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Christian Theologies of SalvationA Comparative Introduction$

Justin S. Holcomb

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780814724439

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814724439.001.0001

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John Wesley

John Wesley

(p.261) 16 John Wesley
Christian Theologies of Salvation
Thomas H. McCall
NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the teachings of John Wesley, one of the most influential men of the eighteenth century. Wesley’s theology of salvation, though not unique in Christian history, is an important and unmistakably Protestant view, rooted in the theology of the early church, though with an emphasis on God’s universal salvific will together with unlimited atonement.

Keywords:   salvation, John Wesley, atonement

John Wesley (1703–1791) and Charles Wesley (1707–1788) were co-founders of the Methodist movement, the former a noted preacher and the latter a hymn-writer poet. Sons of the Anglican clergyman, Samuel Wesley, and the incomparable Susanna, both were educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and ordained to the priesthood of the Church of England. They spearheaded a movement of renewal in the life of the eighteenth-century church combining a warm-hearted evangelical piety and a dynamic Eucharistic fervor. Charles founded the so-called Holy Club while a student at Oxford, the leadership of which was taken over by John.

John traveled more than 250,000 miles on horseback during his lifetime, preaching a message of faith working by love across the British Isles. In 1745, John and Charles jointly published Hymns on the Lord’s Supper, a collection of 166 hymns that expound their Eucharistic theology. The spirituality of both brothers revolved around the concept of perfect love, or Christian perfection. John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, often considered his magnum opus, summarizes his teaching on the subject. His Journal, letters, sermons, and treatises are available in many editions.


John Wesley’s doctrine of salvation is not utterly unique in the history of Christian thought (recognizing this, he regarded it as a good thing). Nor is it a carbon copy of some earlier view. Instead, it is eclectic; it is unmistakably Protestant in some very important ways (perhaps most notably with respect to the doctrine of justification), but it is also grounded in the theology of the early church while incorporating important themes (p.262) from Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology (particularly with respect to the doctrine of sanctification).1 His soteriology does, however, have several powerful emphases that make it distinctive.

The Theological Framework of Wesley’s Soteriology

Wesley is utterly convinced that humans are created in the image of the Triune God—and he is just as confident that the purpose for that creation is nothing less than communion with the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Wesley says, “God is love: accordingly man at his creation was full of love … God is full of justice, mercy, and truth; so was man when he came from the hands of his Creator.” Humanity was made for fellowship and communion with the Triune God whose essence is holy love; they were created full of “righteousness and true holiness.”2 He is also certain that humans have turned away from their Creator in rebellion and thus have “fallen,” that they are desperate and helpless sinners, and that they cannot save or redeem themselves. Indeed, he says that his own doctrine of sin is not even a “hairs-breadth” different from John Calvin’s doctrine,3 and he says that humanity is “filled with all manner of evil,” “wholly fallen,” and “totally corrupted.”4 Thus, we cannot save ourselves; if we are to have any hope of salvation, it is by divine action. And the good news—the gospel, for Wesley—is precisely this: God indeed has taken decisive and drastic action for us. The Triune God, whose essence is holy love, has poured out his grace upon us. This grace first prepares the way,5 and it then convicts of sin, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies. We are saved for nothing less than communion with the Triune God, and thus we are saved from the sin that would separate us from God’s holy love.

Predestination and Election

Wesley’s soteriology is marked by pointed differences between the common “Reformed” (or “Calvinist”) views of predestination and his own understanding of the doctrines of election and predestination. Specifically, he disagrees with the doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace as these are expressed in such confessional statements as the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster (p.263) Confession of Faith (as well, of course, as prominent theologians such as Calvin, Piscatorius, Twisse, Vermigli, Zanchi, and Zwingli).6 He understands the appeal of the standard Reformed accounts. After all, many Christians seem to experience something like “irresistible grace” in their own conversions and should desire that God take all the credit in salvation. And, of course, there are various biblical texts that may be interpreted in ways that support the Reformed doctrines.7 He insists upon the importance of the “catholic spirit” in these discussions. Clearly he recognizes that “Calvinists” are members of the same family or body and are deserving of deep respect and even affection. Indeed, Wesley affirms that “many Calvinists are pious, learned, and sensible men,” and he exclaimed that it is both “sin and folly” to use the term “Calvinist” as a “term of reproach.”8

