Article of Faith #7 – “Prevenient Grace”

Article of Faith #7 – Prevenient Grace
Date: Sunday, July 11, 2004
Author: Rev. Jonathan K. Twitchell

It’s not a simple matter to adjust the Constitution of an entire denomination.  We don’t expect that our Articles of Faith could be easily adjusted to fit the changing times.  Since God is eternal and unchanging, and the Gospel message is unchanging, we expect that our Articles of Faith should also remain unchanged.

However, while God is unchanging, the language we use to describe Him does change.  While the Gospel message is eternal, we sometimes find better words and phrases to describe that message.  We may even find that we can more accurately describe the same God and the same work of grace.  And so, from time to time, the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene takes action to amend the Articles of Faith.

It’s still no simple matter to make amendments.  The amendments have to be proposed to the Reference Committee which will review and edit one or more resolutions in order to bring them to the floor of the Assembly.  Lengthy debate for and against the amendment will likely take place on the floor of the assembly before it is brought to a vote.  A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote of the delegates at General Assembly, and then the amendment must be ratified by two-thirds of the Districts at their next district assembly.

Any one of those hurdles can easily prevent an amendment to the Church Constitution from passing.  This gives us confidence that we are not easily changed by the culture and the shifting times around us.  I suppose that it would be an interesting study to sit down with all of the “Manuals” of the Church of the Nazarene since 1908 and see what changes and additions have been made since then.  It would provide for us an opportunity to chart the growth in the Church over the last hundred years.

In any case, today we look at the Seventh Article of Faith, which did undergo a slight change at the 2001 General Assembly, and has since been ratified by the individual districts.  The Article itself remains unchanged, only the title was changed from “Free Agency” to “Prevenient Grace.”

If you are anything like me, you want to know why it was changed.  And, you may already be scratching your head wondering what a baseball term (Free Agency) has to do with a theological phrase (Prevenient Grace).  And, you may have already read through the Article of Faith and are wondering why we changed the title to “Prevenient Grace” when that phrase doesn’t even appear in the Article.  These questions, and more, will be the subject of our study this morning.

Before we go any further, we need to define what we mean by “Prevenient Grace.”  We understand “Grace” as being “Unmerited Favor,” or, as we learned last week, “Mercy is not getting what we do deserve, and Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.”  Prevenient (sometimes called Preventing) means “going before.”  Prevenient Grace , then, is that grace, (or unmerited favor), which goes before.  “Before what?” you ask.  Before everything you do, think, or say.  Before your very existence, God’s grace was.  Before the Creation of the world, God’s grace was.  Other words and phrases are sometimes used to describe this: Divine initiative, preceding grace, or preparatory grace.

In other words, it all begins with God’s grace.  Your very existence is because of the unmerited favor which God gave you.  The air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat…are because of God’s grace.  The fact that you are aware of a deeper reality and of a need for God is because of God’s grace.  Grace  is not merely Saving Grace experienced at the moment of conversion.  Indeed, the only reason you arrived at a moment of conversion is because God was drawing you unto Himself—that’s Prevenient Grace.

“So,” one might ask, “Is Prevenient Grace more than a thelogical construct?  Can we find it illustrated within the pages of Scripture?”

In Acts chapter 10, we read the story of the conversion of Cornelius.  Cornelius was a Roman Centurion, and in the course of the narrative in Acts 10, we see Peter traveling to Joppa to share the Gospel with Cornelius and his family.  By the end of chapter 10, all of those gathered at Cornelius’s house (his relatives and close friends) had heard the Gospel message, accepted it, repented, believed, and were baptized.  It was a historical moment, as the gathering was entirely Gentile, and yet they were welcomed into the Family of God with open arms.

I’d like, however, for you to pay close attention to the description of Cornelius and his family prior to their conversion experience.  Hear these words from Acts chapter 10, verse 1-7:

1At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian  Regiment. 2He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an  angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”   

4Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.   

5The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. 6He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 

7When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants.  8He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.  

The  Word of the Lord.

I want you to pay close attention to verse 2:  2He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.  While not part of the family of God, while still needing Salvation, while still in need of conversion and baptism, the Bible tells us that Cornelius and his entire family were devout and God-fearing.

