Our United Methodist heritage is deeply rooted in an experience of the grace of God. We define grace as the love and mercy God bestows, not because of efforts on our part to earn God’s favor, but rather, because God, by nature desires to offer it. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV). Where God is present there is grace to renew and transform. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, described God’s grace as threefold: prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. The Book of Discipline (Paragraph 102) states, “Although Wesley shared with many other Christians a belief in grace, justification, assurance, and sanctification, he combined them in a powerful manner to create distinctive emphases for living the full Christian life.”
Prevenient grace: Wesley understood grace as God’s active presence in our lives — God going before us to prepare us for wholeness and healing. This presence does not depend on human actions or human response. It is a gift that is constantly available, but that can be rejected and refused. God’s grace stirs within us a desire to know God and empowers us to respond to God’s invitation to be in relationship with God. God’s grace enables us to discern differences between good and evil and makes it possible for us to choose good. Prevenient grace is the ‘prodigal son’ in Luke’s Gospel becoming aware of his lost identity. Longing for home, awareness of betrayal, prompting to repent. God takes the initiative in relating to humanity. We do not have to beg and plead for God’s love and grace. God actively seeks us!
Justifying grace: Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Corinthians 5:19b, NRSV). In his letter to the Roman Christians, Paul wrote: “But God shows love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NRSV). These verses demonstrate God’s justifying grace. They point to reconciliation, pardon and restoration. Through God’s work in Christ, our sins are forgiven, and our relationship with God is restored. According to John Wesley, the image of God — which sin distorts — is renewed within us through Christ’s death. In justifying grace, the Christian acknowledges sin, makes a conscious decision to turn toward God and takes responsibility in shaping a life of discipleship. God’s grace alone brings us into relationship with God. This is an incredible gift. We need not jump through any hoops in order to please God and to be loved by God. God has already acted in Jesus Christ through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We need only to respond in faith.
This process of salvation involves a change in us known as “conversion.” Conversion involves a change of belief, spiritual outlook and manner of life. Conversion may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative. In any case, it marks a new beginning. We speak of this conversion as rebirth, new life in Christ or regeneration.
John Wesley called this process “justification.” Justification occurs when Christians abandon all vain attempts to excuse and justify themselves before God. It marks a time, when by faith, God’s grace is experienced through repentance — turning away from sinful behaviors and toward actions that express God’s love. In conversion, we receive assurance of our salvation through the Holy Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16b NRSV).
Sanctifying Grace: Salvation is not a static, one-time event in our lives. It is the ongoing experience of God’s presence transforming us into whom God intends us to be. Wesley described this dimension of God’s grace as “sanctification,” or “holiness.” Through God’s sanctifying grace, we grow and mature in our ability to live as Jesus lived. As we pray, study the Scriptures, fast, worship and share in fellowship with other Christians, our knowledge of and love for God is deepened and firmly rooted. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice and peace in the world, our capacity to love our neighbors is strengthened. Our thoughts and motives, as well as our actions and behavior are more aligned with God’s will and attest to our union with God.
In sanctifying grace God moves in us to be conformed more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that we will not sin. It does not mean that we will be free of mistakes or have no weaknesses to overcome. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are able to overcome and move on in the continual process of being made perfect in our love of God and each other and of removing our inclination to sin.