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A Disciple's Path: Companion Reader
Deepening Your Relationship with Christ and the Church
By James A. Harnish
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Discipleship in the Way of Grace
A Disciple's Path Defined
Do you remember Alice's conversation with the Cheshire Cat during her journey through Wonderland? When she came to a fork in the road, she asked, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" The Cat replied, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to." She said, "I don't much care where." The Cat replied, "Then it doesn't matter which way you go."
When we know where we are going, it makes a big difference how we get there. Like Jesus' first disciples, we've heard our Lord say, "Follow me!" Like them, we want to follow. But if we tell the truth, we often feel like Thomas, who said, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" (John 14:5-6). We want to know ...
Where is this path taking us?
What's our destination?
How will we get from where we are to where we want to be?
Jesus marked the destination of discipleship on the map of our souls in an intriguing conversation with a teacher of the law.
"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" [Jesus] said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live." (Luke 10:25-28)
The destination of every disciple's path is a life that is completely centered in loving God and loving others, a life in which the love of God that became flesh in Jesus becomes flesh in us.
In 1734, a twenty-one-year-old Oxford student named Benjamin Ingham asked similar questions of John Wesley. Ingham's goal was a holy life. He knew that reaching that destination was not a directionless jaunt through the nondescript countryside of indistinct spirituality. He knew that being a disciple is more than drifting aimlessly from one spiritual high to another. He wanted to know the path that would lead toward the destination of a Christ-centered life.
Later in his ministry, John Wesley would use the term Christian perfection to mark the destination of a life that is completely aligned with the love of God. He wrote, "In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival."
So, what does a disciple look like in the Wesleyan tradition? After a long time of searching and study, our team settled on this definition:
A disciple is
a follower of Jesus
whose life is centering
on loving God and loving others.
We chose the word centering instead of centered to indicate that discipleship is a lifelong experience of continuing transformation by the grace of God. It's what Friedrich Nietzsche called "a long obedience in the same direction." The grace of God is instrumental in the process.
A Journey of Amazing Grace
"Amazing Grace," one of our best-loved hymns, includes these words: "'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, / and grace will lead me home." John Newton (1725–1807), the former slave trader who penned that hymn, was influenced in his understanding of grace by his relationship with George Whitefield and John Wesley.
Wesley scholar Kenneth J. Collins has named the grace of God as "the key theme" of Wesley's theology. He writes, "There is no point in Wesley's theology of salvation where divine grace is not the leading motif."
For Christian disciples in the Methodist tradition, the pathway of discipleship is an excellent adventure of amazing grace from beginning to end. Here's my homegrown definition of grace:
Grace is the undeserved, unearned, unrepayable gift of the God who loves us enough to meet us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us there. Grace is the love of God at work within us to transform each of our lives into a unique expression of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ, so that we become participants in God's transformation of the world.
As United Methodists, we often talk of three kinds or aspects of God's grace: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. Let's consider each one.
Prevenient Grace: The Love That Goes Before
John Wesley used the term prevenient grace—preventing or preparing grace—to describe the love of God that is active in our lives prior to our response. Prevenient grace is the love of God that seeks us before we seek God.
It's the creative love that searched for Adam and Eve when, in their rebellion and sin, they tried to hide in the garden.
It's the undeserved love of the God who "proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
It's the unearned love that left John saying, "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.... We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:10, 19).
It's the seeking love that Jesus described as a shepherd who searches for one lost sheep or a woman who turns her house inside out looking for one lost coin.
It's the pursuing love that Francis Thompson described as "The Hound of Heaven" who relentlessly hunted him day in and day out through the labyrinth of his own attempts to run from God until, finally, he fell before God and heard the Hound of Heaven say,
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Wesley defined prevenient grace as "the first wish to please God,—the first dawn of life concerning his will ... the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God." It's the love we did nothing to deserve, the love that prepares us to experience God's forgiveness. But we have a hard time comprehending it because we like to think that we can find God.
