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Prevenient Grace: Grace Before Salvation


A highlighted Bible verse, Ephesians 2:8, with a golden cross to the left

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:44 NIV)


John and Charles Wesley were clergymen in the Anglican Church who experienced an awakening in their lives and founded the movement of Methodism. The Methodist revival profoundly affected England and spread throughout the world. Today some 80 denominations identify as Methodist and trace their roots to the Wesley's, with some 80 million members. One of those denominations is the newly launched Global Methodist Church, in which I am ordained and to which the congregation I pastor, Grace Church of Concord (NC), belongs.


Historically, Methodist theology shares much with evangelical Christianity (in terms of faith and beliefs, not necessarily politics). We believe the Bible is the Word of God, divinely inspired and authoritative in all matters of faith and practice. We believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was born in a human body over 2,000 years ago, and in that body died on a Roman cross as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of all humanity for all time. We believe God raised Jesus from the dead, and He is still alive at the right hand of God, interceding for us. We believe we are saved from sin and death through faith in Him, and heaven is our inheritance. These things we share with theologically conservative Baptists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and Roman Catholics.


Wesleyan theology focuses distinctly on grace and holiness. John Wesley wrote: "Christian perfection is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodist; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up." (Thoughts Upon Methodism, 1768) The great deposit God gave the Methodists particularly is the emphasis on Christian perfection, by which Wesley meant holiness of heart and life, or inward and outward holiness.


By holiness (a synonym for Christian perfection), Methodists understand God to mean we are set apart for God and God alone, not that we become flawless. Perfection defined as flawlessness can quickly deteriorate into legalism. Holiness of heart brings us to the place we love God so thoroughly that everything we say and do is motivated by our love for Him. To be made perfect in love is to allow the love of Jesus Christ to flow unchecked in our minds and hearts. This inner holiness of heart expresses itself in outward holiness of life. In love we seek to honor the One who loved us first, and so we naturally keep the commandments of God.


All of this is the work of grace in our lives. We cannot make ourselves holy (perfect). In our fallen human nature, we will not even seek a relationship with God unless He first loves us and seeks us out. Jesus told his skeptics:


“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day." (John 6:44 NIV)


John Wesley understood that our fallen human nature is totally depraved - bent so disastrously inward on ourselves that we are dominated by selfishness and will not see ourselves as needing salvation, let alone seeking a Savior. God had to act first, and He did.


But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NIV)


Wesley's term for the grace of God working to draw us to Jesus was prevenient grace. Prevenient means before (pre) coming (venire). It is grace that comes before salvation, wooing us to Christ. It is by the grace and love of God that He brings us to understand our need for Him, our egregious sin, our need for repentance and how deeply He loves us.


Prevenient grace takes many forms in our lives. Sometimes God makes Himself real through loving, faithful parents and grandparents. Sometimes He shows us our need for Him through crisis or illness. Sometimes His seeking love is expressed in answering a prayer prayed in desperation. He has graciously made Himself known in the beauty of nature. His prevenient grace is lavished on those who grow up in church in the love of the Body of Christ. He makes Himself known in the life of a person who has never been in a church by bringing a loving, practicing Christian into their life. Most powerfully, whether we know it or understand it, God's prevenient grace is expressed in the sacrificial death of His Son for us. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.


In grace, the Holy Spirit draws us to Jesus. In grace, God saves us from our sin. By grace, the Spirit works transformation in us to make us more holy and more Christlike. I thank God for the working of grace in my life - prevenient grace that drew me to Jesus, justifying grace that forgives my sin, and sanctifying grace that keeps working on my life to move me toward inward and outward holiness (Christlikeness).


For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV)

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