Wednesday, August 30, 2006

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


I have been working on “A Brief Commentary of The Wesleyan Church’s Articles of Religion.” It has been quickly written and is in rough form. I have tried to write it with the purpose of introducing the Wesleyan Church’s doctrinal statements to anybody interested in the official doctrinal teaching of The Wesleyan Church. As such, this is not a critique of the Articles, but is meant to be a sympathetic reading and explanation of them (which is my natural disposition toward them:>). In a future post, I will address a list of inconsistencies, problems, and needs for clarification in the Articles, which is natural to a body of doctrinal statements, edited and amended over a long period of time, and is the reason why denominations need to revisit all of their doctrinal statements, not just individual statements, from time to time.


The Articles of Religion of The Wesleyan Church are rooted in the consensually orthodox tradition of historic Christianity, the fundamental emphases of evangelical Protestantism, and the doctrinal distinctives of Wesleyan-Arminian theology. With historic Christianity, our Articles are informed by the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the classical statements of the Christian faith. Therefore, we affirm such doctrines as the Trinity, the two natures of Jesus Christ, and the bodily resurrection of the dead. With evangelical Protestantism, our Articles are shaped by certain priorities. Among them are the primacy of Holy Scriptures in all matters of faith and practice, salvation by grace through faith, and the necessity of new birth or personal conversion. With Wesleyan-Arminianism, our Articles reflect a particular bias in doctrinal differences among Christian denominations and traditions. For example, we believe that every human being potentially can be saved; Christians can fall from grace; and people can be freed in the present life from the power of sin.

The purpose of our commentary is to introduce you to the Wesleyan Church’s twenty-one Articles of Religion, the official beliefs of our denomination, and assist you in understanding their ecumenical nature, their evangelical focus and their doctrinal distinctives. Therefore, our commentary will not be exhaustive of all Wesleyan teaching; it will not cover every theological topic, but will be limited to what the Articles actually state. Specifically, we will cite each Article of Religion, offer a cursory explanation of its primary ideas, and highlight the Wesleyan doctrinal distinctives when they are addressed.


The twenty-one Articles of Religion in the Wesleyan Church are placed into six discernable doctrinal groups: (A) Articles 1-4 address the doctrine of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, (B) Article 5 sets forth an understanding of Holy Scriptures and identifies the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, (C) Articles 6-8 summarize the doctrine of humanity, (D) Articles 9-14 contain statements on salvation, (E) Articles 15-17 address issues related to the Church, and (F) Articles 18-21 conclude with eschatological concerns.


Article 1: Faith in the Holy Trinity

We believe in the one living and true God, both holy and loving, eternal, unlimited in power, wisdom and goodness, the Creator and Preserver of all things. Within this unity there are three persons of one essential nature, power and eternity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

With consensual orthodox Christianity, Wesleyans teach that there is one God in three co-equal persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. However, the Father is distinguishable from the Son, and the Son is distinguishable from the Spirit. Each divine person has all that properly belongs to the divine nature: eternality, omnipotence, wisdom, goodness, holiness, love, as well as other attributes not listed in this article. The persons of the Trinity can be distinguished, but not separated. Their distinction is not in nature, for they share one divine nature without separation into parts; rather, their distinction is in relationship with one another: the Father begets the Son and the Father with the Son breathes the Holy Spirit.

Article 2: The Father

We believe the Father is the Source of all that exists, whether of matter or spirit. With the Son and the Holy Spirit, He made man, male and female, in His image. By intention He relates to people as Father, thereby forever declaring His goodwill toward them. In love, He both seeks and receives penitent sinners.

Three ideas about God the Father are either explicitly stated or implied here, when read in light of the other Wesleyan Articles on the Trinity. First, while the Wesleyan Church recognizes that each divine person is eternal, without beginning or end, and equal with one another, Wesleyans teach that the Son is begotten of the Father (Article 3), and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Article 4). As such, the Father is the source of the Son’s eternal generation and the Father with the Son is the source of the Spirit’s eternal procession.

Second, this article corresponds with the first statement of the Apostle’s Creed that recognizes the Father as “creator of heaven and earth.” With the universal Church, Wesleyans believe that God the Father with the Son and the Holy Spirit created all things, bringing them into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo). God is the uncreated, original cause of creation and the “preserver of all things” (Article 1). The created order would not exist or continue in existence without God.

Finally, this article addresses the creation of humanity in the image of God and that the “Source of all that exists” relates to humanity as a loving Father. While there is no elaboration on what is meant for humanity to be made in “His image,” Articles 6-8 will address this more explicitly.

Article 3: The Son of God

We believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, truly God and truly man. He died on the cross and was buried, to be a sacrifice both for original sin and for all human transgressions, and to reconcile us to God. Christ rose bodily from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and there intercedes for us at the Father’s right hand until He returns to judge all humanity at the last day.

In agreement with classical Christian creeds, the Wesleyan Church confesses that in the incarnation the eternal Son of God, who in nature is one with the Father and the Spirit, equal to them in dignity, glory and power, became fully human to redeem fallen humanity. As such, Jesus Christ is “truly” divine and “truly” human. His divine nature and person is eternal, without beginning. All that constitutes the divine nature belongs to Jesus Christ. However, his human nature is begotten in time, having its origin with the Holy Spirit’s miraculous work in the Virgin Mary. By “truly” human Wesleyans mean that Jesus assumed a body and soul. The eternal Son of God took unto himself the whole of human nature and everything attendant to it.

