given on Sunday, September 14, 2008
Sometimes I just love being a Methodist. This week I was tackling the assignment for the Course of Study class that I have in October. The class is on Wesley’s theology. Some might yawn and think how boring, but I love to learn about John Wesley, more importantly about his theology. One of the most important elements of his theology is his understanding of grace. I was very fortunate to take my first lay speaking class with Lovett Weems, one of the primary authorities on Wesley.
I know I have so much more to learn, but every time I begin reading about grace in terms of Wesley’s understanding I get re-energized. Grace is God’s gift to each and every one of us upon our birth into this world. How in the world can we deny that we are loved when God gives us such a life-long gift as he did when he gave us grace? Maybe one of the problems is that we do not see what grace is.
When Wesley was asked to explain his understanding of grace, he did not use the words we have now. He began with using the term “way of salvation.” The fact that he begins with the word “way” shows me that it is a process to reach salvation. As a teacher, I see the way of salvation as a developmental process which lasts a lifetime. The way of salvation begins with prevenient grace. Prevenient is not a word that you typically hear in social conversation. In fact it is difficult to find a definition for it, but in the small book Methodist Doctrine by Ted Campbell (I told you I was using my homework this week) the choice of that word is explained:
In John Wesley’s time and before, the term “preventing” meant simply “coming before”(Latin, preveniens). Because the meaning of the term has changed considerably, we tend to speak today of God’s “prevenient” grace, as in the headings of the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. In either case the meaning is the same: “prevenient” or “prevenient grace” means God’s grace “coming before” our believing in Christ. (p. 54-55)
Wesley wanted everybody to know that God simply gave us grace from the very beginning. It did not matter that we were infants; God’s grace began as we began life. Now that is a difficult thing to understand, but think of our own relationship to our children when they are born. We do not take that baby into our arms and say you must earn my love. No, we love the baby unconditionally even before they open their eyes and start learning about this big world they just entered. The baby is so precious to us that we have a hard time even thinking about all the years of trials that are ahead for that infant as it grows into adulthood.
Go back and look at those words in our first hymn today. I can just picture Jesus standing right there along the mommies and daddies as the baby enters into this world singing these words:
Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me…
Why should we tarry when Jesus is pleading, pleading for you and
Why should we linger and heed not his mercies, mercies for you
and for me?
Although not quite a lullaby, these words certainly seem to show how God is promising to be with you and me from the very beginning. The words really tells me that God wants to take care of you and me from the very first breath. This hymn is cataloged in the hymnal under the heading of prevenient grace.
But as we all know, babies grow up. Developmentally they start learning from all of us around them. They learn our language, they learn our behaviors, and they learn about our faith. As parents and teachers we take the responsibility of teaching our children right and wrong. We work hard to make sure that they live a good and productive life. There is some point when the child makes a mistake. As parents, we know we have to provide correction and consequence for the mistake. We do not like doing it, but we must make sure that they learn and do not repeat that mistake again. We never, never stop loving them. Instead, we love them unconditionally and are so eager to have them return, to say they are sorry and to go on in life without making that mistake again.
This is the pattern of learning. We step out and try something. It might be wrong, but in a loving family or community we are never really alone. This is the same developmental process of Christians who step out of the loving relationship with God, make a mistake, deal with the consequences, and then realize that God still loves them. God is still walking their journey with them and loves them unconditionally. Wesley says that as Christians this spiritual journey has now reached a new level of grace: justification.
In Wesley’s sermon on the way of salvation, he says, “justification is just another word for pardon.” Justification is the development of awareness that we do sin or make mistakes and yet God loves us. When we realize that we have separated ourselves from God, we ask forgiveness. That moment is when God’s love pardons us. We love our children unconditionally, so how can we doubt that God loves us unconditionally.
As a teacher, one of the most difficult parts of the job is watching the young people, who are in so much pain, make mistake after mistake. The parents may or may not be a positive force in their life, but one thing you see is the pain of these young people who have no idea that God still loves them despite all that they have done or have experienced. Developmentally these teens are at a dead stop in their emotional journey. Many have no idea that God even loves them because they have never been told the story of Jesus dying for them. They have no idea that all they have to do is have faith in God and they will be forgiven. If they could just learn the little mystery that all it takes is faith to find the gift of grace that will be there with them throughout their life.
But, I have to tell you, even though I know God loves me, I do not always love those kids. I have to ask God to guide me. My developmental process in the spiritual journey is not complete. I have a third phase to continue through. This is when hearing a song like Victory in Jesus reminds me that justification leads to sanctification:
I heard an old, old story, how a Savior came from glory, how he gave his life on Calvary to save a wretch like me…
I heard about his healing, of his cleansing power revealing, how he made the lame to walk again and caused the blind to see…
I heard about a mansion he has built for me in glory, and I heard about the streets of gold beyond the crystal sea; about the angels singing and the old redemption story and some sweet day I’ll sing up there the song of victory.
Wesley said that just as we come to realize that God does forgive us of our sins, we leap right into the next level of grace: sanctification. There is no way to tell any one of you when you pass from one level of grace to the next. But as a teacher this is very similar to when a student finally begins to get it. The light bulb has gone off in their head and they got it. Justification is that light bulb for each of us in the Christian learning process. Now that we have got it, the teacher works to trigger a yearning to know more. Sanctification is that for Christians. As we finally get it, we now have a drive to know more.
Sanctification may be one of the least definable phases of God’s grace. It has so many different looks. While you are so relieved to know that God loves you and that you have been given pardon for your sins, you now have a hunger for more. Justification, Wesley described the effects of it in his sermon:
The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,’ and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Those phrases may sound familiar because Wesley always based his understanding on scripture. Those phrases are right out of the Bible. Grace is based on scripture. Sanctification means learning. Now you are going into that developmental level of the spiritual journey that you seek more understanding. You study. You live life. You handle challenges along the way because you believe; you have faith.
Interestingly enough, in Wesley’s sermon, which must have been at least an hour or two long, he begins explaining what Methodists should do in order to continue growing in their faith. The spiritual journey is not a luxury cruise; it is more like a working vacation. Still Wesley did not want to discourage us; he wanted to encourage us. Our final hymn, “Be Still, My Soul,” provides encouragement today:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on your side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to your God to order and provide
in every change God faithful will remain.
With the encouragement of God, of your Christian family, of your inner self, you will reach that final level of grace—perfection. Perfection is that state of grace when you truly live one major concept: love. Campbell describes Wesley’s perfection as our love of God and our love of our neighbors.
Grace if for life. Grace is the gift of God which remains with us through each step of our lives. What does it take on our part? It takes faith. Once we believe that God so loved us that he gave his only son for us, we also accept the responsibility to love God with all our hearts and all our souls. We also accept the responsibility to love others, to love our neighbors, to love our enemies. Simply love.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank You for giving us the life-long gift of grace. We ask You for forgiveness as we work to learn how to love as unconditionally as You love us. Help us forgive others, even ourselves, for the mistakes that are made. Guide us as we struggle to learn more of You and Your holy words. May we serve others so they may know your love, too. May we “be still…when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed we shall meet [thee] at last.” –Amen