Friday, August 18, 2006

John Wesley's Doctrine of Salvation: Part Four



At this point, we will complete our examination of Wesley’s ordo salutis, the way in which God works to restore the image of God in humanity. Up to this point we have taken a cursory look at Wesley’s understanding of prevenient grace, convicting grace/repentance, faith, the new birth (justification, adoption, regeneration), and assurance of salvation/witness of the Spirit. Now, we will conclude by examining progressive sanctification, repentance of believers, sanctifying faith, entire sanctification, further growth in grace, and glorification.

Again as we have stated earlier, the ordo salutis is a conceptional theological framework in which to understand Wesley’s soteriology. However, in the actual experience of salvation, this framework may not be experienced in such a neat linear fashion. Also, as we have done previously, we will look at some of the historical circumstances surrounding John Wesley’s life and ministry, specifically related to his teaching on and experience of entire sanctification.


In every step in the way of salvation, God is the One who takes the initiative by His grace and we respond, remembering that even our ability to respond is a work of grace. At this point in the ordo salutis a clarification of Wesley’s understanding of grace and the means of grace may be helpful.

What is grace for John Wesley? Fundamentally, "grace" is the unmerited work of God in us, for us, and through us. Grace is the work of the Holy Spirit, communicating to us the benefits God the Father has made possible through our Lord Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection. For example, God restoring our capacity to respond to grace through prevenient grace is itself a work of grace bestowed upon all of humanity as a particular benefit of Christ’s atonement.
Because grace is essentially the work of God in us, there are greater or deeper works of grace. For example, conviction of our sinfulness and our need for Christ is a deeper work of grace than prevenient grace; the creation of saving faith is an even greater work of grace; justification, adoption and regeneration is a deeper work still; and the ongoing work of transformation into the image of Christ Jesus is a greater work of grace, deeper than what the Spirit has done previously. Our growth in grace is dependent on the continued work of the Holy Spirit in us, sustaining us, growing us, transforming us. Thus in Wesley there are degrees of grace in people’s lives (gradually greater and deeper works of the Spirit in human lives).

Next, in regard to the means of grace, Wesley believed that you and I must be connected to those places and actions, the divinely appointed means, by which God is most likely to communicate His grace to us (those places and activities where God in His Spirit chooses to work for us, in us and through us). We must stay connected to these like fruit on a vine or we will wither up and die. The "means of grace" are those appointed places where grace is bestowed or communicated (the places and activities where God's Spirit is at work). These include the instituted means of grace, which Wesley lists as prayer, reading the Scriptures, Holy Communion, fasting, and Christian conferencing. They also include what Wesley called the prudential means of grace, which consisted of rules for ordering the Christian life, such as “doing no harm,” “doing good,” and “attending all the ordinances of God.” By participating in these means, we place ourselves in those places where God is most likely to work to transform our lives and increase our faith in greater and deeper ways. As people seeking salvation or seeking sanctification or seeking to grow in grace, we must place ourselves in the means of grace until God bestows grace, God does the work we are seeking to be done.

F. Progressive Sanctification

Expressed in the most general terms, sanctification addresses the entire work of transformation in human lives by the Holy Spirit from the moment individuals are born again until they are given glorification in death. The ultimate end of the Spirit's work is to restore the full image of God in humanity, making humanity like Christ. When the Spirit takes residence in human lives in regeneration, what Wesley also called initial sanctification, He begins the process of transforming their attitudes, interests, and actions. This process of inward transformation and outward conformity to Christ is progressive sanctification.

As we have already stated, Wesley has a high view of the new birth and the renewal in moral image, expecting entire consecration to God before conversion and freedom from willful sin at conversion. After conversion Wesley does not expect Christians to commit willful, deliberate sin, which he believes will destroy a believer’s relationship with God, if left unchecked. This sin is the deliberate refusal by a believer to follow God or obey God.

At this point, let us take a moment to examine what sin Wesley expects in believers after conversion and the work of progressive sanctification to address it. First, Wesley expects that after conversion Christians will continue to commit sins of infirmity, which he believes does not impact believers’ relationship with God because they are not willful. At times Wesley is reluctant to call these sins, referring to them as sins “improperly so called,” while also acknowledging they stand in need of the atoning work of Christ. These sins arise out of ignorance/misunderstanding of God’s law or standard or are due to physical ailments/limitations. Progressive sanctification occurs as Christians become more knowledgeable of God’s law and will for their lives and they are empowered to bring their lives into greater conformity with Christ’s life.

Second, Wesley expects that after conversion Christians will commit “sins of surprise,” which will impact believers’ relationship with God to the degree to which their wills cooperate with sin. These sins are not premeditated or intentional, but arise either as a result of a prior decision over which there was some control, as in an inordinate outburst of anger as a result of lack of sleep, or as a result of a “sudden assault” from the devil, the world, or our sin nature, as in an involuntary response rooted in pride, selfishness, or a “trap from the devil.” While there is some level of cooperation of the will, these tend to be spontaneous reactions within Christians. Progressive sanctification works to free Christians from their orientation toward pride and selfishness and helps liberate them from such involuntary actions rooted in “inward sin.”

