A: First, I think it is important to articulate my understanding of God’s grace. It is a Wesleyan understanding grounded in the teaching of John Wesley and his concept of God’s grace and how it works in our lives. With this concept in mind, I believe that we can never go out of reach of God’s grace. Grace is God’s gift offered freely and forever. Even before we aware of God, grace is drawing us to God; this is prevenient grace.
When we respond to God’s grace and invite Jesus into our heart, we experience what Wesley called justifying grace. This is the cleansing of original sin and bringing us into God’s righteousness. It is restorative insofar as it seeks to restore us into right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It does not mean we will no longer sin; it is given because of our faith in Christ alone – not because of our merit. Justifying grace empowers us to respond to the free gift of salvation by transforming our behavior to resemble Christ. It does not preclude our continued sinfulness and need for repentance and forgiveness.
As we continue to do our best to live a transformed life we move toward sanctifying grace. This is the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It draws us forward, as Wesley would say, “moving on to perfection.” This is that state of being where our hearts are completely filled love for God and for all God’s people. It is ongoing love with potential to grow and expand. It is grace that echoes our burning desire for God’s constant breaking into our hearts, drawing us closer to eternity in God’s presence.
To answer the original question it is important to realize where my understanding of grace begins and how its progression will under gird my answer. If the intent of the question is to define a place where we can no longer be reached by God’s grace, then my answer is: there is no such place. As people created by God, we are never out of reach of God’s saving grace. We may choose to ignore God; we may sin and move away from God; but we can never outrun God. God’s grace is bigger and stronger than anything we can do; grace is always out there pursuing us and seeking to repair our broken relationship with God.
If the question is whether we can lose our salvation, that is, fall out of God’s grace forever, then the answer may be harsher than we want to expect. Many Christians believe and teach that once we are saved we are always saved; once we have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Savior we can never lose that relationship, no matter what we do. This idea does have some basis in the Bible and needs to be considered. If a person truly accepts Jesus Christ as Savior and whole-heartedly attempts to live a life transformed by God’s grace, then salvation is not in jeopardy. This does not mean a life free from sin; no one can achieve such a life. However, it also does not mean that one has carte blanche to do whatever one wants to do without fear of consequence. Sin is sin and requires repentance and forgiveness. Even persons saved through grace by faith in Jesus Christ will continue to sin; they will also repent and beg God’s forgiveness – IF they are truly saved. Therein lies the key to this question, a person who truly accepts Jesus and accepts God’s saving grace will not be inclined to continue a sinful life, void of God’s will and concern for God’s people. This would make a mockery of God’s gift and completely negate Christ’s work on the Cross.
What I mean to say is that, if our conversion is sincere and we truly believe that our only hope for life is Jesus Christ then I do not believe that we can do anything that is so bad, so unforgivable, that God will not continue to reach out to us and draw us back into right relationship. This is the wonder and beauty of the Cross; Jesus paid the ultimate price so that we would not need to pay it. Jesus did all the hard work so that we could be part of God’s eternal kingdom – IF we choose to be part of it. This then brings me to the other side of the equation: our participation in eternity with God is conditional on our acceptance of Jesus Christ and our willingness to allow our lives to be transformed by God’s grace. Failing to meet these conditions carries consequence.
“For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”
(2 Peter 2:20)
If a person who has claimed salvation in Jesus Christ turns away from Christ to embrace a life ruled by sinfulness and death then that person walks a dangerous road where salvation might be removed from the equation. If you know what is expected of you and you deliberately reject those expectations you can hardly believe you will remain under the protection of God’s grace. The further you move away, the harder it becomes to retain God in your life. This is not God’s fault, nor is it God’s desire. We are beings created with the free will to choose God or choose the world. If you know and understand what following Christ entails and you choose a different path you cannot count on your salvation. If you reject God in favor of God’s opponent you cannot hope to remain within God’s grace. These are your choices.
I cannot list here a specific set of circumstances or limits where any Christian might lose the Grace of God. I believe that God is the sole judge of our behavior, our intention, and our heart. God alone will determine where each one of us stands in relation to grace and the transformation of our lives. I cannot, therefore, answer specifically, “How far can a Christian go before they are not in God’s grace?” To answer this question with certainty assumes that I have the right or the ability to judge another person; only God has that role. What I can say with certainty is that a life lived honestly focused on the example of Jesus and honestly seeking to be transformed into the image of God’s will cannot ever go to a place where God’s grace cannot reach in and pull us toward the relationship that God created for each one of us.