Christianity 101: Grace
When I was a sophomore in high school a Lay Witness Mission came to my church. During this weekend we had breakout sessions with the youth group and we had worship times when we would hear people testify about how God had worked in their lives. There were plenty of altar calls but the main objection, as I remember it, is to see how God was working through the normal, everyday people of the church. We always had heard from the minister but now it was the lay people’s time to stand up and testify.
During one of the breakout sessions the youth group was down in the outdoor chapel behind the church. We took a pen and paper with us and we did an exercise when we mapped out our relationship with God. It was like a wave graph and you drew a line down the middle of the page and one side was the beginning of life and the other side was present day. You would go through and mark certain life events that had happened. For me it was things like, moving to Charlotte, my father’s heart attack, and getting active in the youth group, stuff like that. Then if we felt close to God our spiritual line would float up to the top of the page and if we felt far away it floated down to the bottom. It was a neat exercise and as we prayed over our journeys at the end of the time I stared at mine.
My life and spiritual life was written down on a piece of paper in front of me. There were moments I felt close to God and others I felt far away. But as I looked I realized that no matter what I was going through God was still with me. God was still active in my life and still there whether I knew it or not. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I took a long walk from the outdoor chapel to the sanctuary and when I got there I knelt down. I remember saying something like, “Lord, you have always been in my life. You have cared for me and love me. I understand what your Son did for me and I lay my life in your hands now.” My cheeks were dripping as I opened my eyes. I felt knew. I felt different and little did I know I would never really be the same.
John Wesley is the main theologian in the United Methodist denomination. Wesley looked at salvation, God’s ability to save us through his son Jesus Christ and said that this free gift offered can only be accepted through faith. There are no works that can be done, only through believing in what Christ has done for you and all of humanity can make salvation real, which is what Paul says in his letters to the churches in Ephesus. Grace is how God achieves this salvation. The United Methodist Book of Discipline defines grace as 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.’” We can find God’s grace at work in all of creation. This means we can see a sunset at the beach and feel God’s presence in our lives or we can feel it in participating in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Grace, for us Methodists, is always around us and always tangible.
As I looked at that map of my life and then the wave of the ups and downs in my spiritual life I started to become away of prevenient grace. This is a churchy word, so say it with me, prevenient grace. Prevenient comes from the Latin meaning ‘coming before.” Another way of thinking about this type of grace is it is preparing grace. It is those moments in our lives that whether we know it, acknowledge it, or even believe in it or not, God is at work in our lives.
Psalm 139 is a good example of images of prevenient grace. There the psalmist says, “O Lord, you have searched me and know me.” He goes on to say that God knit him together in his mother’s womb. These are great images of God knowing us before we really knew ourselves. Also in the first hymn we sung, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me; see, on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.” Prevenient grace is also those little things that start to stack up and before long you see a great impact. The parsonage we lived in before we moved here was really nice and the kitchen felt rather big because of the nine foot ceilings. When Dean was little I was getting ready to feed him. Dean was seated and I walked towards him with a jar of number 1 sweet potatoes. As I adjusted the high chair the jar of baby food slipped out of my hand. The jar was probably only three feet off the ground but when it hit the floor it shot up all the way up the wall an even hit the ceiling, nine feet away. Alycia and I just laughed. This little tiny jar was able to cover nine feet of space between the floor and the ceiling. It is amazing how one little thing can completely mess something up.
That is what God was doing in my heart as I sat there at that outdoor chapel. I saw all those little moments when God had dropped some grace in my lap and before I knew it I was covered in it. Prevenient grace leads a person to conviction of their own sin and then to repentance. As we bask in God’s glory we start to feel unworthy because we realize how messed up we all are but when we are up to our neck in grace we realize that to God, it doesn’t matter. He loves us despite of our sins. This is when Justifying Grace comes in.
Justification, or justifying grace, is the work that God does in you. It is the grace that you can feel as you recognize God’s love for you and what Jesus Christ did for you. It is that awareness that can come in a moment or over time. Justifying grace was what I felt as I knelt down at that prayer rail and prayed. I committed to live my life for God and God granted me assurance that I have been forgiven and transformed. As we accept this justifying grace assurance is another gift God gives us and it can be sensed in the feeling of peace, forgiveness, direction, or purpose as we experience the awakening in our souls. It is what we sung in the second hymn when we sang to God, “Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blest, watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.”
Now many people, especially in the south will refer to this as ‘being saved.’ There are people who can give you a date and time stamp on when they experienced justifying grace. There are others who say that they experienced this grace over time and slowly came to the realization of it. Both are correct. In the huge Methodist boom in the 1800 and 1900s in America, camp meetings were well known all over the place. These were revival type services that demanded the followers have a stronger walk with God. Some started to have mourner’s benches where people who realized they were fallen creatures who have sinned against God could sit in mourning. Getting in touch with the power of this grace was serious business back then.
