In recognizing that humanity is crippled by the disease of sin, John Wesley identified three shades, or movements, of God’s grace as a remedy. It is important to note that there are not different kinds of grace. However, we experience grace at different stages of our spiritual walk. Grace is always grace. As Steve Harper says so well, “We define grace in different ways because of how we experience the grace on our end of the relationship.”
The first shade is prevenient grace. As the prefix implies, prevenient grace is the grace that comes before. Before what? Before we are aware of God or know we need God. Before we respond to God’s redeeming grace and before we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Prevenient grace comes before.
This means that God makes the first move when it comes to humanity’s redemption. Bishop Scott Jones talks about prevenient grace as wooing us to God. In other words, prevenient grace is grace that is active in our lives and leads us to an awareness of God. Wesley believed that once we were aware of God, we would be led to repentance. This is because once we are aware of God, we also become aware of our humanity and its brokenness. We become sensitive to God’s will in the world and in our lives and how that has been violated. We want to do something about it. We want to fix it. We want to solve the “whole trouble.”
We can’t fix it on our own, but we can respond.
Grace is about God’s love for humanity. Just as God’s love is for all, God’s grace is for all as well. As the writer of 2 Peter says, God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (3:9).
Prevenient grace leads us not just to awareness of God but to awareness of our need for God and God’s grace in our sin-filled lives. It is an invitation into a relationship with Jesus Christ. This awareness enables us to respond to God’s grace by repenting. John Wesley believed that prevenient grace enables us to use our free will responsibly. Because grace is given so freely, it was important to Wesley that we understand that our response is also free.
We recognize that prevenient grace is active in our lives through other people and our experiences. If we pondered for a moment about our lives before we were aware of God or of the need for divine grace, we would remember people, places, and things that happened in our lives who made a difference in us. These have been agents of God’s grace. Parents, pastors, youth ministers, grandparents, peers, co-workers, coaches, and church members are all agents of prevenient grace.
For me, it was my family – grandparents, aunts, and parents. They were always at church because they love the church! There was a point in my childhood that whenever they went to church, I would go too. No matter what they were doing. If they were cleaning on a Saturday, worship on Sunday, choir practice on Wednesday, whatever it was, I was there. For awhile, my mom worked at the church preparing and running the bulletin every week. One of my aunts led the children’s choir and another taught Sunday school. I remember sitting in the pews on Tuesday nights when Dad would practice with the Gospel 7.
These people and these experiences led me to an awareness of who God is and why I need grace.
And grace is for everyone. God’s grace is active in all our lives, and as such baptism is the mark of that grace. God has made a promise of grace. And because God does not turn back on God’s promises, we only recognize one baptism.
As United Methodists, we baptize infants because of prevenient grace. Do you remember in Toy Story, how the bottom of Woody’s foot had Andy’s name written on it? That is what happens in a baptism. God’s name is placed, not on the bottom of your foot, but on your heart. You have been claimed by God, just as Andy claimed Woody. Baptism is also an initiation into the Christian community.
While United Methodists are known to primarily baptize infants, we are not limited to only baptizing infants. We do baptize infants as a sign-act of God’s grace that is already active in that child’s life. But there is more happening in the baptismal covenant. The community of faith – the congregation – is making a promise to aid his or her parents in bringing them up in the faith. The congregation promises to nurture the child and to be agents of grace in their lives.
Finally, prevenient grace offers us hope. Hope that we will not be broken forever. Hope that we can change. Hope that we will be healed from the disease of sin.
Prevenient grace is not the whole story, it is just the beginning.
In the next post we will look at justifying grace.