Notwithstanding his appreciation of Reformed theology, however, Wesley strongly and famously disagrees with their doctrines of predestination. He argues against the Reformed account on several grounds. He appeals directly to Scripture; he lays out page after page of biblical text that he takes to directly challenge, undercut, or contradict Calvinism. Here he argues from the biblical witness to the will of God that all be saved (e.g., Job 36:5; Ps. 145:9; Prov. 1:23; Isa. 45:2f; Ezek. 33:20, 23; Matt. 22:9; Mark 16:15; Luke 19:41; John 5:34–40; Acts 17:24; Rom. 5:18; 10:12; 1 Tim. 2:3–4; 4:10; 2 Pet. 3:9), from what seem to be clear affirmations that Christ died for all humanity (e.g., John 1:29; 3:17; 12:47; Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:1–2; 4:14), and from numerous passages that make no sense apart from conditionality (e.g., Gen. 3:17; 4:7; Deut. 7:9, 12; 11:26–28; 30:15f; 2 Chron. 15:1–2; Ezra 9:13–14; Ezek. 33:11).9 In addition to what he takes to be straightforward and quite obvious biblical evidence against Calvinist soteriology, he also raises distinctly theological arguments against it. In particular, he finds Reformed soteriology to be opposed to an adequate conception of divine justice (including divine truth and sincerity). For, as he understands the Calvinist position, he thinks that it entails that God makes sin inevitable for people and then holds them responsible for that sin, that God withholds grace from them and then faults them for not accepting it, and that God invites them to repent while not making it truly possible for them to do so. Indeed, he concludes that the “Calvinist” account “flatly contradicts, indeed utterly overthrows, the Scripture account of (p.264) the justice of God.”10 Anticipating the response that people are damned for their own rebellious unbelief, he retorts,

But could they believe? Was not this faith both the gift and the work of God in the soul? And was it not a gift which he had eternally decreed never to give them? Was it not a work which he was of old unchangeably determined never to work in their souls? Shall these men be condemned, because God would not work; because they did not receive what God would not give? Could they “ungrasp the hold of his right hand, or force omnipotence?”11

Moreover, if the doctrine of limited (or “definite”) atonement is true, then,

Christ did not die for these men. But if so, there was an impossibility, in the very nature of the thing, that they should ever savingly believe. For what is saving faith, but “a confidence in God through Christ, that loved me, and gave himself for me?” Loved thee, thou reprobate! Gave himself for thee! Away! … There never was any object for thy faith; there never was anything for thee to believe. God himself (thus must you speak, to be consistent with yourself), with all his omnipotence, could not make thee believe Christ atoned for thy sins, unless he had made thee believe a lie.12

Divine justice cannot, for Wesley, be marginalized or compromised by appeal to other divine attributes (e.g., divine sovereignty), for the divine attributes are “inseparably joined.”13 And, as he sees the matter, the standard Reformed account is simply inconsistent with the justice of God.

How could they even thus have escaped from sin? Not without that grace which you suppose God had absolutely determined never to give them. And yet you suppose him to be sending them into eternal fire, for not escaping from sin! That is, in plain terms, for not having that grace which God had decreed they should never have! O strange justice! What a picture you draw of the Judge of all the earth!14

Wesley rejects the Reformed account on biblical and theological grounds, and he is convinced that he is not alone. For, while “Augustine sometimes speaks for it, and sometimes against it,” nonetheless “all (p.265) antiquity for the first four centuries” is opposed to it, “as is the whole Eastern Church to this day.” Moreover, he takes the Church of England to be officially opposed to the determinism that he sees in Calvinism; he interprets not only such Anglican stalwarts as Hooker and Latimer but also the “Catechism, Articles, and Homilies” to be inconsistent with it.15

