“Salvation” is a word commonly used to refer to our eternal destiny. When some Christians ask, “Are you saved?” they usually mean: “Do you know God has forgiven your sins and that you will go to heaven when you die?” This understanding of salvation underlies the confrontational evangelistic approach of asking persons if they died today, do they know they will be in heaven rather than hell.
Salvation is used in a similar way in discussing the fate of persons who have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Christians do not agree on the answer, but all participants in this debate assume that salvation refers to what happens at the time of death.
John Wesley was certainly concerned with eternal destiny. But that was not his normal way of understanding salvation. Commenting on Eph 2:8, he notes “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going on to heaven, eternal happiness…. It is not a blessing that lays on the other side of death.”
No, says Wesley, “it is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of…. So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation” §I.1)
That salvation is “a present thing” is central to Wesley’s theological vision. It is the gift of a new life in Christ, centered on love, which we receive and live in the present and which continues through all eternity. This is why justification, understood by Wesley as forgiveness of sins, cannot be the goal of evangelism. He sees justification, which alters our relationship with God from the faith of a servant to the faith of a child of God, as the doorway to sanctification, which transforms the heart and life.
In his essay, A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Wesley describes salvation this way: “By salvation I mean, not … 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” (Part I, §I.3)
Our dilemma, then, is that we are not now the way God created us to be, which was in the image of God such that we love as God loves. God’s plan of salvation, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, is to restore us to that image. This restoration begins with a new birth, continues in sanctification, and culminates in Christian perfection.
Now if this is what salvation is, the kind of confrontational evangelism described earlier is inadequate. Instead a Wesleyan-style evangelism is relational, and invites persons to seek, receive, and grow in a new life.
First, it invites people into a relationship with God. Early Methodists did this through inviting those who were “awakened” to follow a spiritual discipline of regular prayer, Scripture reading, worship, and sacrament. This kept them in relation with God and open to the work of the Spirit in their lives. Through this they would receive justification and then grow in sanctification.
Second, it invites people into a community in which they are in relationship with one another. Early Methodists attended a weekly class meeting where they had conversations about what it means in their daily lives to live as disciples of Jesus Christ. In so doing they would encourage one another and aid in each other’s growth as Christians.
Third, it invites people into relationship with those outside their community. They would share their faith with others and organize to meet a wide range of human needs. Through these “works of mercy,” done out of love for others, they found God also enabled them to grow in love.
If the goal of salvation is to restore people to the image of God, then any evangelistic method that does not put people onto this path of salvation is deficient. Wesleyan evangelism invites persons to receive a salvation that renews their hearts and lives in the present, and lasts throughout eternity.