The current revival and increased appreciation of the sacraments within “Mainline” Protestantism provides the disciples of the Reformation with a great opportunity for liturgical recovery. While a renascence has been taking place for some decades, often distracted by “political” and “liturgically correct” elements, Methodists remain in a unique position to advance their understanding and recover a rich, sacramental heritage. While on one hand, the re-articulation of a Wesleyan concept of grace has forced Methodists to seek a reinvigoration of the role of grace in the all aspects of spiritual life; the increased emphasis on liturgical renewal and the evangelical witness within Methodism in recent years has also encouraged a more thorough appraisal of the role of grace in the sacraments. In essence, contemporary Methodists are faced with a healthy conundrum: confronting the primacy of the concept of grace in their theology on one hand; and, applying this overarching theological consideration to an understanding of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper on the other. This essay will be devoted to an examination of the role of grace as an instrument and symbol of the actual work of God as it relates to the Lord’s Supper. A concentrated effort will be made to assimilate the insight of primary sources, namely John Wesley’s Sermons, John and Charles Wesley’s Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, Dean Brevint’s Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice, as well as the scholarship of several important modern commentators. We shall consider the relationship of grace to the sacraments; then proceed to the significance of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace and its association to the other collaborative means and attempt to suggest the more comprehensive attributes of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace.
The Centrality of Grace and the Lord’s Supper
While the characteristics of the Wesleys’ concept of divine grace are multifaceted, the position of grace as the genuine and essential act of God’s perfect love for humankind can inform our inquiry. Humans are in a rather hopeless situation, removed from an intimate relation with God due to human sin. As we begin to acknowledge the limitations of our condition, usually at a point where we are experiencing “the sleep of death, the weights of…a burden (sin) too heavy to be borne,” we can appreciate the inner working of God’s grace. H. Orton Wiley, a noted Wesleyan scholar, suggests humankind’s inability is so complete that only God can save them; this does at least allow for a response, which would prove untenable for orthodox Calvinism who places such emphasis on total depravity. The Wesleyan concept of grace requires a response that is antithetical to “indolent inactivity.” In God’s grace we find the hope that brings order to our lives. Without such a concept of grace, “the cosmos itself would fly into disarray and chaos.” This grace can operate in a variety of forms, but it always assumes the sign of God’s love of humanity. Charles Wesley’s sudden movement within his corpus of eucharistic hymns from “pardoning grace” to the “life of grace” suggests the importance of the concept to an accurate articulation of the tenets of Wesleyan sacramental theology:
Thou our faithful hearts prepare, Thou Thy pardoning grace declare; Thou that hast for sinners died, Show Thyself the Crucified. (34:3)
The concept quickly assumes a “double” quality and grace becomes the personification of the perfect love of the divine:
Worthy the Lamb of endless praise, Whose double life we here shall prove, The pardoning and the hallowing grace, The dawning of and the perfect love (38:1)
The elongation of a concept of grace as an extended relationship with God over the course of lifetime of devotion, connected with an eschatological element becomes part of the evolution of the notion, especially within the context of the Lord’s Supper:
Our life of grace we here shall feel, Shed in our loving hearts abroad, Till Christ our glorious life reveal, Long hidden with Himself in God (38:4).
Such a full appreciation of divine grace was essential to the life of the believer. As Colin Williams suggests, John Wesley remained a devotee of the Protestant notion of salvation by faith through God’s grace alone, although he also articulated the limits of “cheap grace” as it was associated with Luther. Grace, as with the Lord’s Supper, had a vibrancy associated with it that could not be excluded.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church begins with an unequivocal presentation of the centrality of the importance of the theological understanding of grace to the Methodist tradition: “Grace pervades our understanding of the Christian faith and life.” Grace is at the core of our theological enterprise and our appreciation of the sacraments.
The formal means of grace serve as mediums of presenting, confirming and defining our devotion to Christ:
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.
