Keys to Catechesis: Discern the Prior Working of the Holy Spirit

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

Christians are commanded to “make culture” by reconstructing the grand narrative of the gospel. This grand story echoes from creation to fall, from covenant to incarnation, from resurrection to ascension, from Pentecost to church, from the return of Christ to New Creation. This big narrative of God’s mighty, redemptive acts loses its coherence when we only tell bits and pieces of the story. Often the surrounding, post-Christian culture forgets the grand story completely. Yet, the greatest tragedy is that the Church itself has so fragmented and domesticated the grand story that we are called to rebuild the broken walls almost from scratch. As Wesleyans, we must focus on the distinctives of our tradition as we seek to restore the fragmented gospel story.

The first rebuilding step is catechesis, or oral biblical instruction in the church and home, sometimes called altar and hearth catechesis. Although traditionally catechesis relates to the Catholic tradition, all Christian faiths are commanded to verbally share and teach others the gospel story. In Deuteronomy 6:6-7 Moses gives a command from the Lord, saying:

“Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.” (MSG)

Often when Christians begin to think about catechesis they begin by brainstorming what Christians should “do” or “know.” The “do” list includes such spiritual disciplines as prayer and scripture reading. The “know” list likely includes key doctrines such as the two natures of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity or the Ten Commandments. However, the Wesleyan catechesis does not begin with knowledge, but with the person of Christ. Catechesis begins with the prior act of God in prevenient grace. Wesley believed all spiritual formation began with God’s action on behalf of the sinner, bridging the gap between human depravity and free will. Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its debauchery and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. Jesus declares that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This verse clearly refers to a longing rooted in the Triune God that precedes our justification. God’s prevenient grace is His act of unmerited favor. God’s grace “enlightens everyone” (John 1:9) and lifts us up, allowing us to exercise our will and respond to the gift of Christ. Thomas Oden aptly says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will.”1

Often, Wesleyans are wrongly accused of denying human depravity because of our emphasis on free will. However, Wesleyans believe in total depravity every bit as much as any five point Calvinist. Wesleyans and other denominations differ because Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then serious theological difficulties arise. Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive His grace. Many, of course, still resist His will and persist in rebellion against God. Love wins, yes, but justice also wins. Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adam’s nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement). By free will Wesleyans actually mean “freed will,” a will in bondage liberated by a free act of God’s grace. God’s grace, of course, is not free in every possible respect since we are all influenced in many ways by the effects of the Fall. However, as a result of God’s grace we now have a restored capacity that enables our hearts, minds and wills to respond to God’s gift.

1. Thomas C. Oden, The Word of Life (San Franscisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 2:189.

This is one of the “keys to catechesis” from my book Seven Keys to Catechesis in the 21st Century available for free at Seedbed.