Dr. Timothy Tennent: Embodying the Means of Grace

Published Date: October 7, 2021

Wesley taught that God has provided many ways or means of grace which enable us to grow and to incorporate the life of Christ within us on a daily basis. Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words or actions, employed by God…to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey…prevenient, justifying or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, sermon no. 16). Wesley suggests, for example, that the public reading of Scripture, receiving the Eucharist, prayer, obedience to God’s Word, denying oneself, and works of piety are all given to us by God as ways of promoting sanctification in our lives.

Wesley understood that there are times when you cannot make an argument to the surrounding culture. But, precisely when a culture cannot hear an argument, they cannot so easily dismiss someone who quietly embodies it. The embodiment of truth, wholeness and human flourishing is one of the most powerful testimonies to God’s existence in the world.

Even Aristotle understood that when we do not embody the virtues, there will be a gap between our lives and genuine human flourishing. In that gap is where we find fear, rage, and so forth. But, we should also see the means of grace not only in personal terms, i.e. helping us to mature spiritually and grow in personal holiness, but we must also see the larger missional power, the public witness, of the embodied means of grace when embodied by the church. If the world meets someone who is prayerful, who does works of piety – selflessly serving the poor, or on Sunday doesn’t just sleep in, but put themselves and their families in the midst of the baptized community of those who follow Jesus, it has a powerful effect. It is missional. G. K. Chesterton famously said that even “those who reject the doctrine of the incarnation are different for having heard of it.”[1] The very idea that God became one of us has a powerful force upon the human psyche. It challenges our imaginations and forces someone to reassess God’s whole relationship with the world. In the same way, a church which embodies the means of grace invades the imagination and forces the society to consider that there just might be a loving God who rules and reigns the universe and has a true transformational influence on those who belong to him. If we are not ourselves transformed by the gospel, then the world has every right to simply see us as merely using religion as demagogues or charlatans serving some political agenda. We lose our witness when we embody so much of the brokenness which the world is experiencing.

Brothers and sisters, authentic embodiment is the necessary foundation for public proclamation. Our culture is very uneasy with strong moral statements. In today’s climate, ethical statements come across as inherently judgmental. To love someone today means, in the wider culture, to affirm whatever it is someone happens to say or believe. Likewise, to disagree with someone in today’s emotive climate is almost de-facto to say that we do not love that person. This climate is actually yet another sign of our inability to frame a moral argument, because we now live in a culture of self-invention, i.e. nothing extrinsic to yourself can be used as a standard for evaluation of a right or wrong course of action. Thus, we now live in a cultural climate where all meaning is subjective and arbitrary extensions of human autonomy.

This culture of self-invention is unleashing objective, observable chaos and the decline of human flourishing. Several popular opinion polls tell us that the wider culture is aware that we are in period of cultural decline, but they have no idea why it has happened or what can be done to address it. This presents a huge opportunity for the church to embody the means of grace and thereby to truly embody human flourishing in such a profound way that the world will take notice. We were not designed for immorality. Brokenness is always, even unknowingly, attracted to wholeness. There is an inherent attraction to embodied holiness, order, light, and human flourishing. Therefore, we must understand that embodying the means of grace is not just about our personal spiritual growth, but is actually missional and a powerful embodiment of our public witness to the world. Indeed, it is the absolute pre-requisite for gaining a cultural permission slip to, once again, engage in a moral argument. So, let us never forget that as important as our words are, one of the greatest proclamations of the gospel is in our daily embodiment of it.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, in G. K. Chesterton: Collected Works, vol. 2 (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986, 302.

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