How Prevenient Grace Shapes Our Missional Presence

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In his sermon, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” John Wesley spelled out a principle that underlies one of his most important theological themes. “Since God works therefore you can work,” and “God works therefore you must work.” Although in context it offers commentary on the work of sanctification found in Phil. 2:12-13, it is a helpful way of viewing the nature of prevenient grace as understood by Wesley (John 5:17). Prevenient grace is the work of a God who refused to simply allow the world he created to continue on its destructive path, and so blesses humanity both with the ability and task of doing good here on earth.

Prevenient grace teaches us that in spite of the fall, the imago dei has not been erased. Every person carries in them the grace inherent in being created by God as well as the benefits of the atonement. This means the work of God is not limited to the Church so as to leave the rest of humanity in a state of utter gracelessness. The presence of the Spirit in space and time offers grace in a way that works for the betterment of our entire world, both physically and spiritually. To divorce the purpose of physical blessings from their spiritual fulfillment is a mistake (Acts 17:26-27). In this way, the Spirit of God is intimately involved in our world, ultimately so that we might long for eternity (Ecc. 3:11). A rich theology of the Spirit can so provide us with a basis for understanding the work of God outside the Church.[1] Furthermore, the charge to do ‘good and make culture’ is founded upon the incarnation, where the world is reminded that everything God created is good (Gen. 1:31). Culture-making serves to encourage humanity to seek and know the one who enables and participates in culture-making himself. Prevenient grace then is all of the work of God that enables good human activity with the hope that persons would be led to saving grace in all its forms.

Recognizing God’s presence and work in our world has great implications for how the Church does missions work. Whatever the context or calling, God’s prevenient grace should lead those who want to live missionally to consider the following:

Go where the people are.

The missionary activity in Acts reveals that the Apostles were strategic in their work. Paul visited some of the greatest urban centers of the time, with the ultimate goal of reaching Rome (Rom. 1:10). He recognized them as places of influence from which the gospel could go forth and spread to further regions. The idea here is not to focus on cities to the neglect of rural areas, rather that people are where they are partly because the Spirit is preparing them for spiritual fulfillment. Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:37-8) Prevenient grace teaches us that missional living is about going forth to meet people where they are.

Slow down and listen for what God has already done.

John Mbiti, an African scholar, said, “The missionaries who introduced the gospel to Africa in the past 200 years did not bring God to our continent. Instead, God brought them.”[2] The Spirit of Christ is present everywhere, long before the Church arrives on the scene. The cultures of nonbelievers in many ways reflect longings that find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Other religions certainly may contain truths that parallel the gospel. See for example Pure Land Buddhism’s notions of grace and the approach of Paul in Athens for an example of missional engagement (Acts 17:22-34). This does not mean persons will not be hostile to the gospel, nor does it mean everyone will experience conversion. Still, the Church needs to take the time to learn about the world of the people it is working among. Prevenient grace encourages contextualization, which should lead us to slow down in order to hear a culture.

Be a healing presence through holistic ministry.

In a world where brokenness and pain is an everyday reality, the Church can live missionally by being a healing presence in its community. The longing for wholeness and the hope for eternity are all yearnings placed there by God. When the world encounters a church characterized by love, then before its very eyes is modeled that life marked by those deep longings enabled by prevenient grace. For this reason the Church cannot separate spiritual ministry from physical ministry. Jesus himself ministered to whole persons, not just their spiritual needs. It may be helpful to creatively explore ways in which Paul’s sharing his “very life” with the Thessalonians could be modeled in the 21st century (1 Thess. 2:8). Prevenient grace prepares people to respond positively to a message heard and received through holistic ministry.

For John Wesley, the ability to work and do good is possible only because God is already working himself. Persons are offered grace by God with the hopes that they would seek him and find him (Acts 17:27). By acknowledging his prevenient work in the world, the Church can do missions in a way that meets people where they are, listens for what God has already done, and is present in the world through holistic ministry.

[1] See Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh (Baker Academic, 2005) and Timothy C. Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty First Century (Kregel Academic, 2010) for further reading.

[2] John Mbiti, “The Encounter of Christian Faith and African Religion,” Christian Century, August 27- September 3, 1980, pp. 817-820.

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Andrew is an acquisitions editor for Seedbed books and director of online resources for Seedbed. When not editing he enjoys design, photography, and gardening. He lives with his family in Tennessee.

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