John Wesley has been recognized by many as a theologian who holds together ideas that others have treated as mutually exclusive. Whether it is faith vs. works, reason vs. experience, instantaneous conversion vs. gradual nurture, Wesley gives both/and answers to either/or questions. What is not as often seen is how Wesley frequently challenges the assumptions behind what he sees as a false dichotomy. Wesley is not just holding conflicting ideas in tension. He is challenging the theological basis for the claim that the ideas are conflicting in the first place.
The most significant instance of Wesley’s reframing an issue is found in his simultaneous affirmation of the Protestant doctrine of original sin and the promise that Christian perfection in love can be attained in this life. With regard to original sin, Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted on the totality of human fallenness. Humans are sinners, and no part of their lives is untouched by sin. Because humans are bound by sin, they cannot save themselves; they can make choices, but it is always a sinful will that does the choosing. Their ability to understand their own sinful condition is so clouded by sin that they cannot even see they have a problem.
Wesley agrees with this stark Protestant assessment. He describes original sin as total corruption, and pictures sin as a disease that has affected every aspect of our lives. Apart from grace, we are even unable to discern our dire condition.
Wesley’s disagreement with the Reformers is not over sin but over grace. For them, grace is primarily a declaration by God that provides justification for the elect—that is, the ones God has chosen to receive salvation. Since salvation is by grace alone, and sin prevents any human response to God, conversion must be solely an act of God. This means even the choice of who receives salvation belongs to God. Without first receiving justification and a regenerate heart, the sinner is incapable of offering repentance, or even knowing the need for repentance.
Wesley’s understanding of grace is quite different. It is universal but can be resisted. It is not only an invitation to respond to God, but actually enables persons to do so. A sinner does not need a regenerate heart to initially respond to God, but only to respond to the grace they have received. Thus sinners can be awakened to their condition and be genuinely repentant prior to conversion. They can already enter into a graced relationship with God, and have a preliminary form of faith that Wesley calls the faith of a servant.
It is this transformative power of grace that makes Wesley so distinctive from the Reformers. For Wesley grace restores a capacity to respond to God. Grace is gradually transformative all along the way of salvation, and instantaneously and intensely transformative in justification and regeneration. Grace not only rests in what God has done in Jesus Christ, but is manifest in what God is doing through the present power of the Holy Spirit.
Wesley believes that this same power of the Holy Spirit can sanctify persons fully, such that they love God with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves. Indeed, this perfection in love is the purpose and goal of salvation, a promise of God that will be fulfilled by grace in this life. He was able to make this claim because he had such a strong belief in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing could be in sharper contrast with the Reformers. While for them the gracious declaration of justification had a transformative impact, and led to some degree of obedience to God’s moral law, persons never ceased to be sinners in this life. Christian perfection was only for the life to come. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians did believe such perfection was possible in this life, but also held that persons were not so fallen into sin that they were incapable of cooperating with God’s grace.
It was Wesley who at one and the same time held to the Protestant understanding of original sin and to Christian perfection as the this-worldly goal of salvation. He was able to do so because he reframed what it meant for salvation to be by grace alone. Sin was as powerful a foe as Protestantism said, but grace was even more powerful than the Reformers had imagined. His focus was ultimately not on the possibilities inherent in the human condition but on the promises and possibilities of God. In so doing, he took the Protestant confidence in grace to a whole new level.
By Dr. Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology.