Summary: Seventh in a sixteen-part series on the Nazarene Articles of Faith, this sermon deals with the Wesleyan Doctrine of Prevenient (or Preventing) Grace.
Article of Faith #7 - Prevenient Grace
Date: Sunday, July 11, 2004
Author: Rev. Jonathan K. Twitchell
It’s not a simple matter to adjust the Constitution of an entire denomination. We don’t expect that our Articles of Faith could be easily adjusted to fit the changing times. Since God is eternal and unchanging, and the Gospel message is unchanging, we expect that our Articles of Faith should also remain unchanged.
However, while God is unchanging, the language we use to describe Him does change. While the Gospel message is eternal, we sometimes find better words and phrases to describe that message. We may even find that we can more accurately describe the same God and the same work of grace. And so, from time to time, the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene takes action to amend the Articles of Faith.
It’s still no simple matter to make amendments. The amendments have to be proposed to the Reference Committee which will review and edit one or more resolutions in order to bring them to the floor of the Assembly. Lengthy debate for and against the amendment will likely take place on the floor of the assembly before it is brought to a vote. A constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority vote of the delegates at General Assembly, and then the amendment must be ratified by two-thirds of the Districts at their next district assembly.
Any one of those hurdles can easily prevent an amendment to the Church Constitution from passing. This gives us confidence that we are not easily changed by the culture and the shifting times around us. I suppose that it would be an interesting study to sit down with all of the “Manuals” of the Church of the Nazarene since 1908 and see what changes and additions have been made since then. It would provide for us an opportunity to chart the growth in the Church over the last hundred years.
In any case, today we look at the Seventh Article of Faith, which did undergo a slight change at the 2001 General Assembly, and has since been ratified by the individual districts. The Article itself remains unchanged, only the title was changed from “Free Agency” to “Prevenient Grace.”
If you are anything like me, you want to know why it was changed. And, you may already be scratching your head wondering what a baseball term (Free Agency) has to do with a theological phrase (Prevenient Grace). And, you may have already read through the Article of Faith and are wondering why we changed the title to “Prevenient Grace” when that phrase doesn’t even appear in the Article. These questions, and more, will be the subject of our study this morning.
Before we go any further, we need to define what we mean by “Prevenient Grace.” We understand “ Grace ” as being “Unmerited Favor,” or, as we learned last week, “Mercy is not getting what we do deserve, and Grace is getting what we don’t deserve.” Prevenient (sometimes called Preventing) means “going before.” Prevenient Grace , then, is that grace, (or unmerited favor), which goes before. “Before what?” you ask. Before everything you do, think, or say. Before your very existence, God’s grace was. Before the Creation of the world, God’s grace was. Other words and phrases are sometimes used to describe this: Divine initiative, preceding grace, or preparatory grace.
In other words, it all begins with God’s grace. Your very existence is because of the unmerited favor which God gave you. The air you breathe, the water you drink, the food you eat…are because of God’s grace. The fact that you are aware of a deeper reality and of a need for God is because of God’s grace. Grace is not merely Saving Grace experienced at the moment of conversion. Indeed, the only reason you arrived at a moment of conversion is because God was drawing you unto Himself—that’s Prevenient Grace.
“So,” one might ask, “Is Prevenient Grace more than a thelogical construct? Can we find it illustrated within the pages of Scripture?”
In Acts chapter 10, we read the story of the conversion of Cornelius . Cornelius was a Roman Centurion , and in the course of the narrative in Acts 10, we see Peter traveling to Joppa to share the Gospel with Cornelius and his family. By the end of chapter 10, all of those gathered at Cornelius’s house (his relatives and close friends) had heard the Gospel message, accepted it, repented, believed, and were baptized. It was a historical moment, as the gathering was entirely Gentile, and yet they were welcomed into the Family of God with open arms.
I’d like, however, for you to pay close attention to the description of Cornelius and his family prior to their conversion experience. Hear these words from Acts chapter 10, verse 1-7: