Thursday, July 27, 2006

John Wesley's Doctrine of Salvation: Part One





While John Wesley’s theological thought often has been overlooked in certain streams of Protestant Christianity because he never wrote or established a formal systematic theology, his theology, as seen in his pastoral works - sermons, translations and commentaries on Scripture, hymns, treatises and letters, exhibits a certain consistency of thought in many theological areas. Nowhere is this truer than in his understanding of salvation. As a pastor-theologian whose intention was to lead people in the way of salvation, Wesley operated out of a well developed, identifiable soteriological framework that informed his care of human souls. The key to Wesley and his theology is found in his doctrine of salvation. The purpose of our present article is to help us grasp Wesley’s ordo salutis (order of salvation), the conceptional theological understanding of salvation informing his pastoral practice. Thus, we must begin with (I) Wesley’s understanding of humanity before the Fall, (II) Wesley’s understanding of humanity after the Fall, and (III) Wesley’s understanding of humanity after the Fall assisted by prevenient grace.


As created perfect in the Garden, John Wesley’s doctrine of humanity is grounded in his understanding of the image of God in humanity, which is comprised of three parts: the natural, political and moral. The natural image gave to humanity immortality, reason or understanding, free will, and perfectly ordered emotions or affections. The political image gave to humanity the power of governance, whereby humanity exercised dominion over the created order and related rightly in all human relational spheres. The moral image enabled humanity to enjoy true righteousness, holiness, love, and knowledge of God in the immediacy of a relationship with God. The moral image formed the guiding principle of humanity’s disposition, thoughts, words and deeds. As created in the Garden, before the Fall, the image of God enabled human beings to will and to do perfectly God’s intentions for humanity. Holiness, righteousness and love informed humanity’s reasoning, understanding, will and emotions, which resulted in the rightful exercise of dominion in the created order, rightly ordered relationships with fellow humanity, and perfect love and obedience to God.

According to Wesley, through cooperating or concurring providence God empowers the natural procreative processes of the human body, enabling men and women to generate human life according to their nature, so that whatever constitutes humanity, human parents are enabled to bring into being. As such, the uniqueness of humanity is not found in how human life is generated, because human life comes into being in the same way as other animal life, rather, it resides in the fact that human beings bear the image and likeness of God, an aspect of humanity that parents are empowered to transmit to their children in procreation. In the created order untouched by the corrupting influence of sin, perfect humanity was empowered to beget perfect humanity. The perfect image of God in Adam and Eve before the Fall was capable of being transferred to their offspring through the procreative processes.


However, after the Fall the image of God was lost through total corruption. The Fall completely reversed the original conditions of human life. Morally, humanity was completely dead to God, self-focused and helpless to change; naturally, human reason, understanding, free-will, was destroyed and human affections became inordinate and undisciplined; politically, humanity’s relationship to the world and ability to organize socially was destroyed. The natural, political and moral image of God was replaced with the image of the Devil, with pride and self will. Humanity sank into “sensual appetites and desires, the image of the beasts that perish.” In this state humanity stands under the condemnation of God and is deserving of God’s wrath and judgment

Although created holy and wise, humanity in the Garden sought their own will instead of God’s, seeking happiness in the world and in the work of their own hands instead of God. Humanity rebelled against God and as a result suffered spiritual, temporal and eternal death. Humanity physically became mortal and spiritually died. Knowledge of God and Love of God were lost.

Furthermore, because God operates through cooperating providence, human beings are still able to create according to their nature, albeit a totally corrupted nature and divine image. Corrupted humanity begets corrupted humanity, with all of the consequences associated with it. Thus Adam and Eve after the Fall begot children according to their corrupted nature and were subject to God’s condemnation and wrath. For Wesley this state of sin is the source of all sin. Human beings sin because they are sinful. The corrupted image of God leads to all acts of sin.

According to John Wesley this is the natural state of humanity. Humanity has no internal resources to offer or contribute to the work of salvation. Humanity in the natural state is without any awareness that there is a God, any awareness that humanity stands under divine condemnation, and any awareness that humanity even needs to be saved. Humanity is incapable of doing any good. Humanity is dead to God and dead in sin. As such, John Wesley is completely in the Reformed tradition, in agreement with John Calvin and Martin Luther. If human beings are going to be redeemed, then God is the one who must take the initiative.


