Grace is a gift that keeps giving. It is the dimension of God active within us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. It is not static, but dynamic. It is ongoing.
United Methodist and Methodist clergy in the United States and beyond say grace is something we cannot earn, but which we may learn to better understand.
"We cannot earn it, but there are things that we can do to open our lives more deeply to it," said the Rev. Trevor Hudson, author, lecturer and spiritual director. He also works part-time at the Institute for Creative Conversation of Northfield Methodist Church, outside Johannesburg, South Africa.
"Prayer, reading scripture, taking communion are called ‘means of grace.' This is important for us to recognize, otherwise we can become very passive in our life of faith," he said.
Most United Methodists, Hudson said, recognize the power of God that pervades all life. "They may have a more difficult time naming that power ‘grace.' But grace undergirds our life as followers of Jesus and especially as Methodists. God's unmerited, unearned, freely given, saturating grace is the core of Methodist belief and understanding."
John Wesley believed that and grace was a focal point for Wesley and early Methodists. They viewed grace as a process and the means by which Christians lived their lives. For them, this lifelong experience was the way of salvation.
Wesley practiced and taught three forms of grace: prevenient grace, justifying grace and sanctifying grace. God showers prevenient grace on all people whether they know or accept Christ. It might be called preparatory grace. Faith in Christ brings one justifying grace, but such grace cannot be earned through good works. Accepting justifying grace brings new birth in the Holy Spirit, which, in turn, produces the first work of sanctifying grace.
In much "Methodist parlance," grace is a misused word, said retired Bishop William Willimon, who served as the dean of the chapel at Duke University for 20 years and is now professor of the practice of Christian ministry there.
Transforming power makes us ‘better'
"I hear in much of Methodist parlance, grace is some sort of affirmative, positive approval by God of us as we are. I think that is a bad misunderstanding of Wesleyan grace," Willimon said.
"In the Wesleyan tradition, grace can be defined as the power of God working in you to give you a transformed life."
In the Gospel of Luke, Willimon said, readers find a grace in line with that way of thinking. God is active in the world and active in individual lives in parables such as the stories of the prodigal son and the lost sheep.
"Sometimes I'll hear people say, ‘Well, where's the grace?' And grace kind of means, ‘I love you just the way you are. Promise me you'll never change a thing,'" Willimon said.
"Wesleyan grace is more than ‘you can be better,'" he said. "God's power can be better than your sins and limitations."
Remember that "we don't pay for grace, manufacture it or earn it," the Rev. Wendy Hudson-Jacoby said. "Grace, God acting in our lives, is truly free. However, we know that from God's side, grace is costly.
"The cross is a stark response of how costly grace is to God," Hudson-Jacoby continued. "To give ourselves to God in response to this grace costs us our lives. However, there is a greater cost – the cost of not responding, the cost of non-discipleship. When we don't respond to God's grace it costs us peace with God, the peace of God, the joy of knowing that we belong to God, and the power of God working in our lives to accomplish what we simply cannot accomplish on our own."
All included in God's grace
Make note of the distinctive understanding of grace in the Wesleyan tradition, said Hudson-Jacoby, pastor of North Charleston United Methodist Church in South Carolina.
Other faith traditions spend time emphasizing who is kept out of God's reign, she noted. But in the United Methodist tradition and understanding of the expansiveness of God's grace, no one is excluded from grace.
"What I especially love about our understanding of grace is that it is surrounding us always, even when we are not aware or even actively denying God's presence or reality," she said. "Nothing places us outside of God's grace, love and mercy.
"I also love that we believe the work of grace is forever! Our encounter with God does not end when we experience the justifying grace of God's love for us as an individual through Jesus Christ. That is just the joyous beginning of our relationship with God. Every moment of every day, God is calling us into a deeper relationship with the Divine – the power of the Holy Spirit is working in us, drawing us ever closer to Jesus and transforming our hearts into his heart and our spirit into his spirit."
