Show me a church’s doctrine on grace, and I’ll show you the character and identity of that church. I don’t think I’m using a great deal of hyperbole when I say that. How people interpret grace matters, because any interpretation of God’s grace is ultimately an interpretation of God’s character.

John Wesley did not invent the concept of grace. For that matter, neither did Augustine, Pelagius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Jacobus Arminius.  But of each of these master theologians, I find Wesley’s view of grace to be the most complete, compelling, and Scripturally sound.

What strikes me most about Wesley’s view of grace is its ability to balance God’s sovereignty with the importance of human will, its willingness to see justification as more than a transaction, and its audacious claim that the Kingdom begins working in us and through us long before our passing. “Salvation for John Wesley encompasses the entire progression from original sin to the full recovery of the image of God in Christian perfection.[1]” It is one grace, with three distinctions: it is prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying[2]. The purpose of this blog is to offer an overview of Wesley’s holistic understanding of grace, showing how it frees the human will, breaks us from the bonds of sin, and empowers us for the life that God has called us to live.

Free Will vs. Freed Will: Prevenient Grace

There is a longstanding debate in the church universal, at least since the time of Augustine and Pelagius, on whether human beings are capable of following God of their own accord or can only do so by God’s choosing. Over the years, this discussion has come to be framed as a debate between “free will” and “predestination.” The argument is closely tied to the doctrines of original sin and total depravity, which even “the Wesleys firmly held to.”[3] According to the doctrine of original sin, all of humanity is born sinful.  And according to the doctrine of total depravity, all sinners are incapable of doing anything holy, especially anything holy enough to merit their own salvation. Using the two doctrines in concert, the case has been made that only those God has predestined for salvation can escape the deadly sin/depravity loop.

For the most part, any argument made for the continuing positive agency of the human will has been seen either as an attempt to downplay the power of sin or as an attack on God’s sovereignty. Before Wesley, there were really only two understandings of grace in Christendom: either human beings, being sinful, have lost their free will where righteousness is concerned, and are therefore incapable of affecting their own salvation, or sin wasn’t really so bad in the first place, making Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross superfluous.

Wesley wasn’t a fan of this “either, or” mindset. While he agreed with most of his contemporaries understanding of grace (that is, that it justified and sanctified sinners), he began to articulate that this understanding was incomplete. Surely God’s grace did justify sinners and make them holy, but what if it did more? What if it somehow reactivated human freedom? God picking and choosing some for salvation based on no merit of their own and others for the pits of hell, he argued, was “blasphemy.[4]”  God’s grace was available to all, and began with the liberation of the human will. Wesleyan Christians don’t believe so much in a “free will” by which they are holy by their own merits, but in a “freed will”, that is, a will that has been liberated by God. Hence we are able to choose whether or not to follow God because this grace “restores to our understanding a general sense of right or wrong (giving us a conscience)…and it restores a measure of liberty, enabling us to act in conformity with conscience and contrary to our sinful will.”[5]

This distinctively Wesleyan tenet is called “prevenient” or “preventing” grace. It is the grace that “comes before and…points beyond itself to redemptive graces.[6]” According to Wesley, “everyone has some measure of [God’s] light, some faint glimmering ray, which, sooner or later, more or less, enlightens every [person] that comes into the world.”[7]

Again, this is about “freed will”, not “free will.” That is, “it is God who saves, but humans must cooperate.”[8] God initiates grace and the prevenient nature of it makes human response possible. It isn’t so much that grace is enabled by faith, but that “faith is enabled by grace.”[9] “A measure of free will” has been “supernaturally restored to every [person], together with that supernatural light which enlightens every [person] that come(s) into the world.” [10] The grace given us by Christ’s actions on the cross and through the empty tomb not only sanctify and justify the few, but make sanctification and justification a possibility for all. “To affirm prevenient grace is to say that God is actively loving all of humanity.”[11] This is a beautiful picture of God’s grace that, in my view, accurately reflects the nature of God’s character, and, most of all, God’s love for humanity.

Broken Chains: Justifying Grace

Justification is probably the aspect of grace that Christians think they understand most. Actually, justifying grace seems to be the most agreed upon tenet in all of Christendom from my own limited experience. Christian groups might disagree on how exactly one is “saved”, but very few Christians will dispute the fact that grace is what “pardons us and restores us to right relationship with God.”[12] Jesus’ death and resurrection have made atonement with God a possibility, and we are justified when we enter into a relational trust to follow God based on Jesus’ actions.

Most Christians would be satisfied with this definition of justifying grace. And that’s okay, because this is exactly what justifying grace does. We are pardoned of our sins. We are restored. We take on Jesus’ righteousness as our very own. There is “a change in humanity’s relationship to God.[13]” But many times, we let it stop there. Wesley wouldn’t; he saw it as something bigger.

Much of the language we use refers to justification as a one-time event or transaction leading to some future glory. In other words, Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven someday. But this isn’t how Wesley viewed justification. Wesley saw justification through the lens of the new birth. Hence, it didn’t start in the next life, but anytime someone was “born again.” For Wesley, it’s about “actual deliverance from sin in present life; it issues into a new birth which begins maturation into the fullness of Christian living.”[14]

Remember, there is one grace, not three. Justifying grace flows out of the grace that came before (prevenient grace) and the grace that is to come (sanctifying grace). “Having been convicted by the Holy Spirit through the instrumentality of the moral law…sinners are open to the renewal of the deeper graces of God.”[15] Grace goes before the sinner, making it possible for them to be convicted of their sin and drawn into true repentance. In Wesley’s theology, repentance is a necessary component of justifying grace, which isn’t just an interior process limited to one’s own heart: it requires “outward expressions of inward contrition and grace”.[16] In that sense, justification and sanctification overlap as well.

