Each Christmas I receive the same gift from my Father. It’s about the size of a paperback and contains a fishing license and a lure. I don’t know if it will be spinner bait, crank bait, plastic worms or something for my fly rod. Until it is opened, it remains a mystery to me. It’s the first gift I open and when I do, the rest of the year’s fishing activities are revealed to me. I know what time of year I will use the lure, what type of waters I will fish, what equipment I will use and what species of fish I will stalk. The content of that little box helps determine my vacation, my travel plans and even family events. Of course I don’t have to open it at all. I can decide not to go fishing this year and throw the unopened gift into the bottom of my tackle box, putting aside any desire or attempt to use it.
This gift is given in love. I have done nothing to deserve it, or be worthy of it. It says, “To Dan from Dad” Therefore it is mine to open or be discarded. Though it remains unopened under the Christmas tree it is mine, given in love by my Father. Prevenient Grace is the unopened gift which is freely given by God and is for us to open or disregard. “Wesley understood grace as God’s active presence in our lives. This presence is not dependent on human actions or human response. It is a gift—a gift that is always available, but that can be refused.”[i]
The Methodist Book of Discipline defines Prevenient Grace as “…the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our ‘first slight transient conviction’ of having sinned against God. God’s grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.”[ii]
Upon opening, the content of the gift is revealed. Although I knew the nature of what was in the box, opening it revealed its’ possibilities. It is an acceptance of the gift and an acknowledgement of its source. It is not given as a reward or for any favors I did. Nor am I expected to give in return or perform any deeds of repayment or gratitude. Whatever difficulties I had with my Dad is forgiven in giving the gift freely. And in accepting it I acknowledge that I have done nothing to deserve it. I am justified in my Dad’s eyes to receive the gift.
Though it is still winter and spring is far away, I have already began to make plans to use the lure. The bait will determine what kind of waters I will use it in; crystal clear streams, prairie reservoir, muddy rivers, high mountain lakes or secluded farm ponds. Will I use it during early spring when the waters are still cold, or hot summer evenings when the fish are lethargic? Perhaps I’ll use it in autumn when fish are hungry and are storing up reserves for the coming winter. That little lure opens up nearly a years’ worth of activities and planning and holds the promise of experiencing God’s natural world. And when I catch something, I’ll be sure and tell my Dad I caught it on his lure. Indeed while fishing I spend a lot of time thinking about my Father, and about God’s world and my place in it. So this lure propels me forward and in a sense sanctifies me to move forward, to plan and engage in activities which engage me in God’s mission and connects me with those who love me.
When I receive God’s gift, I am forgiven though it is unopened. When I open His gift I am justified and receive salvation. And when I use God’s gift I am sanctified in sharing the gift of His Son.
Hopefully this illustration helps put in layman’s terms, (or at least fisherman’s terms) how God’s grace is manifested in our lives. It’s important to understand that we do nothing to earn God’s grace. “The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is FREE IN ALL, and FREE FOR ALL…. It is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions; for all these flow from the free grace of God; they are the streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of free grace, and not the root. They are not the cause, but the effects of it.”[iii]
Our action as Christians is a response to the gift of God’s love and the salvation offered by Jesus. Prevenient grace is always with us, it is a gift already given and bequeathed. We are simply unaware or choose to ignore it. In recognizing grace in our lives we become justified and realize the price Jesus paid for us to receive it. And we understand what God was willing to sacrifice to bestow it. We discern that we are loved by God. Author and theologian Kenneth Carder expresses justifying and sanctifying grace in his book Living Our Beliefs: “Our identity as children of God is God’s gift to us; living in the world as redeemed sons and daughters of God is our gift to God.”[iv] Prevenient grace is with us from the beginning of our lives till the moment we recognize God’s love for us. Justifying grace may occur over prolong period of time or happen in an instant. John Wesley expresses the feeling thus; “…there is a real as well as a relative change. We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”; producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God; expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honor, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will, and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.” [v] He also warns us,” How naturally do those who experience such a change imagine that all sin is gone; that it is utterly rooted out of their heart, and has no more any place therein!”, “ But it is seldom long before they are undeceived, finding sin was only suspended, not destroyed. Temptations return, and sin revives; showing it was but stunned before, not dead.”[vi]
