Some years ago, I had lunch with a pastor who was an outspoken Calvinist. After I prayed over the meal, he said, “You know, we Calvinists have a saying: everyone is a Calvinist on his knees; asking God to convict, to covert – to do it all!” I said, “You have a point. But aren’t we all Wesleyans from the pulpit – calling on our people to commit, to choose, to act faithfully?” He smiled and said, “I guess you have a point, too.”
Christians who agree that it is by God’s grace alone we are forgiven and reconciled to God, sometimes disagree on exactly how that grace works in our lives. One school of thought, held by Calvinists like my friend, declares that we humans have no say in the matter. God simply sovereignly chooses some people (the “elect”) to receive saving grace, who cannot say no; while others are left in their sins to perish. The two groups, in fact, are predestined from before time either to be saved by grace, or to be lost. This led to the notion that Christ only died for some (the elect), and not for all.
For John Wesley, and those of us who are his spiritual heirs, this did not jibe with the Biblical picture of our loving God who, as Paul says, “desires all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4); whose Son’s death on the cross for our sins was “not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (2 John 2:4). Wesleyans developed a distinctive way of talking about God’s grace: as prevenient, as convincing, as justifying and as sanctifying.
“Prevenient” comes from Latin terms meaning “that which comes before.” Prevenient grace means the grace of God that surrounds all, and is at work in all, even before we know or care about it. Prevenient grace was Wesley’s way of addressing a theological problem that the Calvinists raised. If in fact we are, apart from Christ, dead in our sin (Ephesians 2:1-3), lost, caught in sin’s grip, unable and unwilling to seek after God or choose righteous paths (Rom 2, 7), then how is it that anyone turns to God? The Calvinist answer was neat and clean: only those whom God sovereignly chooses choose him.
Wesley agreed that our sinful situation is desperate; he said he came within a “hair’s breadth of Calvinism,” and that in our sin no one has the power to choose God or his righteous ways. However, Wesley insisted, God’s grace comes before our choosing, to enable and empower us to seek God! Prevenient grace is bestowed on all people, mitigating the effects of original sin. John 1:9 says that the one true light of God’s grace in Jesus’ coming into the world “gives light to everyone.” By this grace which comes before, we become aware of God’s nature; we acquire a basic knowledge of right and wrong; and we become aware of our need for a Savior. Prevenient grace draws us to God, convicts us of our sin, and frees us up to accept – or reject – God’s gift of salvation.
In his 1785 sermon, “On Working Out Our Salvation,” Wesley wrote:
For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing [today we say “prevenient”] grace … Everyone has some measure of that light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every man that cometh into the world. And everyone, unless he be one of the small number whose conscience is seared as with a hot iron, feels more or less uneasy when he acts contrary to the light of his own conscience. So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath.
A Wesleyan theology of grace attempts to hold together both the sovereign grace of God and real human moral agency; God’s actions always are primary, yet our choices really do matter. No one has “free will” in an absolute sense; but we are, by grace, freed up to choose to love God – or not. “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
But even more, a Wesleyan understanding of grace is shot through with hope – hope for all! It insists that no one is beyond the reach of God’s mercy and love. Many of Charles Wesley’s hymns hammer home the universality of God’s grace, available to all. One example is, “Come Sinners to the Gospel Feast:”
Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast; Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind, For God hath bid all humankind.
Sent by my Lord, on you I call; The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou! All things in Christ are ready now.
…This is the time, no more delay! This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call, And live for Him Who died for all.
This is truly good news. We don’t need to fret about whether we’ve been fated to be part of an elect group or not. We don’t need to worry that our particular sins are too serious to be forgiven. God’s grace is over all, and Jesus Christ died for all – for you, no matter who you are, or what you have done. So simply say yes to God, yes to faith in Christ, and yes to the love of God which, long before you were even born, had provided the way home: “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).
By Joe DiPaolo
Rev. Joe DiPaolo is the Lead Pastor at Lancaster First UMC in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and a member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.