A Celebration of Charles Wesley’s Hymns on Grace
Sunday, May 28, 2006
Meditation: Hymns on Prevenient Grace
This past Wednesday, May 24th, was Aldersgate Day. It is the day that Methodists traditionally mark as the beginning of the Methodist movement. 264 years ago on May 24, 1738, John Wesley, a young Anglican priest, who struggled with a sense of guilt and unacceptability, had a heart-warming experience. He wrote about it in his journal:
“In the evening, I went very
unwillingly to a society on
The theme of Methodism became: grace, grace, grace. John Wesley preached and taught about grace. He organized Methodism around what he called “means of grace.” His brother, Charles Wesley, also an Anglican priest, who led the Methodist movement along with John, preached and taught about grace. He also wrote hymns about grace.
Like Eskimos who have many words for snow, Methodists came to have many words for grace. It was so central to the Methodist movement. The Wesleys came eventually to speak of grace in three primary ways: prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying or perfecting grace. We would like to say a word about each this morning, and then Eileen will lead us in some hymns about each aspect of grace.
We start with prevenient grace. Prevenient is a word that means “coming before.” Prevenient grace is the grace of God operative in our lives long before we know or realize it or accept it for ourselves. When we look back on our lives, we can see that God was reaching out to us, loving us, nurturing us, inviting us into relationship long before we ever thought about it or imagined it. God’s love for us is not dependent upon anything that we do or think or try to be.
There is also a strong sense, as we see in Charles Wesley’s hymns, that nothing we could do or become would ever stop God’s forgiving and inviting love and grace. John Wesley preached a sermon that was famous at the time that he preached it in 1739, entitled “Free Grace.”
“The grace or love of God from whence comes our salvation,” he said, “is free in all and free for all.” It does not depend on any power or merit in man or woman. It does not in any wise depend on good works or righteousness, not on anything he or she has done, or anything he or she is. It does not depend on his or her good temper. You don’t even have to be a person in a particularly nice mood. It does not depend on his or her good tempers or good desires or good purpose and intentions – for all of these flow from the free grace of God. They are the stream only, not the fountain. They are the fruit of free grace, not the root. Eileen will lead us in some of Charles Wesley’s hymns celebrating prevenient grace, the grace that is there for us whether we open our hearts to it or not.
Meditation: Hymns on Justifying Grace
Justifying grace is our experience of God’s grace and love. It is when we begin to accept God’s love for us and begin to learn to accept and love ourselves. The great evangelical compulsion of early Methodism was to have people come to know, to believe and to accept the profound love of God for each one, for every person. Love divine, all love excelling. The Wesleys taught that our acceptance of God’s grace does not change whether God loves us or not. God’s love for us is unconditional and permanent no matter what we do. God’s love continues under any and every circumstance of life.
But our surrender to God’s love, to the grace of God, changes everything for us. It brings us into a relationship with God that is two-way, that is mutual. The experience of grace leads to a sense of being justified. If you were justified, in the language that the British used at that time, it meant that you had been tried and had been found innocent of a crime. So, being justified meant being in a right relationship with God. It meant experiencing a sense of forgiveness. It meant experiencing release and freedom from guilt. It meant a growing desire to live as though we are people who are acceptable and lovable.
John Wesley preached about new birth and conversion, but always very carefully. The new birth and our conversions are our responses to God’s love. They are not something we do to get saved. We always exist under the grace and love of God. We are always saved. But new birth and conversion are our opening ourselves to the experience of salvation, opening our hearts and lives to the love that is always there for us.
The Wesleys believed that there was nothing that we could do to earn or warrant God’s love. It’s always there. New birth and conversion are changes within ourselves so that we begin to live in what has always been there for us.
Eileen will lead us in some Charles Wesley hymns about justifying grace.
Meditation: Hymns on Sanctifying Grace
Sanctifying or perfecting grace is another manifestation of God’s grace, and all of these work together in our lives. Prevenient grace is always there because there are always times when we are not aware of God’s love for us. Justifying grace happens again and again because we need to realize over and over again God’s love and acceptance for us. Sanctifying or perfecting grace is a continual part of our maturing as followers of Jesus.
It was out of this understanding of sanctifying grace that Methodism’s passionate commitment to mission and social justice emerged. The Wesleys taught that as we open our lives to the love of God, it must make us more loving toward others, more loving toward other people. This love changes the way we live our lives.
One of the most controversial teachings of the early Methodist movement was the teaching that it was possible for us to realize Christian perfection in this life, which meant perfect love, loving perfectly. John Wesley emphasized that as we become more and more filled with the love of God, this will lead to acts of mercy and works of justice.
Methodist movement poured itself out to the poor. It operated soup kitchens,
literacy programs teaching people how to read, children and adults. It made
loans to help people to start their own businesses. It is no accident that in
The early Methodist movement opposed slavery. It opposed governmental policies that kept poor people poor. And on Memorial Day weekend, when we remember and honor the lives of all of those who have been lost in war, we also remember that early Methodism taught that war was a sign that we had not yet received the perfect love of God. The early Methodists and the Wesleys taught that war was incompatible with Christian teaching and that if we were truly open to the love of God in our lives, if we truly allowed the love of God to transform us that war would not exist any more.
The remaining hymns in this hymn sing call us to allow God to make us loving toward others and toward the societies in which we live, and especially loving toward those who are hurting, oppressed and in need.