In our last entry we published an excerpt from the 2021 Board of General Superintendents’ Report during the 97th Session of the General Board. Dr. Carla Sunberg titled the report “A Journey of Grace” and masterfully wove that theme throughout her summary of a quite difficult year for the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to constraints of time and length, we were unable to post the entirety of the document, which can be viewed here. Nevertheless, one specific section deserves re-visiting. Here in its fullness, we are posting Dr. Sunberg’s conclusion to the report, which we believe serves as a masterclass in exploring and extolling grace.
God’s Grace in the Mission
By: Dr. Carla Sunberg
Last year, as Dr. Chambo gave the first virtual annual report of the Board of General Superintendents, we were excited about announcing “A Journey of Grace,” our new emphasis on the life of discipleship in the Church of the Nazarene.
Little did we know that “A Journey of Grace” would become a descriptor of the year that we would experience. God’s grace has carried us through an unanticipated storm, but now we must think about the future. One thing we have learned from the year 2020 is that God’s mission is not deterred by the events of the world. Therefore, we are compelled to lean into our work of making Christlike disciples in the nations.
Paul’s concluding remarks to the church in Corinth found in 2 Corinthians 13:14 are an appropriate benediction but also a blessing for us in the year 2021: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
In this one small verse, Paul captures the entire journey of grace that we embrace from a Wesleyan framework of understanding: prevenient grace, saving grace, and sanctifying grace, all found within the life and work of the Triune God. God’s people, all of us, are invited to live under grace in the love of God and through fellowship, filled with the Holy Spirit.
We are all in need of God’s grace, no matter where we find ourselves in life. Grace itself is not a substance nor an impersonal thing, but grace is the personal act of God sending His Son to live in human flesh. “God has acted personally,” Dr. T. A. Noble says. “He has graciously taken the initiative in coming to us so that we might respond.” This is why Paul encourages his readers to embrace the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is God who acts before we do. It is God’s love that is poured out by the Father sacrificing His Son for you and me. Noble continues: “And it is God the Holy Spirit, one with the Father and the Son, who works within us, turning us around to come toward God instead of walking away from Him in our sin.” This is why we remain on this journey, where Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul also referred to grace, “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham.” Paul is explaining that Abraham pleased God first and foremost through faith. He did not know about the Law that would come later. God reached out to him in grace, and Abraham responded. The same is true for us. God reaches out in prevenient grace to all. This was the promise to Abraham that stretched out through the ages, and today the same promise draws us toward God. Prevenient grace is constantly at work, and we respond in faith. It is grace that draws us into the life of holy fellowship with God.
When we begin to understand the place of grace, we may find the love of God overwhelming. God, in infinite love, has reached out to save all of creation. This is a revelation of the very nature of the relationship that we find in the Triune God. Emanating from this relationship is holy love, which results in a grace that grips us even when we are living in sin. The depth of our sins is inconsequential to grace, for the Father never gives up on those whom He loves. Grace continues to flow, day in and day out.
Far too often, we are hard on ourselves, unwilling to accept the love that God is pouring out on us. God’s grace is lavished on all, for God does not want any to be lost. We read about it over and over again. In Luke chapter 15, we find prevenient grace overflowing in Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The shepherd, acting with prevenient grace, leaves the 99 and goes in search of the one lamb that is missing. The lost sheep is of great value to the shepherd. In the story of the lost coin, we find the woman sweeping her house, searching every nook and cranny for her coin. She represents our heavenly Father, doing all that He can to find His lost ones. The house will be swept and every corner searched until the coin is retrieved. This is grace, lavished on those who do not deserve it. And grace is seen in the father who stands on the side of the road, day after day, waiting for his prodigal to come home. He is waiting, always with open arms and filled with abundant love.
Grace was something not always spoken of when I was growing up in the church. The focus often seemed to be on punishment for doing things wrong, and I lived in fear of losing my salvation. As I have grown, I have begun to understand grace as something much greater than all my fears. Grace, which has its grip on me. Grace, which means that God is always reaching out to me, continually drawing me near. Grace that reaches out a hand and picks me up when I fall. Grace, which bandages my wounds. Grace, which whispers “I love you” when you feel you are most vulnerable or the ugliest of sinners.
And this grace stretches out and invites us to become partakers of the divine nature by faith. Yes, it is a mystery. No, I cannot explain it all. Grace overflowing anoints us with holy love and awaits the step of faith in which there can be complete and total healing.
Once we have experienced the healing grace of God in our lives, we are to participate together with God to be agents or channels of God’s prevenient grace in the world. In September, Holiness Today had an entire issue dedicated to the topic of prevenient grace. Dr. Geordan Hammond placed a poignant reminder to us from the work of John Wesley. Hammond shared:
“Prevenient grace suggests that we should hold unconditional love as central to ministry. A pastoral and evangelistic task of all Nazarenes is to preach the gospel in word and deed as a means of awakening people to the prevenient work of God already present in their lives. The Holy Spirit enabling us to see the work of God’s prevenient grace in the lives of those around us should activate the call to discipleship in the church. When we heed this call, we co-work with God to help people encounter God’s free grace that leads to liberation from sin and the joyous life of holy living.”