When considering purported biblical evidence for the Reformed doctrine, Wesley works to interpret Scripture with Scripture and according to the rule of faith. Doing so, he finds such texts to be either inconclusive or supportive of his own view. Wrestling with Romans 9 (and 9–11), he makes a case for a corporate reading. He observes that Paul’s quotation “the elder shall serve the younger” (9:12) works only with a corporate reading: “it is undeniably plain, that both these Scriptures relate, not to the persons of Jacob and Esau, but to their descendants … In this sense only did ‘the elder’ (Esau) ‘serve the younger’; not in his person, (for Esau never served Jacob,) but in his posterity. The posterity of the elder brother served the posterity of the younger.”16 For, while the historical individual “Esau” did not (so far as we know from Scripture) ever serve Jacob, Esau’s descendants in fact did serve Jacob’s progeny. Accordingly, Wesley concludes, Romans 9 is referring to corporate entities rather than the individuals. Wesley finds that this interpretation coheres well indeed with his own doctrine of election. In addition to a broadly corporate understanding (whereby a people are chosen for a specific and appointed purpose), he sees two senses of election in Scripture. The first is the “divine appointment of some particular men, to do some particular work in the world.” This election, Wesley maintains, “is not only personal, but absolute and unconditional.”17 The second sense, he explains, is of “a divine appointment of some men to eternal happiness.” This sense, he insists, is conditional rather than unconditional.18 Wesley is confident that such a doctrinal formulation is consistent with straightforward biblical teaching as well as a proper understanding of the nature and character of God.

So Wesley is opposed to the common Reformed doctrines of election and predestination, and he is sure that he rejects these doctrines on solid biblical, historical, and theological grounds. In its place, he proposes a broadly corporate and conditional doctrine. But as he does so, he insists that Methodists “come to the very edge of Calvinism” in these ways: “in ascribing all good to the free grace of God,” in “denying all natural (p.266) free will, and all power antecedent to grace,” and “in excluding merit from [humans].”19 He also continues to insist on the importance of the “catholic spirit”:

As far as is possible, let us join in destroying the works of the devil, and in setting up the kingdom of God upon earth, in promoting righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost … let us unite in destroying the works of the devil, in bringing all we can from the power of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. And let us assist each other to value more and more the glorious grace whereby we stand, and daily to grow in that grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.20


Nowhere is Wesley more obviously and decidedly Protestant than in his doctrine of justification.21 In sharp contrast to his disagreements about predestination, he holds that his own view is in full agreement with Reformed (and Lutheran) accounts. As he puts it: “I think on Justification … just as Mr. Calvin does. In this respect I do not differ from him a hair’s breadth.”22 Wesley understands human sinners to be legally condemned before God, and unable to do anything of themselves to avoid this condemnation or escape this punishment. But, while we are unable to do anything to help ourselves, God acts for us. In justification, God declares that we can stand righteous and without condemnation before him. Because of Christ’s work, our guilt can be removed and our condemnation itself condemned. Wesley understands the biblical language of justification in a heavily legal sense, and he takes it to be a vitally important element of the doctrine of salvation.

More specifically, Wesley makes a case for federal headship; all humans share a legal relation with Adam due to original sin, and all humans potentially share a legal relationship with Christ by virtue of God’s gracious provision of justification. He argues for the “ground” of the doctrine in an affirmation of (penal) substitutionary atonement.23 For Wesley, justification is to be distinguished clearly from sanctification. While both are essential elements of the doctrine of salvation, they are distinct in important ways: Justification refers to what God does on our (p.267) behalf in changing our position or legal status, while sanctification is what God does in us by making us truly just or righteous and holy.

Who is justified? For Wesley, there is only one answer to this question: Sinners, and only sinners, are graciously justified. Just as justification and sanctification are not to be confused for Wesley, neither should we think that sanctification somehow precedes and enables justification. God justifies sinners; he graciously justifies those who are not yet actually pure and holy. Justification is “pardon, the forgiveness of sins. It is that act of God the Father, whereby, for the sake of the propitiation made by the blood of his Son, he ‘showeth forth his righteousness (or mercy) by the remission of sins.’”24 Our sins are imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness (both active and passive) is imputed to us.25 The righteousness of the incarnate Son is given or accredited to us as

The bestowing (as it were) [of] the righteousness of Christ, including his obedience, as well passive as active … in the privileges, blessings, and benefits, purchased by it; so a believer may be said to be justified, by the righteousness of Christ imputed. The meaning is, God justifies the believer, for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, and not for any righteousness of his own.26

And how are sinners justified? Wesley is clear and emphatic: Sinners are justified by grace alone, and this gift is received by faith alone. “Faith,” he insists, “is the necessary condition of justification. Yea, and the only necessary condition of justification.”27 On this point, Wesley is unwavering: “I believe justification by faith alone, as much as I believe that there is a God.”28 Accordingly, Wesley’s “Methodist Articles of Religion” leave Article 11 of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles unchanged: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works. Therefore, that we are justified by faith is a most wholesome doctrine and very full of comfort.”29

For Wesley and early Methodist theology and piety, truly this doctrine of justification was “very full of comfort.” Indeed, it shone with a luminous beauty, and this is reflected in the hymnody. As Charles Wesley’s famous hymn “And Can It Be?” puts it,

  • (p.268) No condemnation now I dread,
  • Jesus and all in him is mine;
  • Alive in him my living head,
  • And clothed with righteousness divine;
  • Bold I approach the eternal throne,
  • and claim, through him, the crown my own.

