Monday, August 07, 2006

John Wesley's Doctrine of Salvation: Part Two



We have seen that because of the Fall in the Garden of Eden the natural, political, and moral image of God in humanity has been completely destroyed. John Wesley often called this state the “natural state” of humanity. As such humanity is dead to God, dead in sin, self focused and incapable of any spiritual movement. If humanity is going to be redeemed, then God must be the One to take the initiative. We also saw that God takes this initiative through prevenient grace.

No we will begin to explore John Wesley’s conception of how God works to restore the image of God in humanity and brings humanity to God’s ultimate purposes. This process is often called Wesley’s ordo salutis or order of salvation. This construct should not be understood as a “neat and orderly” process; the actual realization of salvation in an individual’s life may not be as linear and clear as the ordo may appear, but it should be seen as general conceptional framework out of which Wesley preached, instructed and led people in the way of salvation. Fundamental to Wesley’s soteriology is the divine initiative. God’s grace initiates, under girds and makes possible every step or advancement in the way of salvation.


We will begin our examination of Wesley’s ordo salutis by relating Wesley’s view of prevenient grace more specifically to his soteriology and then working systematically through his understanding of convicting grace/repentance, saving faith, and the new birth.

A. Prevenient Grace

As stated earlier, Wesley contends that God does not leave humanity in the natural state of complete depravity. Rather, God takes the initiative by extending prevenient 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.

B. Convicting Grace and Repentance

Wesley believed that as a result of preaching or communication of the Gospel, as humanity is exposed to scriptural teaching, God communicates grace to human beings, bringing conviction of their utter sinfulness before God and knowledge of their state of spiritual destitution. God further works to exhort them to turn from their sinful ways and to completely turn their lives toward God. Because of prevenient grace, people can choose to either cooperate with what God is doing or not. They can choose to turn toward God or not. For Wesley, turning from sin and turning to God resulted in people exemplifying “fruit worth of repentance,” made manifest in genuine sorrow over sin and active participation in the means of grace, understood as the “instituted” means of grace - prayer, reading the Scriptures, Holy Communion, fasting, and Christian conferencing and the “prudential” means of grace, consisting of rules for ordering the Christian life, such as “doing no harm,” “doing good,” and “attending all the ordinances of God.” Through repentance and bringing forth “fruit worthy of repentance,” through actively placing themselves in the means of grace, Wesley believed people would eventually be led to saving faith, faith that appropriates the new birth.

At this point, we should be aware that Wesley saw repentance as “remotely necessary” and not “immediately necessary” to the new birth. By this Wesley meant that people need to be convicted of sin by divine grace and turn toward God, but may not need to bring forth “fruit worthy of repentance” before grace is given capable of creating saving faith.

C. Saving Faith

As people positively respond to convicting grace through repentance, then they open themselves up to divine grace capable of creating saving faith. One of the keys to understanding Wesley’s teaching on salvation is his belief that saving faith is a gift from God. Specifically, he believes that God gives people grace that enables them to believe. However, they must choose to cooperate and believe. Only when grace has been made available, grace mediated through the means of grace, to create saving faith can a person have saving faith. They must persist in the means of grace until God works. Wesley states, “Faith is the work of God; and yet it is the duty of man to believe. And every man may believe if he will, though not when he will. If he seeks faith in the appointed ways, sooner or later the power of the Lord will be present, whereby (1) God works, and by his power (2) man believes.” (Letter to Isaac Andrews, January 4, 1784 Letters of John Wesley 7:202)

Wesley describes this saving faith as “… a sure trust in the mercy of God in Christ, …the conviction that the Son of God loves me and has given himself for me.” Take note that this faith is a “sure trust” and a “divine conviction,” as such it is a work of God beyond our human abilities of creating. While repentance is “remotely necessary,” faith is “immediately” necessary in appropriating the new birth.

D. The New Birth

In the moment when people exercise faith, Wesley teaches that God justifies, adopts and regenerates believers. In justification, God pardons people of sin and receives them into His favor. Their sins are forgiven and the righteousness of Christ is imputed (reckoned) to them. They have a new standing before God. The barrier of sin has been removed. From Wesley’s perspective, justification is what makes possible the rest of the work of salvation. In adoption, the human beings are brought into the family of God, become heirs with Christ Jesus to the Kingdom of God, and have confident access to the throne of God. Finally, in regeneration, God begins to restore the moral image of God, bringing about a change in heart, mind, will and action. This is what God does in believers, imparting to them righteousness, raising them from death in sin to life in Christ. So powerful an event is this, Wesley teaches that Christians are set free from outward, willful sin as a result of regeneration. As such Wesley also calls regeneration initial sanctification.

