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Sanctifying Grace

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-48 NIV)

The heart of John Wesley's theology was grace working in our lives to overcome the fallen effects of our sin nature and draw us to Christ (Prevenient Grace), grace forgiving our sins and putting us in a right relationship with God through our personal faith in Jesus (Justifying Grace), and grace moving us on toward Christian Perfection, which is holiness of heart and life (Sanctifying Grace).

Wesley understood Christian Perfection as the highest teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect." But he differed from the reformers like Martin Luther, who defined sanctification (perfection) as flawlessness. Since we all know that "nobody's perfect" by our own experience, the reformers pretty much had to come to the conclusion many of us have drawn: perfection will only come in our glorified state in eternity (after we die physically).

Wesley saw that the word translated "perfect" actually meant completed or fully mature. Wesley taught that Christian Perfection (sanctification) was the work of grace by the Holy Spirit moving us to the place we are so saturated with the love of Christ that His love alone is the motivation of every thought, word and deed. Holiness is not flawless performance, it is holy love at the center of everything we are and do. Holiness of heart (God's unconditional love as our motivation) leads automatically to holiness of life (acting in a way that honors God, obeys His commands and loves others).

With this understanding, Wesley believed there is no reason to think the Holy

Spirit cannot bring us to Christian Perfection in this life. Jesus did not command something that is impossible when He said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Sanctifying grace is the grace that roots out sin and grows in us the fruit of the Holy Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

From the moment we are redeemed by grace through faith in Jesus, giving our lives to Him and beginning to follow Him, grace keeps working to sanctify us (to make us holy, or more and more Christlike). We grow to be more and more like Jesus. Grace imparts into our lives the righteousness (right living) that has been imputed to us (credited to us as a gift) in our justification. Right standing with God increasingly becomes right living to honor Him if we are, indeed, growing in sanctifying grace.

All this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is only attained by the power of God working in us. Grace must do this transformation because we are incapable of transforming ourselves by sheer effort. We simply cannot go to the spiritual gym and get spiritually buff by doing religious things. God is the Sanctifier. We cooperate with His work in our lives, or resist Him. We welcome the work of the Holy Spirit, or grieve Him by closing ourselves to Him.

All the means of grace open our lives to this working of grace to transform us. And so we receive the work of the Holy Spirit for our sanctification by what Wesley called in the General Rules of the Methodist Societies "attending to the ordinances of God" (practicing the means of grace God ordained to move us closer to Christ and open the door of our lives for ever-deepening grace):

The Public Worship of God

The Ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.

The Supper of the Lord.

Family and private prayer.

Searching the Scriptures, and

Fasting or abstinence.

When we become people of prayer, when we read and study the Word of God, when we worship with our church, when we receive Holy Communion, when we practice fasting or abstinence we actively participate in the working of the Holy Spirit to impart sanctifying grace to our lives and to change us. These acts do not sanctify us, they move us closer to the Sanctifier, who transforms us.

This Wesleyan theology of grace and holiness fills me with hope. God loves me just the way I am and He is actively involved in transforming me to become all He wants me to be. I never stop growing in grace. My faith can keep growing deeper and stronger. The way I was is not the end of the story. The way I am is not what defines me. The way I am becoming always offers hope that my life will become more and more holy as God keeps shaping and forming me in Christ. All glory to God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!


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