“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).