There’s an Off Broadway musical with a title that holds some interest us for Methodists. It’s actually the second-longest-running Off Broadway musical, so there’s a good chance you’ve heard of it. From 1996 to 2008 it drew crowds by telling stories about relationships; as the tagline puts it, it gave audiences “Everything you have ever secretly thought about dating, romance, marriage, lovers, husbands, wives and in-laws, but were afraid to admit.”
Kind of makes you want to see it, doesn’t it?
But the plot of the musical is not really what interests us as Methodists. What interests us – or me, at least – is the title:
When I hear that title, the first thing I think is: Prevenient, Justifying, Sanctifying!
Unless you’re a Methodist church nerd like me, maybe not. These words – prevenient, justifying, sanctifying – are really important words in our Wesleyan tradition. They’re the words that John Wesley used to describe God’s grace for us – which is apparently so good that it takes three parts to describe all that it does for us.
But first things first; before we go any further into these three big and uncommon grace descriptors, we need to talk about grace itself.
The New Dictionary of Theology has a good definition for grace: “generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved.” This makes me think of a pastor friend of mine, Rob Hutchinson, who I’ve hiked with a good bit at Wilderness Trail. There’d be a day when our hike was taking us to the summit of a mountain, so we knew to expect an uphill climb all day long. Every now and then, though, the trail would take a surprising turn downhill for twenty feet or so, giving us a desperately needed break. “That’s grace,” he’d say with a literal sigh of relief. We didn’t deserve it or expect it; we were supposed to be gaining elevation. Grace works like that.
God’s grace for us is much bigger, much more crucial than a little downhill on an uphill hike, of course. God’s grace is a gift so good that it’s shocking. Think along the lines of winning the lottery without ever actually buying a ticket, and you’re getting closer to the scale of the gift God has given us.
So that’s grace – a free and undeserved gift. With that in mind now we’re ready to think about the kinds of grace God gives us:
Prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
Even as a Methodist pastor, I’ll admit to you: grace can start to sound boring when we attach these words to it. These are not familiar words. They mean little – if anything – to us. There are good odds that you won’t remember them thirty minutes from now. We need an easier way to remember the three kinds of grace. Something like…
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change
I should warn you, especially any Wesley scholars out there: this is not a flawless fit. But it’s close enough to be interesting, and I am inviting you to consider – or reconsider – Wesley’s three kinds of grace for the next few weeks using an Off Broadway musical as our guide.
Today’s installment: Prevenient grace, or, “I love you.”
Prevenient grace is literally the grace that comes before. It’s the work that God has done for us before we ever think to respond to God at all. It’s God saying “I love you” to us before we say “I love you” back. It’s “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It’s that searching feeling inside which hints to us that there is something worth looking for – something big, maybe something like God. All of this comes before what Christians sometimes call being “saved” and other times call being “born again.”
Actually, the musical might give us a little more than just its title here. We could think of this in terms of a relationship. Imagine a boy and a girl who work together. The boy is in love with the girl, but the girl doesn’t know it – she barely knows him. His love for her is strong, though, and the boy begins to act on that love. Nothing so bold as sending flowers or standing on his desk and yelling, “I love you!” But if you look for it, you can see his love when he holds a door open for her. When he lets her have the last donut in the box. When he holds the elevator for her. When he waits to make sure she gets in her car safely after work.
Over time, something happens: the girl starts to notice him. Her heart starts to open to him…
But wait! That part of the story we’ll save for next week and another side of God’s grace. For now, let’s pause the story here with the way this boy loves this girl… before. His feelings and his actions are all what we might call “prevenient,” before, because she doesn’t love him back yet. She hasn’t even said “yes” to a first date. And yet he gives his love to her, free and with no strings attached.
That’s like God’s “I love you” to us that comes before we love God back.
It’s also like this:
There once was a tax collector. The people didn’t like tax collectors, first because they were terribly over-taxed, and second because tax collectors tended to make matters worse by taking extra money for themselves. This particular tax collector’s name was Zacchaeus.
There was also, once, a man named Jesus. Some people didn’t like him, but a lot of people did, and a lot of other people were really curious about him. When he travelled, large crowds came out to try to hear him speak or see him perform a miracle. They were out in a large crowd on this day, hoping to get a glimpse for themselves. Zacchaeus was there, too, trying to see Jesus… but Zacchaeus was short.
So Zacchaeus climbs a tree. When Jesus passes by there he is, way up in the branches, a grown, professional man hanging there like a playful, powerless child. Rich, friendless, disliked, poor Zacchaeus.
Jesus didn’t have to look up and notice Zacchaeus. Even after seeing him, he could have waved and kept on walking; he must have walked past many people that day. But when Jesus reaches the spot by the tree, he stops.
He looks at Zacchaeus.
He calls him by name. (He already knows his name!)
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your home today.”
And all the people grumbled and complained, because they wanted to host Jesus, and instead he had invited himself over to this sinner tax collector’s home. They grumble and complain because Jesus is spending time with Zacchaeus before. After, Zacchaeus will change his heart. After, Zacchaeus will give away half of what he has, and return everything he has taken unfairly. But first – before – Jesus calls him down off of his ridiculous perch in a tree.
This is what prevenient grace is like. It’s “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s Jesus calling out to us while we’re still hanging in the tree, poor sinners that we are.
Sometimes we forget this, or we don’t know about it at all. We don’t know that God loves us before, that God is already loving us. We don’t know that Jesus is calling us by name even while we’re mean or cheating or disliked or whatever. So we stay in the tree, afraid to come down. We think we’re the ones who need to do some stuff “before” – we need to get it together, clean it up a little, and then come introduce ourselves to Jesus.
Remember: Jesus called out Zacchaeus, and then Zacchaeus gave his money to the poor. Not: Zacchaeus gave everything away and turned his life around and then Jesus would see him. This prevenient grace, this love Jesus had for Zacchaeus “before” was what upset the crowd, because Zacchaeus hadn’t done anything to deserve such attention from Jesus.
Exactly. He hadn’t done anything to deserve it.
And neither have you or I. And that’s OK – this is how it works.
If you’re still perched in the limbs of a tree, hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus and thinking you’ll come down when you’re a little more worthy of his attention, then hear this:
Jesus is calling it. He’s saying, “Come down here! I want to be with you today.”
And some people might even be upset about it, but don’t worry – the people have always been upset about this part. But it’s the way God’s grace for us works.
God’s “I love you” comes first. And then – even more amazing – comes more grace.
But we’ll talk about that next week.