Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Brief Commentary on The Wesleyan Church's Articles of Religion: Part III

(D) THE DOCTRINE OF SALVATION: ARTICLES 9-14

Article 9: The Atonement

We believe that Christ’s offering of himself, once and for all, through His sufferings and meritorious death on the cross, provides the perfect redemption and atonement for the sins of the whole world, both original and actual. There is no other ground of salvation from sin but that alone. This atonement is sufficient for every individual of Adam’s race. It is unconditionally effective in the salvation of those mentally incompetent from birth, of those converted persons who have become mentally incompetent, and of children under the age of accountability. But it is effective for the salvation of those who reach the age of accountability only when they repent and exercise faith in Christ.

The Wesleyan Church’s Article on the atonement has three decisive points. With consensual orthodox Christianity, Wesleyans believe in the necessity of the atonement. There is no redemption of human beings from their sinful condition and their acts of sin apart from the work of Christ in “his sufferings and meritorious death on the cross.” In distinction from the Reformed and Lutheran traditions, Wesleyans also believe the atonement is unlimited in extent. The atoning work of Christ avails for all sinners and for all sin; it is “sufficient for every individual of Adam’s race.” Finally, this Article alludes to what the next Article (Article 10) makes explicit; the atonement of Christ is conditional in application. Wesleyans believe that the benefits of the atonement are appropriated through repentance and personal faith in Jesus Christ. The atonement is only efficacious for the penitent and believing sinner.

Two other points are worthy of notice in this Article. First is the mention of two types of sin – “original and actual,” both of which will be addressed in greater detail in Articles 11, 13, and 14. By “original sin,” Wesleyans mean the corruption of the moral nature or moral image of God in humanity, the state of spiritual death into which human beings are brought into existence, resulting in humanity’s continual inclination toward evil, although modified by prevenient grace (Article 8). By “actual sin,” Wesleyans mean the concrete acts of sin, arising from the sin nature.

Second, the Wesleyan Church believes in an age of accountability and mental competency. With many Evangelicals, Wesleyans believe the benefits of Christ’s atonement are applied automatically to children until the age of accountability, to those mentally incompetent from birth, and to Christians who have become mentally incompetent. Wesleyan believe these people are given the grace of justification or saving forgiveness.

Although not explicitly stated, underlying the Wesleyan Church’s teaching here is the belief that Christ’s death on the cross removes all guilt attached to original sin for everyone. As a result of Christ’s death, God does not hold humanity responsible for being born with the sin nature. Original sin, in and of itself, will not condemn a person to hell. This divine gift is bestowed upon all through prevenient grace. Therefore, the guilt and penalty for sin arises only when a person willfully and knowingly commits acts of sin. Since children and those “mentally incompetent from birth” are not fully aware of their choices, the grace provided by the atonement is “effective” for them.

A Wesleyan Distinctive#3: Unlimited Atonement
In contrast to the Calvinist tradition, which teaches that Christ died only for those who were chosen by God for salvation, thereby holding to a limited view of the atonement, the Wesleyan Church believes in an unlimited atonement. Christ atoned for all sin and for all sinners. The atoning work of Christ can be appropriated by any human being through repentance and faith, both of which are possible through God’s prevenient grace.

A Wesleyan Distinctive#4: The Absolution of Original Sin
In contrast to the Calvinist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions, the Wesleyan Church believes that one of the universal effects of Christ’s atonement given to every person is absolution of the guilt of original sin, regardless if an individual is a Christian or not. As a result of Christ’s death, God does not hold humanity responsible for being born with the sin nature. Original sin, in and of itself, will not condemn a person to Hell. Only when a person reaches an age or state of responsibility and willfully cooperates with the sin nature is a person held liable and subject to divine judgment. Wesleyans believe this is a part of God’s prevenient grace given to all because of the atonement.

Article 10: Repentance and Faith

We believe that for men and women to appropriate what God’s prevenient grace has made possible, they must voluntarily respond in repentance and faith. The ability comes from God, but the act is the individual’s.

Repentance is prompted by the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. It involves a willful change of mind that renounces sin and longs for righteousness, a godly sorrow for and a confession of past sins, proper restitution for wrongdoings, and a resolution to reform the life. Repentance is the precondition for saving faith, and without it saving faith is impossible. Faith, in turn, is the only condition of salvation. It begins in the agreement of the mind and the consent of the will to the truth of the gospel, but issues in a complete reliance by the whole person in the saving ability of Jesus Christ and a complete trusting of oneself to Him as Savior and Lord. Saving faith is expressed in a public acknowledgment of His Lordship and an identification with His Church.

