It happens all the time. We Wesleyans love to talk about what are often called three types of grace – prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. The problem is that there are not three types of grace. There is only one type of grace, the type that joins a person to Christ and saves that person from sin and death. The three adjectives we use to modify the word “grace” are not referring to different types of grace; they are referring to different times of grace.
Grace is not a substance
Part of the problem is that we seem to think of grace as if it’s a substance – a substance that comes in different types. If you do not yet know Jesus, then you get the prevenient sort of grace. If you are in the moment of meeting Jesus, you need the justifying type of grace. If you’ve already met Jesus, you get sanctifying grace. And we are left erroneously thinking in terms of different things.
But grace is not a thing that God gives us. Grace just means gift. And when the Bible talks about God’s grace, it means God’s gift of himself to us in a way that rescues us from condemnation and slavery to sin. Grace is union with God in Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit. That’s a single reality, not a range of substances or types of things. There is no grace outside of Jesus. So, when we think about grace, we need to be thinking about union with a person named Jesus. We need to be thinking about how Jesus gives us access to the Father. We need to be thinking about how the Spirit renews us as a consequence of our union with Christ. When we think about grace, we don’t need to be thinking about some thing or things. We need to be thinking about reconciliation with God.
Seasons of grace
So, what should we make of these three terms – prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying? In theology, these terms don’t refer to substances, they describe the work of the Holy Spirit in distinct periods of time as he draws us into union with Christ, unites us to Christ, and works out the implications of that union with Christ in all of life. Prevenient grace describes the work of the Spirit through the gospel before conversion that draws us to Jesus by convicting us of sin and enabling us to repent and believe. The Latin word “prevenient” only means “to come before.” Justifying grace is the forgiveness of sin and experience of peace with God that comes from the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. This is not a different thing; it is the beginning of a new season of life – one in which we are reconciled to God in Christ. The reality is still union with Christ. The difference is two periods of time, one in which that new reality is anticipated and the other in which that new reality is realized. Likewise with sanctifying grace. Again, grace isn’t describing a thing in itself but the work of a person (the Holy Spirit!). The language of sanctification encapsulates the new period of time after our initial union with Christ in which the Holy Spirit renews us and works out the many and varied implications of our union with Christ. The adjectives are describing a range of temporal realities, distinct periods in time, seasons in God’s economy of grace in our lives, not distinct substances or types of grace.
Grace is grace all the way through. It’s the work of the Spirit to draw us to Christ (prevenient), unite us to Christ (justifying), and form Christ in us (sanctifying). We do better thinking of these in terms of a single continuous work that stretches out over time. This is about seasons of growth in reconciled relationship with Jesus rather than different sorts of things that happen to us. So, dear Wesleyan friends, can we agree to stop talking about three types of grace?
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.
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