Question: "What is justifying grace?"
Answer: Justifying grace is a term used to identify the grace by which God freely pardons and reconciles a repentant sinner to Himself. This phrase is primarily associated with the Wesleyan tradition, though the concept is not unique to John Wesley’s teaching. Every Christian believes in justification, the act by which God declares believers righteous through the one-time work of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1; Titus 3:7; Romans 3:28). Similarly, every Christian accepts God’s grace, which is His favor toward the unworthy. Methodists combine these terms, justification and grace, to help distinguish between different aspects of God’s grace. Traditionally, justifying grace is listed as coming between prevenient grace and sanctifying grace in the order of salvation.
The United Methodist Church gives its definition of grace and describes these distinctions: “By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit. While the grace of God is undivided, it precedes salvation as ‘prevenient grace,’ continues in ‘justifying grace,’ and is brought to fruition in ‘sanctifying grace’” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, The United Methodist Publishing House, 2016, pp. 51–52). Therefore, in the Methodist view, justifying grace is one way that God’s grace comes to us, distinct from other ways in its timing in the process of our spiritual development. Justifying grace describes the moment when God justifies a repentant sinner by His grace alone. The same moment is typically called conversion or being born again by evangelical Christians. For the Methodist, it is God’s justifying grace that is at work in this moment to forgive sins through the work of Christ and grant new life to the believer.
Other Christian traditions might dispute the specifics of Methodist soteriology, which leans towards Arminianism. However, almost no one would dispute the core idea of justifying grace. As sinners, we do not deserve to be justified. Salvation is entirely by God’s grace and not based on any of our works. All that we can do is come to Him by faith and ask, on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, for His gracious forgiveness.