Prevenient Grace
(Lectionary Starters)

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
January 19, 2003
1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalms 136:1-6, Psalms 136:13-18, John 1:43-51
Jim Killen, a minister of the United Methodist Church, Beaumont, Texas

Do you know the expression, “prevenient grace”? It’s O.K. if you don’t know the words, but you really need to know the reality that they represent. Prevenient grace is the expression theologians use to talk about God working in our lives for our salvation before we know anything about it or do anything to cause it to happen. Some folks keep saying, “If you will do this, this and this, then God will come into your life and save you.” The truth is that God is always reaching out to us and working in our lives to move us toward the fulfillment of our highest possibilities. The trick is for us to recognize what God is doing in our lives and to be receptive and responsive to it.

I. The Scriptures give us many examples of how God works in our lives to save us.

The psalmist who wrote Psalms 139 was very much aware that God was always present and that God always knew all about him. “Lord, you have searched me an known me.” He said that God knew all about him even when he was being formed in his mother’s womb. He said that he knew there is no place to hide from God. That gives us a spooky feeling, doesn’t it. In this age of computerized information, we struggle to retain just a little bit of privacy. And, to be honest, there are things about most of our lives that we would rather not have God watching or listening in on. But the fact is that God is always present and that God knows us better than we know ourselves. It is a good thing that God loves us.

The story of little Samuel and old Eli tells us that God has a purpose for our lives and for our world. The text tells us that this story took place during a time when people weren’t seeing much divine activity — or expecting it. Old Eli was a good man and a faithful servant of God, but his sons were completely corrupt. God was working in the subtle ways that God often works in the affairs of people to put an end to their abuse of power. And God was also working to bring something better into being to replace it. He picked young Samuel to be a prophet who would be God’s agent for the beginning of a new age in Israel’s history. God called and, with Eli’s help, Samuel responded.

In the New Testament, John tells us that Jesus surprised Nathaniel by knowing about him and believing in him before Nathaniel had ever paid any attention to Jesus. That relationship eventually grew into a very important one that changed Nathaniel’s life and caused him to be used him to change the world.

II. What does prevenient grace look like when it is at work in our lives?

It is not some inescapable fate, some destiny that is unfolding beyond our control. Neither is it God constantly working to coerce us into doing something with our lives that we don’t want to do. Our futures are open, as yet unshaped. They will be shaped by our decisions and our actions as we interact with life. But there is someone there interacting with us through our interactions with life, someone who loves us and who wants what is best for us and who wants to enlist us in the service of the purpose that will be best for the whole world. God hopes to shape our lives in the way that a relationship with another person who loves us can shape us.

God knows us. God knows all about us and loves us anyhow. Everything that we think or do is in the presence of God who knows us and loves us. We sometimes work hard at forgetting that is so. But when we finally give up to knowing that we are known–and loved, that will bring the first great good change in our lives.

Then God is always working throughout relationships with others, through our experiences, through our mistakes and our successes and lots of the other happenings in our lives. God can certainly work in our lives through the love and the care and the witness of his children. How can we know which of the things that happen in our lives are things that God is doing? Remember the things that Jesus did. Those experiences and relationships that do for us the things that Jesus did are the things through which God is working in our lives.

God is always there in our lives trying to lead us to fullness of life, whether we know it or not, whether we do anything to cause it or not.

III. What should we do about prevenient grace?

Do what you will someday wish you had done.

Most people become aware that God’s prevenient grace has been at work in their lives after they have come to new life in Christ. When people finally take significant steps into the new life that Christ wants for them, they look back on their lives and realize that God has been working in their lives for years to bring them to their new life. Perhaps you have heard someone share some witness like that.

Those people almost always wish that they had recognized what God was doing in their lives and had responded to it sooner. Just do what you may someday wish you had done.

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