Opening Ourselves to Grace: The Basics of Christian Discipleship
Have you ever fallen in love? Do you remember what it was like? Your beloved consumed your every waking thought. You could not wait until you were able to embrace this person and express your love and devotion. When you were with your beloved, you felt complete and fully alive. You were more aware of the world around you because everything reminded you of your beloved. Your love grew when you spent time with your beloved and shared your life with this person. As time went by, you sought each day to become more like your beloved. Your love was all-consuming. It affected every aspect of your life. Your relationship with the beloved became part of you and formed your identity.
Christian discipleship is a relationship with Jesus Christ not unlike that which you share with the one with whom you fell in love. When we accept Jesus' invitation to take up our cross daily and follow him (see Luke 9:23), we become his friends (see John 15:14-17) and members of his family (Romans 8:15-17; Galatians 4:1-7). This relationship is a matter of heart and life.
In this paper we will explore how to live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. We will learn about God's grace, which is the character of the divine-human relationship, and we will learn the basic practices God has given to draw us to Christ and keep us with him. These basic practices of Christian faith and life are known in the Wesleyan tradition as the means of grace. If love describes the what of our relationship with Christ, the means of grace are how we live with Christ in the world and grow in loving and knowing God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Christian faith is more than agreeing with a set of doctrines or creeds. It is more than outward appearances, signs, and symbols. It’s more than saying “I’m a Christian.”
Faith is ultimately about what is happening on the inside. It is a heart changed by an encounter with the living God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The changed heart makes a difference in the way we live our lives in the world.
This life begins with forgiveness of our sins. When we acknowledge who we are (sinners in need of forgiveness), we can begin living into the lives God desires for us as his beloved children. With forgiveness comes freedom from sin and death so that we can love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love those whom God loves; as God loves them, in Christ. All this is God’s gift to the world – grace.
As we live this life, we become channels of grace for the world. As we walk with Christ in the world, he gradually removes the blockages to grace we have built up. As the barriers come down, his grace can flow through us for the world. Walking with Christ in the world changes us into the human beings God created us to be. He forms our character into a reflection of his. The goal of this life is to “have the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5). God does this in us as we “work out our salvation” (Philippians 2:13).
Let Us Plead for Faith Alone
Let us plead for faith alone, Faith which by our works is shown; God it is who justifies, Only faith the grace applies. Active faith that lives within, Conquers hell and death and sin, Hallows whom it first made whole, Forms the Savior in the soul
(Charles Wesley, 1740)
These lines from Charles Wesley describe the life into which God invites us. Faith is the heart of this life. This understanding of faith is relational. Faith is how we live with the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. Such a faith is belief, trust, and hope in God – the God who is revealed in the history of the people of Israel; in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and in the life of the church. Faith in this God is a living and active faith that is shown by how we live and love in the world. This faith is a gift from God; it is grace applied to life. Such faith gives freedom to love. As we grow in loving God and those whom God loves, our character is formed more and more into the character of Christ. Active, living, vital faith “forms the Savior in the soul.”
A Prayer of John Wesley:
“O that we may all receive of Christ’s fullness, grace upon grace; grace to pardon our sins, and subdue our iniquities; to justify our persons and to sanctify our souls; and to complete that holy change, that renewal of our hearts, whereby we may be transformed into that blessed image wherein thou didst create us.”
In this prayer, John Wesley summarizes the dynamic of grace. It moves in, with, through, and for the world for healing leading to wholeness; reconciliation leading to genuine trust, righteousness, and justice. Grace is the love of God, incarnate in Jesus Christ, and activated in the Holy Spirit, given to draw the world to God. By grace, God restores individuals and communities to right relationship in order to heal and form the image of Christ – damaged by sin – into wholeness. This is salvation. It is both the forgiveness of sin and the healing of broken human lives into wholeness in the likeness of Christ.
Baptismal Covenant Commendation and Welcome
Members of the household of God, I commend these persons to your love and care. Do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.
The life of grace God gives is lived with others in God’s household (John 15:16; Ephesians 2:19-22). The grace God gives is a responsible grace. It is responsible in two ways. First, as a gift that is offered freely and without price, it must be received and accepted as a gift. Because the gift is God’s unconditional love and acceptance, God does not impose the gift on anyone. We are free to respond with indifference, rejection, or acceptance. Second, if we choose to accept the gift and enter into God’s way of life in God’s household, with that acceptance comes accountability.
As members of God’s family, we must live by God’s household rules (loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving one another as Christ loves). Therefore, we are responsible for one another “for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity to the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). The life that God gives cannot be lived alone. It must be lived in a community (the church) of love and forgiveness in which all are nurtured, challenged, and accountable for growing in love to become fully the human beings God created them to be. In other words, grace equips and empowers each person to “do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope and perfect them in love.”
Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love and acceptance freely given to all. This grace is incarnate in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
This grace is free, but it is not cheap. It comes to us at great cost to God: the suffering and death of God’s Son. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well when he wrote, “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live (Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 4, pages 43 & 45).
Grace is universal. It is for all creation. God’s gift of life and love is not limited to the church or to human beings. It is for all the cosmos. In particular, this gift of freedom and healing is for all people. None are excluded.
Grace is relational because God is love (1 John 4:16b). The Triune God is a community of divine love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Grace is a reflection of God's character. Human beings, created in the image of this God (Genesis 1:26-27), are created for relationship with God and with one another. The nature of this relationship is the love that flows from God for the world.
Faith is God's work in and with human beings that opens the door, welcomes, and sustains them in vital, life-giving relationship. Faith is activated through human relationships of love and acceptance. It is very likely that you came to faith in Christ because a parent, grandparent, friend, Sunday school teacher, or pastor loved you enough to introduce you to God's good news in Jesus.
Grace is love, which is most profoundly revealed in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is self-giving, unconditional, and liberating. This love is experienced in forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and transformation. It is God’s gift to the world to form and restore brokenness to wholeness.
GRACE IS... PREVENIENT
Grace is working in the world, with, for, and in me before I am aware of God’s love and acceptance in Jesus Christ. (See John 1:1-18; 2:1-11; 6:1-14; Mark 2:1-12.) It is like a porch that invites and welcomes me to the door of God’s household.
Grace awakens me to who and whose I am. (See Luke 15:17-19.) Grace prepares me to accept God’s acceptance in Jesus Christ and gives me the freedom to say “yes” or “no” to God’s YES in Jesus Christ (Luke 15:11-13).
GRACE IS... JUSTIFYING
The porch brings us to the door of the house. The door is open. Faith is the door. When we accept God's acceptance (Luke 15:17), we know that our sins are forgiven Jeremiah 31:34; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 7:36-50; 1 John 1:9). The guilt of sin is removed by his love (Romans 8:1). Relationship with God is restored (Romans 3:21-26). There is relational change. Faith becomes real and active (Ephesians 2:8-10).
GRACE IS... SANCTIFYING
(Rooms of the house)
Grace helps us through the door (faith) and into the household (life) of God. Christ welcomes us with open arms as family. Grace equips us to live the life of a child of God. Paul describes this process in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new." The theological term for this is “regeneration.” Jesus describes it in John 3:3 & 5, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above … being born of water and Spirit."
This new birth, which naturally leads to growth, is called "sanctification." In "justification," grace leads us to a relational change with God. At that instant, our relationship with God is restored by grace through faith; and the Holy Spirit begins working on us from the inside out. There is a real change; a change of character that leads to holiness of heart and life. “By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, ‘I abide in [Christ],' ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:5-6).
Grace sets us free from the power of sin (Romans 8:9-11). We are free so that we can love as Christ loves. As we claim and live into this freedom for loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength — and for loving those whom God loves as God loves them — our character is formed more and more into the character of Christ. We “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
Christian discipleship is a process that has a goal and destination. John Wesley often quoted the Apostle Paul to describe the goal: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Our destination is Christ. Our goal is “having the mind of Christ.” In other words, grace working by faith leads us to live, serve, pray, and worship in such a way that we cooperate with and participate in God’s project of redemption and healing for planet earth. In the process, we become more and more the people and communities God created us to be, in Christ. We become so filled with the love of God that there is no longer room for sin and evil to be part of us. John Wesley called this “perfection in love.” The writer of 1 John puts it this way: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:17- 19).
THE MEANS OF GRACE
Salvation by grace through faith is a relationship with the living God who is revealed and known in Jesus Christ. Our relationship with God is much like the relationship we have with a spouse or a friend in that it must be nurtured. Our relationships are a lot like plants. If we neglect them by failing to water, feed, and weed them, they dry up and, eventually, die and are discarded. To grow and thrive, they require regular attention and care. Our relationships require attention and participation. We need to give attention to the people we love; to their identity and character. We need to know those we love: their likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams, gifts and graces. We also need to spend time with them, participating in their lives.
We need to attend to our relationship with God in much the same way. We know from the witness of Scripture and in the Baptismal Covenant that God is faithful and patient. God knows us better than we know ourselves. Because God is Spirit, God is always available. We, however, are not always faithful, patient, or available to God.
