When a group of Protestants are asked to define grace, they typically respond with something like “the unmerited favor of God.” It is, of course, a correct answer. Grace is a gift: we neither deserve it nor can we earn it. John Wesley would emphatically agree.
But along with this Wesley also understands grace as transforming power. Wesley says in his sermon, “The Witness of Our Own Spirit”:
By ‘the grace of God’ is sometimes to be understood that free love, that unmerited mercy, by which I as a sinner, through the merits of Christ, am now reconciled to God. But in this place [2 Cor 1:12] it rather means that power of God the Holy Ghost, which ‘worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’ As soon as ever the grace of God in the former sense, His pardoning love, is manifested to our souls, the grace of God in the latter sense, the power of His Spirit, takes place therein (A. Outler and R. Heitzenrater, eds., Sermons I [Abingdon, 1984] 309).
Wesley repeats in a number of places the theological distinction indicated here. Justification is the work God does for us through Christ, by which our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. Sanctification (which begins with the new birth) is the work God does in us through the Spirit that enables us to be transformed and grow in love and other holy tempers. This distinction is important to his theology, for it emphasizes sanctification as the goal and content of the Christian life.
But it would be a mistake to simply link grace as unmerited favor to justification, and as transforming power to sanctification. All grace is a gift of God, both the grace that sanctifies and the grace that justifies. And justification is in its own way transforming—it transforms our relationship with God. Moreover, the experience of God’s forgiveness in itself has a transforming impact on human lives. Likewise, the transforming power of God is evident prior to the new birth. Even prevenient grace is transforming, restoring both a measure of freedom to enable us to respond to God, and giving us a moral conscience to provide an initial conviction of sin.
What this dual understanding of grace does is help us understand the centrality of God’s work in salvation, and the consequent role of humans in response. Wesley resolutely keeps God at the center of his theology, and never deviates from the Protestant commitment that salvation is by grace alone. He does reject the Calvinist insistence that grace is irresistible, as that would undermine human moral responsibility. Strictly speaking, for Wesley only prevenient grace is irresistible, and only in the sense that you cannot not have it. But its very purpose is to enable us to respond to God’s grace, that is, to bring us into an interactive relationship.
But Wesley also rejects natural human free will, which began to gradually find its way into the theologies of his nineteenth century successors. There it was sometimes said that God was ready to immediately bestow the blessings of the new birth or Christian perfection if persons would meet the necessary conditions. The spotlight had shifted from God to humanity. Now, instead of our awaiting God’s actions, God is now awaiting our decision.
Wesley would reject this overemphasis on human agency. God indeed acts to give both new birth and Christian perfection to those who are seeking and open to receiving, but the timing is God’s, not ours. It is God who best knows when to give us new birth and Christian perfection.
Our role is this: empowered by grace, we are actively receptive to all that God wants to give, seeking and indeed yearning for justification and new birth, and then for perfection in love. This active receptivity is manifested through our participation in means of grace such as searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy to our neighbor. Our faith is not presumptive, as if it triggers an automatic response from God. But it is an expectant faith, knowing what God has promised and that God is always faithful to fulfill those promises.