All Christians believe that God expresses grace. And all Christians believe God is the source of salvation. But Christians differ among themselves about how best to understand grace and salvation. The key to John Wesley's view of salvation is his understanding of divine grace.
At its essence, God's grace is God's loving presence active in the world.
Theologians in the Western Christian tradition have generally thought of grace as divine pardon and forgiveness. Theologians in the Eastern Church have interpreted grace as the power of God working to renew our nature.
Wesley agrees with both traditions, and he thinks of grace as especially evident in Christ. When we receive grace, it communicates forgiveness and makes renewal possible. God's love is intended to be received and to create a bond that encourages further receiving and giving of love. This bond enables us to share in the nature of God and be renewed in God's image.
God's commitment to love for creation and God's gracious incarnation is central to what Wesleyan scholars have come to describe as Wesley's "optimism of grace." God's loving presence does not force us to be and act a particular way. God gives freedom, rather than depriving us of freedom, because His nature is freedom-giving grace. God's loving presence (grace) makes possible the human response. God's Spirit works in us both to communicate love and to begin the process of renewal.
The prefix "prevenient" added to "grace" is important for Wesleyans. The word means "to come before." Prevenient grace, then, is the Holy Spirit active in our lives before we are even aware of this activity. Without forcing us, or creating us as robots, God draws us and calls us to live with Him in love.
It's important that we not think of finding salvation as something we do independently of God's grace. Wesley argued that fallen humans cannot save themselves apart from the action of the re-creative Spirit. But he also argued that God continually initiates and empowers to provide new possibilities for us to respond in love.
Wesley holds together divine initiative and human responsibility. This dual emphasis is often referred to as "co-operant grace" or "responsible grace."
God's prevenient, co-operant grace is crucial to the practice of ministry. It reminds us that we are co-creators. We join with God in the work to redeem humanity and all creation. As we proclaim the gospel in our cultural contexts, we can be assured that God is already working to restore all of creation.
Prevenient, co-operant grace also reminds us that regardless of a person's religious background or heritage, God is at work in that person's life. God is drawing and calling all people to respond properly and live abundant lives.
Prevenient grace has important implications for evangelism. Wesley is convinced that God's Spirit is at work everywhere in the world, extending God's love to all peoples. Christians can be assured that the Spirit is already present and at work before we arrive to evangelize. Before we act, God is acting to reconcile and give new birth. Wesley's "optimism of grace" describes the hope we enjoy that God is universally active today and always.
A Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace also helps us make sense of how Christians might think about and engage members of other religious traditions. If God is present to and active in calling all people, Christians should not be surprised that people of other religious persuasions have insights into what is good and true.The Holy Spirit's activity is wide-ranging, and God is present even to those who are not conscious of the revelation of God in Jesus.
God works where Christ is yet to be known. However, the Spirit is not independent of Christ. The God who acts as the Spirit is the same God whom Christ reveals as loving. Salvation, wherever enjoyed, has God as its source. Our understanding of God's loving presence that comes prior to our response (prevenient grace) should encourage us.
God doesn't play favorites. He is at work in the world drawing all people to Christ. And because God calls us to cooperate, we enjoy the privilege of being God's fellow workers in God's mission to redeem all creation, including you and me.
Mark A. Maddix is professor of Christian Education and deanof the School of Theology and Christian Ministries at Northwest Nazarene University.