If we are to participate with Christ in God’s activity in the world, then it seems that we are also to reflect grace. A couple of years ago, I was confronted with a question regarding grace. I was called up for jury duty, and as the lawyers were attempting to select members to serve, they peppered us with all kinds of questions. The young man being tried was accused of injuring two individuals by stabbing them. We were asked whether we would be willing to sentence this young man with the maximum sentence, which was 30 years to life in prison. Of course, we had not heard any evidence yet. We were just being selected for the jury, but as I looked at the young man at the defense table, I had a hard time imagining that I would be willing to put him away for the remainder of his life. I knew that, if found guilty, he would need to be punished for his crime, but I also believe in grace. I spoke up and mentioned that I believe in grace and the hope of transformation. We live with justice and grace in tension: the optimistic presence of the Spirit would desire an opportunity for this young man to be redeemed, both personally and for society as a whole, while also needing to accept punishment. This is not some kind of cheap grace but one that creates the space for the genuine and redemptive grace of God in the face of repentance. I was not accepted to serve on the jury, and I have no idea whether my response influenced that decision or not, but the call to be participants in the journey of grace is something that should touch every part of our lives.
Jesus came in the flesh, and every moment of His life was the preparation of the journey of grace, creating the pathway so that all can become holy, just as He is holy. This coming year, we will have more opportunities to consider this journey of grace, and specifically the place of prevenient grace, both in our lives and in the lives of others.
In 2020, we were forced outside the walls of our church buildings, and God used this to help the church become a vehicle to bring prevenient grace into communities, airways, and even social media. God’s grace is revealed when we practice the incarnational presence of Jesus among those who are poor and needy. Prevenient grace circulates as Christian sisters and brothers stand for justice in the world and work toward reconciliation among all of God’s children.
Throughout history, the Christian community has participated in prevenient grace by discipling and raising up a new generation of believers. This did not happen by chance but by the intentional discipline of those who had come to know Christ and recognized their responsibility to pass on the faith to those who would come after them. The home was often at the heart of discipleship and the center of prevenient grace. John Wesley’s own mother, Suzanna, was an example of a woman who devoted a set time every week to disciple her children. Later in life, John Wesley would adopt Thursday evening for his class meetings because this was his allotted weekly time with his mother.
In the Church of the Nazarene, we celebrate two sacraments, Christian baptism and Holy Communion. More specifically, we believe that these sacraments are opportunities to experience a means of grace. If this is true, then we may need to reconsider the role that the sacraments play in the life of the local church and the associated teaching as a part of the discipleship journey.
The disciplines of prayer and fasting are also significant when it comes to prevenient grace. It is through these disciplines that followers of Christ are able to participate in fellowship with God, learn to discern God’s leading, and intercede for others. When I was a child, prayer and fasting was a regular practice of NWMS—the Nazarene World Mission Society. My mother was an active participant and fasted every Thursday as she prayed for needs around the world. We need to rekindle these practices and make them a regular part of the life of the Church of the Nazarene. If we are to be on this journey of grace, then we must slow down and learn to discern the voice of God through prayer and fasting.
In this report, we have celebrated the lives of those who died well in the Lord. The testimony of Christians who live and die well serve as instruments of prevenient grace. Many a child, grandchild, friend, or acquaintance has turned to Christ because of the long-term witness of a loved one who refused to succumb to the temptations of the world.
I mentioned earlier in this report that I lost my father this year. As I have reflected on the lives of my parents, I have discovered how they were channels of prevenient grace in my own life. They believed in the redemptive work of God that could make a difference in the lives of all of their children. As I was sorting through their things, I found several of my mother’s prayer journals. In one of these, she wrote about Jerry Jr., my oldest brother. My big brother Jerry was the prodigal in our family, and my parents and his siblings waited for him every day with outstretched arms, hoping he would come back home. Prayer was the preferred avenue of prevenient grace, and my parents recruited everyone they could find to join with them in praying for their son.
My brother became critically ill because of a terminal lung condition. Suffering in the ICU, he told his wife, “I think I’m the most prayed for man in the world. I need to give my life to Jesus.” Here is what my mother wrote about that day:
Jerry again went into critical lows and Dennis [my second oldest brother] truly thought he was dying. But Jerry was able to gasp out, “Dennis, three hours ago, I became a Christian.” Dennis could only sob in response – and sobbed and sobbed. How long, this brother had prayed for Jerry! How many times he was there for Jerry down through the tough years! He could count on Dennis! And God counted on him too, and we are not disappointed. Praise God for His faithfulness and mercy and love. And praise God for Dennis, a true brother and friend “faithful and full of grace.”
A true friend, brother or sister, mother or father, participates with God’s activity in this world as an instrument of grace.
This past year certainly has been a journey of grace. God’s grace has taken us through many a surprise circumstance. We do not know what 2021 holds for us, but we, as the Church of the Nazarene, intentionally and willingly, choose to participate in God’s grace as we walk this journey together.