Friday, November 04, 2011

Wesley's Spiritual Disciplines

When my good friend, Dr. John Reilly, first spoke to me about Wesley's spiritual disciplines as though there was a set group or list of them, I was intrigued. As much as I'm not a big fan of checklists, Wesley's writings are so extensive that having a scholar succinctly translate important aspects of what he said is helpful.

After that conversation, I went home and searched for them, but didn't easily find any comprehensive or generally agreed-upon list. I emailed John, and he sent me something that had been compiled from Dr. Henry ("Hal") Knight's dissertation, which is now in published book form: The Presence of God in the Christian Life: John Wesley and the Means of Grace. Don't look for the Kindle version and be prepared to spend at least $50 if you want it in book form. This compilation/list is at the end of this post in three parts.

Recently, I was able to hear John present some work from his own dissertation, and he gave what I think is a more comprehensive work. This list is his own compilation. Some asked me to share this when I returned, so here they are - John Wesley's Spiritual Disciplines:
  • Prayer - Personal/Corporate
  • Fasting - Personal/Corporate
  • Journaling - Personal
  • Solitude - Personal/Corporate
  • Silence - Personal/Corporate
  • Bible Reading - Personal/Corporate
  • "Feeding" the Poor - Personal/Corporate
  • Christian Conferencing - Corporate
  • Circumstantial Grace - Personal/Corporate
John was continually insistent on reminding us that all of these are framed around, pointed at, and intentionally directed to a heart of love. So the practices don't matter unless they are directed at this purpose.

Now I don't believe that they were ever presented in such a list/form by Wesley himself. Let's remember that Wesley's writings are extensive. Sometimes I feel like if something can be said one way or another, then Wesley said it that way at some point. He often changed his mind. So a single voice in the totality of his writings is often difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, I find the above list helpful as I consider my own discipleship and the oversight of others. They can certainly be demonstrated to be within the totality of Wesley's encouragement to those who listened to him.

I'd love to believe that in the next several weeks I might blog a post commenting on each one, but those who know me know that this will not happen. So let me comment generally:

For me, discipleship is firstly formed by Christ. As I look at this list, I can understand from the witness of scripture Jesus Christ himself participating in a form of each one, with the exceptions of journaling and perhaps silence (we might assume it from his regular solitude, but it's not there explicitly). But the rest are easily demonstrated to be within his own discipleship, even in both forms and all of them are within scripture. I haven't yet explained that this list was given with the distinction of whether or not each practice can be either personal, corporate, or both. Wesley apparently encouraged the distinction, and practicing each both individually and in community as was possible.

Any time a list is presented, one runs the risk of codification or fostering legalism. I'm willing to run that risk since discipleship is so impoverished these days. At least in my own tradition, discipleship generally means "Sunday School" and "book studies." The intentional and regular practice of fasting, solitude, silence, etc. is reserved for old saints, super-pastors, and monks. Even for a denomination that prides itself on compassionate ministry, it's vastly encouraged as a means to change the world rather than to change me.

There are obviously things not on the list, namely for me: evangelism. While evangelism is generally not considered an act of discipline/discipleship, I argue that it indeed is. Jesus, in forming his own disciples, sent them out to evangelize as an act. Evangelism is a spiritual discipline and is the last one Jesus handed on in the synoptics. Making disciples is part of our discipleship in Christ. 

Now, for the list as given from Dr. Knight:

All means of grace have as their end the life of love, the Christian life.

General Means of Grace
  • Universal obedience
  • Keeping all the commandments
  • Watching
  • Denying ourselves
  • Taking up our cross daily
  • Exercise of the presence of God

Instituted (Particular) Means of Grace
  • Prayer: private, family, public; consisting of deprecation, petition, intercession, thanksgiving; extemporaneous, written
  • Searching scripture by reading, meditating, hearing; attending the ministry of the word, either read or expounded
  • The Lord’s Supper
  • Fasting, or abstinence
  • Christian Conferencing, which includes both the fellowship of believers and rightly ordered conversations which minister grace to hearers

Prudential Means of Grace
  • Particular rules or acts of holy living
  • Class and band meetings
  • Prayer meetings, covenant services, watch night services, love feasts
  • Visiting the sick
  • Doing all the good one can, doing no harm
  • Reading devotional classics and all edifying literature


  1. Wesley did indeed provide 'lists' including this one in Sermon 43, The Scripture Way of Salvation" (and Wesley does address evangelism, as an act of mercy)

    9. "But what good works are those, the practice of which you affirm to be necessary to sanctification?" First, all works of piety; such as public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet; receiving the supper of the Lord; searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating; and using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our bodily health allows.

    10. Secondly, all works of mercy; whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men; such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted; such as the endeavouring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to confirm the wavering, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succour the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the repentance, and these the "fruits meet for repentance," which are necessary to full sanctification. This is the way wherein God hath appointed His children to wait for complete salvation.

  2. In the end, all things should be done by the grace of God.
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