Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part IMarch 19th, 2019
Beloved, we are facing the long and difficult work of rebuilding the church and remembering our heritage. Perhaps it might be helpful to dedicate a little mini series on four of the great themes of our Wesleyan heritage. We will start out with the Wesleyan view of grace.
Wesley accepted the Reformation emphasis on justifying grace, but lovingly reminded the church that to equate salvation with justification was a great loss to the biblical doctrine of salvation. Wesley saw God’s grace punctuating the whole of our lives within an expansive understanding of biblical salvation. God’s grace comes to us before we even become Christians. It is prevenient grace which enables us to respond to the gospel. This is why although we describe this as free will, we really mean freed will, i.e. God has taken the first step and sovereignly acted to free us from Adamic guilt and sinful depravity, thereby enabling the whole human race to hear the gospel and respond.
For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This clearly refers to a drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Prevenient grace is God’s universal grace to the entire human race, situating Wesleyanism between Augustinian pessimism and Pelagian optimism. Because prevenient grace means that which comes “before,” some Wesleyans mistakenly think that this is grace which only comes to us prior to justifying grace. However, prevenient grace also includes all the ways God moves in sovereign prior action calling us to respond throughout our Christian experience. Again, Wesley manages to perfectly balance the classic tension between monergistic and synergistic views of salvation. Prevenient grace is a testimony to monergism, whereas the full collaboration with God through our freed wills is a testimony to syngergism.
In addition to prevenient grace, Wesley speaks of sanctifying grace. Just as God in Christ meets us to justify us, so the Spirit of God meets us to sanctify us and make us holy. Prevenient and justifying grace enables you to become a Christian, but it is sanctifying grace which enables you to be a Christian. We will dedicate a future article to saying more about this, but it is important for now to see how sanctification fits into Wesley’s larger view of grace. Finally, it is glorifying grace which enables you to be fully conformed to the image of Christ in the New Creation. So Wesley unfolds for us a great vision of God’s grace which is rich and textured and punctuates the whole of our pre-Christian and Christian lives stretching even into the New Creation.
Wesley developed a whole doctrine of the means of grace which he defined as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God . . . whereby he might convey preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace). Like a trail of bread crumbs, Wesley saw that however far we stray God leaves little markers of his grace so we can find our way home and reorient ourselves to Jesus Christ. Wesley identified three primary “means of grace”: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper. Now most Christians accept the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace” to help us grow in Christ. However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace. What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also prevenient, and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith. This is why we practice open communion. Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” only have power because of Christ’s presence in them. Christ is the only true “means of grace” and He meets us at the Table, in prayer and in the reading of Scripture.
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