A Wesleyan Understanding of Grace
At the heart of Wesleyan/Methodist theology and practice is a profound understanding and vital experience of grace. While John and Charles Wesley shared an understanding of grace deeply rooted in Christian teaching and tradition, they provided distinctive emphases, which came to characterize Methodist teaching and preaching. Grace, as understood, experienced and proclaimed by the United Methodists and others in the Wesleyan tradition, remains as relevant and transformative in the 21st century as in the 18th century.
GRACE: God's presence and power
John Wesley defined grace as God's "bounty, or favour: his free, undeserved favour, ... man having no claim to the least of his mercies. It was free grace that ‘formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into him a living soul,' and stamped on that soul the image of God, and ‘put all things under his feet.' ... For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God's hand."
The Book of Discipline defines grace as "the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit." Grace pervades all of creation and is universally present. Grace is not a gift that God packages and bestows on us and creation. Grace is God's presence to create, heal, forgive, reconcile and transform human hearts, communities and the entire creation. Wherever God is present, there is grace! Grace brought creation into existence. Grace birthed human beings, bestowed on us the divine image, redeemed us in Jesus Christ and is ever transforming the whole creation into the realm of God's reign of compassion, justice, generosity and peace.
In his sermon "The Scripture Way of Salvation," John Wesley summarized his understanding of the work of grace in saving and transforming human existence. The sermon, published in 1765, contains parts of three earlier sermons — "Salvation by Faith," "Justification by Faith" and "The Circumcision of the Heart." In "The Scripture Way of Salvation," Wesley describes three movements or expressions of grace to create distinctive emphases for living fully in response to God's creating, healing, reconciling and transforming activity.
Prevenient grace: Grace that goes before
One dynamic or expression of God's grace is prevenience or "preventing" grace. Prevenient grace includes, according to Wesley, "all that is wrought in the soul by what is frequently termed ‘natural conscience,' ... all the ‘drawings' of ‘the Father,' the desires after God, ... that ‘light' wherewith the Son of God ‘enlighteneth everyone that cometh into the world,' showing every man ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with his God;' all the convictions which his Spirit from time to time works in every child of man." While taking the seriousness of human sin and brokenness seriously, Wesley believed that God's grace prevents the total destruction of the divine image in us.
Prevenient grace is present in all creation — in the natural order, in human conscience, in the relationships and heritage into which we are born. Love of family, the Christian community, the sacraments, creation itself, the pangs of guilt, the pull toward a vision of what can be are all expressions of God's prevenient grace.
Wesley described prevenient grace as the porch on a house. It is where we prepare to enter the house. Grace may also be compared to a journey. The desire to embark on the trip, the road or trail, the vehicle in which the journey is to be made and the map to be followed are all givens or gifts. The beauty of the landscape, the mind and eyes that conceived the journey and perceive its beauty, even the explorer who blazed the trail are all unmerited gifts — grace!
But, there is more to a house than the porch! There is more to a journey than the desire to travel! We must enter the house or begin the journey.
Justifying/saving grace: Doorway into new identity, new creation
Prevenient grace prepares us for justifying grace. "Justification," said Wesley, "is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins, and ... our acceptance with God." Justifying grace is the assurance of forgiveness that comes from repentance, from turning toward God's gracious gift of new life. It is being reconciled and realigned with God and the acceptance of God's atoning act in Jesus Christ.
Wesley considered justification, or justifying grace, as the doorway into the house of God's salvation. God reconciles us to Godself, adopts us into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, bestows upon us our identity as beloved sons and daughters and incorporates us into the body of Christ, the church.
Wesley's description of his experience at Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, perhaps portrays the meaning of justifying grace: "About a quarter before nine, while he [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Realizing our identity and worth as being rooted in the one to whom we belong is the essence of justifying grace. To accept that identity is to enter the doorway into a whole new existence. It is an identity we can never earn, nor can it be taken from us.
Continuing the analogy of the house, justifying grace is the doorway and the process of walking through it. The door is open with a welcome sign on it. If grace is compared to a journey, there comes a time when the traveler packs the bags, joins the guide and sets out toward the destination. That is justifying grace, turning toward a new future.
