This month at Andrews UMC, that’s more than just the title of an on Off-Broadway musical. It’s also a not-half-bad description of John Wesley’s three kinds of grace:
“Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace.”
Prevenient grace is the grace that comes *before.* It’s Romans 5:8, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s God’s great “I love you” to us before we ever say “I love you” back. For that reason, we might more easily remember it as, “I Love You.”
Justifying grace is when we return that love, and our love is lined up with God’s love for us. It’s Romans 3:24, “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” It’s when Christ’s sacrifice makes it possible for us to come into alignment with God, like words justified against the margins of a page. For that reason I’m linking this up with, “You’re Perfect” (although, for reasons that will become very clear next week, I admit this is a weak association).
To illustrate this we’ve been using the same narrative as the musical: relationships. First, a boy loves a girl but the girl hasn’t noticed him yet. He is kind and considerate to her even before she returns her love for him. This is him loving her “preveniently,” just as God loves us. Then, the girl realizes that he loves her and she loves him. This is their love being “justified,” lined up together. That’s similar to what happens with God, except that we need the gifts of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ to make it possible.
Since we’ve brought the boy and girl this far in their love story, let’s finish it.
He proposes. She says “yes.” They go through a year of planning and preparing for a wedding: choosing colors, inviting guests, finding a location, doing premarital counselling. After all that work comes the big deal – a beautiful celebration with friends and family. After the cake is cut and the bouquet is tossed, the bride and groom exit the reception hand in hand…
…and then get into separate cars and drive back to their own apartments. They get up the next day and go to work, greeting each other with coy smiles as they always do. They eat lunch together. After work he plays golf and she goes to a movie with some friends. They plan to go to dinner on Friday night, their usual date night.
No, wait – that’s all wrong! You don’t go through all the emotional turmoil of romance and practical work of planning a wedding ceremony just to go back to doing exactly what you were doing before! Marriage changes us – immediately in terms of where we live and who we share a bed with, and over time in how we plan our lives and grow and change together. We are *different* because we are married. What’s the point if we’re completely the same?
This is also true with God… but sometimes we act like it’s not.
We might have that “heart strangely warmed” moment, as John Wesley called it. We experience God’s love for us in a powerful way and we pledge our love back to God. We put our faith in Christ. We kneel at an altar or stand up during worship or simply kneel and pray all by ourselves. We are saved, born again, justified by God’s grace. And then…
…we continue living exactly as we did before.
Which is just as ridiculous as a couple of newlyweds leaving their ceremony in two separate cars.
The musical title declares this truth but means it to be a joke: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” It strikes us as ridiculous: if we love someone so much that we think they’re perfect, why do we want them to change? But we can take the title a different way: if we love someone and commit ourselves to them, then we must change.
And we know this… but for most of us, it’s even more change than we thought we were in for.
When Alan and I got married I expected some change, but I also kind of thought that we had already done most of that changing. We had been good friends for several years. We had survived a couple big fights. We had run a backpacking ministry together. We even bought a house and merged our finances before we got married. We’d already changed plenty.
If you’re married, you know that there’s a “but” coming.
We had changed some, BUT there would be more. It hit me when I starting planning my first trip to visit my parents and brothers as a married woman. I talked to my mom about it. I looked at my work schedule. I checked flight costs. And then it dawned on me that I was doing this in an order that used to be right but had become wrong, because I had yet to consult my husband.
That seems obvious to me now, but it was strange to me at the time. For my whole life, Mom had been the first person to consult about any big plans. Now it was Alan.
And the changes haven’t stopped there. Alan and I keep changing together.
This is clear about marriage, but it’s less obvious when we think about our relationship with God. We Christians sometimes get the impression that we just stand at the altar, say the right words, and go back to our lives unchanged. Or, maybe we make a few big changes at first, but then we settle into our new “normal” lives.
If we stay in love with God, then eventually, we’ll be surprised by the continued call to change.
Take the rich young ruler, as he’s often called. He asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life and Jesus tells him to obey the commandments. This rich young man must have a real faith in God, because he easily tells Jesus that he’s already doing all those things. So Jesus gives an unexpected call to change:
“Sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and follow me.”
Jesus’ answer is not what the rich young man expects. He walks away sad, because he doesn’t want to give all his stuff away. I wonder if he was looking for a confirmation that he’d changed enough, an affirmation that he was already doing all the right things. That’s not how it works with God, though – there’s always more changing to be done.
John Wesley called this “Sanctifying Grace.” To “sanctify” is to make something holy, to set something aside for God’s purposes. We don’t start off holy, so this is a process, a lifetime of changes in the hopes of setting ourselves aside for God, 100%.
Again, there’s a parallel in human relationships. Think back to that boy and girl we’ve been following, except this time they get married and do the normal thing of leaving the reception and going to their new home together. They start to make changes for each other right away. She goes to the driving range with him. He goes to see romantic comedies with her. They stay in and learn how to cook instead of going out to their usual date night.
Over time, these smaller changes give way to bigger ones. They have a child together, and then a couple more. They decide to start attending church as a family. They move to another state so that she can take on a new job.
After many years of making changes together they become changed, together. The boy and girl are different than they would have been had they not gotten married. They aren’t even the “boy and girl” anymore. They are husband and wife.
All that was just getting started when they stood at the altar together.
When we stand at the altar with God we are likewise just getting started. We are making the first change in a lifetime of changes that, we hope, will lead us to be more and more like God every day.
God will call us to different changes over our lifetime, so we must wake up every day expecting to change. Today, God might be calling us to give up something. Tomorrow, God might ask us to use our money differently. Next week, God might ask us to reach out to someone who needs a friend. Next year – who knows? God just might get us to change in some way that seems crazy right now, but by then, will seem a natural part of being a Christian.
This is “Sanctifying Grace.” This is the grace that works in us to make us more like God. It’s initiated by God but requires our participation. It’s dangerous and amazing. It’s the most challenging and the most rewarding thing we could ever do with our lives.
If you want to experience God’s sanctifying grace in your life, try this starting each day this week with this prayer. Just be warned: God might call you to change something, and you might feel inclined to say “yes” and follow Jesus.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition
(From the United Methodist Hymnal, #607)
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or laid low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.