Prevenient Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

First, I am a Methodist because I believe in prevenient grace. For Wesley, the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is a collective term for all the ways in which God’s grace comes into our lives prior to conversion. Prevenient grace literally means, “the grace that comes before” and captures well what the early church called the preparatio evangelica, i.e. the preparation for the good news. One of the ways in which the Methodist-Wesleyan tradition is sometimes misunderstood by those in other traditions is in regard to our doctrine of sin. It may come as a surprise to some of our Reformed readers that the doctrine of total depravity (the famous T in the Calvinistic TULIP) is shared by Wesleyans and Methodists just as ardently as by Calvinists. Methodists, like our Reformed brothers and sisters, believe that salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the sinner. Total depravity means that we are dead in our sins and therefore cannot help or assist ourselves. Sin is not merely a “ball and chain” which impedes our progress. We are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Methodists affirm this truth. However, Methodists take very seriously the theological tension which exists between, on the one hand, the clear teaching of Scripture that we are dead in our sins and totally void of any ability to save ourselves (Eph. 2:1, Col. 1:21, 2:13; Lk. 15:24) and the universal call to the Gospel which requires us to “come” (Matt. 11:28), “repent”(Acts 2:38), “believe” (Acts 16:31) and a whole array of other commands, all of which call us to specific acts of faith and obedience. Since spiritually dead people have no capacity to respond, it is clear that God is bestowing grace in countless ways into our lives prior to our regeneration or conversion. Prevenient grace provides the link between human depravity and universal call. The important difference between Methodists and Reformed Christians is not on the fact of depravity, but on whether God’s prior action is limited to the elect (Limited Atonement – the L in the TULIP) or is universal. Despite the enormous respect we have for John Calvin, Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data as well as the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Methodists believe that God has universally acted on behalf of Adam’s fallen, depraved race. We believe that Christ, as the Second Adam, rescued the human race with an act of grace which grants them the capacity to accept or reject the good news of the Gospel when it is proclaimed. Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then it creates an untenable theological conflict which, at least potentially, makes God either unjust or the author of evil, neither of which fits with a biblical view of God. For, if a spiritually dead person is incapable of responding to God’s call, then upon what basis is he or she held accountable for sin? Prevenient grace demonstrates how we can be totally depraved, yet given grace to respond and, if we do not respond, can be held fully accountable for our disbelief.

For Methodists, prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Methodists understand this text as referring to a divine 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), lifting us up and giving the human race the capacity to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Thomas Oden puts it well when he 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

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. 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). What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e., a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace. It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways; but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind, and will to respond to God’s grace. I love the fact that Methodists believe that even if you go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, you will always find that God precedes you and, in effect, “beats you there!” Perhaps prevenient grace is summed up best by the famous interruption to a missionary who was lecturing in Africa about how the missionaries brought the Gospel to Africa. The African believer interrupted and said, “The missionaries did not bring the Gospel to Africa; God brought the missionaries to Africa.” This insightful comment shifts the emphasis to God’s prior agency and the great missio dei (mission of God) whereby God is always the first actor in the great drama of redemption. Wesleyans fully embrace the importance of human decision and the exercise of the will. However, this is not possible without God’s prior action.

1 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 189. Unless otherwise noted, this blog uses the New International Version.

The first step in “making culture” is Catechesis!

Andy Crouch, a senior editor at Christianity Today, was at Asbury last week.  What a great blessing he was to our community.  I first encountered Andy Crouch back a few years ago when he published his book, Culture Making.  One of the insights in that book is that it is not enough to simply critique culture, we have to make culture.  Crouch argues that it is important to be able to articulate and identity what features of a particular culture need transformation.  However, he argues we will never turn things around by simply criticizing.  We have to actually create new culture.  We must insert “New Creation” into the present creation.   Amen, Andy!

I am convinced that one of the best ways to create culture is through catechesis.   The word ‘catechesis’ refers to a form of religious instruction, often oral, which allows the essentials of Christianity to be passed down to a new generation.  The word catechesis comes from the word ‘echo’ reminding us that it is our duty to echo the Apostolic message.  One of the great losses in today’s church has been the collapse of catechesis, both in the church as well as in the home.  The faith is not being passed down, so the next generation often does not “echo” it.  We are left with an increasingly domesticated gospel which is far less reproducible than the gospel of the New Testament.

If you look down through the history of the church you will discover many rich traditions of catechesis.  In the New Testament we find catechesis central to the Apostolic message (See 2 Timothy 2:2).  The period after the close of the New Testament, known as the Patristic period, had a rich tradition which put catechesis into two parts.  Part one stretched from Lent to Easter whereby the catechumen was instructed in the basics of the Christian faith.  The instruction culminated in the catechumen’s baptism at Easter.  Part two, known as mystagogy, stretched from Easter to Pentecost.  During this period the newly baptized believer was instructed into the mystery of the church.  Later, we discover the Celtic model of catechesis which was less individualized and more communal.   The monastic tradition became an important model of catechesis.   The Celtic Christians also infused their catechesis with active service of the poor.  The Reformation produced some excellent catechisms which parents used with their children.  They typically focused on several key areas such as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount.  They were often set up in Question and Answer format for memorization.  The Westminster Shorter and Longer Catechisms are among the most famous in history.  You may recall the famous first question.  What is the chief end of man?  The answer:  To love God and to enjoy him forever.  And so it continued with nearly 100 additional questions.  Surely, one of the great legacies of the Reformed tradition has been their ability to pass down their doctrinal heritage to the next generation.

When I look back at these catechisms I am impressed how each one provides great insights into the the art of transmitting the faith.  John Wesley was acquainted with all of these traditions, as well as a few others I do not have space to mention.  John Wesley drew from the best of all of these and created one of the best models of catechesis in history.  In an upcoming blog I will share a few more thoughts about Wesleyan catechesis.