Wesleyan Emphasis on Grace
Methodism did not break from the Church of England over theological or doctrinal differences. Our distinctiveness as United Methodists stems not from a difference in basic Christian beliefs, but from an emphasis on the methods of putting those beliefs into practice and for our unique perspective on grace - the restorative power and loving presence of God working in and through our lives for our redemption and for the transformation of the world. Wesley affirmed that salvation is available to all people through the unearned, unmerited loving action of God. Wesley saw God’s saving work in our lives through three movements, or expressions, of grace: prevenient, justifying and sanctifying.
God’s grace is present and offered to us before we are even aware of it. This grace that “comes before,” Wesley called Prevenient grace. This is the divine love that called all of creation into being and continually, faithfully reaches out to humanity to reconcile all things to God. Prevenient grace awakens us to a longing to know God, enables us to discern differences between good and evil, and moves us toward repentance and faith. In our relationship with God, it is always God who takes the initiative. God chooses to love us first, with no expectation in return. Prevenient grace is God wooing us and preparing us to accept God’s free gift of love, acceptance and forgiveness.
Justifying grace comes in that moment when we become aware of God’s love for us. Whether this happens gradually over time or in a heart-changing, come-to-Jesus conversion moment, we have the free will to choose to accept God’s gift or turn away from it. Through our faith in Jesus, we are justified, or made right with God, our sins are forgiven, and we are made new creatures in Christ.
Wesley believed salvation to be more than a future reward that lies on the other side of heaven, but a present reality, in which the image of God is being restored in our lives right now. For it is by grace, through faith, that we are saved. Therefore, God’s saving work continues throughout our lives as we mature in faith. Sanctifying grace is God’s love nurturing us, growing us, and transforming us to become more like Christ. Through sanctification, the Holy Spirit moves us down the path toward inward and outward holiness. We are going on to Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a “having the mind of Christ” and a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.”
John Wesley used the metaphor of a house to explain this Christian life as an ongoing, dynamic process, lived fully in the grace of God. He saw prevenient grace as the porch of the house - a warm, welcoming entryway that invites us to come on in; justifying grace as a doorway that we must choose to walk through if we are to know and experience God fully; and sanctifying grace as learning to live, grow and work in the expansive dwelling of God’s presence.
No matter where we are in life, we can be assured that we are always under the umbrella of God’s grace. It precedes and prepares us for a relationship with God, justifies us when we say “yes” to God through our faith in Christ, and is brought to fruition through sanctification, as we continue to grow in our knowledge and love of God and neighbor through the work of the Holy Spirit within us.