Being Open to the Spirit of God: Wesley’s Theology of the Means of Grace

May 17, 2018

By J. Warren Smith

Although John Wesley was highly critical of Augustine for his denial that perfection was possible in this life and for his doctrines of the irresistibility of grace and predestination, nevertheless, he and Augustine shared two related theological commitments: the corruption of human nature due to sin and the absolute dependence on grace for righteousness. During the Pelagian controversy of the early fifth century, Augustine often cited the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:11-12). The tax collector, who did not presume to lift his eyes to heaven but only prayed “Have mercy on me a sinner” was the foil for the Pharisee who by contrast boasts of his good works that set him apart from the tax collector. This story functioned as a cypher for talking about the divergent attitudes toward grace and the Christian life of Augustine and Pelagius. For Augustine, the self-righteous Pharisee is a figure of the Pelagians who denied their need for the added gift of grace in order to heal the human will of its self-centered love and fulfill the demands of the Law. By contrast, the tax collector’s posture of meekness reflects his recognition of our absolute dependence on grace for forgiveness of sin and growth in righteousness. Although the Pharisee is superior to the Pelagians in that he thanks the Lord for his righteousness, he reveals his pride, Augustine contends, because he does not ask for grace necessary for the fruits of righteousness (Spirit and Letter 13.22).

Similarly, Wesley holds that the works of righteousness are not our works but the works of God acting in us. Before receiving the Spirit of adoption, people either before the law (natural state) or under the law (legal state) are in bondage to sin and cannot fulfill righteousness because they do not love God (Sermon 9 “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption”). The “natural man” is blissfully ignorant of his sin and “remains a willing servant of sin, content with the bondage of corruption; inwardly and outwardly unholy…not only not conquering sin but striving to conquer” (I.7). Although the person under the law loses the blissful naiveté of the natural man “shaken out of his sleep and awak[ened] into a consciousness of his danger” (II.1), he is not free. “He resolves against sin, but yet sins on; he sees the snare and abhors – and runs into it…The more he strives [out of fear of condemnation], wishes, labours to be free, the more does he feel his chains, the grievous chains of sin…” (II.7-8). Liberation from this bondage comes only with justification (i.e. the evangelical stage) when we receive the “Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15), that is when we come under grace, that is “the power of the Holy Ghost, reigning in his heart” (III.1). Finally, there is liberty (2 Cor 3:17), “The snare is broken and he is delivered. He not only strives, but likewise prevails; he not only fights, but conquers also,” (III.6); for “It is this Spirit which continually ‘worketh in them both to will and do his good pleasure,’… and thereby purifying their hearts from the love of the world,” (III.7).

Here we see the centrality of the Spirit who “sheds abroad the love of God into the human heart,” (Rom. 5:5) in both Augustine and Wesley. Indeed, Romans 5:5 is the most quoted verse of Scripture in Augustine’s corpus. Since Augustine identifies the Spirit with the love that united the Father and Son, the gift of the Spirit’s indwelling presence fills our soul with God’s own love so that our heart may be conformed to the heart and will of God. Then the image of God is renewed in us and we are able to fulfill righteousness. For Wesley too, in the “new birth” in the Spirit there is “the change…wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God” through whom “the love of the world is changed into the love of God, pride into humility,” (Sermon 45 “The New Birth” II.5). Holiness is possible by our participation in the holiness of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit. This participation Wesley describes as spiritual respiration (II.4): continuously breathing in the Spirit whom God breathes upon us and then exhaling the Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God adopted by his grace. This metaphorical description of the spiritual life as respiration conveys Wesley’s understanding of our absolute dependence on grace through communion with the Holy Spirit for a life of holiness without which “no one will see God” (Heb 12:14). In this sense, Wesley’s pneumatological understanding of grace stands firmly in the Augustinian tradition.

We must be clear, however, what we mean by the gift of the Spirit. This gift is not a onetime deposit in our soul but entails a continuous seeking, receiving, and sharing of the Spirit within the body of Christ. Through our spiritual respiration, “…all [the Christian’s] spiritual senses are then ‘exercised to discern’ spiritual ‘good and evil’. By the use of these he is daily increasing in the knowledge of God, of Jesus Christ whom he hath sent, and of all things pertaining to his inward kingdom,” (II.4 emphasis added).  In contrast with a Pelagian confidence in one’s moral self-sufficiency, that is, the native freedom to will and do the good, Wesley contended that we can be vessels that bear the love of God to the world and share the treasures of his grace only if the vessel of our soul is daily refilled, only if we feed upon our daily bread that is the manna of grace. Wesley emphasizes the ongoing, daily character of spiritual respiration as part of that maturation process whereby the Christian “grows up…to ‘the full measure of the stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13),” (II.4). In “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” he writes that the works of holiness are necessary for this maturation such that “…if a man willingly neglects them he cannot reasonably expect that he shall ever be sanctified in the full sense, that is, ‘perfected in love’. Nay, can he ‘grow’ at all in grace, in the ‘loving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ’?” (Sermon 43, III.4).

