God at work before we know it: Prevenient grace
When we consider the circumstances that led to us coming to faith in Jesus Christ, we begin to see the hand of God at work in our lives long before we were aware of the Spirit’s presence.
The Rev. Matt O’Reilly shares, “You never just wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey! I think I’m going to give my life to Jesus today,’ because it was your idea.” O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church, in Mobile, Alabama.
Maybe you were fortunate enough to have parents who took you to church and taught you Bible stories when you were young. Maybe a high school friend invited you to her youth group where you felt a love and acceptance for which you longed. Maybe you hit rock bottom and your sponsor modeled the power of following Jesus in a way that you knew you needed. Maybe your marriage collapsed and a Christian friend who had been through something similar supported you during the most difficult days.
John Wesley, the historical founder of the Methodist movement, saw the grace of God at work in those moments. Those who showed you the healing, forgiveness, and restoration available by faith in Jesus Christ came to you by God’s prevenient grace.
If you think using an arcane word like prevenient is a problem, Wesley’s other favorite word for this season of grace was preventing—a word he used in the 1700s very differently than the way we use it today.
The words prevenient and preventing come from a Latin root word that means to precede. Prevenient or preventing grace then is simply the grace that comes before. Before what? Justifying grace.
In The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained, Wesley uses the metaphor of a house to describe our spiritual journeys. Our justification by faith he calls the door. The conviction of our sin and recognition of our need for salvation, he likens to a porch.
Prevenient grace is the grace of the porch. It prepares our hearts and minds to hear and receive the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to respond in faith.
“This grace convinces them of being sinners who need God for forgiveness,” explains the Rev. Nday Bondo Mwanabute, professor of theology at Africa University, Mutare, Zimbabwe. “The Holy Spirit assists them to come to God and acknowledge God’s will and holiness.”
Wesley taught that God’s grace is available to everyone and not just a select few, as some of his contemporaries believed. Unfortunately, many resist God’s prevenient grace and never choose to come to Christ in faith to continue their spiritual journeys through the door of justification.
God at work in our lives
By describing this period as grace, we remind ourselves this is not something we do under our own power. It is, instead, a gift from God.
“Without a doctrine of grace you are left trying to climb some sort of self-constructed ladder,” O’Reilly explains. “You’re left trying to live in such a way to earn God’s favor, and that’s depressing.”
When we understand it as grace, we acknowledge that God is acting in our lives long before we know it. The Bible puts it this way, “God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
“I have this image of the circus and the trapeze artists,” explains the Rev. Gary Henderson of United Methodist Communications. “They’re doing these incredible things way up high and it’s dangerous. Life is like that... Through prevenience, we have a net available to us.”
By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit is present in our lives drawing us closer to Christ through the loving support of a friend, the modeling of faith by a parent, or a sermon that sounds like God speaking directly to us. When we are convicted of our sin and long to live a new life in Jesus Christ, we are justified by faith, another act of God’s loving grace in our lives.
This story was first published March 2, 2018.