What prevenient grace is and isn’t

“We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all –– that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Yesterday, the United Methodist Church General Conference added this statement to the preamble of our social principles by a vote of 532 to 414. The blogosphere lit up with incredulity that 414 GC delegates had apparently rejected our Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. But the tweets that came out during that vote revealed a difference of opinion over what the General Conference statement actually means. There are important nuances to the doctrine of prevenient grace that are worth considering.

Prevenient grace is the theological premise that distinguishes Wesleyan/Methodist thought from every other major strand of Protestantism. We believe that God constantly and relentlessly pursues every human being that He has created with His love. We say with 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” We emphatically reject the predestinarian view which says that God has created some people to exist outside of His love in a state of predetermined damnation for the purpose of serving as extras on the theatrical stage of His chosen people. God cannot help loving us. It is simply His inherent nature to do so. Wesleyans also reject the widespread notion that God has to be persuaded to love us by a “decision” we make for Christ. God loves us long before we are capable of making any sort of decision. The question is how we respond to this love. Will we accept it and allow it to transform us or will we disregard it and choose to live outside of it?

The problem is that God’s love is actually a difficult thing to accept. We’re fine with “accepting” it at arm’s length, as a concept that doesn’t really change anything about how we act. But truly embracing God’s love means facing the reality that we often abuse Him, that God has been watching us with tears in His eyes desperately seeking our acknowledgment every time we do things that are despicable, weak-willed, petty, or selfish. He sees everything we do and He loves us with a zeal that refuses to be crushed. But it’s not the kind of false, enabling love that a codependent spouse has for an abusive alcoholic mate. God’s love burns with rage and anguish at all the ways that we are not living fully into the beautiful purpose for which He created us. So when we comfort ourselves that God “loves us anyway” and throw ourselves headlong into behaviors that destroy our soul, the shallow, enabling love that we pronounce God to have isn’t really God’s love but an empty mirage.

The only way to come into a genuine awareness of the love that becomes an overwhelming burden rather than a trite concept when it’s really experienced is to accept the means that God has given us for bearing it: Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins. The cross is what makes God’s love safe. This might seem counterintuitive since the cross was so utterly violent, but the cross is where Jesus makes Himself naked and vulnerable in order to win our trust to make ourselves naked and vulnerable before God. Because we are justified through Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, there is no reason to hide or deny any mistake we have made. Accepting Christ’s justification destroys the prison of our shame. It is then that we are awakened to the love that not only accepts us but enters inside of us to shape us into God’s perfect masterpiece. The intimacy of God’s love that we experience increases the more that we give ourselves over to the transformation of the Holy Spirit that we call sanctification. The more that we listen to God, the more clearly we hear His voice showing us the way to a purer love for Him and for our neighbor.

Now let’s examine the question which seems to lurk underneath the less than unanimous General Conference vote on a statement that basically summarizes Romans 8:38-39 (“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”). Does sin separate us from God’s love? From God’s point of view, absolutely not, since God’s “tender mercies are over all his works” (Psalm 145:9, one of John Wesley’s favorite verses). Nothing can separate us from God’s love, whether we recognize it or not. But that is precisely the issue. The more that we sin, the more that we dull our awareness of the love of God. It’s like adding layers of dust and mud to a window that light is supposed to shine though. Christ’s justification has the power to dissolve  the gunk on the windows of our soul in an instant, but we need this elixir to be continually reapplied. And when we don’t have it, the window might as well be a wall though not because of any lack of love on God’s part.

