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Visiting the Sick: How We Participate in Our Own Salvation

Around the time the Methodist revival in England completed its first decade, John Wesley penned an essay called A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists. His aim is to explain the Methodist movement to the larger world, which he does by describing the various internal components of the revival that had developed during Methodism’s first ten years.

One of the components Wesley focuses upon is the prominent place of lay leadership within Methodism. He makes it clear that the revival is not a clergy-driven enterprise. As Wesley tells it, Methodism has many roles for laity that allow them to serve in active ministry. He describes the roles of Lay Preachers and Stewards. He documents the contributions of Class Leaders and Visitors of the Sick. Each of these “offices” has a set of responsibilities attached to it. Each of them is also empowered to do ministry—shepherding the members of the local Methodist societies in ways designed to care for them, nurture their discipleship, and push them forward in mission.

The role of the group that Wesley calls “Visitors of the Sick” is particularly remarkable. As he describes their work, Wesley makes it clear that Methodists understand pastoral care to be something that all people should do. In other words, pastoral care is not just a responsibility of the ordained pastors!

The kinds of caring activities that Visitors of the Sick take on are aimed toward assisting sick people in both spiritual and practical ways. Wesley reports that when Visitors call on the sick, they “inquire into the state of their souls” as well as “inquire into their disorders.” They also give advice in both spiritual and physical areas, and they are responsible for obtaining any practical support or goods that the sick may need.

Wesley believes that the fruits of this part of Methodist practice will be obvious to any who care to take a look. He first describes the benefit that the ministry of visitation has had for the sick themselves: “Many lives have been saved, many sicknesses healed, much pain and want prevented or removed. Many heavy hearts have been made glad, many mourners comforted.” Then he adds a little coda: “And the visitors have found from him whom they serve a present reward for all their labour.”

It’s an intriguing comment, and one so brief you might skim over it. Wesley seems to be saying that something happens beyond an act of charity when a visitor spends time in conversation and prayer with someone who is ill. The benefits to the sick person are obvious enough. He receives support—emotional or practical—and is reminded of the love that both God and his neighbor bear toward him. But Wesley is suggesting that something else happens as well. The visitor herself receives a “present reward” from God through the work of visitation.

Visiting the Sick as a Means of Grace

Though he doesn’t elaborate on what he means by the “present reward” in the Plain Account, Wesley does go into more detail elsewhere. His sermon, “On Visiting the Sick,” is written to encourage Christians to embrace the calling to care for the broken and ill amongst them. As the sermon begins, Wesley notes that there are certain activities that all people agree are means of grace—the Lord’s Supper, prayer, hearing and reading the Scripture, and fasting. We all know that these practices of worship and devotion “convey the grace of God to the souls of men,” Wesley says. Then he stops us in our tracks with a question: “But are they the only means of grace?” Indeed, Wesley asks, are there not certain works of mercy that can serve as true means of grace as well?

At this point, Wesley presses the theology of the means of grace in a truly creative direction. Sure, we may not have detailed instruction from Jesus Christ about the works of mercy the way we do about those “instituted” means of grace like prayer and the Lord’s Supper. But we do have the general command from Jesus to care for the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, and the sick—in short, the teaching that is found in Matthew 25:31-41. By the exercise of our prudence (i.e., practical wisdom gained by experience), Wesley claims, we can find that such activities are also real means of grace.

As one of these “prudential” means of grace, visiting the sick increases our thankfulness to God. Being present with the suffering reminds us of the suffering of Jesus Christ for us; thusly, we are reminded of the promise of salvation both for the afflicted person and for ourselves. At the same time, our care of the sick increases our sense of sympathy and benevolence as well as “all social affections,” Wesley says.

Participating in Our Own Salvation

John Wesley’s counsel on visitation of the sick provides insight into a number of core Wesleyan convictions about both ministry and theology. We can draw out a number of them here. The first has to do with pastoral care. If all Christians are called to care for the sick and wounded, then pastoral care is a communal ministry. It isn’t just about the pastor individually going around and tending to the needy in one-on-one fashion.

Instead, the care of the community must be undertaken by all baptized Christians for one another. And this is more than a duty; it is a way to empower laymen and women for ministry. (While we have focused on the example of Visitors of the Sick here, we could make similar arguments for the other forms of lay ministry that Wesley cites, such as Class Leaders, Stewards, etc.)

Secondly, Wesley is expanding the concept of what a means of grace can be. The conventional understanding of the means of grace in Wesley’s context included what Wesley himself typically called the “works of piety.” These consisted of activities like prayer, hearing the Scriptures preached, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and public worship. Such things have always been understood (by people then and now) to draw us closer to God. By including the works of mercy as means of grace—as Wesley does with visiting the sick—he is saying that these, too, will draw us closer to God. So caring for the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden is not just about dispensing charity. It is a vital means for receiving God’s grace in our own lives. Loving our neighbor, in other words, increases our love of God.

Thirdly, Wesley is very subtly suggesting to us a point about what it means to participate in our own salvation. This connection may seem surprising at first, but it can be illuminated by comparing the Wesleyan view of salvation with the way Wesleyans have always understood the Calvinist alternative. The Calvinist tradition would have us believe that, in the final analysis, we have no meaningful part to play in salvation. We are counted among the elect or the reprobate according to God’s eternal decrees. If we have been predestined for salvation, there is nothing we can do to lose God’s blessing. If we have been chosen for damnation, on the other hand, there is nothing we can do to escape God’s wrath. Grace is irresistible according to this view, and therefore salvation is ultimately a passive experience.

The Wesleyan view of grace and salvation is decidedly different. To understand it, we must consider first the way God created human beings in the beginning. We were created in God’s image, with minds capable of understanding and hearts capable of self-giving love. As God is a being of ultimate freedom, God’s intention for us as his image-bearers has always been to enjoy freedom as well. But because we have been debilitated by sin, we’ve lost all these good gifts: our understanding is clouded, our hearts are broken, and our freedom is lost.

Grace is given to us both to forgive our guilt and to heal our brokenness. Grace, in other words, restores the image of God within us. As we receive grace through Jesus Christ, we find ourselves born again—a transformation that gives us new life. Now, here’s the rub: God’s desire is that our capacity for understanding and love be fully restored. But because real understanding and love are not constrained but rather free, we must freely receive them in order to receive them at all. In other words, we participate in our own salvation.

The word “salvation” means health. To be saved means to be made healthy in body, mind, and spirit. The first outpouring of grace into our lives comes to us unawares, and it begins to restore us just to the point that we can respond to God in faith. When we start making that faith response, we continue to receive grace upon grace. And so through an intimate relationship with God by the power of the Holy Spirit, we come to know what it means to be made whole.

Fine, you might say, but what does this process look like in an actual human life?

Here’s what it looks like: A forgiven sinner who knows how much Christ has done for her responds in faith by going to care for the sick and downtrodden. She prays for them, speaks with them, cares for them—in short, she visits them. And by doing these very active things her faith is increased all the more and she comes to have a greater share in God’s grace. By visiting the sick, she participates in her own salvation.

Wesleyan teaching affirms that all aspects of salvation come by the gift of God’s grace. Because grace conveys power to us, though, it gives us the ability—the freedom—to join in the very work God is doing for us. Ecclesiastes 11:1 says, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” It’s a verse often interpreted to mean that the good we do will be returned to us, even if it is at some unknown point in the future.

The Wesleyan conviction about loving our neighbor is similar, but the time frame is different. For if loving our neighbor is a real means of grace, we will have the reward for it in that moment. As we bear God’s love to another, we receive that love back again. And by this process, God shows to us the mystery of salvation.