So Wesley offers resounding affirmation of a broadly Protestant account of justification, and he is convinced that there is no genuine gospel without it. But, he also denies that salvation can be reduced to justification. It is not the mere removal of any accusation. And he stoutly denies that it is legal fiction. Wesley argues that while justification is distinct from sanctification, it never occurs apart from genuine regeneration and progressive sanctification.

Regeneration and Sanctification

Wesley is convinced that justification changes our legal status before God. While this divine act is distinct from sanctification and must not be confused with it, neither can it be separated from God’s work in regeneration and sanctification. The doctrines of justification and regeneration are, for Wesley, of such importance that “if any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental, they are doubtless these two.”30 Justification refers to what God does for us, “in forgiving our sins,” while regeneration refers to “the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature” and working real change within us.31

How is regeneration related to justification? For Wesley, justification logically precedes the new birth, but they share a temporal beginning.32 Sanctification begins at the “same time that we are justified.”33 For “in that instant we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit: there is a real as well as a relative change.”34

The new birth is what makes someone a genuine Christian rather than an “almost Christian.” Genuine Christianity is not, for Wesley, merely a matter of having good manners or commendable ethics. It is not—and cannot be confused with—honesty, justice, and care for others. As wonderful as such characteristics are, they are not a substitute (p.269) for regeneration. Nor is it what Wesley calls the “form of godliness”; for the person who abstains from profane and evil language, avoids sexual sins, resists temptations to substance abuse and gluttony while also attending Christian worship may yet be an “almost Christian” rather than a genuine child of God.35

To the contrary, the truly regenerate person—the “altogether Christian”—is the one who is filled with the love of God and the love of neighbor. The genuine Christian loves the Lord with all their “heart, mind, soul, and strength.”36 Indeed, “such love of God is this, as engrosses the whole heart, as takes up all the affections, as fills the entire capacity of the soul, and employs the utmost extent of all its faculties.”37 Particularly important here is Wesley’s focus on the affections; he is convinced that genuine regeneration involves a reorientation of our affections. This love for God cannot, for Wesley, ever be separated from a love for neighbor that is both genuine and genuinely new. Wesley is persuaded that Jesus will not allow us to separate the love of God from love of neighbor (even though they are distinct), and he is insistent upon the centrality of love of neighbor. Who is our neighbor? According to Wesley, the scope of our obligation to hospitality extends to all—even to the enemies of Christianity.38

Why must we be born again? For Wesley, the “foundation of this doctrine” is “as deep as the creation of the world.”39 We were made in God’s image; as God is “love, accordingly man at his creation was full of love,” as God is “full of justice, mercy, and truth, so was man when he came from the hands of his Creator.” God is spotless in purity and holiness, “and so man was in the beginning pure from every sinful blot.”40 But while good, humanity was not necessarily good and thus was able to be tempted and to fall. When by “willful act of disobedience” the original human parents sinned against God, they “died to God, the most dreadful of all deaths.” For here Adam “lost the life of God: he was separated from him, in union with whom his spiritual life consisted.”41 This fall into sin has impacted all of Adam’s progeny, and now all are “dead in trespasses and sins.” Thus “we must be born again.”42

How may we be born again? Just what is this strange-sounding new birth? Wesley strives hard to give what he calls a “plain scriptural account” of the nature of regeneration. In reference to the question of Nicodemus (John 3:9), Wesley emphasizes the spiritual and supernatural (p.270) nature of the new birth. To be “born from above, born of God, born of the Spirit” is analogous to natural birth.43 Spiritual regeneration is a “quickening” by the Holy Spirit that enlivens the sinner to a genuinely new life and future. The picture Wesley draws echoes the creation account. It is a picture of resuscitation, for “God is continually breathing, as it were, upon the soul; and his soul is breathing unto God.”44 In summary, regeneration is “that great change which God works in the soul, when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God, when it is ‘created anew in Christ Jesus,’ when it is ‘renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness.’”45 It is a supernatural act, a gracious work of the Triune God to rescue and renew what sin has enslaved and ruined. And it changes everything.