The Wesleyan Church believes that repentance and faith are the two requirements for appropriating the benefits of Christ’s atonement. With repentance the Wesleyan Church’s focus on God’s initiative in the work of salvation is brought to the fore again. Previously, in Article 8, God’s work in bringing people to Christ was seen in the doctrine of prevenient grace. Now, God’s initiative is seen again in the gift of repenting grace. Wesleyans believe that repentance can only come about in unbelievers through the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit. Specifically, Wesleyans believe repentance involves (A) a willful change of mind that renounces sin and longs for righteousness, (B) a godly sorrow for and a confession of past sins, (C) proper restitution for wrong doings, and (D) a resolution to reform personal life. Wesleyans further believe that repentance is the precondition for saving faith, without which saving faith is impossible.

With this understanding of repentance, the Wesleyan Church believes that saving faith is the only immediate condition of salvation. Wesleyans believe that the ability to exercise saving faith is not a natural inherent power in humanity as a result of original sin, but is a gift of grace. Specifically, Wesleyans have a threefold understanding of saving faith; it is (A) an assent of the will to the truth of the Gospel; it is (B) a wholehearted trust in the “saving ability of Jesus Christ” and it is (C) a personal surrender of life to Christ. The Wesleyan Church believes that saving faith is expressed in a public acknowledgment of Christ and active participation in a local church.

Article 11: Justification, Regeneration and Adoption

We believe that when one repents of personal sin and believes on the Lord Jesus Christ, that at the same moment that person is justified, regenerated, adopted into the family of God, and assured of personal salvation through the witness of the Holy Spirit.

We believe that justification is the judicial act of God whereby a person is accounted righteous, granted full pardon of all sin, delivered from guilt, completely released from the penalty of sins committed, by the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith alone, not on the basis of works.

We believe that regeneration, or the new birth, is that work of the Holy Spirit whereby, when one truly repents and believes, one’s moral nature is given a distinctively spiritual life with the capacity for love and obedience. This new life is received by faith in Jesus Christ, it enables the pardoned sinner to serve God with the will and affections of the heart, and by it the regenerate are delivered from the power of sin which reigns over all the unregenerate.

We believe that adoption is the act of God by which the justified and regenerated believer becomes a partaker of all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of a child of God.

In the tradition of Evangelical Protestantism, the Wesleyan Church believes in the necessity of personal conversion. Specifically, Article 11 identifies four concomitants of conversion, although the fourth, assurance of salvation is not addressed in this Article or in any other Wesleyan Article of Religion. The four concomitants are (A) justification, (B) adoption, (C) regeneration, and (D) assurance of salvation. Because the doctrine of Christian assurance is not developed, focus is placed on the first three components of conversion.

In the moment when people exercise saving faith, the Wesleyan Church teaches that God justifies, regenerates and adopts a person. Specifically, in justification, Wesleyans believe 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. Justification is mentioned first because it is the gateway to the other concomitants, making possible the rest of the work of salvation.

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, Wesleyans teach that Christians are set free from willful sin; the power of sin is broken. This is a strong understanding of regeneration, much stronger than normally portrayed in other Christian theological traditions. The Wesleyan Church understands regeneration as initial sanctification, which will be addressed in greater detail in Article 14.

In adoption, Wesleyans believe that human beings are brought into the family of God as daughters and sons, becoming heirs with Christ Jesus to the Kingdom of God, and have confident access to the throne of God. In adoption, believers become partakers in all of the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of a child of God.

A Wesleyan Distinctive#5: A High View of Regeneration (New Birth)
Among the major Protestant denominations, The Wesleyan Church has the highest view of conversion. Wesleyans expect that as a result of the new birth a person is liberated from willful sin and is enabled to live a life of obedience to Jesus Christ. The power of outward sin is broken. While the nature of sin, original sin, still remains, manifesting itself in an internal orientation to sin, people who have experienced the new birth are able to “live above” their sinful internal desires and be victorious over them.

A Short Historical Explanation of the Doctrine of Christian Assurance

In regard to the Wesleyan teaching on Christian assurance, because the Articles of Religion mention the doctrine, but do not develop it, a short historical explanation may be helpful. John Wesley believed that those who had been pardoned and accepted by God through faith would not be left without an assurance of their right standing before God. Assurance is a witness to the Christian’s relationship with God as Father.