And yet, we affirmed just a few weeks ago that “We believe that original sin, or depravity, is that corruption of the nature of all the offspring of Adam by reason of which everyone is very far gone from original righteousness or the pure state of our first parents at the time of their creation, is averse to God, is without spiritual life, and inclined to evil, and that continually.”  How is it then, that Cornelius is described as devout and God-fearing?  How, if he too was corrupted by original sin, inclined to evil, and averse to God; could he be devout and God-fearing?  And, how then, if he was outside the Family of God, was he able to “see a vision of the angel of God?”  How is it that his prayers were heard?

Clearly, there was unmerited favor here.  Cornelius had done nothing to deserve this grace.  He could not have merely “decided” to exercise “free will” to be devout.  Original sin makes us incapable of that sort of choice outside the realm of God’s grace.  And so, we see God’s Prevenient Grace working in Cornelius’s life before he even realized he had a need for God’s grace.

With this understanding of Prevenient Grace before us, let us now take a closer look at this Seventh Article of Faith.  You can find it in the inside flap of your bulletin, and I encourage you to take time this week to discover more about God’s grace and its relationship to our free will and salvation by exploring the supporting scriptures that are listed with it.

We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they  cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works  to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God  through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His  sight.   

We believe that all persons, though in the possession of the experience of regeneration and entire sanctification, may fall from grace and apostatize and, unless they repent of their sins, be hopelessly and eternally lost.   

This particular Article of Faith is particularly Wesleyan in nature, and for those of us who come from different traditions, it may take time to work through all of the issues brought up in this Article.  What we do this morning may do little more than scratch the surface, and so I invite you to take time to engage one another in dialogue on issues raised by this Article.   Let us break this Article of Faith down, one sentence at a time.

We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to  choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God.     

Genesis tells us that on the first five days of creation, God created the heavens and earth, the stars and the sun, the waters and the land, the plants, the animals and fish and birds.  On the sixth day,

26 …God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the  earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”   

27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Adam and Eve were made in the image of God.  In other words, they were patterned after Him, somehow possessing His attributes, although in a smaller degree.  Since God is Holy Love, Adam and Eve were made first and foremost for perfect relationship with one another and with God.  Since God is Sovereign, Adam and Eve possessed—in some small way—a degree of self-sovereignty, that which we call free will.

Now some people have difficulty with free will, saying that if God is sovereign, then how can people have freedom of choice.  It is easy for us to think that mankind’s freewill somehow encroaches upon God’s sovereignty.  After all, how can God be totally sovereign if a simple man can choose over-and-against Him?  If the created can choose not to follow the Creator, then how can the Creator be sovereign?

These questions are excellent questions that have been debated for centuries.  I don’t expect to solve them in one morning, but consider this—God is so powerful, so sovereign that He can create a person that can be self-sovereign.  God’s sovereignty is not diminished by freewill, but rather enhanced.  Our own freewill is sustained by God’s sovereignty—sustained by God’s grace.  As humans we may not understand it, but God is so sovereign that He can create a person who can choose against the Creator.  He is more sovereign then we can imagine.

And so, God created us with the ability to choose.  We can identify and choose between right and wrong.  We are morally responsible for our own decisions.  Before the fall, before the Image of God within mankind was tarnished, we were inclined to choose rightly.  We were able to choose rightly, using our self-sovereignty for good.  Yet, after the fall, the Image of God within us was tarnished, and we became depraved, so that we cannot will ourselves to make the right choice.  We cannot, by our own human strength, utilize our freewill to make the right choice.  We are inclined toward selfish choices, instead of choosing for the Other.  We exist in the state of Original Sin, whereby we have a tendency to use our self-sovereignty wrongly, over-and-against the Creator.

Even this ability to make moral choices is evidence of God’s Prevenient Grace at work in our lives.  Even though we are unable, on our own, to make good moral choices, God’s grace enables us to do that, even before we are recipients of the gift of Salvation through the shed blood of Jesus.  The Article of Faith continues like so:

But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.     

The good news is that the Grace of God is freely bestowed on all people.  Each person is a recipient of the Grace of God – unmerited favor.  Simply by breathing, eating, and drinking, we are recipients of God’s Grace, it is His Grace which sustains us.  But, beyond that, His grace enables those who respond to Him to do the following: turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.