The new birth is not necessarily to be equated with baptism, nor does it always and automatically accompany baptism. Moreover, it is possible to deny our baptism.46 Nor yet can good works take the place of the new birth. Thus all sinners—no matter how self-righteous or industrious for good deeds they might be—must be born again. Wesley concludes his sermon “The New Birth” with this characteristic exhortation: “Without this, nothing will do any good to your poor, sinful, polluted soul.”47 To the person who appeals to his own observance of the sacraments and alms-giving, Wesley replies: “It is well you do: but all this will not keep you from hell, except you be born again. Go to church twice a day; go to the Lord’s table every week; say ever so many prayers in private; hear ever so many good sermons; read ever so many good books; still, you must be born again.”48

Wesley is absolutely convinced of both the reality and the power of the new birth, but he is also frank about the fact that sin remains in genuine believers. Recognizing that the doctrine of original sin is taught in Scripture and affirmed in the theology of the early church as well as the Articles of his own Church of England, he disagrees explicitly with Count Zinzendorf in his insistence that the justified and regenerate are not immediately delivered from all sin.49 He rejects Zinzendorf’s account of instantaneous perfection on three grounds: first, it is “contrary to the whole tenor of Scripture,” second, it conflicts with the most obvious deliverances of Christian experience, and third, because it produces the kind of laxity in the Christian life that results (p.271) in “the most fatal consequences.”50 The regenerate have hearts that are truly but not yet entirely renewed.51 As Wesley puts it, “Although we are renewed, cleansed, purified, sanctified, the moment we truly believe in Christ, yet we are not then renewed, cleansed, purified altogether; but the flesh, the evil nature, still remains (though subdued) and wars against the Spirit.”52

Such recognition of sin in believers means that the Christian life is a life of repentance and faith. Just as they are the “gate of religion,” so also are repentance and faith “as necessary, in order for our continuance and growth in grace.”53 This recognition entails the admission that those who have been born again nonetheless have no standing before God apart from the work of Christ. Additionally, it implies a complete reliance upon the work of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Wesley will go so far as to say that regenerate believers “are no more able now of themselves to think one good thought, to form one good desire, to speak one good word, or do one good work, than before they were justified,” and “they have still no kind or degree of strength of their own; no power either to do good or resist evil.”54 Genuine Christians thus live always and only by the power of justifying, regenerating, and sanctifying grace.

Wesley exhibits a serious optimism about what grace can do in the life of a genuine Christian. Christians are to avail themselves of the “means of grace” which are used by God “to be the ordinary channels” whereby God expresses prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace.55 Such sacraments are “outward sign[s] of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same.”56 The “chief of these means” are prayer, study of Scripture, and the reception of the Eucharist.57 The Christian life, as a life of repentance and faith that utilizes the God-ordained means of grace, is one of genuine growth in godliness.

Just as justification is by grace alone through faith alone, so also is sanctification by grace through faith. We are not justified by our works, and neither are we sanctified by our good works. Wesley is clear about the symmetry between justification by faith and sanctification by faith: “Faith is the condition, and the only condition of sanctification”; faith and faith alone is “sufficient for sanctification.”58 This does not, of course, mean that what we do is irrelevant to sanctification; rather, Wesley means to insist that we do not sanctify ourselves by our works. Those good works are indeed necessary, but they are necessary as a consequence. (p.272) 59 They may be categorized as “works of piety” and “works of mercy.” The former include such activities as public worship and prayer, family and private prayer, study and mediation on Scripture, fasting, and reception of the Eucharist. The latter include “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted” as well as teaching and comforting.60

As Christians avail themselves of the means of grace and respond to this grace in faithful obedience, they grow in holiness and righteousness. This is a process that is linear and teleological in nature, and it is one that will be marked by important moments. Regeneration happens at a definite point in time; much like our physical birth precedes and enables our bodily growth, so also does the new birth precede, begin, and enable our sanctification. Thus, regeneration is the “gate” or “entrance” into the process of sanctification.61 Wesley makes much of this “exact analogy”: “A child is born of a woman in a moment, or at least in a very short time: afterwards he gradually and slowly grows.” Similarly, “a child of God is born of God in a short time, if not in a moment. But it is by slow degrees that he afterwards grows up to the measure of the full stature of Christ. The same relation, therefore, which there is between our natural birth and our growth, there is also between our new birth and our sanctification.”62