This is why God has provided for us a set of basic practices where God promises always to meet us. These basic practices, the means of grace, are gifts from God. Their purpose is to help us make time and space for God in our lives. They are where we can regularly make ourselves available to God and to the power of grace.
The means of grace are practices through which we learn the mind of Christ by attending to all his teachings, summarized in the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all of your strength … You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). John Wesley describes these basic Christian practices in his sermon “The Means of Grace:”
“By means of grace I understand outward signs, words, or actions ordained by God, and appointed for this end--to be the ordinary channels whereby [God] might convey to men [and women] preventing [prevenient], justifying, or sanctifying grace.”
He believed practicing the means of grace was essential to the life of Christian discipleship because they lead us to Christ and keep us with him. These basic practices are how Christians open themselves to grace and allow the Holy Spirit to “form the Savior in the soul.” This is beautifully summarized by Charles Wesley in a hymn written for the Love Feast:
Plead we thus for faith alone,
Faith which by our works is shown;
God it is who justifies,
Only faith the grace applies,
Active faith that lives within,
Conquers earth, and hell, and sin,
Sanctifies, and makes us whole,
Forms the Saviour in the soul.
In other words, the means of grace are how disciples of Jesus Christ live out “active faith that lives within.” When Christians practice their faith, they make themselves available to God and the power of grace to “conquer … sin, sanctify, and make them whole.” As these practices and grace become integrated into life, Christians are then free to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love their neighbors as themselves.
Attending to our relationship with God through the means of grace does not, however, come naturally. We need to learn how to do these basic practices of discipleship in the same way that a newly married couple must learn how to live together and love each other. In other words, loving is a discipline that must be learned. It is learned over time through discipline and practice with experienced practitioners.
John Wesley describes this process of “becoming” or Christian character formation in his sermon “On Zeal.” Here he succinctly describes the work of love that forms “holy tempers” in the heart through the means of grace:
In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne, which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance (see Galatians 5:22-23)—and if any other is comprised in 'the mind which was in Christ Jesus' (Philippians 2:5). In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to.
Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety: reading and hearing the Word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord's Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one—the church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation
(Sermon 92: On Zeal, § II.5).
These basic Christian practices and watching over one another in love are how congregations live out the promise to “do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”
WHAT ARE THE MEANS OF GRACE?
The means of grace (basic Christian practices) are divided into two general categories: works of piety and works of mercy. Works of piety are how Christians grow and mature in loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The works of mercy are how disciples live out their love for God in the world by loving their neighbors as themselves in acts of compassion and justice.
The works of piety are prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and hearing Scripture, mutual accountability and support in small groups (Christian conference), and fasting (or abstinence). These are acts of devotion and acts of worship. They are both public (worship, the Lord’s Supper, Christian conference) and private (prayer, studying Scripture, fasting).
Works of mercy are the counterpoint for the works of piety. It’s important to understand that the two go hand in hand. They create a life of harmony and balance. For if we are paying attention to God in prayer, worship, and Scripture reading, we will be compelled to service in the world; loving those whom God loves, as God loves them.
The works of mercy are derived from Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable, Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
Therefore, feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing those who have no clothes, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners are, according to Jesus, expectations of following him in the world. We can add to this list Jesus’ mission of bringing good news to the poor, release to captives, opening the eyes of the blind, and liberation for those who are oppressed. In other words, those who follow Jesus are to be people of God’s Jubilee – people of compassion and justice (Luke 4:18-19). We are to be sign communities for the coming reign of God (Matthew 5:3-12).
Works of Piety
Works of Mercy
• Prayer (private & family)
• Feeding the hungry
• Public worship
• Clothing the naked
• The Lord’s Supper
• Caring for the sick
• Reading & studying Scripture
• Visiting the jails and prisons
• Christian conference
• Sheltering the homeless
• Fasting or abstinence
• Welcoming the stranger
• Acting for the common good
How do we maintain the balance that is so important to growing in love of God and neighbor? We need help with this because, left on our own, our practice of the means of grace will gravitate toward those that suit our temperament or personality. For example, an introvert will naturally be drawn to some of the works of piety (private prayer, Bible study, and fasting) and will tend to neglect worship, Christian conference, and most of the works of mercy. On the other hand, an extroverted person will naturally be drawn to those works of piety and mercy that suit his or her temperament but will neglect time alone with God in prayer and reflection.
Maintaining balance is essential for Christian formation and faithful discipleship. Attending to all the teachings of Jesus, and not just those that suit our temperament, is how grace forms our character and heals our souls. Attending to a balanced discipleship is also how we contribute to building up the body of Christ and equipping one another for ministry in the world (Ephesians 4:12). It is how we participate in and cooperate with God's work of forming and healing human lives and communities that are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
A RULE OF LIFE
“A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness…. It fosters gifts of the Spirit in personal life and human community, helping to form us into the persons God intends us to be.”
(Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life.)
Our United Methodist heritage gives some fruitful help here. In the Class Meetings, the Methodists “watched over one another in love.” Their life together was guided by the General Rules given to the United Societies by John Wesley. The General Rules are the Methodist rule of life.
This Methodist rule of life was general because it allowed for the diverse personalities, needs, and spiritual maturity of the members of the class meeting. It was a rule because it was a guide to help the Methodists orient their corporate and individual lives toward Christ and his life in the world. It was like a compass that helps keep a traveler on course to his or her destination. For the Methodists, the destination was holiness of heart and life. They were on a journey together guided by their rule of life. Being accountable to and with one another, “watching over one another in love,” helped them make progress along the way.
The General Rules are very simple:
Do no harm by avoiding evil of every kind; especially that which is most generally practiced…
Do good as often as you can to as many as you can, to their bodies and to their souls …
Practice the means of grace:
Private and family prayer
Bible reading and study
The Lord’s Supper
Fasting or abstinence
(The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church pages 72-74).
This is simple, basic Christianity. The General Rules help people grow in faith and love by following the teachings of Jesus Christ as he summarized them in Matthew 22:34-40 and John 13:34-35. They provide a model of balanced and varied discipleship. The rules help disciples keep a balance of what Wesley called “works of piety” (loving God) and “works of mercy” (loving your neighbor as yourself).
The Scripture way of salvation is a process of growth, development, and maturation in faith, hope, and love. It is a way of living that draws us closer to Christ and conforms our lives to Christ’s life. A helpful way of visualizing this life comes from a sixth-century monk, Dorotheos of Gaza:
Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. … Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. … Let us assume for the sake of analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center.
But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.
(Roberta C. Bondi. To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987, 25.)
Discipleship, practicing the means of grace, is how we move from the circumference of the circle closer and closer to the center. In the process, we grow in love and are drawn closer and closer to our neighbor and to God. Living the General Rules within relationships of mutual accountability and support in small groups empowers and equips women, men, youth, and children to grow up and grow toward the One who is creating, redeeming, and sustaining them in love.
Small-group ministry must be at the heart of congregations that want to take their mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ seriously. To provide opportunities for adults, youth, and children to grow in holiness of heart and life, a system of small groups for mutual accountability and support for Christian formation must be available. The system should be organized to cooperate with the dynamic of grace as prevenient, justifying. and sanctifying.
Such a network of small groups needs to reflect a progression of groups developed by Wesley in the early Methodist societies. The goal of such a system is Christian formation, not member formation. Churches that are effective and growing today are those that focus on helping people live as disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not interested in turning visitors into good members to serve on committees and councils. Rather, their goal is to get every member into appropriate small groups that will help them encounter Christ and grow in faith, hope and love.
Regardless of size, location, or ethnicity, small groups are the most effective means of inviting people into a relationship with Jesus Christ, forming them as faithful disciples, and sending them into the world to share their faith and to serve.
Wesley was concerned that the Methodists would become societies having the form of godliness without the power. For him, the power of religion was the movement of grace that transforms and heals human hearts and relationships from self-centered existence to Christ-centered abundant, eternal life. He understood that Christian faith is incarnational. Genuine, life-giving faith is a relationship with the God who has come, is coming, and will come again in Jesus Christ.
When people gather in the name of Jesus, transforming power is released into the world. Lives are set free from slavery to addictions, violence, abuse, self-centeredness, hopelessness, and despair. He understood through his study of the Bible, the writings of the early church, and personal experience that divine grace flows from God through faithful disciples who regularly gather in the name of Jesus to pray, study, support, and “watch over one another in love.” He also understood that grace is blocked when Christians neglect these means that God has given them.
It is fair to say that most churches want to have the form and the power of godliness. Most have the form, which is all the outward and visible symbols, actions, and organizational structures that go with being a church. The power comes from the Holy Spirit that moves through the hearts, minds, and souls of the people in the church when they gather in Jesus’ name to pray, praise, proclaim, give, serve, and watch over one another in love.
Churches that have the power are engaged in mission and ministry that is centered on Christ and on witnessing to Christ in the world. Wesley teaches the church today, just as he taught the Methodist societies in eighteenth-century England, that organizing around small groups for Christian formation will go a long way to assure that the power of grace will flow through the church into the world.
"Copyright General Board of Discipleship. www.GBOD.org Used by permission."