The Method in Methodism: Part II
Outward Signs of Inward Grace
Amazing grace—it’s good news in any language!
It’s the language of grace that I want us to learn today as we continue our series on Methodism. In fact, if you were going to sum up Wesleyan Methodist theology in one word that would be it: grace.
What is grace? Theologically speaking we can define it as “God’s unmerited favor” – the fact that God loves us in spite of ourselves. If we define sin as that which breaks our relationship with God, then grace is God’s response—offering us a new relationship at God’s own initiative.
John Wesley’s theology was rooted in his understanding of God’s grace being available to all. No one was excluded from God’s love and favor and that all a person needed to do was respond to that grace and grow into a new relationship with God. This was not a unique view, but it certainly was a point of contention in theological circles of the time. Catholic theology always had always said that God’s grace was mediated through the sacraments of the Church and in no other way. When the Protestant Reformation occurred, some like John Calvin, for example, said that God’s favor had been predestined—that some are born as the “elect” while others are “damned” for eternity right out of the box-regardless of affiliation. A Calvinist view of salvation, for example, is concerned about an event in the past—the moment when God saved you.
Wesley’s understanding of grace, however, was about relationship. That while some relationships can be characterized as “love at first sight,” more often a relationship grows over time as one party woos the other. The response to that grace is not pre-ordained, but a choice. We can choose whether or not to love God, just like we would choose to enter into another kind of relationship. For Wesley, salvation was less of an event and more of a process—not “where have you been” but “where are you now.”
Wesley said that there were three basic movements of God’s grace extended to us by God. I hope that you’ll commit these to memory because we’ll be talking about them throughout the rest of the series.
But before we get there we have to define why God’s grace is so needed. In Wesley’s view, humans were created for relationship with God and given God’s favor. He called this “original righteousness”—humans were made “good” and given dominion over God’s creation. God’s love was lavished on human beings at creation. But these humans chose instead to be gods themselves, using their free will to reject God’s love (after all, love is only authentic when it is chosen!). That rejection of God and serving oneself are what the Bible calls “sin” – from the Greek word “hamartia” that literally means “to miss the mark.” Human sin separates us from God in a seemingly irreparable breach. We see it all the time all around us—people acting more and more in self-interest, rejecting God and choosing only that which is for themselves.
Despite human sinfulness, however, God did not give up on the human race. In fact, says the Gospel, God came among us in the person of Jesus Christ to repair the breach himself—to overcome the spiritual death that results in our separation from God and to offer us a new way of being in relationship with him. We call that movement of God toward us “grace.”
The first movement of God’s grace is what Wesley called “prevenient” grace or “the grace that goes before.” God’s grace and love, in other words, are offered to us even before we know it and respond. Prevenient grace is essentially God’s calling to us, God wooing us, God wanting to be in relationship with us. God loves us in spite of ourselves and our sin and wants to repair the brokenness that sin causes.
But God’s prevenient grace calls for a response. In order to repair that broken relationship, a new start is necessary. This is the second movement—justifying grace—where a person responds to God by confessing their sin, turning toward a new way of life, and seeking God’s forgiveness and offer of wholeness. Justification means that God transforms us, gives us a “new birth,” a new relationship, a new standing before God. The grip of sin is released and we are given a fresh start. Think of “justified” as “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned.
Now a lot of Christian theology tends to stop here. Once your sins are forgiven you are “saved” and so it really doesn’t matter much what you do after that, so long as you are prepared to go to heaven when you die. That’s not what the Scripture really talks about. Rather than getting people into heaven, the scriptures are more about getting heaven into people. That’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer (on earth as it is in heaven). The goal of being “born again” is not to stay a spiritual infant, but to grow into faith and deeper into a relationship with God. For Wesley, salvation wasn’t a static event, but the process of growth—a process called “sanctification.”
Sanctifying grace is the process by which God transforms us, renewing in us the image of Christ—the image of God we were to have from the beginning. Sanctification is the process of emptying ourselves and our desires and being filled with the heart of God. We participate in that process through the “means of grace” – through the disciplines of prayer and study, worship and meeting with others who are growing in faith. The word that Wesley used for this movement of grace is “going on to perfection” (which is the phrase that got him in the most trouble). Perfection in this sense is not perfect performance, but rather perfect love—that our intentions and actions are all designed toward honoring and representing God with our lives.