Wesley therefore contends “And at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment, sanctification begins. In that instant we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit:”[vii] So as prevenient grace had been with us our whole life, sanctifying grace will be with us till the end. “From the time of our being born again, the gradual work of sanctification takes place. We are enabled “by the Spirit” to “mortify the deeds of the body,” of our evil nature; and as we are more and more dead to sin, we are more and more alive to God.”[viii] Carder puts it this way, “justifying grace reconciles us to God and sets us on the journey, and sanctifying grace forms us in the mind of Christ and sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, actions, and relationships.”[ix]
Sighting Ephesians 2:8, “8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”[x] John Wesley emphasis that Grace is not a means of faith. “It is by this faith we are saved, justified, and sanctified; taking that word in its highest sense.” “Faith is the condition, and the only condition, of justification. It is the condition: none is justified but he that believes: without faith no man is justified. And it is the only condition: this alone is sufficient for justification. Every one that believes is justified; whatever else he has or has not. In other words: no man is justified till he believes; every man when he believes is justified.”[xi]
It’s critical we understand that faith, recognizing the true nature and presence of the triune God, is all that is necessary to receive justifying and sanctifying grace. In the moment we are justified, we are also sanctified. The question is do we have to bear fruit in order to be justified? Wesley declares, “Not in the same degree; for those fruits are only necessary conditionally; if there be time and opportunity for them. Otherwise a man may be justified without them, as was the thief upon the cross.”[xii]
Likewise Wesley asserts that faith, not fruit, leads to sanctification. “Faith is the condition, and the only condition, of sanctification, exactly as it is of justification. It is the condition: none is sanctified but he that believes; without faith no man is sanctified. And it is the only condition: this alone is sufficient for sanctification. Every one that believes is sanctified; whatever else he has or has not. In other words, no man is sanctified till he believes: every man when he believes is sanctified.”[xiii]
“Means of Grace” does not imply “How do we achieve grace.” Wesley demonstrates grace is received through faith and faith alone. What is actually meant by “Means of Grace” is how we allow grace to grow in our lives. “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.”[xiv]
John Wesley did not care for the name Methodist, yet he felt compelled to explain what a Methodist believed. In his dissertation “The Character of a Methodist” he extensively lays out what a Methodist is and isn’t. Inspired by this writing, Methodist Bishop Rueben P. Jobs has developed “Three Simple Rules”:
- Do no harm: “The love of God has purified his heart from all revengeful passions, from envy, malice, and wrath, from every unkind temper or malign affection. It hath cleansed him from pride and haughtiness of spirit, whereof alone cometh contention.”
- Do good: “As he has time, he “does good unto all men;” unto neighbors and strangers, friends and enemies: And that in every possible kind; not only to their bodies, by “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those that are sick or in prison;” but much more does he labor to do good to their souls, as of the ability which God giveth; to awaken those that sleep in death; to bring those who are awakened to the atoning blood, that, “being justified by faith, they may have peace with God;” and to provoke those who have peace with God to abound more in love and in good works.”
- Stay in love with God: “He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him “a well of water springing up into everlasting life,” and overflowing his soul with peace and joy.”Perfect love” having now “cast out fear,” he “rejoices evermore.” He “rejoices in the Lord always,” even “in God his Savior;” and in the Father, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom he hath now received the atonement.” [xv]
Grace is what we receive through faith in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Though we are sanctifies through faith, grace grows by our piety (devotion to God), prayer (private and public), study (reading, listening, meditation) sincere sharing of the sacraments, (baptism, Communion) and fasting (self-sacrifice).
As we devote ourselves to living a life filled with God’s grace, that grace leads us to be disciple and help others to achieve faith in God and be filled with His Grace.
[i] What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Theology, Pg31, Discipleship Resources by Debra S. Smith (Editor), Cindy S. Harris (Editor)
[ii] Book of Discipline of the UMC, 2008 edition
[iii] John Wesley, “Free Grace”, Sermon 128 (text from the 1872 edition)
[iv] Kenneth L. Carder, Living Our Beliefs, pg 90
[v] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[vi] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[vii] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[viii] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[ix] Kenneth L. Carder, Living Our Beliefs, pg 90
[x] The King James Version
[xi] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[xii] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[xiii] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition)
[xiv] John Wesley, “Ye are saved through faith”, Sermon 43(text from the 1872 edition
[xv] John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist