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The Wesleyan perspective on grace and works retains the early Reformation emphases on grace as mercy and grace as divine power while placing the accent on the latter. When one thinks of the Wesleyan understanding of God’s love, one should keep in mind both ways of describing grace. Mercy is the love of God toward the individual. It forgives, embraces and accepts (justification). Power is the love of God within the individual. It transforms and makes new (regeneration and sanctification).
To put it in Trinitarian categories, mercy expresses the love of the Father through the Son’s atonement as a provision for sin and power expresses the love of the Father in the Spirit’s transforming and elevating presence from sinfulness to righteousness to final union. In both of these ways, then, grace fundamentally refers to the divine medicine given to cure the diseased and defective soul and elevate it beyond itself into union with the Father through the Incarnate Son in the power of the Spirit.
So, how does this work?
First, as synergists all Wesleyans hold that there is a dynamic cooperation between the Spirit and the individual throughout all stages of the journey toward God. We always seek to move with the rhythms of God’s grace, but we know that grace as both mercy and power precedes any human effort. The priority remains with the grace of God even in a synergistic framework. All of our cooperation, and therefore all works, flow out of the dynamic of grace as we seek to move in God’s power by his mercy.
If grace as power is the Spirit, who is the love of God poured out into the soul, then this love empowers us by igniting and inflaming our loves, that is, our emotions and desires. The power or strength of God is found in the way the Spirit rightly orders our emotions and desires toward God as our final end. We are empowered to move because the Spirit enters the person, initiating a movement that strengthens the will and “opens the eyes of our heart” to see God as the great lover of our soul. We find ourselves attracted to this God, an attraction that is not our own doing, but is the gift of God lest anyone boasts.
Faith is the initial movement of emotion and desire toward Christ as savior generated by the Spirit. It is the flight of passionate love in which the person comes to rest in God. Gregory of Nyssa saw this as eros transformed into agape. There is cooperation between the Spirit and the soul as the former initiates and moves the soul while the latter “walks with the Spirit” toward a new home. Rightly ordered desire becomes charity for God and neighbor.
Stemming from Wesley, there is an emphasis on encounter in this process. While Wesley described the movement toward God in metaphorical terms of gestation (prevenient grace), birth (justifying grace), and death (sanctifying grace), he also emphasized evangelical conversion as a moment in which the person crosses from one to the other. For Wesleyans, the purpose of this encounter is to awaken afresh the emotions and desires of the soul in a way that moves the person across the final barrier. This is why pastors need to invite persons to encounter God through fasting, worship, the scriptures, and the Eucharist. These are all the “means” by which grace flows into the heart.
As the Spirit moves emotions and desires through deepening encounters and believers cooperate with this movement, the fruit of the Spirit begins to blossom. Grace is the power of the Spirit that moves and works flow from the believer’s cooperation. Growth in grace is the construction of a righteous character (holiness) as believers work with God to conform emotion and desire to the shape of Christ.
Every pastor should invite their parishioners to encounter God afresh. In doing so, grace is prioritized, emotions and desires transformed, and good works flow forth. These good works then reinforce the work of grace by solidifying emotions and desires into virtues through actions that produce Christ-likeness.