THIS WE BELIEVE: WEEK THREE-Prevenient Grace
THIS WE BELIEVE
WEEK THREE: “SOLA CHARIS”
Intro: “The Bible is true. The Bible is true for me. The truth of this Bible should change the way I believe and behave.”
We’re in our third week in the series called, “This We Believe, Essential Christian Doctrine from a Wesleyan Perspective.” So far, we’ve talked about two beliefs: (1) JESUS IS LORD, and (2) THE BIBLE IS TRUE. Today let’s begin a conversation about GRACE. In fact, we will use this foundational text for the next three weeks:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
Over the next few weeks we are going to talk about the meaning and application of God’s grace in our lives and how that should impact the way we love God, love others, and live out the Gospel every day until it is our last.
[Let me first give credit to Dr. Steve Harper, a retired professor at Asbury Seminary, and his book on the Wesley’s theology of grace called, The Way to Heaven. I could have used many, many other books on the subject, but Harper’s is simplistic and accessible, yet accurate and insightful.]
Biblical Grace: What it is and what it is not…
Biblical Grace is NOT:
- Something you say before meals
- A characteristic of great ballerina
- And extra period to make a credit card, mortgage or rent payment
- Grace (charis) occurs in one form or another 157 times in the NT.
- Charis means: grace, favor, kindness. Charis has this idea of "being disposed to, inclined or favorable towards, leaning towards to share benefit."
- In the case of God, he is leaning towards us to share in his benefit.
- The Lord's favor is freely extended to give Himself away to people because He is "always leaning toward them.”
- Typically, we associate the favor of God as UNMERITED.
- In Ephesians 2:8, the apostle Paul uses the word, “grace” to describe the mode by which we are saved. Listen again: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. And themeans by which salvation comes is through FAITH in Jesus Christ. Paul even clearly articulates that the faith by which we employ is NOT of our own origins…it is a gift of God.
- Simply put: Biblical grace is getting what we don’t deserve (e.g., forgiveness, salvation, restoration, righteousness—and NOT getting what we do—unforgiveness, eternal death and damnation, separation from God, and continuing state of sinfulness.
- John the beloved evangelist, in describing Jesus as the Word made flesh, makes this statement about the gift of Jesus Christ: 16Out of his [Jesus’s] fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
- In describing a remnant of Jews who will be saved through Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul explains the reason for this remnant when he says this : 5So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. 6And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:5-6 NIV). It was not because these Jews practiced the Law that they were preserved. It was because of the sovereign grace…the unmerited favor…the leanings of God toward his people.
- The presence of God is described as gracious when the writer of Hebrews says this: Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrews 4:16 NIV). We can only do this because of the saving act of Jesus Christ, who tore the veil separating us and God, thus making a way to enter his presence.
- Most letters of the NT either begin or end with a blessing similar to the one Paul wrote in the salutation of his letter to the Romans : Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Grace and Peace…Charis and eiréné…these were not just niceties like we might say, “How are you?” or “Have a nice day!” What was being said was far more profound: May the favor of God rest on you and may you be filled with the eternal presence of the Lord Jesus such that nothing in all the world could change your circumstances with our almighty and everlasting God. How’s THAT for a greeting or a good-bye!
Before we go further in talking about the working of grace in our lives, it is essential to understand WHY? Why does God need to lean toward us with favor?
IMPORTANT: We can’t experience God’s grace without first being in need of it.
In order to be aware of our need, we must understand the nature of ORIGINAL SIN. John Wesley, who believed and preached fervently on the doctrine of grace, understood that God’s love was best understood in light of man’s sinful state. He once said , “We know no gospel without salvation from sin.”
Wesley believed that God loved man as the supreme object of his creation. We were originally right in God’s eyes. Original righteousness is an important component to explain why people HAVE to be saved —redemption ONLY makes sense if there is something of value prior to the sinful state of man (i.e., Original Sin). If something is worthless, it can be thrown away and replaced. But if it has prior value, it must be found and restored. Redemption means people have prior value (eternal value), and God’s love will not allow anyone to be discarded. So, Wesley believed original righteousness precedes original sin.
So here’s an important truth that some of you need to hear this morning. Some of you need to be reminded that—because God made you in his image and he did so because he loves you, then you are an object of supreme value to God. Why else would we hang on God’s famous Word in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him might have eternal life”? It was God’s LOVE that motivated him to send Christ to be your savior.
Some of us feel unworthy to receive God’s love…and to some extent that is true for all of us. None of us DESERVE God’s loving salvation. That’s why they call it GRACE. You may say, “But preacher, you don’t know what I’ve done. You don’t know the people I’ve hurt. You don’t know my bitter, unforgiving heart. I don’t want God to forgive me; that will just make me feel even worse.”
That kind of thinking is self-destructive, unhealthy, and a lie from our enemy. It is precisely for YOU that Jesus came! To say that your sin is too bad to be forgiven is to say that God lacks the power to heal, to forgive, to redeem. I don’t know about you, but MY God can do anything! It’s time to move past that STINKIN’ THINKIN’ and embrace God’s love for you.
There are others, however, who tend to feel that God owes it to you to save you. “After all,” you think, “I’ve been a church goer all my life. I pray regularly. Why I even tithe! I don’t hit my wife or yell at my kids. I pay my taxes and vote the right way. I’m a great citizen and treat my fellow man with respect and dignity.”
And to that I would answer: “Well done!” You are demonstrating your allegiance to God and country. That’s a good thing! But is that what makes you right with God? Can we be so prideful to think that God owes us because we have lived morally upright lives. Do we compare ourselves to other people and their messed up lives and think, “If God can save that guy, then I’m a shoe-in!”?
