United Methodists and grace

September 12th, 2016

Our doctrinal heritage

“Grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life,” according to the section on distinctive Wesleyan emphases of “Our Doctrinal Heritage” in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012. “By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit. While the grace of God is undivided, it precedes salvation as ‘prevenient grace,’ continues in ‘justifying grace,’ and is brought to fruition in ‘sanctifying grace.’ ” John Wesley’s understanding of the threefold nature of grace — one grace we experience as prevenient, justifying and sanctifying — is a theological hallmark of the Methodist movement.

Of course, United Methodists aren’t the only Christians who believe in grace. “Grace is perhaps the most crucial concept in Christian theology because it refers to the free and unmerited act through which God restores his estranged creatures to himself,” wrote Van Harvey in his classic book A Handbook of Theological Terms. “Although all Christian churches accept this formal definition, they disagree as to how this unmerited act is to be conceived, what estrangement means and how it is overcome.”

Prevenient grace

For me, the clearest way to understand the concept of prevenient grace is to look first at the roots of the word prevenient. The prefix pre- means before. The rest of the word, venient, is rooted in the Latin word venire, which means to come. Therefore the word prevenient means to come before. Thus prevenient grace is grace that comes before — grace that comes before our response to God, before our acceptance of grace, before we’re even aware of God at all. Prevenient grace is available to all people, whether they ever accept that love or not. When we talk about prevenient grace, we mean that God is not only taking the initiative in reaching out to us, but God is also offering to empower us to respond to that love.

We United Methodists are a singing people, and one way that we express what we believe is through song. I find the hymn “I Sought the Lord” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 341) to be a compelling articulation of prevenient grace. The hymn begins, “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me. It was not I that found, O Savior true; no, I was found of thee.” The anonymous 19th-century hymn writer expresses the reality that even though from our perspective we’re the ones who seek Jesus Christ, the reality is that he is actually seeking us. It’s not so much that we find Jesus; rather, he finds us. In the last stanza, the hymn writer proclaims that God’s prevenient grace continues to go before us throughout our lives: “For thou wert long beforehand with my soul; always thou lovedst me.”

Understanding that God’s grace takes the first step and that God reaches out to all people can make a difference in our relationships with other people. As United Methodists, we proclaim that God loves all people. As God’s people, we’re to share God’s love with all people, no matter their heritage, their personal past, their socioeconomic status or what language they speak. Grasping the understanding of prevenient grace also helps us to be spiritually humble. God loves us no more and no less than any other person. God’s grace is for all.

Justifying grace

The best way I’ve found to describe justifying grace is to embrace another way we use the word justify: in word processing. When we use a word processing program like Microsoft Word, we can choose to justify left, which means that each line of text will line up along the left side of the document; or we can choose to justify right, so that each line of text will line up along the right side of the document. To justify in word processing means to line up the text correctly. The word justify has a similar theological meaning. When we’re justified to God, our lives are lined up with God’s life; we’re made right with God. Christians use many other words to describe justification: salvation, redemption and being born again, for example. Each of these terms point to a new relationship we have with God once we accept God’s grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. Again, it’s God who justifies us. Justification is a divine gift offered to all, a gift that can be ours if we choose to receive it.

Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” is a powerful poetic expression of the Wesleys’ understanding of justifying grace. The reality is that none of us can thoroughly explain God’s justification of us; not even angels can fully describe God’s love. In the second stanza, Wesley wrote, “ ’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies! Who can explore his strange design? In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.” But in the fourth stanza, Wesley does provide a beautiful rendering of what happens when God’s justifying grace transforms our lives: “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, for O my God, it found out me!” In his poetry, Charles Wesley powerfully touched on the reality of how we’re made right with God and freed from the prison of sin by justifying grace.

Understanding that it’s God who justifies us can transform our relationship with other people. We come to see that no one is unforgiveable; everyone can be redeemed. And just as we’ve been forgiven, so we too are to forgive.

Sanctifying grace

For me, the clearest way to understand sanctifying grace is to look at the Latin root word sanctus, which means holy. Thus, sanctifying grace makes us holy, makes us more and more Christlike. God’s sanctifying grace is at work within us from the moment we accept God’s gift of love in Jesus Christ till the day we die. John Wesley understood that our justification is the start of a new life. We’re to “go on to perfection,” meaning that we’re to allow God’s grace to work in and through our lives, with the ultimate goal of being made perfect so that our sole motivation in life is love.

The African-American spiritual “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” beautifully expresses a prayer that God will sanctify us. As we sing, we pray, “Lord, I want to be a Christian,” “Lord, I want to be more loving,” “Lord, I want to be more holy” and “Lord, I want to be like Jesus.” The prayer is a recognition that while we may be followers of Jesus Christ, we’re imperfect followers. Yet when we’re open to God’s grace, we can become more and more like Jesus. This is to be the prayer of all who are in Christ.

The emphasis on sanctifying grace reminds us that God isn’t done with us yet. From the moment we accept Christ’s love for us, God is empowering us in this new life. As United Methodists, we believe that God’s grace can continue to work in and through us if we’re open to that grace. When we employ the spiritual disciplines — like public worship, Bible study, prayer, giving, serving others and being part of the community of faith — we make ourselves available to be continually transformed by God. When we understand that we can change with the grace of God, we also come to understand that God can transform other people as well, even those we may find challenging. When we remember God’s grace to us, we become more graceful ourselves.

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