Grace Keeps Working

By Jack Jackson –

El Capitan, a granite monolith on Yosemite Valley’s northern escarpment. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski. Creative Commons.

One of the great benefits of living in California is the easy access to the great outdoors and especially some of the most beautiful National Parks in the United States. My family particularly enjoys Yosemite and Joshua Tree National Parks. As we’ve spent time in each of them the past eight years we’ve been astounded by their grandeur and timelessness.

Yet as we’ve visited them through the years, we’ve come to see that these beautiful parks are not as static as we had once imagined. Over time the winds shave off, ever so slightly, some of the hills at Joshua Tree. Even mighty Yosemite morphs over the years. Usually the changes are slow and easy to overlook. But sometimes the changes are sudden and dramatic such as the rock slides on Half Dome last year when hundreds of tons of rock came crashing to the valley floor. The result is that over the course of years, centuries, and millennia the forces of nature gradually remake the earth in vivid ways.

A similar process happens in people who follow Jesus, a process the Bible calls sanctification. Sanctification, and the similar language around holiness, is the terminology Biblical writers used to describe how God’s grace keeps working in a disciple’s life after a person makes an initial faith commitment and repents of sin.

While many New Testament writers talk about sanctification to one degree or another my favorite New Testament writer is Peter. I especially appreciate Peter in part because he gives what I think is the best description of evangelism today, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Peter 3:15). In Peter’s second letter he provides some insight into sanctification. In 2 Peter 3:18 he describes the essence of sanctification as “growing in grace.”

The Spirit works first in people’s lives to awaken to them God’s truth and love through prevenient grace. Growth continues as people who awaken continue to experience God’s grace convicting them of sin and convincing them of the need to repent. Next, people continue to grow in grace as they wrestle with the need to have faith in Christ as Lord and savior, a period of growth that culminates in justification. But Methodists are clear that justification, while critical to discipleship, is not the final work of God’s grace. The culmination of God’s work in this life is experienced though sanctifying grace.

As God’s grace sanctifies disciples they die to sin and “live to righteousness” (2 Peter 2:24). Sanctification, as John Wesley reminds us, is the process by which the Spirit works, sometimes immediately but typically over the course of a disciple’s life, to replace the sin that captures our hearts with the fruit of the Spirit (The Doctrine of Original Sin, Part II). In this way sanctification is the culmination of the work of the Spirit in disciple’s life this side of heaven. The final work of grace is reserved for heaven, where the Spirit works through glorifying grace to form Christians perfectly into the image of God.

While some find it helpful to think of awakening, justifying, and sanctifying grace as three different types of grace I find it is most helpful to think of God’s grace as singular. God’s love pours into creation and yet we experience it in these different ways depending on our maturity as his followers.

The centrality of sanctifying grace in the Christian life seems lost on many North American Protestants. As I travel around the country teaching and preaching, and as I talk about Wesleyan theology with my students, I’ve come to realize that United Methodists today are most comfortable with prevenient grace, and that many have never discussed sanctifying grace. Alternatively, even causal strolls through Christian radio and book stores reveals that much of Western Protestantism focuses almost exclusively on justifying grace and the corresponding need for personal repentance and faith. In both cases the ongoing work of the Spirit to remake disciples into the image of God is neglected.

John Wesley is rolling over in his grave! Sanctifying grace, he thought, is the point of discipleship! Salvation, in his mind, includes both justification and sanctification. A salvation which concludes with a person’s justification or “deliverance from hell” was, he believed, a “vulgar notion.” Salvation is made complete with sanctification. Through the sanctifying work of the Spirit God delivers people from their sin and restores disciple’s souls to their “primitive heath” and “original purity,” working to recover “the divine nature” and renew “our souls after the image of God” (A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I). A discipleship, Wesley writes, that emphasizes prevenient and justifying grace over the Spirit’s work to renew “the soul in the image of God … is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God” (Sermon 44: Original Sin).

Dallas Willard expresses a similar viewpoint. Much of contemporary Christianity, at least in mainline Protestantism, participates in what he calls “the great omission” when it fails to incorporate the central work of the Spirit to sanctify believers (The Great Omission). John Wesley never made this contemporary mistake. In fact, the early Methodists were called “Methodists” because they established patterns of communal discipleship that encouraged people to respond to God’s grace as the Spirit works first preveniently and convincingly, and then to justify and then sanctify.

Despite its central place in the life of discipleship, sanctification is difficult, both for individual Christians and communities of Christians. Most Christians I know do not live up to the sanctified life they desire. We are growing, but our growth is often interspersed with small or even dramatic steps backward. Sanctification is even more difficult because Christians frequently disagree on what it means to be “remade” in the image of God, and what a Christian who is being sanctified looks like. Indeed, the current debate regarding human sexuality in most Christian communities is, I believe, a debate regarding sanctification. The central question is “What is the divine nature when it comes to human sexuality and how can, or should, our sexuality be conformed to that nature?” Many Christians have widely divergent answers.

While human sexuality is the issue of our time, other characteristics of the sanctified life are just as important. For instance, in a world where so many struggle for daily sustenance, how is the Spirit renewing our use of money? How is the Spirit working to “remake” our use of the time in a world increasingly molded by social media and entertainment? When Christians, both women and men, clergy and lay, have affairs and struggle with addictions to pornography at the same rate as the culture at large Christians should ask, “How is the Spirit reforming my understanding of love to match the ‘divine nature’ of love?” I’m sure you could ask other questions.

The point is this: for Methodists the task of opening our lives more and more to the work of the Spirit never ends in this life. The Spirit is constantly inviting justified Christians to keep on opening their lives to the Spirit’s work so that God can remake us in his image.

While Methodists have tended to believe that God’s sanctifying work can be done immediately and completely in this life, most Methodists did, and in my observation still do, experience God’s sanctifying grace as Wesley did. Namely, they experience the slow work of the Spirit over the course of our lives to renew us in his image. In this way we are like the smooth boulders of Joshua Tree and Yosemite. We are creatures that the wind of the Spirit blows over, evening our rough edges that don’t resemble Jesus. May the Spirit bless us as individuals and as Methodists as each day we welcome his love’s ongoing work to sanctify his people.

Jack Jackson is a United Methodist clergyperson and the author of Offering Christ: John Wesley’s Evangelist Vision. Dr. Jackson is the E. Stanley Jones Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission, and Global Methodism at Claremont School of Theology. This article was first distributed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is reprinted here by permission.

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