldwide trace the phrase “means of grace” back to John Wesley. In speaking of the means of grace, Wesley points to the many ways that God meets us and offers to be in relationship with us.

Early in the Methodist movement, John Wesley discusses the means of grace. In his “General Rules” that persist in our United Methodist Discipline (¶104), Wesley describes them as “ordinances of God.” These “ordinances” are public worship; reading, hearing, and meditating upon Scripture; receiving the Lord’s Supper; family and private prayer; and fasting. Wesley’s sermon “Means of Grace” ties the term “means of grace” with the “ordinances.” The “means” are “outward signs, words, or actions” that are “ordinary channels” by which God gives to individuals the type of grace they need. Preventing or prevenient grace causes a first longing for God. Justifying or pardoning grace is the means by which God brings an individual into a saving relationship. Sanctifying or sustaining grace enables a person to live a truly Christ-like life, filled with God’s love.

"Five Means of Grace" by Elaine A. Heath. Order here:

To this list of means of grace, Wesley later added “Christian conference.” By this term, Wesley and the early Methodists meant conversation that enables growth in faith.

Wesley’s later writings identify these means of grace as “instituted” means. The means are “instituted” because Jesus, in the Scriptures, told us to use them, and the church from the very beginning has practiced them. Wesley also labels them as “works of piety” in contrast to “works of mercy,” such as caring for the sick, needy, imprisoned, and poor. Methodists were to do both kinds of works, and especially to take advantage of the means of grace as often as possible. All of these means were never to be “works” in themselves. The means are instruments that convey God’s gifts of love and acceptance.

Wesley often described the Lord’s Supper as principal among the means of grace. Yet in his listings of all the means, the Supper rarely comes first. Most often prayer is first, followed by searching the Scriptures. Prayer is to take place when God’s people assemble for worship. That setting for prayer is a means of grace. So also is prayer when done privately, with the family, or with a small group. The same with searching the Scriptures. Hearing Scripture read and preached upon is a means of grace, but so also is reading and meditation upon God’s word in a small group and as an individual.

During this time of quarantine and the locking of church doors because of Covid-19, United Methodists should take advantage of all the means of grace and use the internet along with other resources or technologies to support these practices.

  • Cultivate daily habits of private prayer as well as Scripture reading and reflection upon that reading.
  • Pray and study Scripture with those in your household.
  • Engage in Christian conference by using the internet: pray together, read scripture together, talk about the Christian faith in light of current circumstances.
  • Participate in online worship with the congregation.
  • As health allows, practice fasting—except during the celebratory days from Easter to Pentecost.
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