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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Atonement is Available... Now What?



When I was first determining the order in which I wanted to "tackle" the articles of faith, I found it strange that prevenient grace came after atonement.  In many ways, I think prevenient grace should come just after the articles about God, because I think prevenient grace is actually a part of God's nature.  Without it, I do not believe we understand who God is (not that we completely comprehend this, there is room for mystery to be sure, but grace is essential because it is such an enormous component of love).  I'd like to explore that further, but in regard to the articles, I think I "get it" now.  Perhaps this order was chosen to highlight the belief that there is only one way, in the Church of the Nazarene, to attain atonement.  And it requires prevenient grace. 

VII. Prevenient Grace

7. We believe that the human race’s creation in Godlikeness included ability to choose between right and wrong, and that thus human beings were made morally responsible; that through the fall of Adam they became depraved so that they cannot now turn and prepare themselves by their own natural strength and works to faith and calling upon God. But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight.

We believe that all persons, though in the possession of the experience of regeneration and entire sanctification, may fall from grace and apostatize and, unless they repent of their sins, be hopelessly and eternally lost.

(Godlikeness and moral responsibility: Genesis 1:26-27; 2:16-17; Deuteronomy 28:1-2; 30:19; Joshua 24:15; Psalm 8:3-5; Isaiah 1:8-10; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18:1-4; Micah 6:8; Romans 1:19-20; 2:1-16; 14:7-12; Galatians 6:7-8

Natural inability: Job 14:4; 15:14; Psalms 14:1-4; 51:5; John 3:6a; Romans 3:10-12; 5:12-14, 20a; 7:14-25

Free grace and works of faith: Ezekiel 18:25-26; John 1:12-13; 3:6b; Acts 5:31; Romans 5:6-8, 18; 6:15-16, 23; 10:6-8; 11:22; 1 Corinthians 2:9-14; 10:1-12; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19; Galatians 5:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2:12-13; Colossians 1:21-23; 2 Timothy 4:10a; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:1-3; 3:12-15; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; James 2:18-22; 2 Peter 1:10-11; 2:20-22)

Wait.  What?  Prevenient grace is not what I thought it was.  At least, not by this definition.  Can I be honest?  That's stressing me out just a little bit.

I have often heard prevenient grace defined as, "the grace that goes before".  With this thought in mind, I would have considered prevenient grace to be the kind of grace that we explored, last week, as a modifier to efficacious atonement.  It is the grace that covers those who cannot be held morally responsible.  I'm not sure that's what we're saying here, though...

I have often heard prevenient grace defined as, "the grace that draws us to God".  With this thought in mind, I would have considered prevenient grace to be the nudging toward recognition of our lost-ness.  It is the grace that desperately calls to us even when we're not listening.  I'm not sure that's what we're saying here, either...

As I re-read this article, this is what it said to me.  Here's a recap.  All people are morally responsible, since we have been made Imago Dei (in the image of God) and all.  And depraved.  We're all depraved (because, you know, that's really Imago Dei).  But don't worry.  There's grace for that... if you want it... which is really unlikely, since you're wicked.  It could happen though, since grace exists.  If it does, seriously watch your step, because if you slip and fall, it's over.  Eternal damnation.  That's prevenient grace.

Maybe I'm cynical... or jaded... or fallen.  Heaven knows I've been accused of all three.  But I just wasn't satisfied with this definition, so I did a very little bit of research.  Thankfully, as it turns out, both Wesley and Arminius seem to have had better definitions.  As a side note, why do we do this?  If the original definition is a good one, why do we change it?  Am I doing that right now?  If I am, please feel free to let me know.  But I digress...

Prevenient grace, according to Wesley, elicits, "the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him" ("On Working Out Our Own Salvation", Sermon #85).  The grace that draws us in...

According to Arminius, "Free will is unable to begin or to perfect any true and spiritual good, without grace.... This grace [pr┼ôvenit] goes before, accompanies, and follows; it excites, assists, operates that we will, and cooperates lest we will in vain" (The Works of James Arminius).  The grace that goes before... and with... and after.

To be fair, I think we have one really important line in our article about prevenient grace.  "But we also believe that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed upon all people, enabling all who will to turn from sin to righteousness, believe on Jesus Christ for pardon and cleansing from sin, and follow good works pleasing and acceptable in His sight" (Article VII).  I don't think our line is as succinct as that of Wesley or Arminius, but it is probably sufficient to describe the grace that goes before, particularly in light of the word "enabling", although I think that same word is too passive to describe a God who seeks and draws.

But the rest of the article?  Even if we believe it to be true, how is this even related to prevenient grace?  If these words belong anywhere, the early ones belong in article V, and the later ones belong in article XVI.  Do we really want to conflate sin and judgment with prevenient grace?  Just think about that.  It doesn't even make sense.

I think I'll send a resume to someone who's hiring for desert mothers now.  I already know how this discussion is going to end.

L.

2 comments:

  1. I was thinking about this post and a question occurred to me: Why do we convey our statement about prevenient grace, of all things, in negative language? For that matter, why do we convey so *many* thing in negative language, rather than positive language? It seems to me that we too often focus on the problems, rather than the solutions!

    But surely prevenient grace should be expressed in positive terms. God's gracious work in the world and in us that is at work *before* we do anything at all - how much more positive does it get than that? And yet we convey this amazing grace in mostly negative language.

    I wonder how often I do this myself, as well, in all kinds of ways. It can be easy to do. May I become a person, and may we all become people, who more and more convey Jesus' message of the gospel of the Kingdom the way it is supposed to be conveyed: As *good* news.

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    Replies
    1. Yes. Exactly. And I admit that I have a tendency to write from the negative side of things (see this post), but of all things, you would think we could present prevenient grace in a positive light!

      I would like to see this article rewritten in such a way that the language about sin and judgment is reallocated to the articles where it belongs and the language about prevenient grace is expanded to cover the many facets of the grace that goes before and draws us to God.

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