In the story of the Prodigal Son and Loving Father, there’s an eldest son who’s angry that the Father treated his wayward, scandalous brother like royalty, just because he comes back home and asks for forgiveness. He’s angry because he has been obedient to the father and pridefully suggests that the Father owes him.
I like how James 4:6 puts it: But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. We need to recognize that sin is sin. And even if I live a “good life,” I still have the sin nature that opposes God at every turn.
But, in his grace, God loves us in spite of our sinfulness. Wesley affirmed that God’s love was expressed in the midst of human sin. He embraced the passage in Romans 5 that says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
What was Wesley’s view of sin. For Wesley, sin was not some mysterious spiritual entity that attached itself to human nature like a barnacle attaches itself to the hull of a ship. His classical definition of sin was, at its base, a broken relationship—either toward God or toward others. Sin doesn’t sneak up on us…it comes up out of us. And the result of sin is sickness. Wesley would use the term “corruption.” Because of sin HUMANITY IS SICK UNTO DEATH. And the disease spread over the whole person, leaving no part uninfected.
The Bible doesn’t say we are sinners because we commit acts of sin; it says we commit acts of sin because we are sinners. Sin has struck at the root of what it means to be human.
In the Garden of Creation, Adam (man) and Eve (woman) were in a perfect state with God and with creation. In the Fall, the image of God was radically damaged in humans. In short, according to Wesley, the life of God in the soul of man was virtually extinguished. He said, “The glory departed from him.” Intimacy with God and man was gone. Separation was the result; and spiritual sickness unto death was the condition. This is all the result of ORIGINAL SIN.
This understanding that humanity is sick unto death apart from God’s intervention through the grace of Christ cuts against the grain of much thinking today. Some deny the objective reality of sin altogether; while others try to explain sin philosophically as the absence of goodness. We just make “mistakes.” We slip up. Nobody’s perfect, after all.
Wesley called on ALL people to repent and be saved, whether they were morally upright people or “gross sinners,” as he called them. Why? Because we ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If sin were just a “thing,” we might find some way to rid ourselves of it, like an unsightly mole. But because sin is an infection of our humanity, the only option is transformation. We can’t try hard enough, learn enough, worship enough, give enough, serve enough, or work enough to heal ourselves. Outside help is our only possible solution.
That brings us back to GRACE. Listen carefully to how the apostle Paul wrote about this grace in relation to our sin in Ephesians 2:1-5:
1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our fleshand following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.
We are saved by grace through faith. In the time we have left, let’s begin looking at Wesley’s theology of Grace in what is commonly known as “Wesley’s Order of Salvation.” We will be looking at this more closely in the coming weeks; but I want to touch on the first order of God’s Grace in our lives: PREVENIENT GRACE.
One of the effects of sin in our lives is that is makes us dead toward God. “Once you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” says Paul. Dead people can’t ask for help and they don’t even want to. The strange irony is that soul-death (a condition of all who do not have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ through faith) are under the illusion that they are just fine without God. They have a false sense of security and peace.
Wesley put it this way, “The poor unawakened sinner has no knowledge of himself. He knows not that he is a fallen spirit. Full of diseases as he is, he fancies himself in perfect health.” We might say he is in the ultimate state of denial.
Were it not for the work of God through the Holy Spirit in the life of the unawakened sinner, he or she would remain oblivious of their need for salvation. This inner working of God is known by Wesleyans as PREVENIENT GRACE.
For Wesley, prevenient grace is the grace of God that operates BEFORE our experience of conversion. It is the activity of God before we give conscious thought to God or to our need of him. “While we are still sinners, Christ died for us.” The first move toward salvation is God’s, not ours.
Let me give you a personal example and it opens me us to vulnerability of your judgment. When I was in college I did things I’m very ashamed of. I used partying as a way of avoiding dealing with my problems. One evening I went to a party and became so intoxicated with many things that I never remember driving myself back to the dorm room. The next day, when I came to my senses and realized I was still alive, I looked at myself deeply in the mirror and heard in my spirit what I know now to be the voice of God saying, “Is this who you’ve become.” I quit doing drugs that very moment and, to my remembrance, I never partied like that again. For me, THAT’S prevenient grace.
I was dead to God because of my sins. But God was so rich in mercy that he quickened my heart to realize my need for something more…something that I would come to realize is Jesus Christ.
Prevenient grace is also a “leading grace.” God’s prevenient grace moves us to the place of repentance. We become sensitive to God’s will. We become aware that we have violated his will. And it causes us to want to obey his will.
I wish THAT was all it took for EVERYONE to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Truth is, we can choose to ignore or suppress God’s prevenient grace. We can become hard of heart, and the result is that these stirrings of God will go unheeded. Honestly, I believe this happens more in the church than we care to admit.
On Easter Sunday, there were likely twice to three times the number of people in church buildings across the nation. And yet, at least in my conversations with about 6 pastors in the week following Resurrection Sunday where the Gospel was clearly preached, NOT ONE person responded! This is NOT because God was not speaking and the Holy Spirit not convicting. It was because WE were not willing to accept the leading grace of God so that we may be saved by God’s justifying grace…which will be the subject for next week…
How about you? Are you a repentant sinner saved by grace? Has the prevenient grace of God lead you to be aware of your sin-sick state and seek God for the remedy—transformation by the blood of Jesus? I pray that you have. But if your heart has been strangely warmed this morning, it’s not the coffee you drank earlier! It is the grace of God calling, “Oh sinner, come home!” Let’s pray.