The rehearsal of the ministry of Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity is outlined in this article, reminiscent of the Apostles’ Creed: incarnation, death, bodily resurrection, ascension into heaven, on-going intercession on behalf of humanity, second coming, and final judgment. The atoning work of Christ is brought to the fore in this Article for special emphasis, highlighting the particular importance of this doctrine, and is developed in greater detail in Article 8.

Article 4: The Holy Spirit

We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son, and is of the same essential nature, majesty, and glory, as the Father and the Son, truly and eternally God. He is the Administrator of grace to all, and is particularly the effective Agent in conviction for sin, in regeneration, in sanctification, and in glorification. He is ever present, assuring, preserving, guiding, and enabling the believer.

In agreement with the Athanasian Creed, the Wesleyan Article on the Holy Spirit makes clear that the Holy Spirit is a divine person, not an impersonal force in the created order or merely an attribute of God. He has the same nature as the Father and the Son and is equal to them in dignity, glory and power. While the Father is distinguished in the Godhead by being unbegotten, the Son in being begotten by the Father, following the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, in distinction from Eastern Orthodoxy, the Wesleyans teach that the Spirit is distinguished by his eternal procession from the Father and the Son.

The Wesleyan Church further teaches that the Holy Spirit is the personal agent through whom God the Father and God the Son operate in the created order and in the lives of people. All of the benefits of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and intersession for humanity are applied to individuals and communities through the Holy Spirit: conviction of sin, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification.

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.

Monday, August 14, 2006

John Wesley's Doctrine of Salvation: Part Three



Previously, we examined Wesley’s ordo salutis addressing prevenient grace, convicting grace/repentance, faith, and the new birth (justification, adoption, regeneration). We also focused upon the historical development of Wesley’s doctrine of justification and atonement. Now our attention will turn to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian assurance or what he often called the “witness of the Spirit.” We will begin with Wesley teaching on the doctrine and then examine the social-historical context in which he develops his doctrine.


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. To begin, Wesley’s doctrine of the assurance of salvation was 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 our 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 as He chooses. Our spirit is the objective witness. In an examination of our heart and lives under the direction of the teaching of scripture we can see if there is evidence of the new birth in our lives. Ultimately, for Wesley the assurance of salvation is an inner experience with objective quality.

Next, Wesley believed that assurance of salvation was the privilege of every believer, but every believer may not have this assurance. The assurance of salvation is not necessary to salvation. As such Wesley believed that the witness of the Spirit is “remotely necessary” after justification, but not immediately necessary to the new birth as faith is. Again, as stated earlier, this assurance is a gift of God that God gives as he chooses. Wesley states in this regard, “But that, as to the transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth them, according to the counsels of his own will.”

Finally, Wesley believed that the witness of the Spirit or assurance of salvation is a testimony 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. Wesley believed 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. Generally this does not happen in a moment, but in an on-going, day by day refusal to cooperate with the grace God makes available. So people can know that presently they are in a right relationship with God, but may not be five years from now.


As we examine John Wesley’s doctrine of assurance, we need to keep in mind the context in which Wesley develops his understanding. First, in regard to the larger context of the Roman Catholic tradition arising from the Council of Trent there is no doctrine of the assurance of salvation and no teaching on the witness of the Spirit in the work of salvation. Salvation was primarily by merit and the only way a Catholic could have any confidence in being saved was by active participation in penance. The Roman Catholic tradition at the time of Wesley could not begin to relate to an idea of people “knowing” they are saved. Second, in regard to the Anglican context of Wesley’s day, as has already been intimated, the focus was on reason and works in the doctrine of salvation. Justification was earned. As such, the doctrine of subjective assurance was seen as a form of “enthusiasm,” a form of “subversive and radical” experientialism. There was an underlying fear of emotion. Any form of subjective experience of assurance was denounced, as seen in Bishop George Bull’s appraisal of assurance as a “horrid thing” and his testimony that at best he could testify that “I am probably saved.” Finally, more specifically, in the Epworth parsonage in which Wesley grew up, any doctrine of assurance was not taught. The way Wesley would come to articulate his doctrine of assurance would not have been known by Wesley’s parents during his years in their care.

The most formative influence in Wesley’s life in the discovery and development of the doctrine of assurance was his contact and interaction with the Moravians. During his missionary journey to the American colonies, in the midst of a severe storm with the threat of the ship’s destruction, Wesley observed a group of Moravians who exhibited perfect peace and confidence. They had an assurance of salvation. This assurance of salvation by the Moravians was further clarified for Wesley through his conversations with Peter Bohler when he had returned to England. Through Bohler, Wesley became convinced of this assurance, while he himself has not experienced it yet. However this assurance would come to him in his Aldersgate experience. Wesley testifies, ““In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there, what I now first felt in my heart.” In Wesley’s first sermon after Aldersgate, “Salvation by Faith,” Wesley argues that assurance is not rational, rather it is a disposition or expression of the heart that has been saved from guilt and fear. Biblically, Wesley saw the doctrine of assurance in (a) Hebrews 6:11 which speaks of the “full assurance of hope” of eternal salvation, (b) Hebrews 10:22 which states, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance…” and Romans 8:16, “For the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

Initially, Wesley believed as did the Moravians that assurance of salvation was necessary for salvation. However, as Wesley matured he began to observe that human personality comes to play in the work of assurance. As such, assurance may come more easily to some than others. At times and places in a believer’s life there may be a stronger assurance of salvation than at other times and there may be times in which a believer has little or no assurance at all. While his doctrine of assurance was critiqued and ridiculed by many of his Anglican peers, Wesley continually defended it as a biblical teaching that was the privilege of every believer.

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.