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The Missing Link of Holy Discipleship?

I arrived at the prison a bit late. The Bible study we conducted there a few times a week was already proceeding as they decided not to wait and started without me. I slipped in and sat down with some dozen or so of us, as a leader from my church plowed through Romans.

As I quickly looked around the men seated at the two adjoining tables, my eyes met those of a felon named David. He was jailed for multiple drug charges and, by his own admission, had taught his kids how to sell those drugs. Incredibly, he drank a gallon of vodka a day for a number of years and remembers little of what was happening to him then. I knew none of that at the time, but I gave him a quick smile and a wink and continued to look around the group.

Years later, that same felon would become the executive pastor at the church I serve. He talks glowingly of our church’s weekly presence at the facility where he was incarcerated. Once, while we were reminiscing about those days in his life, he remarked that my eye contact and wink at the Bible study that night gave him enormous hope.

“I just knew, in that moment, that everything in my life was going to be alright.”


The Holiness Movement has long had a keen appetite for compassionate ministry—whether it was the Wesleys of the original Methodist revival, or the Booths of The Salvation Army, or B.T. Roberts of Free Methodist fame, Phineas Bresee of the Nazarenes, or Phoebe Palmer going door to door in her community seeking out the poor. Whenever in history people took holiness seriously, ministry to the poor and needy was inherent.

Let’s zero in on the prominent Wesley brother. From 1729 to 1735, John Wesley resided at Oxford as a tutor in the Greek New Testament. Upon arrival, John was surprised to find that Charles had gathered around himself a number of spiritually-minded scholars and had started what would become known as The Holy Club. Their plan for spiritual growth included spending an hour in private prayer both morning and evening, devoting an hour each day to meditation, fasting twice a week and attending Church regularly, and there taking communion at least once a week. In addition to those exercises, members of The Holy Club visited prisons, ministered to those in sweathouses, cared for the destitute, and reached out to numerous others in dire circumstances.

In 1739, Wesley began his renowned network of discipleship groups—otherwise known as his system of societies, classes, and bands. Of the societies he said:

“It is expected of all who continue in these that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation 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 men. To their bodies, of the ability which God giveth; by giving food to the hungry; by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.” (1)

The emphasis on the poor was not a peripheral aspect of Methodist discipleship. John Wesley described the Methodist way to his preachers and those who followed them.

Wesley notes in his sermon “On Visiting the Sick” the importance of understanding works of mercy as non-negotiable means of grace:

“Surely there are works of mercy, as well as works of piety, which are real means of grace. They are more especially such to those that perform them with a single eye. And those that neglect them, do not receive the grace which otherwise they might. Yea, and they lose, by a continued neglect, the grace which they had received(2) (author’s emphasis).

That last phrase—“lose…the grace which they had received”—clearly insinuates that works of mercy are a necessary discipline in order to maintain one’s salvation. Indeed, using Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats teaching), Wesley asserts that “continuance in works of mercy is necessary to salvation.”

Wesley drove this point home quite forcefully in his articulation of both salvation and sanctification:

“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.

“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 feebleminded, to succor 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.” (3)

Here there seems to be a balance between the inward construction of the soul and the outward-bound life.

Necessary to God having full sway in a believer’s life was this piety-mercy interplay that assured the believer would have a maturing soul with immediate impact in the community through compassionate ministry. Wesley repeats this emphasis in numerous places.

For instance, in his “Scripture Way of Salvation”:

“…Both repentance, rightly understood, and the practice of all good works, works of piety as well as works of mercy (now properly so called, since they spring from faith) are, in some sense, necessary to sanctification.” (4)

Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (5) articulated a similar sentiment:

“But what are the steps which the Scripture directs us to take, in the working out of our own salvation?... Be zealous of good works, of works of piety, as well as works of mercy…” (6)

Other of Wesley’s sermons and writings, however, seem to contain not a plea for some kind of balance between these piety-mercy means of grace but rather a clear preference for one over the other.

Both were deemed important, but a preferred status is given to works of mercy. For instance, in Sermon 92, titled “On Zeal,” Wesley speaks to this:

“Thus should he show his zeal for works of piety; but much more for works of mercy; seeing ‘God will have mercy and not sacrifice,’ that is, rather than sacrifice. Whenever, therefore, one interferes with the other, works of mercy are to be preferred. Even reading, hearing, prayer, are to be omitted, or to be postponed, ‘at charity’s almighty call’; when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbor, whether in body or soul.” (7)

To Wesley and to those who would take Scripture seriously, it seems clear: if you are saved and want to stay saved, practice compassionate ministry.

If you want to move towards entire sanctification, practice compassionate ministry.

If you want to maintain your sanctification, practice compassionate ministry.

There is no holiness without it. It is inherent to saving faith.


David came to our church from prison and began engaging in works of piety and mercy. Because of his love for Jesus and commitment to ministry, he rose to the position of executive pastor. As often as possible, he now goes back to the prison where the church initially found him. He knows what works of mercy did in his life, he understands what they are building in his sanctification today, and he wonders which person might be a future church pastor that he is ministering to as he leads his own Bible studies in that facility this week.


(1) John Wesley, “General Rules of the United Societies” Works [BE], 9, 72.

(2) Ibid, 385.

(3) John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” Works [BE], 2, 166.

(4) John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” Works [BE], 2, 164.

(5) To be fair, “Wesley was always careful to reiterate that works of piety and mercy are totally impotent without the inward faith.” (David Werner “John Wesley’s Question: ‘How is Your Doing?’” Asbury Journal, 65/2 - 2010). Cf. Sermon 2: “The Almost Christian.” According to Wesley, what was needed to be saved from being an “almost Christian” was the love of God, the love of neighbor, and faith.

(6) John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” Works [BE], 3, 205.

(7) John Wesley, “On Zeal” Works [BE], 3, 314.


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