Lesson 1: Grace That Goes Before

Grace flows ordinarily from prevenient grace through the grace of baptism through the grace of justification toward sanctifying grace leading toward consummation in glory. The power by which one cooperates with grace is grace itself. In this way, God draws all to himself, eliciting a hunger for righteousness and a desire for truth.

– Thomas Oden

The disciples do not grasp the meaning of Jesus’ words or the relevance of his death until after his resurrection. The gospels are written down years later by those in the early Christian community. In fact, while they recount earlier events, the four gospels are recorded later than most of the letters (“Epistles”) of the New Testament. Therefore, to understand the story of Jesus, we must reflect on three of the essential theological ideas emerging in the early church communities which are evident in the gospels: grace (all three forms), humility, and sacrificial love.    

We begin by examining three unique forms of God’s “unearned favor:” grace that goes before, grace that justifies, and grace that sanctifies. This first week is devoted to the grace that precedes human actions. We celebrate that God is the loving initiator of relationship. Often labeled “prevenient grace,” scripture reveals God pursues humanity, preparing us to receive and experience salvation.  

Devotion: Read Ezekiel 34:11-16. It is easy to imagine Jesus recalling this text when he tells the parable of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep to find one which is lost (Lk 15:3-7) or says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). All these passages rest on the same foundation: God initiates the rescue of his “sheep” while they are still lost. God searches and gathers the people after their sin leads them into exile. We do not have to perform heroic feats of faith to gain our Creator’s attention. God does not wait on us to earn love. God is already on our side, seeking us out. How is this message of grace that goes before communicated in worship? Which common descriptions of God support or undermine this aspect of grace (Creator, Parent, Judge, Rock, etc)?

Personal Worship Option: Read Psalm 23. Spend time in prayer, reflecting on the promises of this powerful song. Which promise do you need to cling to most today?  

Dig A Little Deeper:

Read Ezekiel 34:1-10 for the context for our reading. How does the description of false shepherds reinforce God’s love? What should be the attitude of rulers, prophets, and priests toward the people they lead? What temptations do such leaders face regarding power?

Now read Ezekiel 34:17-24. What responsibilities do the “sheep” have in this situation? What attitude should people have toward leaders? What temptations do we face regarding being governed?

34:11 Considering Ezekiel 34:1-10 condemns Judah’s leadership as harsh and brutal shepherds, some scholars suggest these verses (34:11, 15-16, 24) are calling for a return to the theocracy found during the time of the Judges. What are the problems and benefits of a government led by religious leaders? What are the problems and benefits of a government which ignores God? How is the Church a form of theocracy?

34:12 The “scattered” flock refers to the Jews taken into captivity in Babylon. God will bring the enslaved Hebrews back to the land formerly known as Israel. Is the current state of multiple denominations a form of scattering?

34:16 The “sleek and strong” refers to the powerful who have gained advantage over the weak and treated them with contempt (34:20-21).

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