Justifying Grace: Preaching Like the Joyful Parent

ordo-solutisWe have been exploring doctrine in a way we usually do not explore doctrine. Most often doctrine is viewed by Christians as a content of belief for us to assent to. It is something we believe. In many of our recent articles on Wesleyan Sermons we have been revisiting preaching through the lens of a Wesleyan ordo salutis. We are trying to imagine how preaching would be different if the what of our Christian doctrine also guided the how of its proclamation. This week I want to explore justifying grace, or as Wesley sometimes called, initial sanctification.

Salvation is not merely justification. Salvation is a more complete concept than that. It includes more than just “freedom from” guilt but also “freedom for” holy living in a free and joyous way. This is what we mean by an order salutis in any tradition, God’s ongoing work of salvation of the human being throughout life.

At justification Wesleyans believe convicting grace has prepared the heart of the seeker by bringing forth godly sorrow. This sorrow leans toward the reception of God’s grace. This grace comes in the form of forgiveness and reconciliation which are two separate but related movements of God toward the human being. Forgiveness cleanses the record and clears the path for the return to relationship. Reconciliation is the return to mutual relationship that was fragmented, blocked, or shunned by the human soul in sin. Forgiveness, and therefore justification, is freely offered, unearned, and received only as a gift by faith.

This forgiveness is made possible by the atonement of the living Word, the infinite son of God bound to the finite flesh of humanity in the person of Jesus Christ on the cross. The scriptural narratives make clear that this cross was in some way necessary to best accomplish God’s purposes. Otherwise, the cup would have been taken from Christ. Whether that necessity is perceived as ransom price paid, divine honor satisfied, demonstration of God’s justice, full payment of infinite penalty, or moral influence toward holy living by perfect example (or all of the above) it’s necessity is fulfilled in Christ’s way of being on the cross. Wesley heavily emphasized the satisfaction theory, that the wrath of God was satisfied on the cross. Many Wesleyans today hold to a more complex atonement theory, or even reject the satisfaction theory as the primary motif.

What Wesleyans agree on is that whatever the definition of the necessity of the atonement, the atonement did more than just “credit” us righteous. It also in some small beginning way, makes us more righteous. In other words, at justification the power of sin and death is already broken. The full freedom from sin and death is not present in the life of the believer at justification, but with Christ, we can say “it is finished.” We are only waiting for that to be made clear.

Everett Worthington, Forgiving and Reconciling, has defined reconciliation “as reestablishing trust in a relationship after trust has been violated” (42) We have violated the trust of the infinite God. In the justifying moment the justice of God no longer holds us to account for our transgressions. Instead credited to our account is a righteousness as a gift. And imparted to us in our person is the germ of righteousness in our person. This rightness toward God forms the ground of our reconciliation. He establishes the possibility of the gift on the cross, the capability of our responding to the gift through prevenient and convicting grace, and our capacity to enjoy the fruits of that gift at justification.

Here are are a few rather basic insights into the character of the divine resulting from this doctrine:

  1. There is no expectation that we bring something to the table except that which has already been given.
  2. There is a desire and an ability to provide what is still lacking so that the gift may be received.
  3. The joy of the entire enterprise is our ability to share in the joy. God wants to share that which God has to offer.
  4. The immaturity of the believer’s heart is neither despised nor ignored.
  5. God not only gives gifts, he enables their enjoyment.

Some implications for how not merely what we preach:

  1. Expect people to come to the preaching moment with less than you might be tempted to think they should.
  2. Think through what it is you have (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, experientially) that might have prepared you to receive the message you want to give. Be sure to offer it, or at least reference it.
  3. Shift your aim from relief of anxiety (phew…that went well) toward joy meeting joy (I am so glad God spoke to you!)
  4. Do not condescend to nor speak past the spiritually immature
  5. Give not only the content (intellect) or the commitment (volition)  or even the attachment (emotion), but also the key that unlocks the use of each of these things for the sake of enjoying God.

Help people imagine the better world that the content makes possible.

Enable people to envision the good life that the commitment would produce.

Model and evoke the first positive emotions attached to that which you preach.

The character of God revealed in justifying grace can guide the preacher to preach from sorrow to joy, from confession to celebration, and from repentance to the peaceful satisfaction of reconciliation. After all, the aim of all of this is not “getting it right” or finally “straightening up” or even “cleaning up.” All of those things are means to the ultimate end of enjoying God. True holiness is deepest happiness.

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