What gives Wesley’s Methodism its distinctive identity? The answer is not simple. It is no one thing but a number of things, a set of theological affirmations, practices, and goals that were seen as essentially related. The elements that comprised Wesleyanism were not so much unique in themselves as in how they were connected with one another.
This year I want to examine four areas in which the Wesleyan movement was especially distinctive. In later issues, I will look at grace, formation, and mission. Here, I want to begin with salvation.
When we hear the word “salvation” or “saved” what often comes to mind is something like this: a person is confronted with the gospel message, makes a decision for Christ, and is thereby “saved.” Now when this person dies, she or he will go the heaven, for his or her sins have been forgiven.
Wesley uses the term “salvation” in a broader and deeper way. It is broader because in one sense it refers to the entire saving activity of God in human lives, from the prevenient grace that reaches out to every one to the perfection of their hearts in love. It is deeper because it encompasses at its core not only justification (forgiveness of sins) but sanctification (renewal of our hearts in love). The focus is on sanctification.
John Wesley puts it this way: “By salvation I mean, not barely (according to the vulgar [common] notion) deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth. This implies all holy and heavenly tempers… [“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” I, i/3, in The Works of John Wesley (vol. 11; ed. G.R. Craig; Abingdon, 1989) 106].
The “recovery of the divine nature,” the renewal in the image of God—at their heart, they meant that love would be the ruling temper in our hearts and the central motivation of our lives. Because God is love, to be in God’s image is to love God and others in the same way God loves us. This is what Wesley meant by terms like “Christian perfection,” “entire sanctification,” and “full salvation.” Wesley believed this was the culmination of the new life that God promises to give every person who will receive it.
It was the hope for this salvation that permeated the Methodist movement. It was at the center of their proclamation and witness, determined their organizational structure, and was the reason for their spiritual disciplines.
This gives Wesley’s soteriology (his doctrine of salvation) a distinctively teleological character—that is, it is oriented toward a goal (or telos). Persons who were awakened to their condition as sinners before God longed to know their sins were forgiven (justification), that they were accepted by God (assurance), and to begin to live a new life (new birth). They would grow daily through grace, and would at God’s timing receive the promised forgiveness and new life.
Then they would yearn to be filled with love for God and neighbor. They would grow daily through grace in sanctification until, again at God’s timing, they would receive the promised perfection in love. Then, if this occurred earlier than the time of death, they would begin to grow in perfection.
This new life of love was more than a recovery of the divine image—it was an eschatological inbreaking, the life of the coming kingdom of God already being realized in hearts and lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. Early Methodists not only yearned for new life, they lived with the expectant anticipation of God’s transformative activity in them and in the world.
It was this focus on sanctification, on holiness of heart and life, and especially on the hope for perfection in love that distinguished Wesley’s Methodists from other groups in the great trans-Atlantic awakening of which they were all a part. In 1790, the year before he died, Wesley said he believed God raised up the Methodists primarily to be witnesses to God’s promise of perfection in love in this life. The proclamation of that promise is perhaps the most important characteristic giving Wesley’s movement its distinctive identity.