Justification and adoption appeal to the more objective side of salvation and deal with humanity’s relationship with God. Regeneration is a subjective change, actually taking place inside of the individual. With the objective and subjective changes Wesley believes God makes a person righteous on the inside and out.


At this point in our examination of Wesley’s theology, information on the historical theological framework of Anglicanism, the context in which Wesley grew up and did ministry, may be helpful. In order to better understand John Wesley’s view of justification and his initial struggles to grasp it, we must look at the Anglican Church’s teaching on this subject.

To begin, the Anglican Church’s foundational understanding on justification can be seen in her attempts to navigate a “middle way” (via media) between Roman Catholicism and the Reformation. This can be seen in the formative work on justification by Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century. In Roman Catholicism emphasis is placed on infused grace which is mediated through baptism, the Eucharist, and good works, which ultimately justifies Christians. Problems however arise when people focus more on acts which infuse grace rather than the Infuser. In the Reformation, the focus in justification is placed on imputed grace. Justifying righteousness is not something in Christians, rather it the righteousness of Christ “reckoned” to believers in a single divine act. Justification is not what is infused in human beings, rather it is what God does for them. The middle way taken by Hooker on justification was to argue for imparted grace, where the righteousness of justification indwells and transforms human nature.

Later, William Law, the Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury, brings human responsibility to the fore in justification. From his perspective humanity is saved by faith, but faith is understood as a mental accent to propositional statements about God. Humanity through reason chooses to accept a body of Christian truth. Furthermore, Law teaches that faith is demonstrated through a person’s actions.

Bishop George Bull later will teach that justifying grace is not a means to righteousness but is a consequence to it. God doesn’t justify people to make them righteous, but justifies them because they are righteous. Humanity is justified because they deserve it. “God embraces those who are already leading a holy life and determines them worthy…”

Therefore at the time of John Wesley, while the Church of England held to a biblical view of the atonement, the application of it came from works, knowledge and mental assent to propositional truths. These are how the benefits of the atonement are applied to an individual’s life. It sounded biblical by the talk of faith, but in reality the Church had moved away from the Bible. This is the background of John Wesley’s parents and the ideas that were taught to John. This false understanding of faith kept John struggling for many years, until his contact with the Moravians and his experience of Aldersgate.

Specifically, in 1725 while Wesley was serving as a fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford University, he read Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying. From Taylor, Wesley began (1) to form his understanding of the purpose of humanity - to live in the constant presence of God, (2) to see the importance of purity of intention in holy living, and (3) to recognize the relationship between spiritual disciplines and the formation of the fruits of a holy life – frequent observance of holy communion, fasting, hourly prayer, Bible reading, and strict observance of the Sabbath, which he began to aggressively incorporate into his life. Most importantly, he made the decision to give the entirety of his life to God without reserve.

In 1726 Wesley read Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. Commenting on this, Wesley wrote, “The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God (supposing it possible to do this), and go no farther would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him. I saw, that "simplicity of intention, and purity of affection," one design in all we speak or do, and one desire ruling all our tempers, are indeed "the wings of the soul," without which she can never ascend to the mount of God.

In 1727 and 1728 Wesley read William Law’s Christian Perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, convincing him, more than ever, of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian; and setting his determination by God’s grace to be fully devoted to God. However, while this was his intention and desire, he did not have an understanding of justification by grace through faith that would make this possible. From his spiritual unbringing by his parents and the influence of the spiritual leaders of his day, Wesley believed justification and holiness occur through good works and right knowledge. The end is clear, but the means are not understood.
Clarity of the means would not begin to come until Wesley’s encounter with the Moravians in his missionary stint in the American Colonies, and more specifically his engagement with the Moravian Peter Bohler. Peter Bohler through Biblical argumentation was able to help Wesley see that saving or justifying faith was a personal trust or confidence in the death of Christ for salvation. Wesley began to recognize that salvation only comes by grace. A person cannot do anything for God to pronounce a person justified. Grace is what justifies, but faith is the instrument that puts justification into place. While Wesley cognitively recognized this truth, he still lacked it in experience. In response to Bohler’s exhortation, “Preach it (salvation by grace through faith), till you have it,” in March of 1738 Wesley began to preach this message and people were converted through his preaching.

