Bible Text: Malachi 3:7, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 | Preacher: Rev.M. | Series: What Would Wesley Say? | This week, I would like to try something a little bit different for my sermon. If you looked at the title in the bulletin, you might have an idea of what I am planning here. Our denomination was founded on the Methodist movement started by John Wesley.
And as such, Wesley preached many sermons over the course of his time working in God’s ministry. As a way of not just honoring that history, but also as a way to connect stronger with our Methodist heritage, I have planned several “What Would Wesley Say” sermons over the coming months.
In one of my classes in seminary I was required to outline 50 of Wesley’s sermons to help strengthen my understanding of Wesley’s theology and perspective. And as such, I found a few that really stuck with me, and those are the ones I would like to highlight. In this process I plan to tell you about what Wesley said and wrote, how it fits with our claimed beliefs, how it applies for our world today, and of course continue to tie it back to Scripture. I think these messages will be very enlightening to more of what our denomination was founded on in regard to theology and faith.
So today, for our first “What Would Wesley Say” sermon, I have chosen a sermon titled, “The Means of Grace”. Now as Methodists, the means of grace is a central part of our theology and understanding of our relationship with God. Wesley preached that “by ‘means of grace’ I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” These means of grace are essentially the venue through which God transmits to humanity the three types of grace.
But before we go any further, let’s touch on again these three types of grace. Wesley lists them as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. Prevenient grace comes from Wesley’s understanding that God holds an active presence in the lives of all humanity. Now this presence is not in any way dependent upon our action or response. Prevenient grace is a gift from God that is always available to us, but it is one that we can choose to refuse. Prevenient grace is God taking the initiative to relate with us as humanity.
The next type of grace that Wesley listed was justifying grace. This grace, just like prevenient grace, is a gift from God. But one of the major differences between justifying and prevenient grace is that with justifying grace we must actively respond through faith. Justifying grace is found in the reconciliation, pardon, and restoration in our relationship with God that is renewed through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Finally, Wesley lists sanctifying grace as the last of the three types. This type of grace is rather special in its own right for several reasons. You see Wesley understood salvation to not be just a single or one-time happening in our lives. Rather he understood salvation to be a continual experience of God’s presence that works to transform us into whom God has intended us to be. Wesley saw sanctifying grace as when we continue to grow and learn and mature in our ability to live our lives as Jesus lived.
He saw humanity as being called to deepen our knowledge of God and our love of God through prayer, reading and studying the Scriptures, fasting, worship, and sharing in fellowship with other Christians. He also saw humanity as being called to deepen our love of our neighbor through responding to the needs of humanity with compassion, working for justice within our communities, and other methods that reflected a union with God and an alignment with God’s will.
So, as I have explained, Wesley believed that God’s grace is extended to humanity from birth to death. He believed that it was offered freely by God and could not be gained through any of our own merit. But Wesley also taught that even though we do not earn the grace of God, humanity still needs to take part in specific Christian practices if we truly expect God to act on behalf of humanity. This is because God has chosen to work through these natural means.
So, this is just a quick overview of what Wesley preached about, these “means of grace”, but it is a truly foundation part of our beliefs and our doctrines as United Methodists. Now you may be thinking, “Okay, I got all of that. But how does it relate to our Scripture reading from the third chapter of Malachi?” Well let’s take a deeper look at that shall we?
Now in Wesley’s sermon he makes reference to several other passages and verse from the Bible. These include Acts chapter 2, Matthew chapter 7, Luke chapter 11, Luke chapter 18, Matthew chapter 6, James chapters 1 and 4, John chapter 5, Acts chapter 17, 2nd Timothy chapter 3, 2nd Peter chapter 1, 1st Corinthians chapters 10 and 11, Exodus chapter 14, 2 Chronicles chapter 20, and Colossians chapter 2. That’s sixteen other references to other passages in the Bible. So, Wesley doesn’t just focus on Malachi chapter 3 verse 7.
But let’s go back and reread what we find in that verse. “Ever since the time of your ancestors, you have deviated from my laws and not kept them. Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of heavenly forces. But you say, ‘How should we return?’” Well I think right there we can draw many parallels between this passage and Wesley’s description of the “means of grace” and each type of grace.
The passage talks about how humanity has fallen away from God, continuing to break the laws that God has outlined for humanity. And there is a plea by God for humanity to return to God and that God will return to humanity. But then humanity questions God as how can we return to God. And the answer is God’s grace.
