“Ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them.”
It is necessary to contextualise this sermon: John Wesley was a minister in the Church of England and he preached within the walls of C of E churches as well as his well known evangelical outdoor preaching. Whenever he preached he robed up, as in he put on the robes of a Minister no matter where he was. So although he was preaching about inward growth and the work of the Spirit he did it within the confines of the liturgy of the established church. He did not preach to people to ignore the rituals but to embrace them as being useful, helpful and a way to know more of the Lord.
This sermon therefore is not a rhetoric against the ordinances or rituals of the church but it does raise questions about them. To Wesley, who believed these means of grace to be a way to know Christ, prayer and devotion, meditation and partaking in the Lord’s Supper were vital to a person not only growing in faith but also a very real way in which God could meet a seeker or ‘almost Christian’ or mature in the faith Christian or an all-in-all Christian.
If we do not believe we are communicating with the Living God when we pray – why do we do it?
He describes the means of grace as the outward signs, words or actions, ordained by God to be the ordinary channels whereby He conveys to us prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace.
The chief means of grace is prayer whether the secret prayers of the heart in our own language, private prayers locked in a press or public praying with ordinary folk like us in as part of a congregation. Secondly reading, hearing and meditating on scripture, and receiving the Lord’s Supper.
There is no power in the stuff we do, no power in prayer or the words of Scripture or indeed Communion but that God alone who is the giver of every good gift, the author of all grace, that the whole power is of him and him alone, so that any blessing we receive through one of these means of grace, is given by His power not because we stood in a particular way, or bowed really low or lived a life in a distinct or peculiar way.
Wesley talks of profit which we no longer use in his understanding of the word. Useful and helpful would translate well into his phrase:
We allow, likewise, that all outward means whatever, if separate from the Spirit of God, cannot profit at all, cannot conduce, in any degree, either to the knowledge or love of God.
People contend that Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace in particular is not effectively theologically sound. However if a boat was capsizing all the people on board will be praying, and praying to God because in that moment of facing death clarity is everything. They say “How can a person pray who does not have faith?” But to say this belittles God’s immense power and love.
Wesley often spoke about Communion as a means of grace and in the last year I have been on a journey of discovery with the Lord’s Supper and I can think of nothing more beautiful than celebrating Communion and seeing someone being beautifully brought to the foot of the Cross and confessing & repenting for the first time.
Wesley ends this sermon with these amazing and challenging words:
You see, you know,
you feel, God is all in all. Be abased. Sink down before him. Give him all the praise. “Let
God in all things be glorified through Christ Jesus”. Let all your bones cry out,” My song
shall be always of the loving-kindness of the Lord: With my mouth will I ever be telling of
thy truth, from one generation to another!”