The center of Wesley’s theology is the grace of God, which is the redeeming activity of divine love. , Wesley called the study of grace “practical theology,” or living out our Christian beliefs in our daily lives. Practical theology is not only the study of a particular faith. A non-Christian can be a theologian, and some of them are. But practical theology is what every Christian should practice: to understand how God has saved us through Jesus Christ, and to live out our new life in love and service to God and others.
Grace is central to the Christian life. Grace arises from the love of God, if God did not love us He would not extend grace. We can define grace as God’s love and mercy freely given to us, although we do not deserve it. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
John Wesley described God’s grace to us in 3 chronological stages:
- Prevenient grace
- Justifying grace
- Sanctifying grace
Prevenient, or Preceding Grace: The Grace that Allows us to Hear the Call of God
Preceding grace – grace that goes before – is a gift from God that makes sinful humans capable of perceiving God’s work. Thanks to original sin, we are so utterly sinful that without grace, we would not recognize God or turn to Him if we did.
In John Wesley’s sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” he stated that prevenient grace enables “…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.”
God actively seeks people! We go back in time to look at Paul, and then a few hundred years later to look at John Newton, who was a lewd, crude sailor and slave ship captain. How did either of these men make it into heaven? And more than that, become great apostles and preachers in the faith?
The grace of God led them to repentance.
Justifying Grace: The Grace that Allows us to Accept Christ’s Atonement for Our Separation from God
Justifying grace is the grace that happens at the moment of conversion. Whether or not you consciously remember that moment, it happened. And at that moment, you were saved. And not only were your sins forgiven, you are changed in to Christ’s nature – you became in that respect like God. The image of God within us that was corrupted by sin is restored to beauty.
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Reconciliation with God. Pardon for our sins. Restoration of the relationship. Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, “’You must be born anew’” (John 3:7)
The name for the moment that we receive justification is “conversion.” Conversion has two major movements:
- We are turning towards something, or rather Someone. We turn towards God in Christ Jesus.
- In order to turn towards something new, we must turn away from something else. We turn away from sin and the self, metanoia the Greek word for “repentance.” We turn.
There tend to be two types of conversions. I don’t think they’re really different in God’s eyes, because we are all sinners. But they sure look different from the outside.
1, The dramatic conversion: Truly horrible people who – incredibly – turn to Christ and are changed.
2. The surprising conversion: Non-believers who really don’t believe in God, don’t care about God, don’t think they need to convert – then they do.
Honestly, both are surprising to us from the outside. One group is evil and horrible and awful, of course they can’t be saved. (Then they are.) The other group are happy where they are and don’t need God. (Then they do.)
Examples of Dramatic Conversions
In Ecuador, the Huaorani people were so violent and horrible that fellow tribes called them the Auca – “savages.” In 1956, they murdered five missionaries. But Jim Elliot’s wife Elisabeth and daughter Valerie, and Nate Saint’s sister Rachel, never gave up on the tribe who had murdered their men.
Eventually an Auca woman named Dayuma accepted Christ and brought the gospel back to the tribe. The three women went with her.
The warriors felt guilty by that time and did not kill the women. It was Dayuma who preached. She held church every Sunday and told them about God’s carvings, and about following God’s Son’s trail. She said that God’s carvings forbid them to kill and the Woadoni – the people – must now follow God’s way if they wanted to live.
Elisabeth wrote that their church wasn’t like ours. The Auca congregation simply talked back when they had something to say, and her sermons were peppered with “Shut up!” She was also preaching to pet monkeys, dogs, pigs and squirrels as the animals cheerfully went wherever their people went. But God blessed her and her hearers and opened their hearts. Within months even the warriors who had speared the men husbands accepted Christ.
Just like that, they changed 5 generations of incessant violence and murder and instead followed the Creator’s carvings.
Joshua Milton Blahyi
Also known as “General Butt Naked” – I am not kidding you – Joshua was a Liberian warlord and high priest in the early 1990s. In the name of his dark African gods, he sacrificed children and teenagers once a month and before every battle.
He got his nickname from his religious habit of running into battle naked except for shoes. He believed that his African deities – who he since came to realize was Satan – protected him. Satan probably did, because in hundreds of battles Joshua was never injured.
The African god – the Devil – visited Joshua regularly. In the first vision, the devil said Joshua would be a great warrior, and human sacrifice and cannibalism would increase his magic power and his strength in battle. After that vision, Joshua met Satan regularly and talked with him between the ages of 11 and 25.