For Wesley, even the sadness and uncertainty of life could be purposeful if understood and experienced in the context of grace. "The best helps to growth in grace are the ill usage, the affronts and the losses which befall us. We should receive them with all thankfulness, as preferable to all others, were it only on this account, that our will has no part therein," he wrote.
Wesley always insisted that there should be a real change in one's life, says the Rev. Carl Evans, a United Methodist elder and retired professor of the University of South Carolina's Department of Religious Studies.
"You can't really talk about grace without talking about faith," Evans says. "For Wesley, faith was not the same as belief. Faith was an assurance or conviction that what God had done through Christ is sufficient to forgive even my sins."
Moreover, in Wesley's eyes, grace is there for all "in the sense that God's grace is given to all and that regardless of the condition of humanity that grace is available," Evans said. "But Wesley would also say that some people live their lives in ways that don't reflect God's grace."
Hudson-Jacoby's favorite biblical illustration occurs in the book of Acts. "The expression of justifying grace is in Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch," she said.
"We see clearly in this story the progression of prevenient and justifying experiences. The Holy Spirit sent Philip to the side of the road where the eunuch was passing by. The eunuch had experienced God through the scriptures, because he was reading from Isaiah. He was familiar with the power of God and God's story. When Philip heard the eunuch reading, he jumped in the chariot and offered to explain the reading through the lens of Jesus Christ. All of these actions are acts of prevenient grace."
Through the centuries, Christian writers have wrestled with the subject of grace. It is a frequent topic in the books of Ephesians and Romans.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith and this not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast."
What matters is that salvation is "not a blessed state that comes after death," Evans said. "Salvation was a transformed life."
In Romans 5:20-21, grace once again triumphs. "But law came in," Paul writes, "with the result that trespass multiplied; but where sin increased; grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ."
Free but not cheap
Twentieth-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer often talked about grace, Evans said.
A German Lutheran pastor who actively worked against Hitler, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned and eventually executed by the Third Reich. A well-known writer of that era, he differentiated between types of grace. "Free grace is free in that it is unmerited, given by God without qualification," Evans explained.
"Cheap grace, to Bonhoeffer, is grace that is misused. It is offered to a human being, but it does not result in a transformed life. One lives in a selfish way and it becomes cheap grace."
John Wesley's views of grace landed him into conflicts with other Christians. "Wesley debated with the Calvinists who were more inclined to say God's grace was irresistible," Evans explains. It really had to do with the sovereignty of God.
"For Calvinists, the sovereignty of God meant grace was irresistible. But Wesley believed that grace was resistible. For Wesley, grace was the manifestation in the life of the individual who cooperated with God, who shared the divine love that God had shown to the world and was able to reflect that love to other individuals."
United Methodists, Wesley's theological descendants, share the concept of grace with other Christians, but differ, at times, in how one gets there.
"I think that it is a traditional Catholic understanding that grace is what is dispensed by the church in the sacrament," Willimon said. "While Wesleyans would agree that this is grace, they would also say that grace also works through us in spiritual reading, Bible reading and prayer. In the Reformed tradition, among Lutherans, grace is seen more as God's positive judgement conferred on us in Jesus Christ."
While grace (or a similar concept) may exist in other religious traditions, it carries a different meaning, said Evans, co-founder of Interfaith Partners of South Carolina and who remains active across faith lines.
"I think most traditions talk about the importance of practitioners of a particular religion living a life that displays love of God and neighbor or that shows loving and compassion to one in need. That is very similar to Wesley and sanctifying grace," Evans says.
Grace was of ultimate importance to John Wesley. He once said:
"Oh that God would give me the thing which I long for! That before I go hence and am no more seen, I may see a people wholly devoted to God, crucified to the world, and the world crucified to them. A people truly given up to God in body, soul and substance! How cheerfully would I then say, ‘Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.'"
Cecile S. Holmes is an associate professor of journalism at the University of South Carolina. She recently received the 2016 George R. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award from the Religion News Association.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November December 2016.