What does it mean to be “Wesleyan”? As with any branch of Christianity, there is no simple answer. Like “Lutheran” or “Reformed,” “Wesleyan” denotes a rich tradition of beliefs, practices, and spirituality, an ethos more suitable to indwell than a concept to easily define.
Even at its inception, the Wesleyan tradition was more than John Wesley. Charles Wesley, John Fletcher, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, and many more of the “people called Methodists” have shaped it. But John Wesley remains the central figure that, more than anyone, gives this tradition its identity. I maintain that the following quotations by Wesley assist us in defining what it means to be Wesleyan.
The first has to do with core beliefs: “Our main doctrines…are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account…the porch of religion; the next the door, the third, religion itself” (“The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained,” in Works [vol. 4; Jackson edition, 1879], 472).
Sometimes Wesley will vary the list or use other terms — original sin, justification, and sanctification, for example. This quotation not only identifies doctrines but also demonstrates the relationships among them. For example, repentance — itself enabled by grace — precedes justifying faith. Most importantly, justification is not the goal of salvation but the door to the goal, which is holiness of heart and life. Salvation, then, refers not only to our eternal destiny, but is, at its essence, our present transformation by God.
Salvation is a process, and the goal of salvation is restoring us to the image of God in which we were created. Wesley describes the goal this way: “Entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, is neither more nor less than pure love — love expelling sin and governing both the heart and life of a child of God” (“Letter to Walter Churchey,” in Works [vol. 12; Jackson edition, 1879], 432). That is what it means to be in the image of God — to love as God loves. This love for God and neighbor takes root in our hearts with the new birth, grows and flourishes through sanctification, and governs our hearts with Christian perfection.
If loving God and neighbor with all our heart is the goal of salvation, how do we get there? Salvation for Wesley is by grace alone — what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and what God does in us through the Holy Spirit. Although we are enabled by prevenient grace, we must then be receptive and responsive to God’s grace. Methodists found encouragement and empowerment for receptivity and response through the spiritual discipline of accountability as a result of meeting together in small groups.
“Nothing can be more simple, nothing more rational than the Methodist discipline,” remarks Wesley. “Any person determined to save his own soul may be united…with them. But this desire must be evidenced by three marks: avoiding all known sin, doing good after his power, and attending all ordinances of God” (“On God’s Vineyard” §3.1, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 3; Nashville: Abingdon, 1987], 511).
It was this discipline that kept Methodists focused on the means of grace — both works of piety directed toward God, and works of mercy directed toward their neighbor. As they engaged in these means of grace, the Holy Spirit worked through them to enable their growth in love and other fruit of the Spirit.
It was God’s promise of this new life of love that provided both motivation and direction for Methodism. “God’s design,” Wesley believed, “was…not to form any new sect; but to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (“Minutes of Several Conversations” Q.3, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 8; ed. T. Jackson; Baker, 1978], 299-300). Methodism had a dual purpose. It was a renewal movement, seeking to refocus the church on God and neighbor so that it might manifest in its own life the love God has so richly manifested in Jesus Christ. It was a missional movement, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ and the new life he offers to a world in need.
More can be said about Wesleyan identity, but certainly not less. It is centered on a God of love who through Christ enables persons to image that love in our hearts and lives. It provided spiritual discipline to enable persons to remain open and responsive to God’s transforming grace. And it motivated persons to share this good news, serving as a renewing leaven in the church and as a movement reaching out to persons everywhere.
By Dr. Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology.