Wesleyan Theology: The Sacraments as Means of Grace
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
The role of grace in the life of the believer, and the stages through which one passes in one's Christian walk, are reflective of the Protestant side of John Wesley's theology. But there was a side to Wesley's Theology that was far more "catholic" in character, a side that dealt with how the stages of grace were to function in the life of the Believer. Essentially, Wesley asked "How does one receive God's Prevenient, Justifying, Sanctifying, and Perfecting Grace?" His answer to this question has become known as the "Means of Grace" — the ways in which God's Riches At Christ's Expense come to us. There are two basic kinds of Means of Grace: the sacraments and the sacramentals.
John Wesley was an Anglican Priest, and hence his understanding of the sacraments reflected, closely, what we today call "anglo-catholicism." For Wesley, a sacrament was the outward sign of God's gift of inward grace, to which Humans have the responsibility of outward response. Without our response, the sacrament is not completed. Fundamentally, this is very similar (though not identical) to the Catholic understanding of the sacraments. To this idea Wesley added the requirement that Jesus have clearly established the sacrament in Scripture. Since this can only be said with certainty of Baptism and Holy Communion, Wesley — following his Anglican tradition — only recognized these two as formal sacraments, or as they are often referenced: "sacraments properly-so-called."
As Means of Divine Grace, Wesley understood the sacraments as more than just outward obedience. Through the application of, and participation in, the sacramental act Wesley believed that grace could be received. Hence, Wesley looked upon Baptism as: "An outward and visible sign of an Inward and spiritual grace." In terms of his Order of Salvation, Wesley identified Baptism as the Church's external recognition, affirmation, and proclamation of Prevenient Grace: God's calling on our lives comes to us apart from anything that we do, and we have the responsibility of response — that response comes in one of the sacramentals: Confirmation.
For Wesley, Holy Communion was the means of grace through which we receive the real presence of Jesus. The reality of Jesus' Divine, grace-conveying, life-transforming presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion must not be minimized. While Wesley did not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation as explains how Jesus is really present in and through the bread and the wine, he nevertheless affirmed that Jesus was really, efficaciously present to the believer when the believer ate and drank of the elements with faith. Wesley closely identified this Means of Grace with Sanctifying Grace: Holy Communion provides Christians with access to the grace which we need to literally walk the Christian walk and improve our Christian living toward the goal that God has for us in Christ Jesus.
These two sacraments are the principle Means of Grace that God gives us to access what we need, as Christians, to live the disciple's life. That is why frequently remembering our Baptisms and receiving Holy Communion is so very important. Through both of the sacraments the Real Presence of Jesus is made known to us in the blessed water and in the broken bread and blessed cup.
© 1996 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
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As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.