If there is no holiness apart from our participation in the holiness of God, then how does the Christian participate in God? How does she draw upon sanctifying grace? What does this spiritual respiration look life in very practical terms? Wesley’s answer: the means of grace. Wesley defines them as “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God…to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men presenting, justifying, or sanctifying grace,” (Sermon 16, “The Means of Grace” II.1). Although God uses these means to awaken those living in the naiveté of fallen nature to the knowledge of sin and move those under the Law to repentance and to trust in God’s forgiveness; for those who have experienced the new birth and live under grace, the means of grace refers to the spiritual disciplines whereby the Christian opens her soul to receive the sanctifying Breath of God. It is how we breathe in the Holy Spirit and abide in his charity-inspiring presence. As Randy Maddox has noted, Wesley recognized that that holiness of word, thought, and action were not possible by nature or a desire to do good; they were possible only through the cultivation of what Wesley called holy tempers, of which love is the greatest and the source of all other tempters. The tempers are habitual dispositions of the heart that allow the actualization of our intention to be holy. Yet, such tempers, though at times spontaneously infused by sanctifying grace, more often need to be nurtured through a cultivated relationship with the Spirit (Responsible Grace [1994] pp.178-9).

Some means Christ instituted among which are “searching the Scriptures”, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting; these are also called works of piety. First on Wesley’s list of these pious works is prayer which he speaks of as communicating one’s thoughts to God. Indeed, it is in prayer, especially when our words fail, that the Christian experiences the presence of the Holy Spirit, “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words,” (Rom 8: 15-16, 26). There is one goal of such prayer, and all other outward means, abiding in the presence of God and abiding continuously. The means, therefore, have no intrinsic potency but are efficacious entirely because of the power of the Spirit of God (Sermon 16, II.3). In Thomistic terms, the outward means of grace are instrumental causes but God is the efficient cause. Prayer cultivates holy habits or tempers because it makes us habitually aware of the Spirit’s indwelling presence. It is what Paul had in mind when he exhorted the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17). As Andrew Thompson has put it, “…our aim in practicing prayer as a means of grace [is] that our entire being would become a prayer offered up to God…[and we] come to know the presence of the Holy Spirit as a close as our own breath,” (Means of Grace [2015] p.60).

Even more than works of piety, works of mercy are a means of grace that trains our tempers for the service of others. While one may have the good intentions to care for those in need, Wesley recognized that the Christian does not always have the ability to carry out the intentions, not due to sloth, but because she is not yet temperamentally able. Although works of mercy are ultimately an expression of the love of God poured into the heart, the Christian must develop the proper temperament in order for such love to bear fruit. To use a modern example, a church member may believe that God has put it on his heart to teach a Middle School boys’ Sunday School class. His concern for the youth is admirable and is indeed an expression of God’s love for early adolescents. But unless the would-be-teacher has developed certain crucial holy tempers, chief among them being patience, his tenure as a Sunday School teacher will be short lived. Among the most important works of mercy, for Wesley, was visiting the poor. Such visitation cultivates the holy temper of compassion – the very compassion which Christ demonstrated by coming among us in our poverty – by creating a bond of personal acquaintance in a context that is not always easy or pleasant. Sitting by the bedside of a soul who constantly complains because it hurts him to get out of bed teaches us forbearance with his complaints. Spending time talking with an irascible individual who feels aggrieved by the world teaches one to be gentle and gracious. And visiting the person whose body is wracked with pain and yet does not complain but is ever so thankful for your visit teaches patience with which to face of one’s own much milder aches and maladies. In time spent with the poor – and in 18th c. England before disability income, the sick and infirmed who could not work were among the ranks of the poor – the poor cease to be an abstraction or the construct of one’s imagination. We experience them as real people with real problems that elicit heartfelt compassion. Visiting the poor also cuts through the class barriers and the accompanying pretentions of social superiority that Wesley deemed antithetical to Jesus’ call to love and care for the “least of these.” Those whom society shuns the Christian claims as brother or sister in Christ.

Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace marks the intersection of his pneumatology, doctrine of grace, spirituality, and moral psychology. Salvation and the life of holiness is entirely the work of grace understood as the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. The image of God is renewed in us when Christ’s eternal Spirit “rules in all our hearts alone” and our mind becomes conformed in love to Christ’s mind. Yet the believer is not passive. On the contrary, grace frees the believer to follow the bidding of the Spirit and to grow in grace. Such maturation – going on to perfection in love – requires the believer to open her soul to the out-pouring of God’s Spirit through the works of piety and works of mercy that bring us into daily fellowship with the Spirit so that our spirit may be conformed with Christ’s Spirit. One final point should be made. The Spirit is mysterious. The means of grace are not techniques we use to manipulate or control the Spirit’s power – that is the power Simon Magus wanted Peter to give him (Acts 8:9-24). As Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day he sleeps and wakes, and the seed sprouts and grows, though he knows not how,” (Mk 4:26-7). Martin Laird puts it well in Into the Silent Land when he writes that the spiritual disciplines are analogous to the way a sailor sets the sails of a ship so that the sails may catch the movement of the wind that will blow the ship to its home port. Through daily attending to the means of grace, we escape the danger of falling into spiritual complacency and stagnancy by surrendering ourselves to the Spirit’s mysterious movements which ever draws us and drive us to press on toward the prize of our upward calling in Christ.


Dr. J. Warren Smith is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Duke Divinity School and an ordained Elder in the North Carolina Annual Conference.