God’s grace is what helps humanity to be in relationship with God, to know God, to experience God. God’s grace is what humanity is called to engage with through practices like prayer, worship, and study of the Scriptures. God’s grace is what continues to transform and change us into what has intended us to be, and whom God has intended us to be.
So, when humanity asks, “How should we return,” Wesley answers that question loud and clear with the response of “GOD’S GRACE”! I have said countless times before how much God wants to be in relationship with us. Even when we fail and we stray from God and God’s love, God still wants to be in relationship with us. God calls us to be in relationship with God and the means of grace is how we enter into and foster and grow and strengthen that relationship.
So how does this all work for us today, right now? One could make the argument that all this “grace stuff” is overblown and overdone. After all, the book of Malachi is believed to have been written by a prophet from the times of the Old Testament and directed at the people of Israel who had continually fallen away from God. They kept forgetting God, worshiping other gods, ignoring their history and God’s actions in their lives.
But we’re not like that today, right? We go to church. We do good deeds. We even pray before meals and before bedtime. We’re nothing like those old Israelites, right? Who needs all this “grace stuff” anyways? But is that true? Are we really different than the Israelites that we read about in the Bible? Does going to church and praying before we eat mean we don’t need God’s grace?
Well I would hope that all of you would answer in response to that last question that we always need God’s grace. As I mentioned in the beginning, God’s grace cannot be earned through our own merit. And it is God’s grace that leads us to the salvation secured by the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, I really do think that we desperately need God’s grace.
But what about the comparison to the Israelites? Does anyone really think that just going to church and praying before we eat or go to bed, that those actions are what open us to receive God’s grace? We have to remember that Wesley wasn’t preaching about grace to the Israelites from the Bible. They were all long dead by his time. Wesley was preaching to the people in the towns he visited. He was preaching to farmers, to teachers, to carpenters and blacksmiths, to lawyers, to ALL of the people. He was preaching to people just like all of us.
These were people who were probably in church all of the time. They probably prayed before meals and bedtime. They may have even devoted more time then than we do now to activities like these, including Bible study and fellowship time. And if Wesley thought these people needed to hear this message, I think it would be fair to say that he would like we would need to hear it in our world today too.
In our world today where we are so much more aware of crime, of war, of disaster, and of sin. We live in a world where seemingly every other week someone has declared that the world is ending in the coming days, even though the Bible tells us that no one but God knows when the world will end. We live in a world where people are persecuted for their race, their gender, and countless other reasons. The sad reality is that many of these same things were happening during Wesley’s time too. They just lacked the Internet and other technologies that have brought more attention to these issues that we have today.
Wesley’s message about the “means of grace” offers two important pieces that I think are just as important today as they were during his time, and even before that. The first is how he characterizes grace and how it isn’t something we earn through our own merit, but it is a gift from God. It is a gift that God gives freely to all humanity and helps to establish our relationship with God. This is great news! God’s grace leads to our salvation. This is the kind of thing that upon learning we would expect people to get excited about and celebrate.
But Wesley has this other piece that I think is just as important as the first. He makes the important note that while God’s grace is freely given to humanity as a gift, humanity can choose whether to accept or reject that gift. Humanity has free will. God offers us this amazing gift of grace, but we can still make the final decision as to whether or not we will accept and embrace this amazing gift.
As I have said before, Christianity is not a spectator sport. While we cannot earn God’s grace, we have to actively choose to accept it. And if we do accept it, we are then called to be active in our spiritual lives through Christian practices like prayer, worship, studying Scripture, and more. We don’t get to just say, “Sure God, I’ll happily accept this awesome gift of grace,” and then just sit around waiting for something else to happen.
We are called to be active in deepening our knowledge and understanding of our relationship with God. We are called to be active participants in our faith. Christianity is work. It’s not a recreation activity or some hobby we do in our spare time. But I think too often, that is what we relegate our faith to. We put it on the back burner. We leave it sitting somewhere aside from the busyness of our lives and of our world.
But that is not what we have been called to do by God. When we accept God’s grace, we are also accepting the responsibility of being active in our faith. That is not a small responsibility. It is a lifelong commitment that we are agreeing to. And it is one that I hope we all take very seriously, but also with great joy and hope. God wants to be in relationship with us, and it is God’s grace that opens that door and carries us through the journey that is our faith. Amen.