Some years ago a Christian organization launched a nationwide evangelistic campaign with the theme "I Found It." It was a simple way of saying, "I have found new life in Christ and I want you to find it too." But there's a biblical problem with that slogan.
The Bible is not the story of the way we find God; it's the story of the way God comes seeking us. We are the ones who are lost, the ones who hide from the naked truth about ourselves. We get disoriented in the chaos and confusion of the world. We lose our way in our radical self-absorption and squander our souls in meaningless living. God is the one who comes to find us. That's prevenient grace.
United Methodists affirm prevenient grace in the sacrament of infant baptism. When someone asks what good baptism does when the child isn't aware of what's happening, I say that's just the point. Long before we were aware of it, long before we responded in commitment to Christ, God already loved us, searched for us, tracked us down. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Any love we have for God is because God loved us first (see 1 John 4:7-12). That's prevenient grace.
In Arthur Miller's classic play Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's life is consumed by the fantasy that if he could make one big deal, he might be loved and accepted by his son, Biff. Toward the end of the play, it suddenly hits Willy that his son might just love him after all. Willy looks up in awestricken amazement and says, "Isn't that—isn't that remarkable? Biff—he likes me!" Willy's wife replies, "He loves you, Willy!" Biff's younger brother adds, "Always did, Pop."
Somewhere along the way, we discover that God loved us before we loved God, always loved us and always will. That's prevenient grace. An unknown hymn writer who experienced God's prevenient grace wrote,
I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found of thee.
Justifying Grace: The Love that Makes Things Right
Prevenient grace leads us to what Wesley called justifying grace. So, what does it mean to be justified?
If you look at the tool bar on most computer screens, you'll find an icon that will "justify" the type to fit evenly within the margins on both sides of the screen. To justify is to realign the words and letters in each line so that they are in right relationship with each other and with the page on which they appear.
That's not far from what the Apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote, "Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand" (Romans 5:1-2). Justification is God's love in Christ that brings us into right relationship with God and with one another. It's the way God makes things right.
But how do things get out of line in the first place?
Paul opens his letter to the Romans with a graphic description of human life that is out of line with what God intends. The Bible calls it "sin." Not "sins" plural, which are like individual letters on the screen, but "sin" singular, as the overall condition of human life that is out of alignment with the life-giving purpose of God.
The Bible goes on to say that sin is not solely our own, private business, like saying that it doesn't matter what we do as long as it doesn't hurt someone else. Human life is more interconnected than that. English poet John Donne said that "no man is an island, entire of itself." We are all part of the main. My "sins" are like individual letters that disrupt the alignment of the entire page. One letter out of place displaces all the others.
But things get worse. The Bible says there is an aggressive quality to sin. Sin is like cancer cells that rebel against God's life-giving purpose and becomes life destroying. Sin is active rebellion against the loving God who is relentlessly at work to heal, restore, and make things right.
And here's the worst part of all. We're all infected with it. Paul says, "You have no excuse, whoever you are.... For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 2:1; 3:22-23). That's sin.
But we don't like to admit that we are involved in the sin business. We're such nice, polite, well-bred, socially acceptable folks that we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as sinners. Like Adam and Eve trying to hide their nakedness in the garden, we like to pretend that our lives are neatly in line and everything is under control.
But hold on a minute. Do you remember our destination?
Have we arrived at a life that is fully centered in Christ?
Is every inch of type in our lives in perfect alignment with God's love?
Do we love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength? No reservations, no compromises, no hidden selfish agendas?
Do we love others the way we love ourselves, much less the way we have been loved by God?
If we tell the truth, there's ample evidence that we have all fallen short of the full glory of God. That's sin.
But here's the good news!
Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.... God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.... For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.... Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:1, 8, 10, 20-21)
The almost unbelievable good news is that God, in an act of unearned, extravagant grace, meets us in the middle of the mess we've made of things and, by the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross, restores us to right relationship with himself. The cross is the place where God makes things right. That is God's justifying grace.
