Although John Wesley used “prevenient grace” as one of his most basic doctrines, it never got a sermon of its own.
It is an important part of several sermons, though, and we do need to understand it to understand many of his ideas about Christianity. So we might gather up the pieces from a few different places and see what exactly he says prevenient grace is and what exactly prevenient grace does.
First, the words themselves. “Grace,” in this case, means things God does. They may lead or guide us, they may persuade us, they may convince us, teach us, whatever. They all fall under the idea of “grace,” the way Welsey uses that word.
“Prevenient” comes from “prevene,” which is a mashup of some Latin words. Vene means go, or sometimes come. Pre means “before.” If something “prevenes,” that means it goes before something else.
Wesley believed that God’s grace worked in people’s lives before they were ever aware of it, even before they could be aware of it. People may accept Christ as their savior, but God’s grace brought them to the place where they knew they needed to do that, and it even made it possible for them to make the decision. Grace, in fact, worked in a person’s life from the very beginning.
Which is one reason, if you’re curious, we Methodists baptize infants. Of course infants can’t decide on their own that they want to follow Christ. They can’t even decide to roll over at first. But we believe that God’s grace precedes awareness of it. When that baby becomes a grown man or woman and decides to accept Christ, that decision is rooted in God’s grace working from way back in the diaper ages and beyond.
Although this sounds simple enough, we’re about to run into a real problem, which is this: “Before” is in the eye of the beholder.
See, we live inside time – we experience each second as it happens. We group things according to time. This was “before,” this is “during,” and this will be “after.”
God is outside of time, so words like “before” don’t make any sense when we talk about how he sees things. And since grace is God’s activity, then it can’t happen “before” something. Grace can’t happen before salvation, and it can’t happen before something. Yes, we experience it that way, but that’s our experience, not God’s. Plus, does really have to just hover around, waiting for us to do something so his grace can be there before we do it?
We have trouble with this idea – we don’t even have words that can describe it, really. The phrase I like to use isn’t perfect, because it’s got some of the same time-related problems, but it gives me a better picture. Rather than saying God’s grace “goes before” us, I like to say that God’s grace is “already there.”
Our psalmist tells us that no matter where he might want to go, he would find God already there. God’s grace is already there, too. God is already acting in whatever situation we find ourselves, even the horrible ones.
We may not see it, especially in those horrible kinds of situations. But it’s there, though it may be years or even a lifetime before we understand how God worked.
Paul tells us that Jesus showed us love by dying for us while we were still sinners. We weren’t the adopted sons and daughters he allows us to claim to be; we were the prodigals who said we were better off with Dad’s riches to use and waste like we wanted. Even so, Christ chose to sacrifice himself for us, believing that God’s grace would work in us to make us the heirs God had always intended us to be. God’s grace was already there in and around us.
The psalmist goes on after our verses and says, “I am come to the end – I am still with you.” For us, following Christ will bring us someday to that place, where we know we are at the end. Maybe literally, as in living out our last days, or maybe figuratively, as in at the end of our rope.
And when it does, we will find that God’s grace is already there. Already there, and able of redeeming even the end of life itself, changing it – and us – into something new.
“Amazing” is a good word for that kind of grace.