Saturday, May 26, 2018

“Prevenient Grace: Standing on the Front Porch”

This Sunday, May 27th, we begin a three-week series on the Christian understanding of grace.  (I will preach on the first two Sunday’s, while my colleague Pastor Beth Menhusen will preach the third sermon in the series.) 

Our English word, “grace,” comes from the ancient Roman world and the Latin word “grātia.”   Originally, this Roman word had three different meanings: 

1.      A pleasing quality.  This carries over today when we use the word, “grace” to refer to someone who is skilled in movement, as when we refer to a person who is a graceful dancer.

2.      Gratitude or thanks.  Sometimes, today, we may use the word, “grace,” to refer to a prayer of thanks before a meal.  For instance, I have a cousin in North Carolina, who before a meal, always asks me, “Richard, would you say grace?”

3.      Favor or goodwill.  This is the definition of grace that we will focus on during the three-week series. 

Within the Christian faith, the word, “grace,” takes on a special meaning.  Simply stated, Grace is God’s free and unmerited love, which seeks out every person and assists us in developing a loving relationship with the Divine.”  Grace is pivotal within Christian thought because it forms the grounding for our understanding of God’s relationship with human persons—and with all of Creation.  United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder thoughtfully elaborates on the Christian conception of grace, when he writes:

“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.”[1]

Grace is especially critical for United Methodists because of how it was experienced by John Wesley, our founder.  Already an ordained priest in the 18th century Church of England, the early Wesley was still uncertain about his own personal salvation.  Until one evening in 1738, when he went reluctantly to a Christian meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.  During this meeting, Wesley had a life-transforming experience of God’s grace. 

He describes the experience in his daily journal:  “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."

Wesley’s experience was so profound that he believed in order to fully appreciate how wonderful and awesome God’s gift of grace was, we must conventionalize three completely distinct types of grace:

1.      Prevenient Grace.  Prevenient grace is God’s initial love, which seeks us out and invites us into a loving relationship.  It is God calling us—even luring is—into a relationship.

2.      Justifying Grace.  With justifying grace, God gives us the confidence and courage to completely put our faith and trust in God.

3.      Sanctifying Grace.  After we have entered into a relationship with the Divine, sanctifying grace is God’s nurture and encouragement as we grow in our relationship with the Divine.

In each of the sermons in this series, we will reflect upon one of the types of grace which Wesley identified.  This Sunday, May 27th, we will focus on prevenient grace.  To ground and inform our reflections this Sunday, I will be preaching on 1 John 4:7-21.

In the first part of this passage (vv. 7-12), the writer makes two profound points.  First, “love is from God” (v. 7).  In other words, love, itself, is defined by God’s love for us.  Secondly, God has already reached out in love to each of us through the crucifixion of Christ.  As he writes in verse 10, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  This is the essence of prevenient grace.  It is that God has already reached out to each of us in love, seeking to establish a relationship, from the moment were born.

In the second part of this passage (vv. 13-21), the writer develops his concept of God’s love for each of us, even further.  He notes that we can be assured of God’s love because the community has received a share of God’s own Spirit.  We partake of God’s Spirit and experience God’s love for us.  Since God is love, “those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (v. 13).  For the writer, this experience of abiding in God’s love is not static and unchanging.  Instead, it is dynamic as we grow deeper in our love of God.  Further, in response to God’s love for us, we—in turn—love one another.   

God’s love for us is so deep and so profound that God never gives up on us.  From the moment we are born, God seeks to establish a loving relationship with us.  God never stops seeking us, even if we rebuff God and turn away.  This is the essence of prevenient grace.  Prevenient grace is God’s work in our lives before we have entered into a relationship with God.  Prevenient grace is God calling us and luring us to enter into a relationship with God. 

This understanding of prevenient grace is nicely illustrated by my Christ UMC colleague, Pastor Bob Neben, in his understanding of infant baptism, which we acknowledge and celebrate in The United Methodist Church.  He writes,

In Infant Baptism we declare that God loves this baby even before the baby can understand anything about Jesus and God's love.  Baptism symbolizes the fact that God loves us from the moment we are born until we die.  … God loves our children even though the baby cannot respond to God.  In many ways God adopts every baby at birth and as a child grows and matures, God hopes the child will love God in return and strive to follow the example of Jesus Christ in living their lives.”

  If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, May 27th, as we explore God’s profound love for us, demonstrated through prevenient grace.  Since this is Memorial Day weekend, during our worship service we will also lift up those who died for our country in our prayers.  In addition, all Veterans worshiping this Sunday will receive a red poppy, which is an international symbol commemorating those who died in war.  Christ UMC is located at 4530 “A” Street in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning. 

Come, join us.  Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1] Kenneth L. Carder, “A Wesleyan Understanding of Grace,” Interpreter Magazine, November-December 2016.  Accessed online at, 19 May 2018.

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