If you had one message that you could give to the world what would it be? For John Wesley, after his Aldersgate Experience, the one message that he became deeply passionate about was this: God longs for everyone to come to know the love of the Savior and God’s grace is available to all who accept Christ. He was so passionate about the message of grace that he traveled over 250,000 miles by foot, horseback, and carriage in order to preach this message. In fact, he was so passionate about Paul’s presentation about grace in today’s scripture passage that he preached on these verses from Ephesians over forty times.
What makes Paul’s message so compelling in Ephesians? I believe that it is his emphasis on the fact that grace is a gift. A gift from God. It is not something that can be earned or accomplished by our own means. It is was something that we could accomplish on our own then we wouldn’t need God - it would be our own medal of honor, not something that proclaims the very glory of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.
We have lost something in our culture around gifts. I know that out of the Five Love Languages as described by Gary Chapman - Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts, Physical Touch, Quality Time, Acts of Service - the way that I best express my love for folks is by giving gifts. A fellow gift giver once described it as thinking long and hard about the perfect gift to give someone so that you can watch their face light up when they realize that you thought just about them.
But as much thought that I may put into giving the perfect gift to those whom I love, Jesus gave the best gift. The most perfect gift. When it became evident that we, as humans, were incapable of following through on the first covenant God made with us through the law, Jesus came to earth to show us how to live, before giving his very lift for us. He offered himself as a gift. Allowing us to have the opportunity to choose to have new life and salvation through Jesus Christ himself.
For Wesley, there were at least three different types of grace in our lives, as he studied the New Testament and saw the Greek word for grace (which also means gift - char is) appearing over 148 times.
First, there is Prevenient Grace - the grace that comes before. Wesley firmly believed that God is at work in our lives before we even know God, realize that we are in need of God, or know how to reach out to God. God loves us so much, that God laid the foundation for salvation, the foundation for us to accept this wonderful gift, before we even knew how wonderful it was.
For a lot of folks Prevenient Grace is best noticed by the people in our lives who were sharing with us the love of Jesus before we even knew that we needed Jesus. The Vacation Bible School Directors. Sunday school Teachers. Mothers and Fathers of the church who shared with us countless Bible stories, taught us how to pray, and told us that yes, Jesus Loves each of us.
For those who came to know Jesus later in life, it may have been a co-worker who you noticed something was different about who kept inviting you to church, even if you didn’t know if you felt comfortable coming. Or the friend who kept telling you that they were praying for you and meant it.
Prevenient grace invites us into the space where we can encounter justifying grace where we accept Jesus into our lives as Lord and Savior and grow in trust of him. Trust him to save us. Trust him to redeem us. Trust him to give us victory over sin.
The thing about justifying grace is that we need to be able to accept or at least hold on to two fundamental truths of the Gospel message. First and foremost, Jesus saves. Jesus made a way for us on the cross. And Jesus selflessly gave his life for us on the cross, even though we are completely undeserving. But we also need to understand that we are sinful. That sin is missing the mark and we have done the time and time again, which is why we need Jesus to save us. To save us from our sinful selves and to save us from the mess that sin leaves in its wake. If we don’t think that Jesus can save or we aren’t aware of sin and why we need a Savior, we may not be ready yet to accept Jesus into our lives.
The Apostle Paul describes sin this way in his letter to the Romans: I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I keep doing the evil that I don’t want to do. Sin living in me does this. Sin ruins things, brothers and sisters, but Jesus can to set us free from the power of sin in our lives.
For a lot of folks justifying grace is that date and time when you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior. Or that moment when you see how Jesus has been working in your life all along. This type of grace looks different for each person.
The third type of grace is sanctifying grace. This is the grace where we grow closer to God. But we can try to resist growing with God. I often tell folks how many years you have been a Christian doesn’t always reflect how deep your relationship with God is, which can be really hard to hear. But there are some folks, once they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior, who simply stop there. They think the fact that they have been saved is good enough. They come to worship on Sundays and may pray from time to time or read scripture occasionally, but they aren’t super interested in getting any closer to God than that.
Sanctifying grace can also be frustrating, but we notice it a lot more in others then we see it in ourselves. Every year at the conclusion of camp, I send my campers a manila envelope containing a cd of this years camp songs, pictures from the week, but also a note. Over the years, as I have had the same campers, I have been able to write them notes about where I see them growing with God. Sometimes we need other people to help us see the sanctifying grace in our own lives.
Wesley wanted believers to be positioned for this type of growth with God. So outside of the weekly larger meetings, he broke them down into smaller class meetings and bands, where they could study the word and pray for one another. In our modern language we may call these groups Bible studies or small groups. Further, these groups were encouraged to serve, in a variety of ways.
Just as Christ selflessly gave himself for us, so we are at our best, most living into the God image inside each of us, when we are serving others. This is simply how we were created to live. Sometimes I become deeply frustrated with the institutional church. When we aren’t serving. When we aren’t talking to folks about the good news of Jesus. But then I am brought back to a place where I remember that spiritual growth is a process, that begins with folks who are laying ground work even before we are ready to accept the gift of salvation. Brothers and sisters, may we be the folks laying the ground work. May we been the ones inviting people to come and accept the gift Jesus is trying to offer. May we be the people encouraging each other to grown. All for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.