Thus, sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit that truly changes sinners into holy people, and it happens as a “gradual work.”63 God has promised full and complete deliverance from sin in Scripture, for God has promised nothing less than the “circumcision of the heart.”64 Christians should have every confidence that God is able to do what he has promised; so while it is indeed senseless to think that sinners might purify themselves, nonetheless “with God all things are possible.”65 Moreover, there is available to Christians “a divine evidence and conviction that he is able and willing” to completely sanctify believers. Indeed, we should believe God when he says that he actually does this, for truly “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”66 God may do it either gradually or instantaneously—and we dare not circumscribe God’s ability to cleanse and purify. Wesley concedes that the completion of sanctification most often happens near the point of death, but he insists as well that there is no reason why it cannot happen (p.273) earlier.67 Thus, Christians should earnestly seek, and receive gratefully, all that God has provided for their salvation.

Whenever and however exactly it comes from the Lord, Wesley is utterly convinced of the reality of sanctification. Indeed, he refers to full or “entire” sanctification as “Christian perfection.” He does so knowing that this terminology will ignite all sorts of misunderstandings and indeed will fuel all manner of accusations, but he is persuaded that fidelity to the biblical portrayal of salvation demands it. For even though “whosoever preaches perfection, i.e., asserts that it is attainable in this life, runs great hazard of being accounted by them worse than a heathen man or a publican,” nonetheless the language itself is found in the “oracles of God” and cannot be rejected out of hand.68 So Wesley insists upon retaining the language, but he is also exercised to avoid misunderstanding. He points out that the biblical sense of perfection does not include freedom from mistakes, ignorance, or infirmities, for even the most sanctified are none the less finite creatures.69 Nor does Christian perfection imply freedom from temptation.70 Nor yet should we think that it ever entails a completion so that there is no room for growth in grace.71

So what does it mean to affirm Christian perfection? Does the concept not die the death of a thousand qualifications? Wesley summarizes his positive account of Christian perfection as perfection in love.72 The one who is perfect in this sense is “one in whom is ‘the mind which was in Christ,’ and who so ‘walketh as Christ also walked’; a man ‘that hath clean hands and a pure heart.’”73 More precisely, this is the person who “walketh in the light as he is in the light, in whom there is no darkness at all; the blood of Jesus Christ his Son having cleansed him from all sin.”74 So exactly what does it mean to affirm Christian perfection? For Wesley, it is nothing more and nothing less than this: Christian perfection is “loving God with all our heart, and mind, and soul (Deut. 6:5).”75 Wesley is utterly convinced that God’s sanctifying work penetrates to the darkest reaches of human existence, and he insists that God is both able and willing to sanctify his people.

Perseverance and Assurance in the Christian Life

As a pastoral theologian, Wesley is keenly aware of critical issues related to the continued growth in grace and Christian assurance of salvation. (p.274) Some Christians are so confident of their salvation that their lives show signs of moral laxity, while other sincere and earnest Christians seem unable to gain any confidence of their salvation. He offers some “serious thoughts” on the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints,” and here he is “sensible [that] either side of this question is attended with great difficulties.”76 Nonetheless, he follows what he takes to be the difficult teaching of Scripture on this issue. Arguing from the “warning passages” of Scripture as well as the apparent examples of people who indeed have made “shipwreck” of their faith, Wesley concludes that it is possible for genuine believers—those who are “holy or righteous in the sight of God himself” as well as “endued with the faith that purifies the heart” and “grafted into” Christ to “so fall away from God as to perish everlastingly.”77

Does this possibility not remove all assurance from Christian experience? Does not the possibility of apostasy remove all genuine faith and hope? Wesley is alert to such worries, and he is exercised to insist that it is important to understand that God’s grace offers genuine and comforting assurance.78 In fact, the doctrine of assurance became something of a hallmark of Wesleyan theology; Thomas C. Oden even says, “The doctrine of the assuring witness of the Spirit is a quintessentially Wesleyan doctrine.”79 Subsequent Methodist theologians, according to Oden, have found it “exceedingly important” to insist that “God not only gives us this merciful gift of justifying grace through the Son on the cross [but also] works through the Spirit to attest the meaning of the Son’s mission and to bring it to full actualization in us.”80