So what about after people die? Does God stop loving them if they haven’t made a “decision” for Jesus?  It’s bad theology to talk about God changing His mind or nature since His qualities are eternal. So I don’t think it’s right to say that God ever stops loving anybody. But that doesn’t mean that God lobotomizes everyone into having a blissfully vacuous experience of His searing hot love. Nor is God willing to be a dominatrix to coerced and terrified recipients. So those who have not gained the means of embracing God’s love experience a profound, never-ending loneliness unlike anything we can possibly imagine despite the fact that God’s love never steps anguishing over them. Those who have had their hearts opened to God’s love experience an amazing, perfect intimacy of which our most intimate physical union as human beings is only a dim shadow. God’s love is either infinite terror or infinite comfort depending on whether our hearts have been prepared to receive it, but no, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus — there truly is no place to hide (Psalm 139).

6 thoughts on “What prevenient grace is and isn’t

  1. Morgan, now I wish I had tuned into this debate at General Conference. I would have liked to have heard the discussion if it was about these kinds of theological questions.

    I wonder if the perplexing vote was less about the weighty theological issues you raise here and more about the politics of sexuality. Is it possible that the petition in question was championed by those who support a change in the UMC position and opposed by those who want to keep the language? I ask because the placement of this in the Social Principles. I suspect many of the votes were not a “hurrah” for Calvinism (which, btw, affirms Romans 8, too). I suspect the vote was political.

    That is a sad commentary on the state of our life together.

    I’m sorry I missed the debate.

    • Bottom line is that we need to teach prevenient grace well. We need to explain that affirming God’s fundamentally loving nature is not the same thing as creating our own pushover Santa Claus.

  2. You actually end on a very interesting note here, though I’m not sure you meant to wander in to the debate of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), Universalism, and Annhilationsim. That is, how *does* God’s love impact those who ‘fall away’?

    I am, personally, of the opinion that no one can deny that the church fathers since the beginning have, each, endorses each of those three major streams of what I call historically orthodox thought. That there is eternal conscious torment for the damned. Or that God’s love will eventually ‘save’ all. Or that ultimate rejection of God’s presence is literally the end of one’s existence.

    Moreover, I am also convinced (especially by Clark Pinnock – http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2011/10/13/clark-pinnocks-thoughts-on-hell/) that ECT ought to be wholly and thoroughly rejected as an eisegetical reading of Scripture as well as opposed to the very character of God that we affirm.

    And that is all, of course, my opinion. But, the amended preamble *does* raise the question–what does it mean that we cannot be separated from God’s love? The Eastern Orthodox have an interesting view. That God and God’s love is both a consuming and purifying fire. Depending on one’s orientation *towards God*, one’s experience *of* God’s love may be ultimately different. Though it is all equally God’s love.

    • If it is torture, it is the torture of hating what is perfect beauty on account of our ugliness. God is not the Disneyland tyrant that modern evangelicalism has made Him. We can only talk by analogy about His reality. Eastern Orthodoxy has it right, I think, but it’s not necessarily the case that the all-consuming fire precludes ECT. It just means that it’s not punitive in a clumsy way.

      • That’s fine if you believe that. I don’t mean to raise debate in such a way to force my view onto others (I guess I should have said it: Practical Annihilationist, hopeful Universalist!). But I do think that affirming the endless and non-separable nature of God’s love heavily implies facing these questions and having these sorts of conversations. For almost every person I know who has left or is critical of our faith has done so castigating the more populist understanding of Hell or the afterlife. I think we should be *ready* to give an account of what we each *mean* (from our limited perspectives) in preaching that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God!

        Though I will also point out that my own personal perspective diverges from the ‘love is torment to some’ idea mainly upon exegetical grounds and also philosophical/theological. I also feel that if God *knowingly* allows someone to enter a position of eternal torment (from their perspective) that they may never escape is virtually the same thing experience-wise as the populist notion of punitative Hell. It also doesn’t gel with me concerning the notion that God punishes those that loves like how a parent disciplines their child in order to help them grow, rather than merely experience endless ‘punishment’.

      • I’m probably in the same boat as you. I think it’s most responsible to say God loves us always, we choose whether to accept it, and He doesn’t force us to do so. Whether we get an opportunity to choose after this life, I can only say that I know God is love. I’m not willing to commit to a speculative view.

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