Therefore progressive sanctification works to address ignorance of God’s will, the traps of the enemy, poor decisions that eventually lead to sin, and transform the inner heart of a believer. This process of inward transformation and outward conformity to Christ is progressive sanctification.

G. Repentance of Believers

As the Spirit transforms Christians in their attitudes, interests, and actions, He begins confronting them with an internal principle of selfishness and sin, persisting stubbornly in them. From his observations of conversions in the Wesleyan revival, Wesley believed new Christians may not be able to initially detect the inward sin that remains in them. The momentum of their conversions may make them initially feel that they have been completely set free from both outward sin, deliberate willful sin, and inward sin, a heart prone to selfishness, pride, and rebellion against God. They may initially feel that they love God with all of the “heart, soul, mind and strength” and their neighbor as themselves.

However, as times passes, they grow to realize there is sin that remains in them. While they live in obedience to Christ, their heart is divided and there is a natural pull toward selfishness and pride. There is an internal principle persisting stubbornly in them, making them fall into “sins of surprise” and making them “prone to wonder.” Wesley believed that as they began to struggle against their internal sin, they come to realize there is little they can do about it. They recognize their state of sin and repent of it. As they repent, they are brought to the realization that if they are going to be delivered from this “nature” of sin, they God will have to do it. With this they throw themselves on the mercy of Christ to set them free from this inward nature of sin so they can be completely His.

H. Sanctifying Faith

As people positively respond to convicting grace through repentance, then they open themselves up to divine grace capable of creating sanctifying faith. As with saving faith, John Wesley believes sanctifying faith is a gift from God and is the only thing “immediately necessary” to appropriate entire sanctification. Specifically, he believes that God gives people grace that enables them to believe God to sanctify them from their internal state of sin. Only when grace has been made available to create sanctifying faith, grace mediated through the means of grace, can a person have sanctifying faith. They must persist in the means of grace until God works.

From this perspective Christians actively seek entire sanctification, availing themselves of the various means of grace, waiting for God's grace capable of creating faith to appropriate it. Thus, a person cannot be entirely sanctified at any given moment, but only in those times and places in which God's grace is being made available that can create such faith. For example, while Wesley describes faith that sanctifies entirely as a trust that “God hath promised it in the Holy Scripture,” that “God is able to perform” it, that “He is able and willing to do it now,” and a “that He doeth it,” he makes clear that it is a “a divine evidence and conviction,” it is a faith that God creates and enables through the means of grace.

I. Entire Sanctification or Christian Perfection

On the most basic level John Wesley defined entire sanctification or Christian perfection as a work of God’s grace whereby Christians are cleansed from the internal nature of sin or original sin and set free to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength and set free to love others as themselves. They are delivered from the internal principle of selfishness and sin, persisting stubbornly in them. In the new birth believers are set free from outward sin, but in entire sanctification they are set free from inward sin, releasing them to serve God and others with their whole heart without reserve, fulfilling the two great commandments.

On another level, Wesley taught entire sanctification or Christian perfection as complete renewal in the moral image of God in humanity. As we saw in the first unit, the moral image of God in humanity enabled humanity to enjoy true righteousness, holiness, love and love 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. While the moral image was completely destroyed in the Fall, the image is partially restored in the new birth and completely renewed in entire sanctification. As such, the fully renewed moral image forms the trajectory of all human actions in thought, word and deed.

Because of the problematic nature of the language “entire” and “perfection,” Wesley endeavored to be clear in his many discussions about what entire sanctification or Christian perfection does and does not entail. For Wesley, entire sanctification or Christian perfection does not consist of perfection of knowledge, freedom from mistakes, freedom from infirmities, and exemption from temptation. As such, Christian perfection is not Adamic or divine perfection. While Christians may be renewed completely in the moral image, the natural and political images are still marred, resulting in sins of infirmity from clouded reasoning and mistakes in judgment. This is one of the reasons Wesley was reluctant to call it a “sinless perfection.” Furthermore, it is not divine perfection because it is mutable, subject to change, either positively or negatively. Entire sanctification can intensify or grow throughout life or be subject to loss through surrendering to temptation and sin.

J. Further Growth in Grace Beyond Entire Sanctification

As has been already intimated, Wesley did not see entire sanctification as a static state in Christians. While the moral image has been completely renewed, the natural and political images must continue to be renewed as well. As a Christian grows in knowledge of God, knowledge of self and wisdom, the person is better enabled to fulfill the perfect will of God. As such, this teaching makes a distinction between entire sanctification and Christian maturity. It is possible for a person to be set free from inward and outward sin, perfected in love, and empowered for ministry, but not have the wisdom, experience and knowledge necessary for Christian maturity. Yet, a Christian cannot become fully mature without the experience of entire sanctification. A believer can know what to do in a given situation, but not have the power or proper motivation to execute it in a way fitting for spiritual maturity. Holiness is ultimately a dynamic experience intensifying and growing throughout the life of a Christian, continuing beyond entire sanctification.