Sanctifying grace: Grace perfecting us
Wesley's understanding of grace moves beyond forgiveness and acceptance of our identity as beloved children of God. God's goal for humanity is the complete restoration of the divine image and the conformity of all creation to the image of Jesus Christ. Sanctification (from sanctus, holy) denotes the process by which the believer is made holy and whole in response to justification.
The Book of Discipline states: "We hold that the wonder of God's acceptance and pardon do not end God's saving work, which continues to nurture our growth in grace. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor." If prevenient grace is the porch of the house of grace and justifying grace is the doorway, sanctifying grace represents the rooms in the expansive dwelling of God's presence with and purposes for humanity.
Wesley affirmed that God's grace seeks nothing less than a new creation in the likeness of Jesus Christ. Sanctifying grace is God's freely given presence and power to restore the fullness of God's image in which we are created. Wesley talked about sanctification in terms of Christian perfection by which he means entire "holiness of heart and life."
In a sermon entitled "Christian Perfection," Wesley declared that Christian perfection does not imply Christians are exempt from ignorance, making mistakes, infirmities or being tempted. He affirmed perfection as another term for holiness. Sanctification, then, is the continuing process of being made perfect in love and of removing the desire to sin.
As The Book of Discipline affirms, "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.'" God's unmerited favor is before us, is present with us and is ever working to restore the divine image and transform the entire cosmos into God's reign in Jesus Christ.
Growing in grace
Grace involves both gift and response. Our identity as sons and daughters of God is God's gift to us. Living in the world as redeemed children of God is our gift to God. Justifying grace reconciles us to God, incorporates us into the body of Christ and sets us on the journey toward wholeness. Sanctifying grace continuously forms us in the likeness of Christ and sheds the love of God abroad in our hearts, our actions and our relationships.
Wesley affirmed that God's grace is universally present in all and irresistible in none. Although God's presence and power to create, forgive, reconcile and transform are universally and persistently present, we can resist God's gracious presence and work in us and the world. The freedom to say "no" to the invitation to be reconciled and transformed remains. Contrary to the Calvinists of his time, Wesley affirmed that we can lose our responsiveness to grace and thereby "backslide" or shut ourselves off from God's grace. Still, God's grace remains steadfast, ever blessing, sustaining and beckoning us toward wholeness and salvation.
In other words, we grow in Christlikeness as we open our lives to God's presence and power at work in us and the world. Growing in grace and discipleship cannot be done within our own strength. The One who invites us on the journey toward the fullness of grace accompanies us and supplies our needs. The God who liberates us and gives us a new future enables us to live toward that new creation by providing means by which we can grow in grace.
The early Methodists devoted themselves to pursuing holiness of heart and life by practicing the "General Rules for the United Societies." Continuation in the societies required that the members demonstrate their desire for salvation, "First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind. ... Secondly, by doing good: by being merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, ... Thirdly, by attending upon all the ordinances of God" (The Book of Discipline 2012, 78-79).
The Methodists gathered in small groups of classes and bands to "watch over one another in love," to support one another in growing in grace by avoiding evil, doing good and practicing "means of grace." These means of grace are named in the General Rules:
- The public worship of God
- The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded
- The supper of the Lord
- Family and private prayer
- Searching the scriptures
- Fasting or abstinence
Additionally, John Wesley identified "Christian conferencing" or Christian conversation, as well as acts of mercy and compassion, as means of growing in grace. All of these are gifts by which we grow in friendship with Christ. Through them, we express our devotion and open our lives to the presence and power of God to transform us and the world. They become means by which we are nourished in grace and grow in love for God and neighbor.
The fullness of the Wesleyan understanding and experience of grace is expressed beautifully in the beloved hymn of Charles Wesley, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling":
Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into every troubled breast!
Let us all in thee inherit; let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts at liberty.
Finish, then, thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Bishop Kenneth L. Carder (retired) served the Nashville and Mississippi areas. He began his retirement in September 2004 as professor of the practice of pastoral formation at Duke Divinity School. He now lives in Chapin, South Carolina, where he serves as chaplain in a memory care unit.