Prevenient Grace and Preaching

968281_45652240Wesleyans believe in a God who goes before us in all things. We see God in all things, for we believe by faith that God’s spirit goes before us not only geographically, but in every way. The way is prepared for us so that “no temptation faces us except that which is common, and God will provide a way out for” us (1 Cor. 10:13). We know that there is no circumstance beyond God’s control so that even if we pass through the fire “we will not be consumed.”

This grace prevents us from ever claiming our salvation and sanctification as our own work. Our only work is to respond with the response grace enables us to give. Without grace upon grace we are lost upon lost  The reason we are responsible, to use Randy Maddox’ language in Responsible Grace, is that God’s grace has partially restored the imago dei to the degree that we are response-able. In other words, God begins to work in us before we ask God to do so. He woos us, draws us, shapes and forms us before we call his name. Every loving act of grace from another human being, every encounter of the divine character in the created order is a tool in the hand of God to being shaping the heart of the most distant person from God. In these acts of prevenient grace he is not just seeking better behavior. God is seeking to make us better persons.

Here are a few simple insights into the character of God from this doctrine of prevenient grace.

  1. God not only foreknows us, he prepares our paths ahead of us.
  2. God anticipates our needs and provides for them.
  3. God works to restore our character not just change our performance
  4. God does not require of us more than we can achieve by his grace.

What do these mean for how we preach not just what we preach?

1. Prepare not only the intellectual path of content, but the path for living

I do not mean to indicate a simplistic “3 easy steps to holiness” approach to preaching. Quite the opposite actually. The path God seems to prepare is a way of the cross. Yet the way is not wild, unbroken, or impossible. Rather than pointing people to easy steps, we are helping them learn to “keep in step with the Spirit.” Help them learn how to follow God’s guidance, how to discern God’s path, and how to know the signs that they have wandered from it. A colleague of mine, Dr. John Drury, used to tell me while we are attending doctoral school together what he needed from a pastor who preached to him. He did not need the pastor to try and impress him with intelligence. He received that all week. What he needed was for a spiritual authority to tell him what to do. He was eager to follow the guidance of a shepherd not only the musings of an intellectual poet.

2. Anticipate what your people need to live the message, and provide it

God anticipates our needs and provides. If we want to match your preaching to the character of God we will anticipate our people’s needs in relation to the message we are preaching and provide it. The more basic nature of this is to recognize when our people need some sort of emotional escape or mental onramp to stay with us in our preaching. There is another level of anticipation that is equally important. What are your people’s objections to the content? Do not dismiss them. Embrace and engage them as part of the path to Christlikeness. Unless those objections or resistances are answered and overcome with good news, they will not reach the end we have in mind, at least not because us.

3. Aim for enduring character, not short term performance

God seems to be okay with taking a long view on our sanctification. Long in human terms that is. He seems to be fine with allowing us to learn from falling off of our spiritual bikes a few times a year. If he were more concerned with short term performance he would keep us on “training wheels” of spiritual growth and avoid the kinds of tests and trials James 1 speaks of as perseverance development.

What sorts of trials and sacrifices do our people need to face in order to move forward along the path toward holiness? Perhaps they need challenges to sacrifice something as much as they need reminders of forgiveness and mercy. Perhaps they need to be given implications of the sermon that lead them to experiences, not just momentary confessions or admissions. When a raised hand indicates a commitment to seek out discipleship by a person it is often more life changing than a raised hand in confession of a sinful attitude. They are committing to a process in time not a point in time.

How can your preaching point the way toward habits and transformative experiences that shape character as much as they alter short term performance?

4. Do not require more of your people than they are able to achieve

I have been guilty of setting the bar too high. I respond well to tough challenges. I prefer a tough challenge to an easy gift, actually. My hobbies are backpacking high mountain passes, fly fishing with minuscule flies I tied by hand, and gardening in the tough clay of Indiana. I love a challenge. Not everyone does.

Often in my sermons rather than giving people what they need, I give them what I want to give. I like challenges, I’ll give them a challenge. I love pressing against a tough test. I’ll help them test themselves with rigor. But many people simply check out, give up, and walk out of that kind of environment. If the bar is too high not only do they not jump, they don’t even start running. They walk away from the bar shaking their heads.

If your average congregant never reads scripture don’t ask them to get through the Bible in a year. Not unless you are going to help them every step of the way. If your average attender does not even tithe (and you know that’s true) don’t challenge the people to 15% giving. Show them the next step in their journey. Give them the next experience, the next challenge, the next way forward. Sometimes this means giving a variety of possible applications and allowing your members to choose which best fits their spiritual growth stage.

Most importantly, many calls for “radical discipleship” or “true Christians” are bars set too high. Can your people jump them eventually? Yes. Can they jump them this week or next or next? Usually not. As a result most walk out with guilt and a deep “not good enough” imprinted on their soul. The rest, may walk out self-satisfied pharisees wondering why others can’t measure up.

Give room for people to work their way into the life of Christ. God does. Do not harangue them into giving more than they can give cheerfully. God doesn’t.

In all things think through how you can prepare your people to receive the good news as good news that leads to transformation. Make your sermon a path from where they are to the next step in where they need to go. The best way to know the path is to have traveled it yourself. As a preacher you are the lead pilgrim. Ask God to help you go before so you can show the first steps of the way. Then celebrate every milestone, and give grace to every stumble. God does.

– David B Ward, © 2013

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