Saturday, June 2, 2018

“Justifying Grace: Crossing the Threshold”

            This Sunday, June 3rd, we continue our three-week series on the Christian understanding of grace.  As we noted last week, for the purposes of this series, we will simply define grace as “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. 

            John Wesley, the founder of United Methodism, suggested that there were three different forms of grace, corresponding to different stages in the Christian’s spiritual journey:

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 order to explain his three-fold distinction of grace, Wesley used the metaphor of walking up and into a house.

a.       Prevenient Grace.  Walking up onto the front porch of the house.

b.      Justifying Grace.  Opening the door and crossing over the threshold into the house.

c.       Sanctifying Grace.  Once inside the house, exploring all of the rooms. 

Last week, we began our series by examining “prevenient grace.”  We saw that prevenient grace is God calling, welcoming us into a loving relationship with the Divine.  This week we continue our reflections by reflecting on “justifying grace.”  In the proclamation, I will use Romans 4: 1-5 as the foundation for my reflections on justifying grace:

“What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

In this passage, Paul is trying to demonstrate that the covenant which God made with Abraham was always intended to include both Jews and Gentiles.[1]  To understand the context of Paul’s claim, we must refer to Genesis 15.  In this chapter, God promises Abraham, who is currently without a male heir, that his descendants will be more numerous than all the stars in the heavens.  “And he believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). 

The claim that Abraham’s belief—or, faith—was reckoned as “righteousness” refers to Abraham’s membership in the covenant with God.  In other words, Abraham’s faith in God and belief in God’s promise meant that Abraham had entered into covenant membership with God.  As scripture scholar N. T. Wright writes, “Abraham’s faith was the sure sign that he was in partnership with God; and God sealed this with the covenant…”[2]

In the next verse (v. 4), Paul uses the metaphor of bookkeeping to develop his argument.  He notes that for someone who works, the wages from that work are not reckoned a gift, but rather the money which is due for the labor performed.  Paul’s point is that Abraham received covenant membership not because of any work, or accomplishment which he performed.  He did not earn covenant membership through obeying God’s Laws or any other sort of good works.  Instead, he entered into covenant relationship with God because of his faith.

In verse 5, Paul switches metaphors, moving from a bookkeeping metaphor to the metaphor of a law court and his understanding of covenant.  Those who trust God, without relying upon their own good works, are received into covenantal membership with God.  At this point, a caveat is in order.  It is easy for Christians to see their faith as a sort of substitute or alternative form of work, even if they recognize that God’s gift of covenant is free and unmerited.  That is, justification by faith is not something we do or gain.  Instead, it is more of a state that we find ourselves in, when we wholly and completely trust in God.

This is where Wesley’s concept of God’s justifying grace proves helpful.  For Wesley, even trusting God is not something which we can do without God’s love and assistance.  Justifying grace is God’s free and unmerited love which seeks us out and assists us in trusting God so that we can become covenant members with God; entering into a growing relationship with God.  Justifying grace gives us the confidence and courage to completely put our faith in God.  Justifying grace gives us the strength to turn to God and accept God’s love and reconciliation. 

Sometimes we refer to a “leap of faith.”  In some sense, justifying grace makes the “leap of faith” possible.  Yet, we must be careful in how we use this term.  A leap of faith is not unthinking, but rather carefully considered and rational.  Further, a leap of faith is not groundless, but rather based upon our experience of God’s Presence within our lives.  The leap of faith is more a state in which we realize that—just as Abraham, before us—we believe and trust in God’s love and care for us. 

For Wesley, this moment of realization that we really do trust God marked the point when we crossed over the threshold of God’s house.  In Wesley’s personal life, this moment was profoundly and poignantly transformational.  It was the threshold of a new life, with new possibilities.  As United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder writes, “That is justifying grace, turning toward a new future.”[3]

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, June 3rd, as we explore God’s profound love for us, demonstrated through justifying grace.  During the proclamation, I will share several fascinating illustrations of how justifying grace has been experienced in the lives of individual Christians.  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]N. T. Wright, Commentary on Romans in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 10, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[2] Ibid.

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

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