Sacred Narratives

Methodism shares the classic grand sacred narrative with other branches of Christianity: God created the world, good, out of nothing, and populated it with plants, animals, and humans who enjoyed the earthly paradise, enjoyed direct contact with God, and were originally immortal. But the humans, out of pride, rebelled against God, and this sinful act separated them from God, corrupted human nature, subjected them to death, and marred the perfect creation.

Because the offence against God was infinite, but humans finite, there was nothing they could do to overcome the situation in which they had put themselves. Out of love, God became incarnate (was born as a human) in Jesus, and allowed this divine-human to be put to death as a sacrifice that, because made by someone both fully human and fully God (infinite), pays the price for human sin. Those who hear and believe in this act of love know that their sins are forgiven, and they enter again into a closer relationship with God, including direct contact and immortality, not in this world but in the next. This forgiveness is gracious because it is freely (or gratuitously) given.

Within this grand narrative (there are others in the Christian tradition, but this has been the dominant one), Protestantism has several distinctive plot twists, and within Protestantism, Methodism has further distinctive traits. The major Protestant reformers, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin argued that sin had completely ruined human nature, to such an extent that humans could not even ask for God's help without God first making it possible for them to ask (Calvinists call this total depravity).

Who is forgiven and who is not, then, becomes a matter totally of God's choice. If God forgives your sins, you are not even free enough to reject this forgiveness, and once forgiven, you cannot lose your salvation. And, according to all three of these reformers, as long as you live on this earth you remain a sinner, but a forgiven one. What is at stake is God's absolute power. For these reformers it came as a great comfort to have their salvation completely in God's hands and not their own, because God was far more reliable than were humans.

Wesley agreed with the three major reformers that humans were totally depraved and could not save themselves, and were totally dependent on God's prior gracious action to help them. But Wesley had a different way of distinguishing types of grace than Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, and therefore the Methodist sacred narrative has some subtle differences. Wesley distinguished three different types of grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.

Prevenient grace is always present to everyone, making it possible for all to know of God's love. It is in part up to each person to respond to this love. If individuals accept God's love they are given justifying grace; that is, by God's grace their sins are forgiven. On the issue of justification (forgiveness) by God's grace alone, without merit on our part, Wesley agrees completely with the three major reformers. Finally, with justifying grace that forgives your sins comes sanctifying grace, which (with God's help) makes it possible to live a life that approaches and can realize sinless perfection. One will always be tempted by sin, but one must work at consciously choosing not to sin. Here the Methodist societies were intended to be small groups that encourage and help their members keep track of temptations offered, succumbed to, and rejected.

Methodists, following Wesley, differ from Lutherans and Presbyterians (or, at least, Luther and Zwingli and Calvin) on several key matters. For Methodists, God's justifying (forgiving) grace is available to all humans, and it is theirs if they (under the influence of prevenient grace) accept it. That means that one can choose not to accept this justifying grace—it is resistible. For the reformers, God's offer of grace is an offer one cannot refuse.

Further, for Wesley and the Methodists, if you do not strive to make progress in living a life of Christian perfection, that is, if you are not working to become sanctified or holy (again with God's help), you can put your salvation at risk. Backsliders will not enter heaven; the saved are not necessarily given the gift of perseverance.

Christians who accept justifying grace and continue toward sanctification in this life escape the fires of wrath, glorifying God for eternity in heaven. The role of the individual in accepting grace, and the pursuit of perfection, have led other Protestants to accuse Methodists of being Arminians. Arminius, a Dutch theologian, had argued that unless humans have enough free will to accept or reject God's grace, God would inevitably be the author of sin (if humans cannot choose not to sin, they are not really responsible for sin). This was a charge Wesley embraced. For a time he edited a Methodist magazine called "The Arminian".

Study Questions:
     1.     What did Protestant reformers believe about the relationship between God and grace? How was Wesley's view different?
     2.     What are Wesley's three types of graces? How is each enacted?
     3.     Is there a relationship between grace and individual action? Explain.

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