Whether it takes place quickly—as in a sudden conversion experience— or gradually—as people find nurture in the church—God’s grace is the key to understanding transformation. John Wesley helped us to understand grace by naming three aspects of grace.
Prevenient grace is the grace that comes to us before we know God. In prevenient grace, God takes the initiative. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 1996 defines this grace as “the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses” (Section 60). Even while we were yet sinners, separated from Christ, God’s grace was already active in us, perhaps in ways we could not identify.
Younger children can most easily grasp the concept of prevenient grace. Though they may not yet be able to verbalize the concept, they can understand the idea that their parents loved them before they were born, and in that way, God has always loved and cared for us. Youth and adults can begin to understand that prevenient grace is also that force that awakens in us an awareness of our sin, our need for repentance, and the possibility of a joyful and abundant life.
Through justifying grace, we find pardon for our sin. The Discipline says of this, “God reaches out to the repentant believer in justifying grace with accepting and pardoning love. Wesleyan theology stresses that a decisive change in the human heart can and does occur under the prompting of grace and the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (Section 60). Jesus Christ has made possible this forgiveness of sin, and so we bind ourselves to him. In justifying grace, we also find freedom from guilt, opportunities to develop new relationships with God and other people, and areas of ministry in which we can live out our discipleship.
Understanding sin is essential to understanding justification. One biblical word for sin means “missing the mark.” Grace means that in spite of missing the mark, we are made one with God through grace. Our broken relationship with God is restored. It’s important that children not develop a sense of despair about their emerging awareness of sin. Stressing that God’s love can overcome any sin is important. For youth and adults this is also important. Some learners who have not grown up in the church may feel they have done things that are unforgivable. For others the legal metaphor of justification is far removed from their daily experience, while the model of reconciliation can be a powerful learning. Almost every adult has experienced some degree of alienation in a relationship, or a feeling of being an outsider, different from others. To compare the moving experience of reconciling with a friend, spouse, or family member can be a great breakthrough. These experiences are very real for children, and so this can be a helpful place to begin in teaching children about grace.
Sanctifying Grace is a purifying and cleansing process that continues throughout our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Sanctifying grace is the “bearing fruit” part of God’s grace. Through sanctification, according to the Discipline, “we are enabled to increase in the knowledge and love of God and in love for our neighbor” (Section 60). For Wesley sanctifying grace is the power that leads us on toward becoming more Christlike.
The concept of Christian perfection can be daunting to those only too aware of their own failings. Younger children can confuse “being good” at home with being acceptable to God. Middle-school aged youth, on the other hand, often seem to go through a period of great interest in and attachment to schedules, rules, and procedures. It’s a healthy part of the growth process, but it’s important that Christian perfection be leavened with humility.
These understandings of grace do not exist in isolation. Together, they form a way of seeing and experiencing the Christian life as an ongoing, dynamic process. John Wesley used the metaphor of the house to explain this concept. He saw prevenient grace as the porch of the house, an entryway, that invites us to come further. Justifying grace is the door into the house. We must open it and come inside if we truly are to experience and know the whole house. Sanctifying grace is learning to live in and grow in the whole house.
Teaching and learning are important ways through which we allow the Holy Spirit access to our heart, mind, and will. As the Holy Spirit works in us, we are transformed into the image of Christ. The intent of our teaching is to inform and to form, to create conditions in which persons can open themselves to God and where the ongoing work of transformation can begin. This process may happen as we study the Scriptures individually. It can take place as we learn and experience biblical truths through Christian community in a Sunday school class or small group. Teachers are sometimes granted the great gift of watching God’s grace at work in the life of a learner. As they build a mature faith, the small seeds we plant through the ministry of teaching take root and bring forth the fruit in God’s good time.
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