At this point, we may ask, “If Wesley knew salvation was by grace through faith, why didn’t he immediately exercise faith and be saved?” Or we may ask, “How could a person desiring salvation not immediately experience salvation?” The answers to these questions are wrapped in the understanding of faith. Faith, understood as a personal trust and confidence in Christ, is a gift of God’s grace. Faith is not a power human possess that can be exercised at any given moment. God must give grace to enable the exercise of faith. More specifically, God gives grace that enables a person to have the capacity to exercise faith. Until grace capable of creating that capacity is made available, faith is not possible.

However, on May 24, 1738 in a Moravian meeting in which Luther’s Preface to his Commentary on Romans was being read, Wesley experiences saving faith. John Wesley describes his Aldersgate experience as having his heart “strangely warmed.” As a result he testifies, “I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins. He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Wesley’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith is settled at Aldersgate.


At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been reading your explanation of Wesleyan doctrines of grace. You say that Wesley believed that a person is lifted out of total depravity described by you as, "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." Then by Prevenient Grace, God "downloads" into us enough goodness and righteousness to enable us to respond to Him or the ability to choose to receive his grace and repent of our sins, correct?

If that is the case, then are some people given larger doses of Prevenient Grace? Are some people more depraved, evil, foolish or unwise? I have always wondered, why did I say yes to Christ, but many of my friends, family members and neighbors remain resistant. Did I receive more Prevenient Grace than someone who said no to Christ? Am I less selfish,less depraved?. Did I hear better preaching or gospel presentations?

Your definition of Wesley's doctrines were textbook on the mark. But, I am not sure that Wesley's well thought out views of Prevenient Grace and how the believer is set up to make his or her big choice in life is backed by scripture. How does a spiritually dead individual, oblivious to his need for Christ become spiritually alive? Putting the choice on a person in this condition seems like a very hard burden to place on him/her. Wesley would say that a person is given enough spiritual life to be capable of responding to Christ by Prevenient Grace, but then is free to refuse it. If that is the case, then the ones who present the gospel will need to do a darn good job presenting it because unless the gospel is convincing enough the person may not choose to buy into it (or receive it). Wesley's theology seems to place the bulk of the burden on human beings. Both the sinner and the evangelist. God delivers the product, but we must present it persuasively and choose to buy into it. Yes, I know the Holy Spirit enters the equation, but sometimes He too must fail, since many refuse the Gospel.

I think the idea of the effectual call from a sovereign God seems the more Biblically sound doctrine. I know it sounds so unfair to most modern Chritians. A loving God making a choice as to who will be saved and who will not. We have a hard time thinking of a loving God not choosing everyone. But, in scripture you see Him doing it all the time. If he was fair, we would all be in trouble because if we received what we all deserved, we all would be condemned. Instead God is merciful, choosing to give grace to some and justice to others.

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Mike Cline said...


Uh oh, here I am again. I just have a question. Are you a United Methodist pastor? We definately need to hook up in Marion and chat face to face sometime.

At 8:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So nice to meet up again. Yes, I am a UM pastor. I used to be a Wesleyan. I did my first year out of seminary at Lakeview. I attended College Wesleyan while at IWU. I am also a Asbury Seminary grad.

Sure, when I get to Marion in Oct I will look you up.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Mike Cline said...

sounds good, I am no longer in Marion, but I can make a stop there. The woman that I love is there, which gives me reason enough to visit. haha

At 5:11 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...


Earlier I wrote an article with Keith Drury entitled "John Wesley the Calvinist" in which we argue that Wesley is more Calvinist than most Wesleyans are willing to admit or comfortable with. Most Wesleyans are really semi-Pelagian in their understandinging of salvation while Wesley is a semi-Augustinian. We also argue that Wesley is probably close to the Reformed tradition than to contemporary Wesleyanism. At the heart of Wesley's differences with contemporary Wesleyans and with Calvinists is his understanding of the relationship between the Fall and prevenient grace.

