For John Wesley the means of grace were the environment in which persons first came to know and love God, and then grew in their relationship with God. They were essentially human practices or activities through which the Holy Spirit worked with transforming power. Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God, and appointed for this end—to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey… preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (J. Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” ¶ II.1). Among those practices Wesley considered to be means of grace are searching the scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, fasting, Christian conversation, and acts of mercy toward one’s neighbor.
In advocating the use of means of grace Wesley had to address two prevalent misunderstandings. The first, common in his own Church of England, understood God’s grace as mediated. Wesley’s difficulty was not with this view in itself, but with the assumptions that often seemed to accompany it. For many who spoke of mediation God was experienced as distant. Instead of the presence of God itself, the grace mediated through these means was somewhat like a “substance” that God gives us, something created by but apart from God. In contrast to this assumption Wesley insisted that God is present and can actually be encountered and experienced.
If the first misunderstanding correlated mediation and distance, a second linked divine presence with an unmediated immediacy. This position was adopted by some in the evangelical awakening (in which Wesley’s Methodists were central participants). The assumption here is the opposite: if God is immediately present, then that presence is necessarily unmediated. Indeed, to encourage our participation in means of grace would put the focus on mere human works or rituals, and draw us a way from God. Wesley instead was convinced that the means of grace were in fact the very places in which we normally meet God, for they were where God has promised to be.
Wesley makes clear his dissatisfaction with the assumptions underlying these two contrasting positions. He insists, contrary to both of them, that immediacy and mediation are not opposites but are united in the means of grace. He says, “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 experienced is 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 not this immediate assistance? Say, His Spirit concurs with yours. You gain no ground. It is immediate concurrence, or none at all” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion I,” ¶ VI 28).
For Wesley, God is not distant but present, and means of grace are not distractions from God but the central occasions to meet God. Grace is not something distinct from God but the gift of a transforming relationship with God that enables persons to receive and live a new life of love.