Specifically, Wesley’s doctrine of the assurance of salvation is grounded in his understanding of Romans 8:16, “For the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” As such he taught that there are two participants: God’s Spirit and the human spirit. God’s Spirit is the subjective witness, the “inward impression upon the soul” testifying to the human heart that a person is a child of God, that a person has been brought into a right relationship with God and is in a right relationship with God. This inward impression may bring feelings or joy or a sense of forgiveness and confidence in relationship with God or it may not. It is a gift of God that God gives.

The human “spirit” is the objective witness. In the examination of inward attitudes and outward action under the direction of the teaching of Holy Scriptures, people can see if there is evidence of the new birth in their lives. For example, is there freedom from willful sin? Has the power of sin been broken? Is the fruit of the Spirit being made manifest? In this way people can begin to objectively discern whether regeneration has occurred or not. For Wesley, Christian assurance is ultimately an inner experience with objective quality.

A Wesleyan Distinctive#6: Assurance of Present Salvation, not Future
In contrast to common evangelical teaching on assurance of salvation, often associated with teachings on “eternal security,” Wesleyans believe that assurance of salvation is an assurance of present salvation and not final salvation. Christians can know they are presently saved, but because final salvation is contingent upon continued faith and cooperation with divine grace, there can not be any confidence about final salvation. Wesleyans believe that people can experience progress in the way of salvation by cooperating with divine grace; likewise, people can regress in the way of salvation through refusing to cooperate with divine grace. Therefore, while people can know that they are presently Christians, if they do not continue to cooperate with divine grace, they may find themselves in a place where they no longer have faith and are no longer Christians.

Article 12: Good Works

We believe that although good works cannot save us from our sins or from God’s judgment, they are the fruit of faith and follow after regeneration. Therefore they are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and by them a living faith may be as evidently known as a tree is discerned by its fruit.

With the Protestant tradition, the Wesleyan Church teaches that people can not be saved through good works. Good works contribute nothing to obtaining God’s pardon and redemption from sin. People can only be saved by divine grace through faith. However, Wesleyans believe that good works are a sign of personal conversion, the “fruit” of new birth, and are pleasing to God. If good works are not occurring in Christian’s life, then a person’s conversion is suspect.

Article 13: Sin after Regeneration

We believe that after we have experienced regeneration, it is possible to fall into sin, for in this life there is no such height or strength of holiness from which it is impossible to fall. But by the grace of God one who has fallen into sin may by true repentance and faith find forgiveness and restoration.

Three key ideas, distinctive in the Wesleyan Church’s doctrinal teaching, are found in this Article. First, the Article points back to Article 11, underscoring a high view of conversion: The Wesleyan Church believes regeneration sets a person free from willful sin. Willful sin is “possible,” but is not the norm of Christian life. If willful sin occurs, then forgiveness and restoration occur through repentance and faith.

Second, the Article demonstrates how seriously the Wesleyan Church takes deliberate sin. Wesleyans do not treat willful sin lightly. A volitional “transgression of a known law of God” brings about a dangerous breach in a Christian’s relationship with God, which left unchecked by true repentance can result in alienation from God once again.

Finally, as has been intimated already, the Article points to the Wesleyan idea that personal salvation can be lost through lack of true repentance over sin. Justification, regeneration, and adoption are contingent upon continued faith and cooperation with divine grace. Wesleyans believe that people can experience progress in the way of salvation by cooperating with divine grace; likewise, people can regress in the way of salvation through refusing to cooperate with divine grace. Therefore, if they do not continue to cooperate with divine grace, they may find themselves in a place where they no longer have faith and are no longer Christians.

A Wesleyan Distinctive#7: The Loss of Salvation (A Rejection of Eternal Security)
In contrast to the Reformed and Lutheran understanding of “perseverance of the saints” and the Baptist teaching on the “eternal security” of believers, The Wesleyan Church teaches that Christians can “fall from grace.” Because the work of salvation involves human cooperation, a cooperation made possible through prevenient grace, a Christian can decide to no longer cooperate with God’s grace and turn away from God. Wesleyans believe people can be genuinely converted and then turn away from God and forfeit the salvation He offers.

Article 14: Sanctification: Initial, Progressive, Entire

We believe that sanctification is that work of the Holy Spirit by which the child of God is separated from sin unto God and is enabled to love God with all the heart and to walk in all His holy commandments blameless. Sanctification is initiated at the moment of justification and regeneration. From that moment there is a gradual or progressive sanctification as the believer walks with God and daily grows in grace and in a more perfect obedience to God. This prepares for the crisis of entire sanctification which is wrought instantaneously when believers present themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, through faith in Jesus Christ, being effected by the baptism with the Holy Spirit who cleanses the heart from all inbred sin. The crisis of entire sanctification perfects the believer in love and empowers that person for effective service. It is followed by lifelong growth in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The life of holiness continues through faith in the sanctifying blood of Christ and evidences itself by loving obedience to God’s revealed will.