Wesley is concerned here to avoid dangers from very different directions. On one hand, he sees the skepticism that comes from some quarters (both from rationalistic skeptics and from some theologians who denied that assurance was either possible or healthy). On the other hand, he is very worried about the dangers of fanaticism and “enthusiasm.” Resisting both extremes, he proclaims that genuine Christian assurance is both possible and glorious. Wesley is confident that it is God’s gracious gift to the children of God who walk in fellowship with God. And it comes in two ways: through the “indirect witness” and through the “direct witness.” The “indirect witness” is grounded in Scripture, for there we find that “everyone who has the fruit of the Spirit is a child of God.”81 So if we know that everyone who exhibits the fruit of the Spirit (p.275) belongs to God, and if we can see that we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, then we can have confidence that we belong to God. The “direct witness” is also grounded in Scripture, for there we read that “the Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God”—and this witness is nothing less than the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit to us that we belong to God.82 This assurance is not the possession of a few elite saints or mystics; to the contrary, Wesley is convinced that this is the birthright of every child of God.

“Nothing To Do But Save Souls”: The Implications of the Gospel and the Hope of Glory

Wesley is deeply convinced that the mission of God included all of creation; therefore, he is passionate about mission and evangelism as well as matters of “social justice” and mercy. His view of the breadth and depth of the holy love of the Triune God compels him to see every person as loved by God, and this love impels us to extend God’s mercy to both “body” and “soul.” In other words, Wesley’s theology leads him to be passionate about both evangelism and works of mercy and justice—particularly as these works are expressed to the most vulnerable. Thus he can tell his preachers that they have “nothing to do but to save souls”—while also working tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, fighting poverty, providing medical care for the underprivileged, promoting education, and resisting child labor (among other activities).83 For all of this is closely related to the gospel: for “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it.”84 Thus Wesley insists that we are “expressly commanded to feed the hungry and clothe the naked,”85 and he warns that when we live extravagantly while ignoring the poor and oppressed, we are like those who are “keeping money from the poor, to buy poison for ourselves.”86 The strength of Wesley’s conviction on this point is evident in the force of his thunderous statements on the subject. For instance, he says that those who live only for themselves are

Not only robbing God, continually embezzling and wasting their Lord’s goods, and by that very means, corrupting their own souls, but also robbing the poor, the hungry, the naked; wronging the widow and the fatherless; and making themselves accountable for all the want, affliction, and (p.276) distress, which they may, but do not remove. Yea, doth not the blood of all those who perish for want of what they lay up, or lay out needlessly, cry against them from the earth?87

The breadth of Wesley’s vision of God’s infinite holy love is vivid in his eschatology. He is well acquainted with the vicissitudes of life; he knows that this planet is inhospitable in many ways and that life upon it is always short and often brutish. But, he is resolute: God is “making all things new”—and we have a glorious future in Christ. God is not rescuing a few people (the “elect”) away from creation; instead, God is renewing and restoring creation as a place of shalom. Here, once again, Wesley’s Trinitarian understanding of reality gives shape and substance to his doctrine of salvation. His vision of the scope and depth of salvation is obvious in his gospel-centered eschatology:

But the most glorious of all will be the change which then will take place on the poor, sinful, miserable children of men. These had fallen in many respects, as from a greater height, so into a lower depth than any other part of creation. But they shall “hear a great voice out of heaven, saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be their God.” Hence will arise an unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise. In how beautiful and affecting a manner is this described by the Apostle! “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there by any more pain: for the former things are done away” (Rev. 21:3–4). As there will be no more death, and no more pain or sickness preparatory thereto; as there will be no more grieving for or parting with friends; so there will be no more sorrow or crying. Nay, but there will be a greater deliverance than all this; for there will be no more sin. And to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all creatures in him!88

Truly, for Wesley, salvation flows from the generous purposes of the Triune God. It is intended for all—the Triune God wants to save and (p.277) restore all those creatures made in his image (and indeed all creation). Thus we are saved from sin, and thus we are saved for communion with our Creator. This is Wesley’s vision of salvation.


(1.) See Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).

