Those of us who find oursevles on the ‘Wesleyan’ side of the fence when it cmes to theology have a beautiful contribution to make on the theme of God’s activity in the world. Its not exclusive to Wesleyans of course, its biblical but the Calvinist would roughtly define the same idea as ‘common grace’ – that which sparks within the human being and which enables them, for example, to love and do good. The concept of prevenient grace would take a whole lot of unpacking un its fulness, but there are some really interesting implications for mission.
Firstly, prevenient grace recognises that God, first and foremost, is a missionary God. Even before his people, he is absolutely out there whispering his presence in peoples lives, relentlessly presenting himself before them, pursuing them and opening the door of response. Yes, people are sinful, they have lost their glory in its fulness, and there are many who shun Him, but God is out there active as the real missionary in the world. The Father send the Son, the Son sent the Spirit and they all send us. So wow, when we go out into the world in response to the missional-incarnational impulse place in us by Holy Spirit, we find that God has indeed prepared the way. He is ALREADY active in the places where we have not yet had the courage to go. God goes to the pub more often that you do. He does to the strip club more often than you do.
I remember one evening after a Street Pastor session encountering a young lady who had just finished a shift at a lap-dancing club in the town. She stood before me, expectant that I had a message for her. I delivered the message that God gave me there and then and whilst there were drunken brawls going on around us, we stood with tears in our eyes as we experience the tangible presence of Holy Spirit amplifying Jesus and his radical grace towards her, even her. She subesquently left her line of ‘work’ and returned to full time education with a part time job, (so she told me some weeks later).
It is out of some sense of moral superiority that we perhaps imagine that there are places he won’t go. A sort of spiritual superiority, a modern day phariseeism that says ‘God won’t be seen amongst those people.’ My colleage, David, preached about the 10 lepers on Sunday evening from Luke 17 where Jesus slams home the truth of grace amongst the foreigner in the healing of the lepers, without strings! Hey….God broke into my life when I was just as sinful, just as depraved and as far away from God as any other ‘sinner’ or ‘foreigner’ to God. Why should I assume that he will only meet me in the sanctuary. Indeed, everywhere that the God encounter can be had is the holy place. And thank the Lord I’ve been in some pretty dank Holy Places in my life!
The second lovely aspect of prevenient grace is, as I’ve mentioned partly already, the idea that even in the very worst of person, not only is there something worth redeeming, but there is (however marred) the image of God. This, I believe, is a crucial aspect of belief that will help us in mission in these post-Christendom days especially with regards to reaching people who the typical British church struggles to link up with. People with radically alternative lifestyles. We are quick, and I have been so quick, to judge others. After all, some people’s sin is very obvious and its easy for us to condemn it or point it out. Our concept of holiness means that we can’t cope with ‘such people.’ Again, we only need to look to Jesus. The pharisees wandered around trying to keep themselves pure and undefiled from the filth around them yet here is Jesus, Messiah, Son of God, Alpha and Omega mixing with sinners, tax collectors, prostitues, lepers and all other sorts of societies outcasts who would only dare call on Jesus from afar due to the pharisaical religious attitudes they had faced. Jesus is the one who leaps over all their walls and speaks into their lives.
He extends grace…favour, attention, time, love, care, mercy, forgiveness, wholeness, healing and salvation that they don’t deserve. Yet is that not what he has done for us? How then, as followers in the way of Jesus, engage in this grace-filled ministry? Might it begin by being able to recognise even in ‘the worst’ that there is, within that person, the stamp of God – Father, Son and Holy Sprit – in that very being? And might we realise that holiness is not so much about maintining an outward ritual purity as much as it is extending the radical grace that has transformed us to those who need it most.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury once noted ‘everywhere Jesus went, there was a riot. When I go places they make me cups of tea!’
Prevenient grace and the theology of the missionary God (the missio Dei – as the sophisticated like to call it) go hand in hand and we find that God himself not only calls us to be missionaries, but in the person of Jesus, who is the perfect representation of the Godhead, shows us how to operate in radical grace. It transforms ‘Go for souls…and go for the worst!’ (William Booth)