Small Groups Are a Means of Grace

By Steve Manskar

This article is a summary of the second of three Bible study session I lead for the South Georgia Annual Conference session at Tifton, Georgia June 7-9, 2011. Bishop James King invited me to speak about the importance of small groups in disciple making.

The Scripture passage for this session is Ephesians 2:1-10.

I began each session with a definition of “small group” provided by John Wesley in the General Rules:

"… a company of [persons] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation."

Here is my contemporary translation:

A small group is 3 to 15 people who meet regularly (weekly, bi-weekly or monthly) to help one another grow in holiness of heart and life and to help the congregation participate in God’s mission in the world. Group members attend to the ways that God is at work in their lives and do all in their power to cooperate with God’s grace. The group meets to watch over one another in love. They mutually support and encourage one another in the practice of missional discipleship.

John Wesley wrote in his Sermon 16: “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, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

Wesley describes the work of grace in these lines from one of his prayers:

“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."

The means of grace are the “outward signs, words, and actions” given by God to open our hearts to God’s presence and power. They are practices that develop holy habits. These habits lead to new ways of thinking and behaving. This is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). When the means of grace become habitual practices we become more and more like Jesus. Our way of life becomes more and more conformed to his. This is what Wesley meant when he taught that the process of sanctification included the formation of “holy tempers” in the soul. The “holy tempers” are described in Galatians 5:22-23 as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These character traits are formed when we cooperate with the work of grace by habitual practice of the means of grace.

Ephesians 2:1-10 is a passage John Wesley frequently preached from when he wanted to describe what he called “the scripture way of salvation.”

In Ephesians 2:1-3 Paul writes of the life shaped by sin in the past tense:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world… All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

Paul uses the past tense because he assumes that the Christians hearing this letter are no longer living the old way of life.

Paul clearly believes that the God and his grace, revealed and at work in the world in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is more powerful than sin and death. Paul assumes that Christians have surrendered themselves to the way of Jesus and his grace. He assumes that they have repented from their old life in the kingdom of this world and are now living under the authority of Christ and the reign of God; they are now citizens of the kingdom of God.

He assumes that baptism initiates them into a new way of life; a way of life that is aligned with Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. Paul expects that life as a Christian is different than life as a pagan Gentile. That’s what holiness of heart and life means; people who have received the waters of baptism and claim Jesus Christ as Lord live lives that are noticeable different than their neighbors who do not know Jesus and his kingdom. This does not mean that Christians are in any way better than their neighbors. It simply means that Christians are to be different. Disciples of Jesus Christ are different because we are marked by God as daughters and sons and citizens of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. We are sisters and brothers called and commissioned to serve with Jesus Christ in the world. We are different because our life is shaped by the cross of love. Grace has set us free from the powers of sin and death. Grace has set us free to love.

Baptism marks the beginning of a new way of life, “which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” This way of life is marked by a promise:

“We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.”

In response to God’s gracious initiative, Christians make three commitments:

  • Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin.
  • Accept the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
  • Confess Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church.

The Baptismal Covenant tells us that grace is responsible. It is responsible because it cost the death of God's Son. Accepting the gift of requires that Christians die to the ways of the world (Romans 6:3-4) so that they may receive new life in Christ. God supplies the grace needed to enable Christians to repent, resist evil, and confess Jesus as savior. He provides all we need to live as new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). These three responses to the blessing of grace are the way of holiness of heart and life. They are the way of love described by Jesus in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 10:25-35). Repent, resist, and confess are how disciples “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Jesus” (Luke 9:23).

In the Wesleyan tradition we have a rule of life that helps us live our way of Jesus. This rule of life is known as the General Rules. The General Rules are in direct alignment with the Baptismal Covenant. It is a practical guide for life together as disciples of Jesus Christ whose lives are shaped by the Baptismal Covenant.

The General Rules are the United Methodist rule of life. Marjorie Thompson writes in her book Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life: “A rule of life is a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provide 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.”

The General Rules have been popularized recently by Bishop Reuben Job’s little book, The Three Simple Rules. He summarized the rules as: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” This simplified version of the rules is good, to a point. The problem with Job’s simplification is two-fold: 1. He removes the General Rules from their historic context of the early Methodist class meeting and turns it into an individual guide for Christian living. 2. The third General Rule is not adequately summarized by “stay in love with God.” In the third General Rule Wesley makes clear the disciples are expected to obey God’s command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” through particular corporate and personal spiritual disciplines: “the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence.” While I appreciate Bishop Job’s intention, and encourage United Methodists to read his book, it must be read with a copy of the original General Rules close at hand.

The purpose of the General Rules is to help the congregation to keep its promises to the baptized:

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

It is no accident, therefore, that the three General Rules align with the three responses to God’s gracious initiative:

Renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin... By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced…

Accept the freedom and power God gives to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves …
By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all …

Confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races ...
By attend upon all the ordinances of God, such are: the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; The Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence …

In the Baptismal Covenant, the congregation promises to “do all in your power to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.” John Wesley wrote in his preface to the first edition of Hymns & Sacred Poems published in 1739: “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. ‘Faith working by love’ is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” He is saying that Christians need a community of love, forgiveness, and prayer to help them live as Christians in the world. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. Faith in Christ is deeply personal, but it is not private. In the Baptismal Covenant we acknowledge that as Christians we are responsible for one another. Living, sharing, fighting, forgiving, praying and worshiping together as a community centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is how Christians are formed and equipped to participate in Christ’s mission in the world.

Faith, hope and love do not happen by chance or accident. They are formed and nurtured best in a community that expects them to grow and provides the systemic means needed. This means our congregations must order their life in ways that cooperate with and participate in the dynamic of grace that is prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. Making disciples is like making musicians or athletes…they require faithful teaching, discipline, and expectation of excellence.

How is your congregation doing all in your power to increase faith, confirm hope in Christ, and perfect one another in love? How are you cooperating with the grace that saves and sanctifies? How are you helping one another to live the gift of salvation by practicing the good works God created for us? How does your congregation make disciples who are living the way of Jesus in the world, who understand they are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life”?