Wesley took a generally agreed upon theological tenet (the tenet of justifying grace) and showed how it could be better understood. Seeing the justifying nature of grace flow into and out of its prevenient and sanctifying nature is beginning to give us a much clearer picture of how grace works. But we’re just getting started…

Empowered Living: Sanctifying Grace

Aside from his doctrine of prevenient grace, which I find to be one of the most beautiful doctrines in the history of Christian theology, Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification may have been his most radical. Wesley taught, contrary to the Anglican Church of his day, that Christian perfection was a thing to be attained in this life. I think this statement is just as audacious today as it was in Wesley’s day. Think about it: most people view their faith in terms of either orthodoxy (right thinking) or orthopraxy (right actions.)  Wesley was talking about something different: transformation. Let’s face it: transformation is something modern mainline churches would rather not touch. That’s the kind of thing you’re more likely to see in the 12 step program that meets in their basement.

Wesley was all about this transformation. “The new birth begins sanctification, which consists of growing in love for God and neighbor along with all other accompanying holy tempers. Thus the new birth is the actual beginning of our being restored to the image of God.”[17] For Wesley, grace wasn’t static. We were either in the process of being drawn to God, being saved by God, or being transformed by God. Once one has been born again, the Spirit is at work in us to seek “the complete and mature embodiment of the life of faith.”[18] While “God may accept people just as they are, he never leaves them just as they are.”[19] Transformation is a vital part of being Christian.

This process of sanctifying grace moving one towards Christian perfection was both instantaneous and gradual. Although “the timing belongs to God, we should nonetheless look to receive (Christian perfection) at any moment with hopeful expectancy.[20]” For Wesley, sanctification is the entire point. It is the “goal, or true end, of human life.[21]” It not only brought about holiness, but happiness as well.[22] Wesley’s idea of Christian perfection was the most distinctive aspect of his theology, both shocking the sensibilities of the Protestants of his day and reflecting the practical nature of his faith[23].

Sanctifying grace is an undervalued tenet in today’s church. We rarely speak of it, and, in some Christian circles, I’d venture to say we don’t even believe it’s possible. But when trying to imagine a church filled with people who have experienced “real change, where righteousness is imparted,” experiencing “freedom from the power of sin” and being transformed from people of sin to holiness, growing “toward having the mind of Christ[24]”, I can’t help but be filled with hope. Maybe that’s what Wesley saw. Maybe that’s what Jesus sees.

Wesleyan grace in the 21st Century

Having reviewed Wesley’s doctrine of grace, we’re faced with a difficult question: is there room for Wesley’s doctrine of grace in the 21st Century? A cursory glance at the American church would seem to indicate it’s not practiced much. Neo-Calvinist and Reformed churches seem to be on the rise, while churches in the Wesleyan tradition (outside the holiness movement) seem to be in the decline. This doesn’t bode well for Christianity as a whole, as those views of grace (in my opinion) can easily distort the image of God into that of a monster. In a world where one of the biggest questions non-believers pose to the church concern the issue of theodicy, the love, character, and sovereignty of God should all be on display, as well as the freedom God has restored to his creatures. Wesley’s view of grace, properly articulated, addresses these all of these issues while rightly portraying God’s character.

But in the end, it’s not God’s character I’m worried about: it’s the churches’. We’ve begun to treat the ideas of sanctifying grace and Christian perfection like fairy tales. Transformation isn’t a goal most people are willing to embrace. They’d rather just be who they are and do what they do, no matter how sinful, pausing every Sunday (and sometimes Wednesday) to put on a show. Cultural Christianity has turned following Jesus into a business transaction, and once people think they’ve been set right with God, they see little reason to keep cooperating with grace.

Grace was purchased at a great cost. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced, and it has changed my life. God pursued me through Jesus’ actions on the cross and through his vacated empty tomb, saved me, and is transforming me into his likeness. It’s sometimes a painful process, but the faithful, like Wesley, must keep the end results of this transformation firmly in their minds. Despite inadequacies and obstacles,they strive to be what God has called them to be. May we all do the same!

 

[1] Knight III, Henry H. Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals (Cascade Books: Eugene, 2014), p. 21

 

[2] Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002), p. 157

[3] Knight III, Henry H. Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals (Cascade Books: Eugene, 2014), p. 17

 

[4] Wesley, John, “Free Grace” from John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology by Outler, Albert and Heitzenrater, Richard P. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1987)

[5] Knight III, Henry H. Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals (Cascade Books: Eugene, 2014) p. 21

[6] Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abindgon Press: Nashville, 2007), p. 76

[7] Ibid, p. 74

[8] Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002)

[9] Oden, Thomas C. John Wesley’s Teachings: Volume 2, Christ and Salvation (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2012) p. 61

[10] Langford, Thomas A. Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1998) p. 27

[11] Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002)

[12] Ibid, p. 159

[13] Ibid, p. 178

[14] Langford, Thomas A. Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1998)

[15] Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abindgon Press: Nashville, 2007)

[16] Ibid, p. 157

[17] Knight III, Henry H. Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals (Cascade Books: Eugene, 2014), p. 23

 

[18] Oden, Thomas C. John Wesley’s Teachings: Volume 2, Christ and Salvation (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2012), p. 73

[19] Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002), p. 179

[20] Knight III, Henry H. Anticipating Heaven Below: Optimism of Grace from Wesley to the Pentecostals (Cascade Books: Eugene, 2014)

[21] Langford, Thomas A. Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1998)

[22] Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abindgon Press: Nashville, 2007)

[23] Ibid, p. 34

[24] Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2002), p. 179