Do some people have more prevenient grace than others according to Wesley? Absolutely. To have access to the means of grace, or to be born to a family that is Christian, or to live in a culture where the Gospel is preached enables the availibility of more prevenient grace than those who do not have this access.

If people place themselves in the "means of grace" or are placed in the means of grace (where the "pure word of God is preached, the sacraments duly administered, and the community rightly ordered) grace capable of saving them will be made available. As more prevenient grace is made available, as convicting grace is made available, as justifying/regenerating grace is made available, a person can choose to cooperate with this grace or not (but this ability to cooperate is the gift of prevenient grace given to all).

My goal in addressing Wesley's understanding of salvation is to explore primary ideas of Wesley's doctrine that from my perspective are not emphasized enough, receiving scant attention or poorly developed in Wesleyan scholarship - (1) Wesley's understanding of prevenient grace as primarily grace to cooperate, (2)saving faith as a gift of grace - faith is created in us, a gift, not something "we will" to have, (3)as such we can not exercise saving faith any moment we choose, but only in those moments in which grace capable of creating saving faith is made available. There are windows of opportunities and when they are open we had better take advantage of them. (4) That this same paradigm applies to the experience of entire sanctification. There are windows of opportunity in which grace is made available capable of creating sanctifying faith. I dispair of the debate over the "shorter way" and "longer way" among scholars, missing the true beauty and hope of what I call a "middle way."

So I am writing on Wesley's understanding of salvation from a perspective that emphasizies the preceding points, points which I believe are not fully developed or their implications are not fully developed in contemporary Wesleyan scholarship.

Pax Christi,

Chris Bounds

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am glad to meet a Wesleyan or someone who represents the Holiness Movement who is willing to deal with Wesley's Calvinistic characteristics. I used to be a Wesleyan. I attended IWU in the 70's. Back in those days anything hinting of Pentecostalism or Calvinism was frowned upon by the faculty. I have not been able to get anywhere in discussions with Wesleyans about the things I commented on in this blog. Yes, a number of pastors have flat out admitted to semi-Pelaginism, though not using the term, but holding to the view.

I have always had problems with the "holiness
wesleyan theology" position on obtaining salvation and the second work of grace. I do not see much of true Wesley thought in their teachings. I have read Keith's articles on Wesley and Calvin and enjoyed them very much. I did not know you were involved.

I think you need to get your message out to more Wesleyans. To many of them are buying into the "seeker sensitive" or Emerging Church models. I don't think that much of Wesley's means of grace are promoted in these churches, at least not in the seeker sensitive model.

As you may have noticed, I admit to being far more Calvinistic than Arminian. I guess part of it was inspired by the revivalistic, easy believism and make a decision for Jesus evangelism that produced converts but not disciples. Now I am a United Methodist and the theological issues are far more intense. I am probably much more conservative than most of my colleagues here in the Florida Conf. Thanks for the good work, I have emailed your blog to some of my friends who are candidates for ministry, hoping that it will help them understand Wesleyan theology more clearly.

At 5:17 AM, Blogger Karl Kroger said...

I'm obviously stumbling upon this blog and this post a bit late, but I've found it very thought provoking and helpful.

I have just submitted my commissioning papers within the elder track for the Dakotas Conference. In writing my papers, I really struggled with what I believe about baptism. The more I pray, reflect, and study, I have this crazy idea that there should be 3 sacraments. Lord's Supper, Blessing of Children, and Believer's Baptism. I think believer's baptism alone can take away from the action and grace of God. But I honestly don't see how Wesley's doctrine of salvation (especially how you have spelled it out here) can have new birth at infant baptism--even if it's a two part process.

At 3:05 AM, Blogger D.Ralsun said...

thanks for the post. I used to be a Calvinist but I think I am now Wesleyan. Wesleyan approach is very practical and Calvinist is on logic or philosophy which are hard to apply in our life. I like Calvin ways of doing theology its strong and fearful but in Wesleyan I found rest and able to apply in daily life. One reason why I stop liking Calvinist is "merely talking high theology but mere practice. And they will say you are not really born again" But in Wesleyan I think they talk about the possibility of backslide not just judging "you are not born again" and showing them the grace of God that if repent God will forgive. But in Calvin a born again person by any means will remain in God if not that mean he is not really born again.


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