Grace and responsibility are key components of Wesleyan Christianity. For John Wesley, God’s grace must have practical application. In other words, grace is not an idea, but a free gift and experience we can cultivate through practices designed by God. Since the Protestant Reformation, we have often pitted the Law against the Gospel, as if there is no grace at work in the rules God lays out throughout scripture. And yet Jesus explains that the entire Law can be summed up in this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The Law of Love can be summed up in that, yes, but it is spelled out in the actual study and practice of the biblical law. For Wesley, the rules are not there to regulate our living, but are God’s grace freely given to us to live whole and happy lives. This week’s Sermon Brainwave podcast had a great summary of the freedom found in God’s rule for life: “The 10 commandments are a picture of the way free people live… Freedom is commitment. These laws show us what a free life is like.” (around minute 10 of the podcast.)
The Methodist movement began not just with passionate personal encounters with God’s presence, but with a desire to live holy lives shaped by God’s covenant with us. As John Wesley noticed some of the early Methodist societies becoming more lax in their expectations for holy living, he gave them some VERY specific “general” rules. The summary that made the rules general is simple enough: Do no harm, Do good, attend upon all the ordinances of God. But under each of those were very specific practices that Wesley believed were applications of Scriptural holiness in his people’s context. This was intended to teach the people that theology had practical implications in the ways they lived their lives. Anyone who consistently failed to check off enough of these rules would be asked to leave the Methodist societies until they were ready to take it more seriously.
“Do no harm” is a pretty generic bumper sticker sort of Christianity. But in Wesley’s societies, it meant “no buying or selling of slaves” (before abolition was even a concept). It meant “no conversations that are meant to tear others down,” including the way we talk about our politicians. It meant asking one another very personal things like: “have you been buying luxuries for yourself instead of helping the poor.”
“Do good” got into the incredibly specific questions of “how have you shown mercy to the bodies and souls of the poor?”
“Attending upon all the ordinances of God” was Wesley’s peculiar way of saying “practice the means of grace” (see Andrew Thompson’s wonderful summary here). These are the specific practices God has ordained for us to experience grace, such as in corporate worship, taking the sacraments, prayer and scripture study, and fasting. I used the word “abide” because it is an active and specific word used in John 15 to describe the Christian’s relationship to Christ like a branch growing out of a vine.
For Wesley, following the rules for the sake of following rules means nothing, and yet a person may still be surprised by God’s grace. No, the purpose of committing to a rule of life is much like following a recipe (at least, for those of us who enjoy cooking). It can just serve as a guideline to get a result, or it can be something that can be followed and enjoyed almost as much as eating the final dish. Grace and responsibility is really just grace upon grace upon grace.