Thursday, January 2, 2014

Backing the [Theological] Truck Up

Every now and then, something happens that makes me realize that sometimes, I need to back the theological truck up.  Recently, a friend of mine asked me a question that reminded me that going back to the "basics" is sometimes a good thing to do, so I'm doing that instead of posting more Christmas messages from years past.

This friend wrote me a message asking me what I mean by "grace."  Despite growing up in church, this friend never really got the concept of grace and other religious talk and ended up leaving the church before really learning what these theological concepts mean.  So, without further ado, let me give you a stab at what "grace" means, especially since the title of my blog would infer that it's kind of important to's some of what I wrote to my friend (I've done a little revising):

The watered-down definition of grace that a lot of people use is "God's unmerited favor." There's a lot more to say about it than that, though. Grace is the way we refer to God's work in the world that is making all things new and all things right and all things whole again, from the brokenness the world exists in.

Now, I can only write to you from a perspective on grace that is related to John Wesley's theology, as his is foundational for United Methodists, and I'm United Methodist by choice, not really by chance, at this point.  John Wesley said we experience God's grace in three different ways or kinds or movements. There's prevenient grace, which is God's grace at work before we even realize it. Often, when we look back and see where God was working in us or around us and we didn't even know it, that is prevenient grace--grace that goes before. We believe that God is always wooing us back to God, no matter what. God wants to be in relationship with us and will stop at nothing to try to help us see that, though, with free will, we are always able to say "No" to God and refuse the grace that is offered to us.

So, then, once we begin to understand how God is at work and realize that God wants us to know God (seriously, I know it sounds awkward not to use "him," but gender-specific pronouns for God get on my nerves...), we may realize that we need God, that God's grace is more than we can find from worldly pursuits, etc., etc. When we accept God's grace and decide to seek after God and not anything else, when we realize our need to be forgiven and redeemed, we experience justifying grace. Some folks call this "getting saved." It's often referred to as "conversion." For a lot of people, this seems to be the only kind of grace that matters, but not for those of us who see grace from a Wesleyan perspective...

Once we experience being justified by responding to God's offer of forgiveness and redemption (being made more valuable through the saving grace of Christ and the righteousness offered through it), we experience God's grace, still, as we are being made perfected in Christian love. This is sanctifying grace--that grace that makes us more holy, more like Jesus, more like God created us and called us to be.

At this point, I stop to ask my friend if this is all making sense, and the reply is that sanctifying grace seems tough to grasp.  Let me explain a little more, then:

Sanctifying grace is kind of more like what helps us become more faithful Christians. I guess we'd say it's the way the Holy Spirit lends a hand, while we are trying to walk the walk of being Christian.

Oh, and "Christan perfection" is a tricky term. What John Wesley said was that we are being changed into people who love with the selfless love of God, so reaching "perfection" means that all we do is motivated by that kind of love, not something else. It doesn't mean we wouldn't make mistakes, but that our motives would be pure. He also didn't believe that most people reach Christian perfection in this life--it's something that is completed when we are made whole again in heaven with God (that is probably not at all the right wording.)

Now, you theology mavens out there can comment here and tell me what I'm missing or where I've gone wrong.  I don't claim to be an expert, but I think this explanation was helpful to my friend, so maybe there's someone else out there who would find it useful...and maybe I need to check myself before Sunday morning's sermon and remember that some things about faith aren't supposed to be so much mystery!!  Tell me what you think, friends!