However, at this point, Wesley begins to separate his theology from the Reformed views of Luther and Calvin, who, with their view of God as sovereign King and Judge, argue that God takes the initiative by divine and irresistible election. God in His Wisdom chooses certain people to save. Because God is sovereign King, these people elected for redemption can not help, but be saved; the rest are justly consigned to eternal punishment. On the other hand, Wesley, with his understanding of God as loving Father develops his doctrine of prevenient grace.

Wesley contends that God does not leave humanity in the natural state of complete depravity. Rather, God takes the initiative by extending prevenient (from the Latin root “prevenio,” which means to “come before”) grace, also called preventing grace, to all humanity. Primarily, this understanding of prevenient grace is God’s work to partially restore the natural and political image of God in humanity, enabling humanity the ability to cooperate (or not to cooperate) with the future work of God in the restoration of humanity. Fundamentally, this happens at two levels. First, rationality is partially restored in human beings, enabling some apprehension or understanding of the world, the conditions of humanity, and social relationships. Second, a measure of free will is restored. Humanity is made capable of responding to God, capable of cooperating to further offers of God’s grace, and resisting the influence of original sin, making possible some semblance of human civilization.

According to Wesley, this initial prevenient grace makes possible with more prevenient grace the recognition of general revelation, (a) allowing humanity to discern from the created order that there is a God who exercises power over the created order and (b) giving humanity a moral conscience, helping humanity understand what is right and wrong and work toward the right. Wesley also argues that prevenient grace absolves humanity of any guilt or responsibility for original sin. Similarly, prevenient grace becomes saving grace for those who do not have the capacity for making moral decisions, such as infants and the mentally handicapped. As we will see in a later lecture on the atonement, this absolution is tied to Wesley’s understanding of the benefits of the atoning work of Christ applied to all of humanity. As such, humanity is only help responsible for their own willful sins, when they willing choose to cooperate with the sinful inclinations of their heart.

With this understanding of prevenient grace, while Wesley articulates a doctrine of the natural state of humanity, where the image of God is completely destroyed in humanity, he does not believe any person is brought into this life completely in the natural state. Primarily, prevenient grace makes a person capable of cooperating with more grace, the grace God makes available in a given moment, the grace made available through the communication of the Gospel, grace that is capable of restoring the moral image of God in humanity. Thus, the prevenient grace given to all does not change the fact that humanity still remains dead to God and has no ability to change the human relationship to God. To prevenient grace, more grace must be offered, but this initial gift of prevenient grace makes possible the ability for humanity to cooperate or not to cooperate with this additional grace.


At 10:15 AM, Blogger Tim Sheets said...

Dr. Bounds,

Thanks for sharing the ordo salutis of Wesley!

In Wesley’s sermon The Image of God, I found his detailed medical description of what happened when Adam and Eve ate the fruit to be very interesting.
- The juice from the fruit entering the body and restricting fluid flow. Which would eventually wear down the human body and bring death.
- The juice from the fruit enabling all types of disorders to emerge and be present with the human body.

I’ve been reading C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (I’m still on the first book, Out of the Silent Planet). This seems to deal with creation, the fall, and man’s sinfulness. Ransom continually talks about their kind (humans) being bent. It’s interesting and sheds some light on what a world and its inhabitants would look like without sin.

Just some thoughts.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Al said...

Dr. Bounds,

Would you contend that Wesley understood Prevenient Grace as being irresistible? Not the outcome, mind you, just the grace itself.


At 9:21 AM, Blogger Laura said...

I enjoyed your blog on prevenient grace. Could you give me your credentials so i may quote you in a sermon i am giving.

Laura Anderson, MABTS

At 11:45 AM, Blogger David Dunbar said...

Good afternoon, Dr. Bounds.

I have been foe some time searching and researching the moral Image of God and how or can it be restored in this lifetime. Of course the question comes to mind is it progreesive or instaniously. None the less I am interested in seeing your biblical or Wesley's biblical refrences as well has the writings he has set forth to back up your conlusions.

This would be a great favor for some one who is hungry to know the truth.


Rev. David Dunbar

At 11:47 AM, Blogger David Dunbar said...

Good afternoon, Dr. Bounds.

I have been for some time searching and researching the moral Image of God and how or can it be restored in this lifetime. Of course the question comes to mind is it progreesive or instaniously. None the less I am interested in seeing your biblical or Wesley's biblical refrences as well has the writings he has set forth to back up your conlusions.

This would be a great favor for some one who is hungry to know the truth.


Rev. David Dunbar


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