We may not have a mourning bench anymore but many of us are familiar with an altar call. What many people are shocked to learn is that the altar call is actually a new phenomenon. It only started back two hundred years go with Charles Finney. There are denominations that disagree with this whole heartily. Many Calvinists object saying it is misleading people into confusing outward conduct with spiritual change. It could actually give people a false assurance of faith. Kind of like something they could check off their list and then not have to worry about again. George Whitefield, one of history’s best evangelists never used an altar call although some more modern evangelists still do.
But as Methodist’s ‘being saved’ is not the whole point of grace. We actually do not believe in the idea of “once saved, always saved.” John Wesley was a fervent believer that people could lose their salvation and would need to experience justifying grace all over again. But for those who had experienced it, their salvation is brought into fruition through sanctifying grace. This is the work that God does through us. Beginning at the justification we start to move towards what Wesley believed was entire sanctification. Through the Holy Spirit we are being transformed into the likeness of God. When we say we want to be disciples of Christ, that means that we want to live, act, and love like Jesus Christ. We want to be like him in every way. So this change starts to happen within us. We cannot look at the world with the same eyes any more. We see everything differently because we have realized who we are, whose we are, and what God has done in this world. The Holy Spirit takes the change in our heart and soul and makes them real in our thoughts and actions.
When groups from our church go to CCM and provide a meal they do it out of a need to help those in our community. They do it because Jesus said, “when you do this to the least of these you do it unto me.” They go and feed because something inside of them tells them life is best when they are serving others. I am not going to put words in Saundra and Linda’s mouths but they are heading to Kenya in a couple of weeks, not because it seems cool, but because a piece of them wants to connect with another piece of humanity. They will meet God on that trip. They will see God in the eyes of the people they meet and in turn the people they meet will see God in their own eyes as well. That is sanctifying grace working itself out. It is our assurance of knowing that God died our death on the cross for our salvation turning into love our neighbor as ourselves.
How many of you believe in entire sanctification? How many of you are raising your hand although you have no clue what that really means? United Methodists stand out in their theology because we believe in entire sanctification or to put it in another term, we believe in perfection. Now before you jump ship listening to me let me explain. John Wesley believed when Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven in perfect,” that he meant it. One misconception is that the idea of perfection is the same as the idea of being sinless. That is wrong. Christian Perfection is living out the two commandments Jesus gives us to a tee. Entire Sanctification, or Christian Perfection, simply means that you love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. As Methodists we believe this can be obtainable in our own lifetimes.
Before clergy are ordained they are asked by the resident Bishop the historic questions. In these questions the Bishop asks everyone, “are you moving on to perfection?” If we answer no to that question, we would not be ordained. If you believe that perfect love of God and neighbor is not obtainable then why even practice it? But if you did believe it can be obtained then you would work hard to get to that point. You would dive deeper into your relationship with God and transform yourself through the Holy Spirit to see the world through God’s eyes which would enable you to love your neighbor as yourself. Why do we believe that the Holy Spirit can work enough in us that we cannot be transformed through years of study, service, and faith into someone who loves God and neighbor perfectly? Anything short of that holds the bar way too low.
The process of sanctification is a long process and one that moves forwards and backwards, backwards and forwards. But it is the essence of the Christian walk. About a year ago I finally was able to put in words why I do not preach many sermons on Justification. I don’t preach many sermons calling people to Christ. I don’t because as I have grown to know you all I have learned that you are hear because you have already felt God’s prevenient and justifying grace. It is the sanctification that we are working on. If you open your hymnals you will see themes above some of our hymns. There is a section of prevenient grace and a section for justifying grace. These each have 21 hymns in them. But there are 159 hymns about sanctifying grace. That is because it is a long process. It is something we work on day in and day out as we strive to be like Christ.
Each hymn that we have sung today is from one of these graces. In our last hymn we will sing to God, “But we never can prove the delights of his love until all on the altar we lay; for the favor he shows, for the joy he bestows, are for them who will trust and obey.” We will never truly know all the aspects of God’s grace until we are willing to give into them. God is at work in our lives right now through prevenient grace. When you realize what God has done for you, and maybe today is the first time you are putting this all together, pray to God and ask him to forgive you and take control of your life, because justifying grace can be so freeing. Then let us work together as sisters and brothers to move into entire sanctification and to love as Jesus Christ as loved. Then we will know what grace feels like because we will be sharing it with everyone we meet.
And all God’s people said…Amen.