At Jackson First UMC, we are in the midst of a four-week sermon series on a Wesleyan understanding of grace. The basic pattern we’ve followed is to go in the order of: 1. Prevenient grace (or “preventing grace” as John Wesley termed it); 2. Justifying grace; 3. Sanctifying grace; 4. Glorifying grace (or as we are calling it “Triumphant grace”). When Dan and I met to talk about what our plans were for this series, I must admit that I was tempted to ask if I could preach the sermons on prevenient and sanctifying grace. Our Wesleyan understanding of these modes of grace is part of what makes us distinct from other traditions within the whole Church, which is why I would have loved to unpack these for our congregation, but as the schedule began to unfold it seemed to fit better for me to preach on the other modes of grace: justification and glorification.
What has stood out to me from my very subjective, perhaps armchair theologian’s perspective is that many of us in the Wesleyan theological tradition have sought to distance ourselves from the Reformed tradition to such a degree that we miss out on the mode of grace that was so central to many movements of the Reformation, including the Wesleyan revival within the Church of England – justification. It is pretty well-documented that the Methodist movement exponentially grew because of several significant factors, but these two are among the top: 1. John Wesley’s ‘submitting to be more vile’ by preaching in the open air, outside the walls of the church buildings; 2. Wesley’s realization in the late 1730’s that salvation comes by faith. At the heart of this was his assertion that God justifies the “ungodly…the sinner” and not the one who first makes oneself pure via sanctification. Says Wesley, “Does then the Good Shepherd seek and save only those that are found already? No. He seeks and saves that which is lost. He pardons those who need his pardoning mercy.”
Could it be that the common practical error put forth in modern Wesleyan circles is not that we put sanctification prior to justification but that we bypass the latter altogether? The subtle transition seems to move from prevenient grace directly to sanctification without ever highlighting our need to confess our sin and hear the beautiful declaration of the promise of our absolution. As I said in the sermon, which I’m humbled was picked up by A Wesleyan Accent, “The problem is that in narrative terms, this is like going straight from the beautiful message of Christmas directly to the empty tomb. But in the midst of that we have a bloody, torturous cross that bears an Innocent Redeemer who cries at the hour of his execution a piercing word – ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’.”