In fact, the Greek word teleos is variously translated as “mature, perfect, complete.” The goal of the Christian life, for Wesley, was not simply waiting around for heaven, but growing into mature people of faith who are representatives of God’s kingdom of grace that is breaking into this world. As Paul would say in Philippians 3, we are “citizens of heaven” that colonize the earth—not seeking so much to go “home” to heaven but to bring the best of heaven here.
Methodist Christianity, therefore, is very much focused on the present—where are we now in our relationship with God? How are we representing the character of Christ in this world? What are we doing to grow in maturity and love?
One way to illustrate how prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace work together is to understand it as a house. Prevenient grace is the porch, where we meet God. Justifying grace is the door through which we are welcomed into new relationship and sanctifying grace is the process of being made at home in the rest of the house, where we become more and more like the chief resident.
This week we celebrate world communion Sunday and it gives us an opportunity to talk about the Wesleyan Methodist understanding of grace drives our sacramental life. In the
John Wesley said the sacraments were “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” – tangible signs that point to something going on inside of us. The water of baptism represents life itself—new birth, that which sustains life, cleansing and renewal. While some Christian traditions emphasize baptism as a response to God, our tradition goes a bit further and says that baptism represents and acknowledges what God is already doing in us—making us part of a new family called the church and giving us new life.
One of the reasons we baptize infants is because of our understanding of God’s prevenient grace. It’s an acknowledgement that God is at work in the life of a child even before the child knows who God is. It’s a sign that they are part of our family, part of God’s family. It expresses more that present relationship made possible by God’s grace rather than eternal salvation. Because baptism in our tradition is a sign of God’s initiative, we only do it once because God’s grace is always good!
At the same time, baptism can be a sign of justifying grace. When we baptize an adult who had made a decision to follow Christ, we recognize that God has been at work in their lives through prevenient grace, but also that through this person’s repentance and faith and God’s faithfulness they are now being washed clean by God’s grace. No matter what age one is baptized, the sacrament is a sign of new relationship in the present, a new start.
But while baptism is the sign of a new relationship, communion is the sacrament that sustains the relationship for the long term. The bread and cup represent many things, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for us being the primary remembrance. In the liturgy of communion we remember or “re-embody” Christ’s sacrifice for us and celebrate the grace we have been given.
In holy communion, all the stages of grace are present. We celebrate open communion, which means that anyone who seeks to know Christ is welcome. As a sign of prevenient grace, God’s grace given to all, communion serves as an invitation for people to go deeper into their relationship with God. We celebrate an open table because we believe that someone coming in off the street who may not have any knowledge of God may in this sacrament find the whole story of God’s grace and love available to them. As we like to say, it’s Christ’s table and that means Christ sets the guest list! Children can share, too, because they are not excluded from the grace of Christ.
At the same time, communion is a sign of justifying grace—a recognition that Christ’s sacrifice enables us to be forgiven from sin and begin a new life. Christ’s body broken and blood shed for us paid the penalty for sin and his resurrection gives us the hope of new life. When we take this meal, we acknowledge that we are in need of change and reconciliation with God, so we come humbly knowing that we come only at God’s invitation and not because we are worthy.
But communion is also a sign of sanctifying grace—the grace that enables us to grow deeper in our relationship with God. It is the family meal, celebrated with others who follow Christ around the world. It is strength for the journey, a constant reminder of who we are and whose we are.
To be a Methodist is to recognize the power of God’s grace, God’s reach toward us in love. God wants to make us whole, give us new life, remake us in his image. God has gone to great lengths to offer that grace, even offering himself in Christ.
The question for us is how we will respond to that grace, for it only becomes transformational when we embrace it. We can choose to receive it and live according to it or continue on our own. God does not force us to love him.
But when we choose to follow Christ, when we choose new life, great things can happen to us individually and collectively—we can be God’s instruments for bringing the beauty, wonder, and grace of God’s kingdom into this world even as we await it’s final transformation when Christ return. To borrow from Leonard Sweet: “Our job is to make earth look more and more like heaven, so that when Christ returns it’s not such a culture shock!”
But let’s make that grace personal. Where do you find yourself now in relationship with Christ? Have you heard God’s call to you in prevenient grace, but maybe you’ve been resisting it? Do you desire to live a new life made possible by justifying grace—a new birth and new start? Or have you been living fairly comfortably in the knowledge that you are forgiven, but haven’t grown in your faith—that you haven’t been “going on to perfection?”
Today is a great day to take stock of where you are in relationship to God. As we come now to sharing communion together, I invite you to reflect on these things and spend some time in prayer. What has God been saying to you? How will you respond?