By naming these essential habits in such a way, the Wesleys have sided with the general trend of the Reformation to avoid describing the elements as “marks.” The “means” are to serve as an external sign of an interior grace and assume either an instituted or prudential form. Among the instituted means, prayer assumes the pre-eminent position, described as the “chief” source. Within the same context, the Wesleys detail the use of scripture and the Lord’s supper, possibly suggesting a special status for these means as compared to fasting and Christian conference that are mentioned at a later point. The initial three are summarized as the ordinary means. The three prudential means of “doing no harm, by avoiding evil,” “doing good of every possible sort,” and following the rules of the societies (small discipleship groups) and participating actively in the gatherings.
As a means of grace, the sacraments, with special emphasis on the Lord’s Supper, also serve as the basis for identifying the Church in the world. For Calvin, it was to be found:
Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution…
Wesley obviously accepts this in a rather complete form when he presents his version:
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation…in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administrated
The sacraments as a means of grace are intimately woven into the life of the Church and serve as one of the foundations of its existence. At the center of one’s devotion to God as exhibited by participation in the means of grace was the Lord’s s Supper, which was one of the more easily repeatable acts. It is the special position of the Lord’s Supper as a peerless spiritual and theological means that merits special consideration of its importance.
The Lord’s Supper as a Special Means of Grace
Of the means of grace, the Lord’s Supper is one of few the Wesleys’ reserve to separate and elaborate upon in the course of either a sermon or treatise or series of hymns. This obviously suggests the exceptional importance of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace and as a central act of Christian worship for Methodism. But the Wesleys affirm the Lord’s Supper as a central teaching and practice of the Christian life. For the communicant, they encourage an examination of the appropriate descriptions of the sacrament in the Gospels and First Corinthians, as well as the proper preparation for receiving the sacrament. Both are, of course, operating under the assumption that the individuals who come to the table are already baptized; however, the proper preparation must always be part of the process of sharing in the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper, more than the other form of the means, requires an integration of the other means of grace. Before one can adequately receive the bread and wine, they must prepare by “self-examination and prayer.” This process allows for the “full purpose of the heart” by keeping the commandments and allowing for an openness to the work of God in one’s life at all times. For the Wesleys, the Lord’s Supper served as a linchpin of the means of grace; it allowed for all the disciplines necessary for the Godly to come together and complement each other. In terms of the devotional life, the Lord’s Supper served as the anamnetic grounding for every other activity. This eucharistic hymn presents an evocative affirmation of this sentiment:
Glory to Him who freely spent
His blood, that we might live,
And through this choicest instrument
Doth all His Blessing Give
Fasting He doth, and hearing bless
And prayer can much avail,
Good vessels all to draw the grace
Out of salvation’s well
But none, like this mysterious rite
Which dying mercy gave
Can draw for all the promised might
And all His will to save (42).
The Wesleys’ comprehensive view of the spirituality associated with the Lord’s Supper demanded a great deal of effort on the part of the participants, but the reward was also great; decadent humanity could be renewed and the renewal experienced from such devout participation would empower the people of God. The Lord’s Supper must also be considered as an extraordinary amalgam of theological insight that also serves to unify the other means of grace. Brevint argued the Lord’s Supper was an additional contribution to the preached word of God: “The end of the Holy Communion…is to make us partakers of Christ in another manner than when we only hear the word.” The Wesleys incorporated this insight and affirmed a strong sacramental doctrine as well a powerful doctrine of the Word. The mutual compatibility of the two means of grace was important to the Wesleys’ understanding of normative worship practices and deserves the attention of contemporary leaders of worship.
The holy meal was not only an combination of the means of grace, but it was the inner source of communication. The late Bishop Borgen defends this notion of communication as an active process to perpetuate the active characteristic of Christ’s power and love for His children. The communication Wesley describes by quoting the language of the Book of Common Prayer: “‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion,’ or communication, ‘of the blood of Christ?' It allows the participant to share in a special mode of communication with the Lord. A special circumstance is presented “wherein God entertains Man as his own Table.” The essential elements of salvation can now be appreciated regardless of the chaos of earthly existence. The sacrifice of Christ and our daily sacrifice for Him affords a new, more enlightened understanding. The Lord’s Supper can now be seen as Wesley describes it in his revision of the Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession as: “(the) sacrament of redemption,” and as the authentic presentation of our Lord.
We can now assert that the pivotal position of the Lord’s Supper within Wesley’s presentation of the means of grace serves to unify the potentially divergent threads of Wesleyan devotional life. It provides the theological as well as ecclesical harmony needed to promote the Kingdom of God. It encompasses the needs of a sinful humanity and a loving God. As Bishop Borgen suggests: “God’s purpose, man’s need, and the support of Scripture stand behind Wesley’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace.” The sharing at the table, ultimately reminds the communicant of the hope in Christ and of the possibility of healing the wounds of earthly existence:
The promis’d Grace vouchsafe to give
As each is able to receive,
The blessed Grief to All impart
Or joy; or Purity of Heart (76:2)
Books on the topic of or mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 1992. Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992.
Borgen, Ole E. John Wesley on the Sacraments. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Francis Asbury Press, 1985.
Dieter, Melvin E. and Daniel N. Berg. The Church. Anderson, Indiana: Warner Press, 1984.
Carter, Charles. A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1983.
Collins, Kenneth J. Wesley on Salvation: A Study in the Standard Sermons. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1989.
Hinson, William H. The Power of Holy Habits: A Discipline for Faithful Discipleship. Nashville: Abingdon, 1991.
Kinghorn, Kenneth Cain. The Gospel of Grace: The Way of Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
Lawson, John. The Wesley Hymns. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1987.
Lindstrom, Harold. Wesley and Sanctification. Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1980.
Marquardt, Manfred. John Wesley’s Social Ethic: Praxis and Principles. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.
Oden, Thomas C. After Modernity…What? Agenda For Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1990.
————–. Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1988.
Outler, Albert C. The Works of John Wesley, Volumes One to Four: Sermons. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.
Rattenbury, J. Earnest. The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley. Cleveland: Order of Saint Luke Publications, 1990.
Williams, Colin. John Wesley’s Theology Today. Nashville: Abingdon, 1960.
1. Edward Sugden, editor, John Wesley’s Fifty-Three Sermons (Nashville: Abington, 1983), p. 170.
2. As quoted in Charles Carter, editor, A Contemporary Wesleyan Theology (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1983), p. 485.
3. Sugden, Ibid. p. 170.
4. Kenneth Cain Kinghorn, The Gospel of Grace: The Way of Salvation in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 61.
5. J. Earnest Rattenbury, The Euchararistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley (Cleveland: Order of Saint Luke Publications, 1990), H-12.
6. Ibid, p. H-13.
7. This is actually a term borrowed from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1951), p. 1.
8. Colin Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960), p. 69.
9. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 1992 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992) p. 44.
10. Sugden, Ibid., p. 171.
11. Ibid. This is a contestable point. Several of the eucharistic hymns suggest the Lord’s Supper is the primary act of the spiritual life (see footnote 17 and cited text).
12. Albert C. Outler, John Wesley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), p. 178-179. This is from Wesley’s “Rules” of 1739. In this list the Lord’s Supper follows public worship and the ministry of the word.
13. John Calvin, Institutes, edited by John T. McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, in the Library of Christian Classics, volumes XX and XXI (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), p. 1023.
14. John Wesley, “Of the Church,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 5 (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House), p. 396, as quoted in Melvin E. Dieter and Daniel N. Berg, The Church (Anderson, Indiana: Warner Press, 1984), p. 330.
15. Outler, Ibid., p. 337.
16. Rattenbury, Ibid., p. H-14.
17. I am borrowing at this juncture from Manfred Marquardt’s depiction of Wesley in his John Wesley’s Social Ethic: Praxis and Principles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), pp. 96-101.
18. Rattenbury, Ibid., p, 151.
19. Ole Borgen, John Wesley on the Sacraments (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Francis Asbury Press, 1985), p, 184.
20. Sugden, Ibid., p. 178.
21. Duty of Receiving, as quoted by Borgen, Ibid.
22. As Thomas Oden suggests, Wesley amends the Anglican Thirty-nine articles to suit his purposes [Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Francis Asbury Press, 1988), p. 111.].
23. Ibid., p. 121.
24. Borgen, Ibid., p. 184.
25. Rattenbury, Ibid., p. H-24.