Part of our 3-story series, The Wesleyan Concept of Grace.
“What is more powerful,” the Rev. Matt O’Reilly asks, “your sin or God’s grace?”
“If it’s true that God’s grace is more potent and powerful, and can overcome our sin,” the pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama continues, “what does that look like in my daily life?”
John Wesley’s fervent belief that God’s grace is more powerful than sin, motivated his tireless work to begin the Methodist movement. He gathered Christians into small groups for support and encouragement as they lived into their faith. Together they confessed their sin, watched over one another in love, and sought to love God and their neighbors as Jesus did.
Wesley taught that God’s grace shapes us throughout our lives. After God’s prevenient grace convicts us of our sin and our need for Christ, and after we receive forgiveness by faith through God’s justifying grace, our spiritual growth continues. By God’s sanctifying grace, we mature as disciples of Jesus Christ.
In a sermon, Wesley distinguished between justifying and sanctifying grace. “The one,” he writes of justifying grace, “implies what God does for us through the Son; the other, what God works in us by the Spirit.”
Sanctifying: Growing in grace
The word sanctify simply means “to make holy,” but not in a holier-than-thou sort of way. Instead, God’s sanctifying grace shapes us more and more into the likeness of Christ. As the Holy Spirit fills our lives with love for God and our neighbor, we begin to live differently.
As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (12:2 CEB).
Sanctifying grace signifies to us that we haven’t arrived. The Rev. Gary Henderson of United Methodist Communications says, “We are reminded that we are under construction.” We are becoming all God created us to be.
Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and sinless let us be,
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restor’d in thee;
Chang’d from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise!1
As we sing these words, we ask God to continue to work in our lives, to “finish” us into the “pure and sinless” people we were created to be. This may sound like a lot, but God’s grace is greater than our sin.
Grace over sin
Wesley prescribed some ways we can put ourselves in positions to receive God’s sanctifying grace. These “means of grace” are things we do to grow toward “holiness of heart and life,” as Wesley called mature faith.
The United Methodist Church understands the means of grace in four basic categories: acts of worship, devotion, justice, and compassion. Acts of worship include things like going to church and receiving the sacrament of communion. Acts of devotion are those private times of worship that include activities like private prayer and Bible study. We know these things draw us closer to Christ, but we don’t stop there.
Also important are acts of compassion like reaching out to our neighbor in need and telling a friend about God’s love for them. Acts of justice like working to eliminate racism and advocating for the poor and marginalized are also means of grace.
Through participation in the means of grace, we put ourselves in spaces—physically, mentally, and spiritually—that open us up to allow God to fill us. We make room for the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts and lives.
We do not do these things to earn something from God. Our spiritual growth is a gift, given to us through the sanctifying grace of God.
As we seek to grow in love for God and neighbor, God works in us to eliminate sin from our lives. Why? Because God’s grace is greater than our sin. Not only following our deaths, but in our lives today.
Read the rest of our 3-story series, The Wesleyan Concept of Grace.
This story was first published on March 12, 2018.
1Charles Wesley. Hymns for Those that Seek and Those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ. (London: Strahan, 1747), p. 12. Accessed through the website of The Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Duke Divinity School.