(2.) John Wesley, “The New Birth,” in Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons (Salem, OH: Schmul Publishing, 1988), 460. The quotations retain Wesley’s gender-specific terminology.

(3.) See the discussion in Barry E. Bryant, “Original Sin,” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies, ed. William J. Abraham and James Kirby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 534, and more broadly, Thomas H. McCall, “‘But a Heathen Still’: The Doctrine of Original Sin in Wesleyan Theology,” in Adam, the Fall, and Original Sin: Theological, Biblical, and Scientific Perspectives, ed. Hans Madueme and Michael Reeves (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 147–166.

(4.) John Wesley, “Original Sin,” in Wesley’s 52 Standard Sermons, 456.

(5.) Wesley clearly accepts and extends (and, arguably, adapts in some respects) the Augustinian doctrine of prevenient grace.

(6.) John Wesley, “Dialogue Between a Predestinarian and His Friend,” in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, n.d.), 260–265. Whether or not these are the best (not to mention preferred) doctrinal labels, they are Wesley’s currency, e.g., John Wesley, “The Question, ‘What Is An Arminian?’ Answered. By a Lover of Free Grace,” in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X, 358–361.

(7.) John Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X, 204–205.

(10.) Ibid., 221.

(11.) Ibid., 223.

(13.) Ibid., 217. Here Wesley comes close to an outright affirmation of the doctrine of divine simplicity (and he does so within a pastoral context).

(14.) Ibid., 221.

(17.) Ibid., 210.

(19.) Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 253.

(p.278) (21.) This section draws upon my summary of Wesley’s doctrine in my Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 126–128.

(22.) Wesley, Letters 4:298 … For lucid discussion see Kenneth Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 86–100.

(23.) John Wesley, “Justification by Faith,” 52 Standard Sermons, 44.

(24.) Ibid., 45.

(25.) For helpful discussion of the controversies surrounding Wesley on the issue of “imputed righteousness,” see Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation, 92–100; Allan Coppedge, Shaping the Wesleyan Message: John Wesley in Theological Debate (Nappannee, IN: Francis Asbury Press of Evangel Publishing House, 2003), 119–127; and especially Fred Sanders, Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 131–149.

(26.) John Wesley, “The Lord Our Righteousness,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 196.

(29.) See Thomas C. Oden, John Wesley’s Teachings, Volume 2: Christ and Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 104.

(30.) John Wesley, “The New Birth,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 459.

(33.) Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 441.

(35.) Wesley, “The Almost Christian,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 12–13.

(36.) Ibid., 15.

(42.) Ibid., 461.

(43.) Ibid., 462.

(44.) Ibid., 463.

(46.) Ibid., 464–465.

(47.) Ibid., 467.

(49.) Wesley, “Sin in Believers,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 118–119.

(50.) Ibid., 122.

(52.) Ibid., 126.

(53.) Ibid., 128.

(p.279) (54.) Ibid., 133.

(59.) Ibid., 445.

(63.) Ibid., 442.

(64.) Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” 446; cf. Wesley, “The Circumcision of the Heart,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 163–171.

(66.) Ibid., 447.

(68.) Wesley, “Christian Perfection,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 405.

(69.) Ibid., 406–407.

(70.) Ibid., 408.

(74.) Ibid., 35.

(75.) Ibid., 40.

(76.) Wesley, “Serious Thoughts Upon the Perseverance of the Saints,” in The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X, 285.

(77.) Ibid., 298.

(78.) Such worries trouble various theological traditions (not least the Reformed tradition), of course, and they animate theological discussion and controversy. On Jacob Arminius’s handling of these issues, see Keith D. Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603–1609. Brill’s Series in Church History, vol. 27 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), and Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 176–188.

(81.) John Wesley, “The Witness of the Spirit, II,” in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, ed. Kenneth J. Collins and Jason E. Vickers (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 207.

(82.) The relation of Wesley’s views to “Reformed Epistemology” remains under-explored (although not entirely unrecognized). See, e.g., Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 288, 292 n5. See also William J. Abraham, Aldersgate and Athens: John Wesley and the Foundations of Christian Belief (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010).

(p.280) (83.) See Robert Coleman, Nothing To Do But To Save Souls (Nappannee, IN: Evangel Press, 1990).

(84.) John Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse IV,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 241.

(85.) Ibid., 249.

(86.) John Wesley, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VIII,” in 52 Standard Sermons, 296.

(87.) Ibid., 297.