During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods’ appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and the Muslim code of law — each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.
We cannot even begin to live out the gospel in our daily lives without considering the importance of grace. In this clip from the movie “War Room”, Miss Clara takes the opportunity to describe grace for our real estate agent, Elizabeth. [Play video] What is grace? How is it that only Christianity adheres to this notion of God’s unconditional love? How can we extend grace to others so that God’s light shines through us?
When we began this year, we took on the focus of ‘What Weighs You Down?’ What is keeping each of us from a closer relationship with God? I sent out these questionnaires to get an idea of the topics of interest to you and today’s topic of grace was one of these suggestions. One common definition of grace is the unmerited favor of God toward humankind. Unconditional love, forgiveness, compassion, kindness – all rolled into one. We cannot earn God’s grace – it is given to us without price. As we accept this grace for ourselves, we are stepping out in faith and choosing to follow God instead of our own way.
As United Methodists we often turn to theologian and founder John Wesley for his understanding of God’s grace. Wesley saw grace in three parts – prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. Prevenient grace is God’s love for us at work in our lives even before we recognize the need for grace. The Wesleys referred to it as preventing grace – that nudging of God that prevents us from falling deeper into sin. Recall that scripture teaches that we are all sinners, willfully straying from God. Instead of aligning ourselves with God’s love and will for us, our natural tendency is to turn away from God and follow another path. But at times, we may hear a still small voice warning us about an action or statement we are about to make. At times we remember our parents’ teachings about what is right and what is wrong. Innately we have some idea of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
If you’ve spent any time with small children you will fully understand this natural tendency to turn away from what is right. Young children learn at a very early age what is right and what is wrong. Parents also learn rather quickly what motivations will work for different children. There is a young man I was teaching that had a serious problem with defiance. Whatever you told him to do, even if it was something he wanted to do, he would defiantly do the exact opposite just because you asked him to do this. Force was not an effective motivator – the more forceful I became with my request, the more he insisted on doing the opposite. Nevertheless, he always wanted attention so the most powerful motivator was to ignore him. He quickly came around.
God speaks to us in many ways, often getting our attention in a manner that speaks to each of us through prevenient grace. Consider the Christmas story for a moment. Mary needed reassurance so God presented a miraculous sign through her cousin Elizabeth who was with child at an old age. Joseph needed strength and comfort so God sent an angel in a dream. The shepherds were greeted with a sky filled with heavenly hosts. The wise men, thought to be astrologists, found a sign from God in the heavens with the presence of an unusual star. God’s prevenient grace is at work in our lives all the time.
When we seek God’s grace, turn from our sin and realize God’s amazing love for us, we experience justifying grace. God extends love to us through prevenient grace, and we step forward and accept that grace for ourselves through justifying grace. This idea of turning from sin is the term ‘repent.’ The Hebrew word for this is ‘shuv’ which literally means ‘to turn around.’ As humans prone to sin, we are constantly pulling away from God, trying hard to earn grace – sometimes through good works. Others of us submit to sin through indifference – it simply doesn’t matter that we are not following God. Who has time? Others still practice surface faith – going through the motions of being a Christian by attending church, giving of time and money, all the while guarding our hearts. Trust is hard for us – we would much prefer to trust only ourselves. Wesley would refer to these folks as ‘Almost Christians.’ Yet only through accepting God’s love for ourselves can we truly experience unconditional love – grace extended for each of us. No matter how hard we work or how hard we try to earn grace through good works, grace has already been extended to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
God’s love extended even before we recognize the need for God’s grace –that is prevenient grace. Our acceptance of God’s grace for ourselves – that is justifying grace. So what is sanctifying grace? This is what Wesley refers to as going on toward perfection. We begin our Christian journey as babies, not able to eat solid food and learning to walk through trial and error. Yet God, like a caring parent, continues to encourage us to not remain crawling but to get up and walk. God continues to encourage us to begin to take on solid food through reading and studying scripture, communing with God through prayer and fasting, attending to the ordinances of God through active participation in worship. As we grow and mature in our spiritual faith, we are experiencing sanctifying grace.
So what? Getting closer to God, eliminating barriers that are keeping us from following God’s calling through prayer, worship, fasting, tithing, communion, Bible study – that is only part of the story. We respond to God’s grace through acts of mercy and acts of justice. We do not do good works in order to win God’s grace but as a response to God’s grace. I wanted to thank everyone who helped out with yesterday’s Trunk-or-Treat event. The kids seemed to have a great time and we were able to shard some fun, fellowship, food, music, and of course candy to our neighbors!
Today we are honoring our loved ones who have passed away this year. This is a difficult day for many, and we are here together in one accord to share one another’s burdens of pain and loss. Make no mistake about it – we need each other. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are the foundation of the church, with Christ as the head. As we go on toward perfection in Jesus Christ, let us continue to lift one another up, hold one another accountable for our actions, seek out those who appear to be struggling, and live out the gospel in our everyday lives. Others have a rather keen insight on whether or not we are truly living as Christ would have us to live. It is pretty obvious when we are just going through the motions.
I encourage each of us to set an example for the children and young people who will follow our lead. Share kindness to strangers, go the extra mile to support one another, draw closer to God through prayer, study, fellowship, and worship. Give of your time, talent, finances, and example. Be the blessing to others as so many of those we remember today were special blessings to us. Walk in the footsteps of Jesus the Christ.