The word we use to describe what happened when we experience this grace is conversion. The Discipline affirms that conversion "may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative. It marks a new beginning, yet it is part of an ongoing process.... [It] always expresses itself as faith working by love." E. Stanley Jones, the great missionary leader of Methodism in the twentieth century, simply said, "Conversion is conversion from a self-centered person to a God-centered person."
And here's the kicker. There's nothing we can do to earn or deserve it. It is the pure, unadulterated gift of God's grace. All we need to do is to acknowledge our need, receive it as a gift, and align our living with it. Charles Wesley's hymns reverberate with amazement at the love and grace of God with lines like this: "Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?"
Jesus made the point when he said that a Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the temple to pray. We immediately know which one was the good guy. The Pharisee. He was an upstanding, churchgoing, law-abiding, decent person, like most of us. The bad guy was the tax collector—corrupt, dishonest, and crooked as the day is long.
Jesus said the Pharisee was "standing by himself" when he said, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector" (Luke 18:11). By contrast, the tax collector "would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'" (Luke 18:13). Here's the punch line to the story. Jesus said of the tax collector, "I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other" (Luke 18:14).
The invitation to each of us is to acknowledge just how much we need to be justified and to receive the grace that only God can give.
Sanctifying Grace: The Love That Just Won't Quit
We have seen that God's love goes before us (prevenient grace) and that God's love makes things right (justifying grace). God's love also never quits. This is what we call sanctifying grace—grace that sustains us and perfects us in love.
Here's a question that can make competent clergy stop in their tracks, wrinkle their eyebrows, and take a deep gulp before they answer it. It has been asked of every preacher who has been ordained in the Methodist ministry since Wesley first asked it of his traveling preachers: "Are you going on to perfection?"
One response might be, "You've got to be kidding! Nobody's perfect!" Wesley would agree that's absolutely true. Not one of us has reached flawless perfection. To say that we have simply proves that we haven't. The gospel is clear that Jesus will take a humble sinner over a self-righteous saint any day.
But the question is: Are you going on to perfection? It's a question that goes to the heart of our understanding of grace, a question that never stops leading us in the direction of a more Christ-centered life.
The destination of the discipleship pathway is a life that is perfectly centered in and controlled by the love of God in Christ. Wesley called the destination "Christian perfection" or "being made perfect in love."
The Apostle Paul relies on directional language to describe the Christian life by using a very strong Greek verb:
Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:5-6, emphasis added)
The Gospel writer uses the same phrase to say that Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51 KJV), where he knew he would face the cross.
Christian perfection, the process of being made perfect in love, is about setting our minds in the direction of a life that is perfectly, completely, fully centered in the love of God in Christ.
So, the question becomes:
Why would we settle for anything less than that kind of perfection?
Why would we stop somewhere along the way and miss our final destination?
If we aren't going on to perfection, then where do we think we are going?
Another response to Wesley's question would be to say that the road to perfection is paved with grace. Sanctifying grace is the love that continues to shape our lives into the likeness of Jesus Christ all along the way. Sanctifying grace is the love that leads us on. It's the love that never quits.
A farmer in the little church that I served in north central Florida didn't have much formal education, but he had a lot of common sense. One day I asked, "How are you doing?" He said, "Well, Preacher, I'm not the man I used to be, and I'm not yet the man I hope to be, but I'm more the man I'd like to be than I've ever been before."
Remember that. That's about as good a description of sanctification as I've ever heard. That guy knew where he had been. He knew where he was. And he knew the direction in which he was going. It's the kind of perfection that is made possible within us by the grace of the God who loves us enough to meet us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us there. It's the sanctifying grace that leads us on. In one of my favorite hymns by Charles Wesley we sing:
Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Excerpted from A Disciple's Path: Companion Reader by James A. Harnish. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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