Ordo Salutis 3: Prevenient Grace, Denial or Confession
All of this conviction is part of what John Wesley called “prevenient grace.” It is a grace that goes before that enables us to respond to God wooing us back to Him. Without God’s grace, we would still be dead in sin and helpless to respond; God makes a way for us to return to Him by first giving us grace and then by the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
Prevenient grace operates in us before we even know anything is happening. It leads us to a place of repentance by creating in us our first sensitivity to God, by producing conviction that we have transgressed the will of God, and by causing our first wish to be to please God.
The opposite of coming to grips with God’s conviction is denial. This is where we tend to go as we rationalize our thoughts and actions. If we choose denial, as God continues to convict and make us aware of new areas of sin in our lives, then we short-circuit our Christian spiritual formation. Denial is a harsh reality for many Christians who find their own behavior to be out of line with their theology. All of a sudden it is easier to switch beliefs than to switch behavior, and so they gradually turn away from God instead of confessing to Him what they also know deep down to be true.
As we deny God and his truth, we cut ourselves off from grace and our mind (thoughts and emotions) becomes darkened to the truth. Ephesians 4:17-19 says, “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.”
The Gentiles are those who do not know God. Notice how they are first ignorant and darkened in understanding; their hearts are hard. Because of this, they turn to something else to fill the void: sensuality and greed. It is a result of the choice to ignore God that humans turn to perverse forms of sin.
There are times when it is tempting to believe the condemning lie of Satan that says there is no hope to change, that God cannot release us from this sin, or that God really doesn’t love us because of our sin. We might think these words, “For God was so mad at the world that he sent his Son to come down and tell them to shape up, that whosoever would shape up would have eternal life. Indeed, God did send his Son into the world to condemn it, in order that the world might be saved through good works” (Smith, The Good and Beautiful God, 99)
But if we choose to acknowledge our sin, to call it what it is just as God already knows anyway, then we enter into confession.
Perhaps this sounds weird, but I believe that God, somewhere around this point in the process, waits. Not with a hard hand ready to hit us when we’re down, but with a gentle, grace-filled hand ready to accept us, like the prodigal father in Luke 15. Up to this point, God has been convicting us of sin. He has also been giving the prevenient grace we need to be able to respond to his gift of forgiveness. But now he waits for us to respond to grace by acknowledging and confessing our sin. At this point, our response is to pray about our sin and acknowledge that it really is the Holy Spirit convicting us about real sin.
What is confession? 1 John 1:5-10 gives us a good picture.
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
Madame Jeanne Guyon says, “There is a higher experience of repentance, and there is a deeper experience of confession of sin than the feeling of regret. In fact, you will find those feelings of regret replaced by something else–replaced by a love and a tranquility” (in Foster, Celebrating the Disciplines Workbook, p. 49).