Expressed in the most general terms, the Wesleyan Church teaches that sanctification entails 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 Wesleyan Church believes the ultimate end of the Spirit's work is to bring about holiness, making humanity like God, and enabling humanity to perfectly love God and neighbor. When the Spirit takes residence in human lives in regeneration, what Wesleyans call 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.

Wesleyans believe this eventually leads Christians to a crisis experience. 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. With their high view of conversion, Wesleyans believe new Christians may not be able to initially detect the inward sin that remains in them. The momentum of their conversions may make them 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 their “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. Wesleyans believe that as Christians begin to struggle against their internal sin, they come to realize there is little they can do about it. They recognize their state of sin, repent of it, and are frustrated by it. They are brought finally to the realization that if they are going to be delivered from this “nature” of sin in the present life, then God will have to do it. In this crisis moment, Wesleyans teach that Christians can throw themselves on the mercy of Christ by (A) consecrating themselves entirely to God and (B) exercising faith in Christ to deliver them.

At this point, in a second work of grace, called in this Article “baptism with the Holy Spirit,” the Spirit (A) cleanses believers from the internal nature of sin or original sin, setting them free from a divided heart, (B) enabling them free to love God with all their “heart, soul, mind, and strength” and to love others as themselves, and (C) empowering them for faithful service. 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.

This Wesleyan Article makes clear that entire sanctification is not a static state in Christians. 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 to others, 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, there is an increasing intensification or a deepening of love and holiness in a person who has been entirely sanctified.

A Wesleyan Distinctive#8: Entire Sanctification in the Present Life
In comparison with all other major Christian traditions, The Wesleyan Church has the most optimistic view on sanctification. Wesleyans teach that Christians can experience entire sanctification now, in the present moment, through an act of entire consecration and faith, whereby believers surrender their lives to the lordship of Christ and trust God to purify and empower them. Entire sanctification is a synergism in which the work of consecration and faith by a Christian is met immediately by the Holy Spirit’s deliverance from the inner propensity to sin (the sin nature), enabling the believer to “love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength” and love neighbor as self, and making possible obedience to Christ with an undivided heart. However, entire sanctification does not free Christians from mistakes in understanding and judgment or what are commonly called “sins of infirmity.”

5 Comments:

At 4:01 PM, Blogger Keith.Drury said...

This is undoubtedly the most helpful "commentary" I've ever read on the Wesleyan articles of Religion. Kudos Chris!

 
At 3:41 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...

Thanks Keith.

One of the things I appreciate about Roman Catholicism is that they revisit and revise their catechism. They take their theological statements seriously by reflecting upon them and revising them if necessary.

The Wesleyan Articles, as well as the Articles and Confessions in the Wesleyan-Arminian traditions, have depths and riches in them to be plumbed, as well as the need for revision. As you know the Articles of Religion we originally received from Wesley were his edited revision of the Anglican Church's 39 Articles. Wesley took the time to study, reflect, and revise the articles.

I think we would do well to do the same...it would, from my perspective, help start a theological reflection and discussion among Wesleyans, on important theological truths that we spend little time thinking about, like ecclesiology or the nature of conversion. We would have the opportunity to once again reflect on what we have in common with ecumenical Christianity, what we have in common with evangelicals, and what distinctive message God has given to us as Wesleyans to share with the world.

From my perspective, biblical and theological dialogue and reflection is healthy and beneficial and .... a sign of a genuine movement of the Holy Spirit.

 
At 12:03 PM, Blogger Micah Dormann said...

Thanks for still teaching me...I'm learning alot from your blog especially with this commentary...Great Stuff!!!

 
At 3:27 AM, Blogger Chris Bounds said...

Micah,

Thanks. I have been following your life and ministry through your blog. I thank God for you and your ministry!

Chris

 
At 7:44 AM, Blogger dwoodrum said...

Chris, I can't tell you how grateful I am to have found your blog. This information is obscure to most of us, and your writing makes it all so very clear. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!
I would love to know where you learned all of this, and why you put it together on your blog. I've begun sharing it with all my Christian friends who are interested in "entire sanctification" and understanding Calvinism and Arminianism. This has blessed me more than I can say!

 

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