In ancient cultures, the first-born son normally held the place of privilege within important families. The first born was the heir, not only of the father’s property, but of the father’s prerogatives and place in society. This pattern persisted among the landed gentry at least into the 18th century *.
Surprisingly, then, God displays an unmistakable pattern of choosing second sons in the Book of Genesis.
Before looking at the text in some detail, here are my takeaways:
The bigotry against which Wesley cautions does not require one to turn a blind eye to sin. On the contrary, the behavior Wesley is trying to encourage demands that Christians recognize the difference between sin and holiness.
Respecting and honoring God’s work among those who are “not of us” does not require all Christians to belong to the same institutional expression of Christ’s one church. Wesley explicitly states that some differences in practice will require Christians to belong to separate institutions.
By the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus Christ, God brings sinners to repentance and holiness. Wherever God is doing that, we must respect and encourage it. This is the one and only focus of Wesley’s “caution against bigotry” and it is identical with the emphasis of the entire 18th century Wesleyan movement.
No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace. Every man has a greater or less measure of this, which waiteth not for the call of man. John Wesley, On Working Out Our Own Salvation
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
The doctrine of prevenient grace is not a quick and easy solution to the problem of divine election. The power of God’s grace is no less mysterious and unfathomable in Wesleyan thought than it is in Calvinist theology.
It sometimes helps me to sketch out ideas as I think through them. I recently posted excerpts from John Wesley’s writings on prevenient grace – God’s work to free people from their bondage to sin and make it possible for them to respond to the gospel with repentance and faith. This post briefly sketches three different ways of looking at how God’s gracious power leads people from spiritual bondage to salvation through a living faith in Jesus Christ.
First, one might think of God giving people the power to act and decide for themselves. God brings them to the point at which they can see their own sinful condition and the possibility of faith. It is up the individual to jump across the gap between belief and unbelief on their own. I remember frequently using the term “leap of faith” when I was a very young Christian, and that term captures the essence of what I am describing. At any point in my lostness and bondage to sin, however, am I capable of simply deciding to believe? At least parts of the New Testament – and the witness of the Protestant Reformation – suggest that I am not.
Methodists frequently speak about something they call “prevenient grace,” or grace that “comes before.” Here’s how the United Methodist Book of Discipline defines it.
We acknowledge God’s prevenient grace, the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses toward God. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will, and our “first slight transient conviction” of having sinned against God. This grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, actually had very little to say directly about the doctrine of prevenient grace, especially given the weight the doctrine carries within Wesleyan circles, and the volumes of material that came from the pen of Wesley.