But something was happening to this devil worshipper, to this murderer. In 1996, Bishop Kun Kun pastored church in Liberia. Jesus told the Bishop to fast 54 days for Joshua’s deliverance. Kun Kun knew exactly who Joshua was, but he was faithful and did it along with several other pastors and elders.
At the end of 54 days, they traveled to Joshua’s camp and tried to see him. Joshua was a high priest to his followers, who tried to turn back the Christians. But the bishop and his friends miraculously reached Joshua anyway.
Joshua heard them out and let them leave peacefully. Within a few days something happened – Jesus appeared to Joshua like He had appeared to Saul of Tarsus, and said that Joshua would die if he did not repent of his sins and follow Christ.
And Joshua did. He went to a local refugee camp, found a church, and confessed his sins, and accepted Jesus Christ. He became a preacher and evangelist, but at first fled to Ghana because he was afraid of being convicted for his crimes. Eventually God told him to return to Liberia and be honest about what he had done. Today he works to free child soldiers and to help drug addicts.
Musicians, Entertainers, and the Mob
You don’t have to be a warlord to accept Christ. Others include Charles Colson, Nixon’s hatchet man; Michael Franzese, former head of New York’s Colombo Crime Family; and Alice Cooper, the shock rocker, who said of himself: “Maybe the most shocking thing about Alice Cooper is that I am Christian.”
You just never know.
Examples of Surprising Conversions
Lewis was an out-and-out atheist. He loved beauty, poetry, myths and fairy tales because they made his heart expand. But he did not believe in God because of what he thought of as the real world. The real world was violent, cruel, rational, ugly. And if God ruled that world then Lewis refused to believe in Him.
Then the Holy Spirit started in on him. Lewis’s closest friends were unreservedly Christian. He respected their intellects and found himself reading books by Christian authors he admired. He later wrote: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — ‘Bibles laid open, millions of surprises’, as Herbert says, ‘fine nets and stratagems’. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
He started to shift from atheism to believing in God, thanks to the insistence of the Holy Spirit.
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” (Surprised By Joy)
But his conversion was not yet complete, for he had not yet accepted Christ. He kept talking with his Christian friends, especially Prof. J.R.R. Tolkien – the author of Lord of the Rings. Lewis finally wrote, “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ, in Christianity.” The rest, of course, is history.
Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life
I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism. I’ve found myself telling “the story” when people ask me about it—slightly tweaked for my audience, of course. When talking to non-theists, I do a lot of shrugging and “Crazy, right? Nothing has changed, though!” When talking to other Christians, it’s more, “Obviously it’s been very beautiful, and I am utterly changed by it.” But the story has gotten a little away from me in the telling.
As an atheist since college, I had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith. I held to that, even though the idea of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense, and all that awaited us beyond the grave was joyful oblivion.
I know that sounds depressing, but I found the idea of life ending after death mildly reassuring in its finality. I had started to meet more people of faith, having moved to Utah from Manhattan, and thought them frequently charming in their sweet delusion. I did not wish to believe. I had no untapped, unanswered yearnings. All was well in the state of Denmark. And then it wasn’t.
What I Already Knew
There are two different starting points to my conversion, and sometimes I omit the first one, because I think it gives people an answer I don’t want them to have. It is a simple story: I was going through a hard time. I was worried about my child. One time I said “Be with me” to an empty room. It was embarrassing. I didn’t know why I said it, or to whom. I brushed it off, I moved on, the situation resolved itself, I didn’t think about it again. I know how people hear that story: Oh, of course, Nicole was struggling and needed a larger framework for her life! That’s part of the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.
The second starting point is usually what I lead with. I was surfing the Internet and came across John Ortberg’s CT obituary for philosopher Dallas Willard. John’s daughters are dear friends, and I have always had a wonderful relationship with their parents, who struck me as sweetly deluded in their evangelical faith, so I clicked on the article.
Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity.
“I believe in sufficient depravity,” he responded immediately.
“I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, ‘I merited this.’ ”
A few minutes into reading the piece, I burst into tears. Later that day, I burst into tears again. And the next day. While brushing my teeth, while falling asleep, while in the shower, while feeding my kids, I would burst into tears.
