John Wesley

I’ve been really impacted by John Wesley here of late. One of the classes I’m taking this semester is called “The Life & Thought of John Wesley.” I’ve been working out of two main books, Responsible Grace by Randy Maddox, and Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard Heitzenrater – both of whom teach at Duke. Heitzenrater is really an historian, he became famous for “breaking the codes” of John Wesley’s personal diaries. I think the story goes that he found a code tucked in some of Benjamin Ingham’s diaries or maybe it was in one of Wesley’s (here’s to going through original source documents). Anyway, he figured out how to decipher what Wesley wrote in codes in his diaries and provided the world with a more complete reading of Wesley than was previously possible. His book really reads more like a complete history of John Wesley and the Methodist movement of 18th Century England.

Maddox works more in theology and Responsible Grace is widely read – published in 6 languages now. It sort of sorts through all of Wesley’s writings to distill from it an actual systematic theology. Wesley was a total practical theologian, though, Maddox points out he hasn’t ever really gotten the credit he deserved in that respect. Here’s just a little of what’s been blowing my mind lately:

– From the Greek orthodox he grabbed hold of this idea that the Western Juridical model of atonement is only half of the story. We certainly need pardon from the penalty of sin, but just as much as we need that we need healed from the plague of sin. Thus there are 2 movements to salvation: first we’re pardoned from the penalty of sin by Christ and secondly, we’re healed by the renewed presence of God. The protestant reformers and their posterity have really only focused on the first movement – to their detriment.
– He supported the view that sin was universal, whether it’s original sin or not, it’s universal. But he just believed that grace was as universal as sin, thus he rejected the idea of unconditional election to salvation and damnation chiefly on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the impartiality of divine justice and mercy. It casts doubt on the sincerity of God.
– Original sin is cancelled out at birth by God’s Prevenient grace. We’re not guilty of Adam’s sin, only our own. He liked the term In-Being sin rather than original sin.
– The nature of salvation is that it is personal, co-operant and gradual. That is, our faith is graciously empowered and inspired but it is not coerced. On the other hand, faith is salvific from the very first moment we stop resisting the overtures of God toward us. Thus Wesley’s big move is really to say salvation and sanctification are linked, they are just two movements of the same thing.

He was a freak but his theology is really working me over right now! Mostly it’s helping me see what was wrong about the Protestant Reformation.

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  • Where would Wesley make a distinction between salvation and justification? Or are you using those two terms interchangeably?

  • My understanding is that Wesley would say something like this. Salvation is a very general term usually meant to describe initial justification. He would differ from the Calvinists (including Whitefield and Edwards) in that he believed grace to be co-operant. In otherwords, God’s grace inspires and enables our human response but does not coerce it. For the Calvinist humans are passive at the moment of conversion. God acts irresistibly upon us and justifies us resulting in our salvation. They work out a specific order called the ordo salutis.(election, predestiniation, gospel call, inward call, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, glorification). Wesley would prefer the term ‘via salutis’ or way of salvation. He would simply say sin is universal, so is grace and thus grace must be resistable.

    On justification, Wesley would actually talk of initial and final justification, which sounds made up but it’s actually really interesting. Initial justification would be synonomous with new birth and he would describe it as a “relational” change between a human and God. Final justification would be a “real” change in the life of a believer and synonomous with Sanctification.

    For Wesley Sanctification is connected to everything, that’s why he called it a via salutis. His major beef with the Calvinists was that their theology made it possible for people to be justified while remaining unchanged by the love of God in all areas of their lives. For Wesley, God’s grace is efficacious from the very first inclinations toward God’s specific overtures toaward us. So we don’t have to respond to an invitation and ask Jesus into our hearts, but we must simply stop resisting the work he is continually trying to do in our lives. I like this because it squares more with what I believe to be the typical way God works in the lives of people.

  • This whole concept of original sin vs. Inbeing/universal sin is a wild one. Takes some time to think about that one, but a good thing to think about.