Some have called John Wesley a theologian of grace. While I believe he could with equal appropriateness be called a theologian of love, there is no question that grace is central to his theology. But as with love, it is important to understand Wesley’s distinctive approach to grace.
There are three commonplace depictions of grace that Wesley would clearly reject. The first is when grace as the unmerited favor of God is understood as something at a distance. In this view, God, who because of our sins has good reason to keep us out of heaven, instead smiles upon us because of Christ and welcomes us into heaven when we die. Wesley would strongly agree that grace is unmerited, but would resist reducing it to simply a change in the divine attitude. And even there, he would insist in a consistency in God: God is love, and God therefore hates sin. What changes is whether we recognize our sin and are open to receive God’s love and forgiveness.
The second depiction of grace also envisions God as at a distance. In this view, grace is a kind of “substance” mediated sacramentally that has a sanctifying effect. While a good Anglican sacramentalist, Wesley understands grace not as something created by God, but the very presence of God. Grace involves a transforming encounter with a holy God.
The third depiction of grace moves in the opposite direction. Here grace is seen as a direct or immediate encounter with God. What is denied is that this divine presence occurs in and through sacraments or other spiritual practices. There is an assumed dualism between spiritual and physical realities, such that a focus on the latter distracts one from the former. Wesley affirms the immediacy of God but denies the dualism.
As Wesley so often does, he transcends the common either/or way that theological opinions are often presented. Instead, he rejects their underlying assumptions and then shows the necessary relation between allegedly incompatible concepts. In this case, he rejects the dichotomy between mediated and immediate presence of God.
In replying to those who disputed his claim for immediate inspiration, Wesley makes this argument:
But all inspiration, though by means, is immediate. Suppose, for instance, you are employed in private prayer, and God pours his love into your heart. God then acts immediately on your soul: and the love of him which you then experience is as immediately breathed into you by the Holy Ghost as if you had lived seventeen hundred years ago. Change the term: say, God then assists you to love him? Well, and is this not immediate assistance? Say, his Spirit concurs with yours. You gain no ground. It is immediate concurrence, or not at all. God, a Spirit, acts upon your spirit. (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” I, § v/28, in Works, [vol.11; ed. G.R. Craig; Abingdon, 1989] 171-72)
Grace is normally, though not exclusively, mediated through means of grace. While these are practices we do, our doing them does not “earn” grace. Rather they are a means by which we live out a relationship with God with a kind of active receptivity, an openness to encounter again and again God’s living, transforming presence. Such means of grace include (but are not limited to) reading and hearing Scripture, preaching, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting, Christian conferencing, as well as works of mercy toward our neighbor. God is immediately present in all of these, transforming our lives in love both gradually and, in conversion and Christian perfection, instantaneously.
God is not far away but near, and meets us in the means of grace. To receive grace is to encounter that divine presence, and be transformed through divine power, so that we may increasingly reflect divine love.