I should say here I am a happy, even-keeled soul. If this were the Middle Ages, I would be in a book under the heading “The Four Humors: Sanguine/Phlegmatic.”
Therefore, it was very unsettling to suddenly feel like a boat being tossed on the waves. I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t frightened—I just had too many feelings. I decided to buy a Dallas Willard book to read anthropologically, of course. I read his Hearing God. I cried. I bought Lewis Smedes’s My God and I. I cried. I bought Sara Miles’s Take This Bread. I cried. It was getting out of hand. You just can’t go around crying all the time.
At this point, I reached a crossroads. I sat myself down and said: Okay, Nicole, you have two choices. Option One: you can stop reading books about Jesus. Option Two: you could think with greater intention about why you are overwhelmed by your emotions. It occurred to me that if Option Two proved fruitless, I could always return to Option One. So I emailed a friend who is a Christian, and I asked if we could talk about Jesus.
Now we reach the part of the story that gets a bit hand-wavy. About an hour before our call, I knew: I believed in God. Worse, I was a Christian. It was the opposite of being punk rock.
I instantly regretted sending that email and if humanly possible would have clawed it back through the Internet. Technology having failed me, my message reached its recipient. She said she would be very happy to talk to me about Jesus. You probably already know this, but Christians love talking about Jesus.
I spent the few days before our call feeling like an idiot, wondering what on earth I planned to ask her. Do you … like Jesus? What was Jesus’ deal? Why did he ice that fig tree?
And now we reach the part of the story that gets a bit hand-wavy. About an hour before our call, I knew: I believed in God. Worse, I was a Christian. It was the opposite of being punk rock.
Now, if you’ve been following along, you know already. I was crying constantly while thinking about Jesus because I had begun to believe that Jesus really was who he said he was, but for some reason, that idea had honestly not occurred to me. But then it did, as though it always had been true. So when my friend called, I told her, awkwardly, that I wanted to have a relationship with God, and we prayed, and giggled a bit, and cried a bit, and then she sent me a stack of Henri Nouwen books, and here we are today.
Since then, I have been dunked by a pastor in the Pacific Ocean while shivering in a too-small wetsuit. I have sung “Be Thou My Vision” and celebrated Communion on a beach, while weirded-out Californians tiptoed around me. I go to church. I pray. My politics have not changed; the fervency with which I try to live them out has. My husband is bemused by me, but supportive and loving.
No More Chill
I am occasionally asked by other Christians, “What happened during that hour?” I answer that God did not speak to me. Rather, like the protagonist in Memento putting his past together with Polaroids, I figured out what I already knew. What happened during that hour was the natural culmination of my coming to faith: I had been cracked open to the divine, I read books that I would have laughed at before the cracking, and the stars lined up and there was God, and then I knew, and then I said it out loud to a third party, and then I giggled.
I am more undone by love, or kindness, or friendship than I would have thought possible.
This is why apologetics, in my opinion, are hugely unconvincing. (Dallas Willard, for the record, never debated unbelievers.) No one could have in a billion years of their gripping testimony or by showing me a radiant life of good deeds or through song or even the most beautiful of books brought me to Christ. I had to be tapped on the shoulder. I had to be taken to a place where books about God were something I could experience without distance. It was alchemical.
I have been asked if deciding to become a Christian ended my exciting new crying-multiple-times-a-day hobby. The truth is that I continue to cry a lot more than I did before either Be-With-Me-Gate or the Dallas Willard Incident. I am more undone by love, or kindness, or friendship than I would have thought possible. Last night I tried to explain who Henri Nouwen was to some visiting cousins, and they had to bring me Kleenex, which they did sweetly and cautiously, as though I might melt in front of them. This morning I read a piece in Texas Monthly that literally sank me to my knees at how broken this world is, and yet how stubbornly resilient and joyful we can be in the face of that brokenness. I never possessed much chill, to be honest. Now I have none whatsoever.
There are times I feel a bit like a medieval peasant, in that I believe wholly in God now, but don’t always do what he wants, or, like Scarlett O’Hara, put hard conversations with him off until I’ve done the thing I wanted to do. It’s a thrumming backdrop to the rest of my life. My Christian conversion has granted me no simplicity. It has complicated all of my relationships, changed how I feel about money, messed up my public persona, and made me wonder if I should be on Twitter at all.
Obviously, it’s been very beautiful.
God bless you Nicole!