Furthermore, while the moral image has been completely renewed, there is an increasing intensification or a deepening of love and holiness in a person who has been entirely sanctified.

K. Glorification

John Wesley believed that when Christians die the complete image of God is restored in humanity. The natural image which gave to humanity reason or understanding, free will, and perfectly ordered emotions or affections is completely restored. The political image which gave to humanity the power of governance, whereby humanity exercised dominion over the created order and related rightly in all human relational spheres is completely restored. The natural and political images are perfectly restored and Christians are set free from all infirmities. At this point their holiness becomes incorruptible, whereby their perfection supersedes the perfection Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall, and they become like God in His incorruptible holiness and love.


John Wesley in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection clearly traces how he arrived at his understanding of Christian perfection. While reading Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying in 1725, Wesley began (1) to form his understanding of the purpose of humanity - to live in the constant presence of God, and (2) to see the importance of purity of intention in holy living. A year later while reading Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, Wesley saw that "simplicity of intention and purity of affection" were the “one design in all we speak or do, and the one desire ruling all our tempers” and are "the wings of the soul without which she can never ascend to the mount of God.” Subsequently, while reading William Law’s Christian Perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, Wesley became convinced 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. So by 1729 Wesley states that he had a clear understanding of the goal of Christianity – Christian perfection, but was not sure how to attain it. This is seen so clearly in his 1733 sermon, “Circumcission of the Heart.” Ten years would pass before the Moravians, Peter Bohler and Aldersgate would help Wesley to see how to obtain his heart’s desire - by grace through faith.

After 1738 Wesley knew not only the end of Christianity, but the means to that end, which Wesley testified to in private, in public, and in print. The most important treatises, sermons, and works of sanctification after Aldersgate include: 1740 “Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems,” 1741 “Christian Perfection,” 1742 “Principles of a Methodist,” 1742 “Character of a Methodist,” 1759 “Thoughts on Christian Perfection,” 1762 “Blow to the Root,” 1762 “Cautions and Directions Given,” 1763 “Sin in Believers,” 1763 “Further Thoughts on Christian Perfection,” 1763 “Scripture Way of Salvation,” 1766 “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” 1767 “Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection,” 1768 “Repentance of Believers,” and 1777 “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.”

Inevitably, questions arise concerning John Wesley’s personal experience of entire sanctification or Christian perfection. Did John Wesley experience entire sanctification? This question has been an issue of considerable debate among scholars with no consensus. While not conclusive, there appears to be some evidence pointing to a personal experience of entire sanctification. Perhaps there is no better evidence than a letter John Wesley wrote to Dr. Conyers Middleton on January 4, 1739. After describing the Christian life in ways that can only be understood as Christian perfection, Wesley states, “So Christianity tells me; and so I find it, may every real Christian say. I am now assured that these things are so: I experience them in my own breast. What Christianity promised (considered as doctrine) is accomplished in my soul. And Christianity, considered as an inward principle, is the completion of all those promises. It is holiness and happiness, the image of God impressed on a created spirit, a fountain of peace and love springing up into everlasting life.” This testimony appears to be further substantiated by Wesley’s letter to Thomas Maxfield on November 2, 1762 in which he says, “But I dislike your supposing man may be perfect as an angel; that he can be absolutely perfect; that he can be infallible, or above being tempted; or that the moment he is pure in heart he cannot fall from it. I dislike the saying, “This was not known or taught among us till within two or three years.” I grant you did not know it. You have over and over denied instantaneous sanctification; but I have known and taught it (and so has my brother, as our writings show) above these twenty years.”

Still, these testimonies are not conclusive. If Wesley had experienced entire sanctification, why are there not more direct statements by Wesley regarding his experience? In response, we must keep in mind the culture in which Wesley lived. English Christians of his age were reluctant to talk about their personal spiritual lives and Wesley was especially careful not to widely publish his personal crisis experiences because of the fear of abuse or ridicule. Even Wesley’s Aldersgate experience receives little attention in his published works. The only access we have to Wesley is his published thoughts which were intended for a general audience. We do not know what he may have shared in conversation with his intimate friends. He may have felt too much emphasis on his own experience might cause others to copy it. We also know that the influential mystics in Wesley’s life cautioned their adherents to not talk about their personal experiences because of the threat of pride.

However, the fact that Wesley must have had some measure of Christian perfection can be seen in the lack of personal challenges to him on the subject. Also, as we read his writings, he appears to know personally, experientially what he wrote about and it is difficult to read him without feeling that he in some measure experienced this holiness of heart and life which drove his life.


At 4:43 PM, Blogger Keith Drury said...

Gee, I go hiking for severalmonths and come home to discover you have published a million words or so --of great to catch up!

THANKS Chris... this is good!

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Cassie England said...

This is great. It's like Theology II all over again (and that's not a bad thing!)!

At 5:17 PM, Blogger lmac said...

How can a believer be restored to right relationship with God if he sins (not inward sin, but yields to outward sin)?


Post a Comment

<< Home