I want you to notice this.  The Grace of God is available to all people—and that Grace enables them to turn from their sin, to believe on Jesus, and to exhibit good works.  The very fact that you can respond to God’s work is evidence of His grace calling you.

Really, when you think about it, the entire process of Salvation is about us responding to God’s grace.  When we understand that God’s grace goes first, all we can do is respond.  Divine-human participation always begins with God initiating, and us responding.  Grace comes first, then faith, and then action.

  Paul is eager to remind us of the preveniency of grace when he writes these words to the believers in Ephesus :

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– 9not by works, so that no one  can boast.”

Some have been quick to note that salvation is not by faith alone, but by God’s grace.  This grace is mediated through our faith, but note this…even our faith is not from ourselves, it is the gift of God.  In other words, even the faith that you possess is sustained by God’s Grace .  God’s grace initiates, and God’s grace gives you the faith to respond.  It truly is mostly about God’s grace, and only a little bit about our faith and our response.

And yet, we call it “responsible grace” in that we must respond to it.  It is when we respond to prevenient grace that we are able to cross the threshold of salvation.  It is when we respond to His sanctifying grace that we grow in grace and become purified.  It is when we respond to His sustaining grace that we carry out the mission of the Kingdom of God upon this world.

You might ask, “So what happens if someone stops responding to God’s grace?  While God’s grace is infinite and unlimited, what if someone stops responding?”  The last sentence in our Article of Faith speaks to precisely this question:

We believe that all persons, though in the possession of the experience of regeneration and entire sanctification, may fall from grace and apostatize and, unless they repent of their sins, be hopelessly and eternally lost.   

Now, folks love to walk up to Nazarenes and say, “I hear you belong to that church that believes you can lose your salvation.”  And, on the one hand, I suppose they are right.  But let’s be clear on this…you don’t lose your salvation like you lose your car keys.  You don’t wake up some morning and wonder “where is my salvation today?”  As Nazarenes, we don’t live in fear of “losing our salvation” the way that some think that we do.  In fact, I believe that it is difficult to “lose our salvation.”  “Why is it difficult?” you ask.  Because God’s grace continues to work in our lives, and He doesn’t will that we should fall away.

Rather, I think that instead of saying that “we believe you can lose your salvation,” it would be better put that “we believe you can walk away from your salvation.”  When we understand the entire salvation process as “responding to God’s grace,” we recognize that salvation is all about relationship.  Indeed, if God is primarily understood as a relational God—Holy Trinity existing in perfect relationship and holy community before the beginning of time—then we are created to be in relationship with Him.  Salvation—responding to God’s grace—is about being in relationship.  We don’t merely misplace a relationship…instead we either walk away from it abruptly, or drift away through neglect.

I believe that Paul speaks to this question of “falling from grace” in Second Timothy 2, where he writes:

11Here  is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
12if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
13if we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.
     

In other words, God is faithful to us, even when we fall short of perfect faithfulness.  And yet, at the same time, we have the ability to sever our relationship from God, either abruptly or through neglect, and to disown Him.  This happens when one ceases to respond to God’s grace, or to be in relationship with Him.  Only then do we fall from grace, and turn from Him.  But even then is the ability to repent of sins and to return to God.  Indeed, His grace abounds more and more.

To those who are tempted to lose sleep over the question of “losing my salvation” or “falling from grace,” I have this to say:  Concentrate on living as close to God as you can.  Respond to His grace at work in your life.  Live in constant communion with Him.  If we focus our energies on responding to God’s grace and being in relationship with Him, we have no fear of waking up one day having “misplaced our salvation.”  Indeed, if you live in relationship with God for the rest of your life, then we can say with all certainty that you are “eternally secure.”

It is all about God’s grace.  It is God’s grace which created you and gave you life.  It is God’s grace which allowed you to be morally responsible.  It is God’s grace which made you aware of sin in your life, and that you were not in right relationship with God.  It is God’s grace that allowed you to hear His voice calling you.  God’s grace has called you.  To those who respond to that prevenient grace, that grace saves you, sanctifies you, sustains you, and will eventually glorify you as the Image of God is restored within you.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.  Let us sing of God’s Amazing Grace!

 

Benediction:   I Thess 5:23May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the  coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is  faithful and he will do it.

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