John Wesley prefaced his brother’s “Hymns on the Lord’s Supper” with an extract from D. Brevint’s The Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice. Like Brevint, the Wesleys used the terms “sacrament” and “sacrifice” somewhat differently than we do today. For them, “sacrament” denoted God’s activity in the Lord’s Supper, while “sacrifice” was our response to God. Today, we consider “sacrament” to encompass both.
What the Wesleys liked about Brevint’s account was its understanding of the Lord’s Supper as relational. As with all means of grace, the gracious initiative of God was received and responded to in the Eucharist. We have previously looked at the form and effect of God’s activity in the Lord’s Supper. Now we will examine the shape of our response.
With Brevint, the Wesleys understood “sacrifice” as two-fold: a commemorative sacrifice and our own self-offering to God. In commemoration the participants set the atonement of Jesus Christ before God as the grounds for the acceptability of their self-offering. As C. Wesley put it, “Father, see the victim slain, Jesus Christ, the just, the good, Offer’d up for guilty man, Pouring out His precious blood; Him, and then the sinner see, Look through Jesus’ wounds on me” (J.E. Rattenbury, ed., The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley [Epworth, 1948] 233).
Thus commemoration underscores that salvation is by grace alone; our self-offering does not merit salvation but is a response to that which we have received through Christ.
It may seem that commemoration in “sacrifice” is much like remembrance as a dimension of “sacrament.” The difference is this: in remembrance, the Father sets before our eyes the crucifixion of the Son; in commemoration we set before the Father’s eyes the death of the Son. Yet in doing this we are not alone, for united with our commemoration is the intercession of Christ: “For us He ever intercedes, His heaven-deserving passion pleads, Presenting us before the throne…” (222).
This, then, enables our self-offering. John Wesley insists that the atonement of Christ does not make our sacrifice unnecessary but makes it acceptable. Salvation is more than forgiveness. It is new life, and new life cannot be received unless it is lived. Thus Wesley says that “though the sacrifice of ourselves cannot produce salvation, yet it is altogether needful to our receiving it” (188).
Self-offering, at its heart, is following Christ. It consists of three interconnected elements. The first is the grief caused by our recognition that the crucifixion was caused by our sins: “O what a killing thought is this, A sword to pierce the faithful heart! Our sins have slain the Prince of Peace…” (238).
This grief leads to self-denial, in which our sins are themselves put to death: “Our sins which caused His mortal smart, With Him we vow to crucify; Our sins which murder’d God shall die!” (238).
Self-denial in turn leads to offering our lives in service as we follow Christ: “Jesus, we follow Thee, In all Thy footsteps tread; And pant for full conformity, To our exalted Head; We would, we would partake Thy every state below; And suffer all things for Thy sake, And to Thy glory do” (236).
The Eucharist for the Wesleys does not have as its end assurance of salvation or even forgiveness of sins. Its goal is to transform the heart in love, a love that is then lived out in service to God and neighbor.
The love we live is a reflection of the love that God is. For the Wesleys, nothing reveals that love more than the cross. One theme that runs through C. Wesley’s hymns is that of the crucified God, an idea later found in some nineteenth century Anglican theologians and made prominent in the twentieth century by J. Moltmann. Wesley does not explain it. He is content with portraying the paradox of an immortal God dying for humanity. But it is a paradox that expresses the depth of God’s love, the God who we meet whenever we come to the Lord’s Supper.