God's grace, said Wesley, must have a channel through which to operate. That channel he declared to be baptism, the sacrament being but an outward symbol of an inner cleansing. For him, the rite was far from a mere dedication. It involved certain benefits inevitably conferred by baptism, and available in no other way.
Baptism he declared to be "the washing away the guilt of original sin, by the application of the merits of Christ's death." Until that guilt is washed away, one is not a child of God. Once he is cleansed by baptism, and forgiven for the sin which he inherited from the human race, the individual person is eligible for adoption into the household of God.
This reasoning on Wesley's part clearly indicates that he did not consider baptism to guarantee salvation. Rather, he held it to give the recipient an opportunity (which he would not otherwise have) of choosing to become a son of the heavenly Father.
Experience proved that baptized persons were not immune from temptation and sin.
Though freed of inherited guilt, they soon accumulated actual guilt through their own misdeeds. How, one might ask, could the ledger possibly be balanced?
Wesley had a ready answer. His view of the Lord's Supper made it the agency of cleansing for postbaptismal sins. In his thought the rite is far more significant even than baptism. He himself ate the Supper of the Lord very frequently—indeed, at every opportunity. Most parish priests communed only three or four times a year; Wesley communed at intervals of about four or five days, throughout his long career. Only four of the Wesleyan hymns deal with baptism, while more than 166 are concerned with the Lord's Supper.
In Wesley's thinking, the role of the major sacrament is threefold. First, he regarded it as a memorial of the suffering and death of Christ. He considered it, as such, to be a vivid and arresting symbol, through which men may be continually reminded of the sacrificial self-giving of the Son of God. This theme runs through many of the Wesleyan hymns.
Again, Wesley regarded the Lord's Supper as having been "ordained by God to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their necessities."
Finally, Wesley considered the Lord's Supper to be "an infallible pledge of glory to come."
In his thought, this guarantee of heaven is not magical, since the communicant must "rightly, worthily, and with faith" receive the bread and wine. Indeed, he declared that anyone who receives the Supper unworthily "purchases condemnation."
But when the one condition, faith, is met, "to heaven the mystic banquet leads." Wesley nowhere made the direct statement that it is impossible to find salvation except through the Lord's Supper. He clearly believed, however, that frequent communion makes it a great deal easier for one to be saved. He implied that there is no substitute.
Baptism and the Lord's Supper, in Wesley's thought, are complementary rites. One cleanses man of the guilt he inherits because of his very humanity; the other cleanses him of the guilt he acquires by his own acts.
Both sacraments depend for their effectiveness upon the atonement of the Son of God.
They are channels through which the merit of that atonement may be applied to the individual sinner. No other function of the church, not even the preaching of the Word, is so effective in bringing God's grace to sin-burdened man.