That’s the title of the second-longest-running Off Broadway musical. It’s also the tool we’re using in order to try and learn, engage, and remember John Wesley’s three kinds of grace:
Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace.
The Welseyan understanding of grace is tremendous. It’s life-changing. It’s part of what turned John’s college small group into a world-wide denomination. But, unfortunately, those words are also so unusual as to be easily forgettable. Grace is not something to be forgotten, so we’re hoping to internalize these three kinds of grace in the three statements of the musical.
First: I Love You.
We covered this last week, but here’s the shorthand version: “Prevenient” means “before.” This is God’s “I love you” to us long before we say “I love you” back to God. It’s all the good work God does for us before we respond in faith to God, or do anything to earn God’s goodness.
Using the musical’s focus on relationships as an example, we imagined a boy who is in love with a girl at his office. The girl doesn’t know he exists, and yet he shows his love for her in small acts of kindness: unjamming the copier for her, cheering her up when the boss gives her a hard time. We might say he does all this “preveniently,” because he does it before she ever loves him back.
And eventually, she might come to love him back. That happens sometimes, right?
Sometimes, over time, the girl starts to notice the boy. At first she just notices the nice things he does for her and is grateful for them. Then, as she starts to see the boy behind the nice things, her heart starts to change. One amazing day she makes the discovery that he loves her… and she loves him back.
This is the stuff that drives every romantic movie, the happy ending where everything feels perfect. It’s the moment when the hearts of two people come together. Their love is lined up perfectly.
In other words, they’re justified.
That’s not the way we usually use the word “justified,” but it’s still a valid use. Just check out your word processor. If you open it up you’ll notice a row of small buttons at the top marked by horizontal lines in different patterns. One of these buttons is to center the text:
…which is great for making titles, but those jagged edges look kind of sloppy in a letter or paper. So you might press a different button:
…which lines up the sides of the text neatly against the margins. This is justified.
Lined up. Justified.
Our justification with God is not too different from a human love story. There’s a moment when we realize that God loves us and we love God and our hearts are lined up perfectly.
Like relationships, this sometimes happen all at once. When I met Alan he hit me like a ton of bricks. God can be like that, too – all of a sudden, WHAM! Justified.
It didn’t work like that for me with God, though. I grew up in the church. I don’t remember a time before praying, before praising, before reading my Bible. I do know that gradually, over time, I understood God’s love for me better and better until one day, as John Wesley would say, “My heart was strangely warmed.”
But: There’s one big, important difference between the way our hearts are lined up in human relationships and the way our hearts are lined up with God’s.
In human relationships most of us are on the same playing field. We’re all made of pretty much the same stuff. We are in each other’s leagues, so to speak.
This is not the case with God; God is God and we are human. We are not worthy. We fall short. We are imperfect. We are not good enough to be good enough for God… not one of us.
Proof can be found in an amazing 110-year-old member of Andrews UMC named Jean Christy. She taught English and History for so many years at the High School that they named the school driveway for her. Whenever anyone tells a story about her, they do it with a smile. Visiting her room at the nursing home is like entering a cloud of the Holy Spirit.
And yet even Jean Christy isn’t perfect.
I wouldn’t dare say that myself; I’m only repeating what she has told me (and what she has given permission for me to share with you). Many times, when I come to visit, she wants to pray for forgiveness because she knows that she, too, has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Not even Jean Christy is good enough to be good enough for God. If that’s the case, then *none* of us is good enough for God.
So what should happen, when we decide to love God back, is that sick rejection feeling. I remember it well from my teenage years and those dating days: that moment when you realize the other person DOES NOT love you back. Your hearts are not aligned. They are imperfect; they are broken.
This isn’t what happens.
Some of you know this from personal experience, but if you don’t, then turn back to Luke 18. In this parable, Jesus describes two people praying. One is a self-righteous Pharisee. The other is a humble tax collector, begging for mercy. In other words, one considers himself to be good enough; the other knows he is not.
The tax collector “went down to his home justified” Jesus says (Luke 18:14).
What? Why? How?
Because of Jesus Christ.
This is, after all, justifying GRACE that we’re talking about – and remember, “grace” is a free, undeserved, and unexpected gift. God’s grace gives the surprise ending of a tax collector being “justified” in his humility. God’s grace puts us in God’s league, accepts our love even though it’s so unworthy.
Paul fills in the blanks in deeper detail in Romans 3: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (v. 23-4).
This is justifying grace. This is when our love and God’s love are lined up, perfectly, by God’s grace. This is what feels a thousand times bigger than the “I love you and you love me back” moment of romantic love. This is the “I love you and you love me back” moment between us and the God who created us.
And to have it, we don’t need a complicated process or even a lengthy, poetic prayer. We can simply join in with the tax collector, drop to our knees in humility before our God, and say:
“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
And – thanks to God’s grace – we, too, will go home justified.