In the eighteenth century awakening John and Charles Wesley’s evangelical Arminianism was a distinctive alternative to the Calvinist mainstream. Though they faithfully and fervently preached the gospel to everyone, most Calvinists assumed those who truly responded were of the elect, predestined by God to salvation; those who did not were predestined to damnation. In this way salvation was by grace alone, for humans clearly had no role in the outcome.
There were moderate Calvinists who sought to soften these theological claims. And for a time J. Wesley tried to find a middle ground. Maybe God predestined some to salvation while the rest were saved or not, according to their response. But early in the awakening the Wesleys decided to reject predestination entirely. The universality of grace they proclaimed is expressed in this slightly modified hymn of C. Wesley: “Come, sinners, to the gospel feast; let every soul be Jesus’ guest. Ye need not one be left behind, for God hath bid all humankind (The United Methodist Hymnal, 339).
There are three aspects of this universal grace that were crucial to J. Wesley. The first is that grace is not irresistible. The irresistibility of grace was central to the Calvinist claim of predestination. For Wesley, this undermined the human moral agency that was essential for humans to be restored to God’s image. Irresistible grace, he said, would change our “inmost nature;” …man would be man no longer…. He would no longer be a moral agent, any more than the sun or the wind; as he would no longer be endued with liberty…” (“The General Spread of the Gospel,” 9, in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 2 [Abingdon, 1985] 488-89).
In saying grace is not irresistible he is not saying we can choose to not have grace at all. Prevenient grace is universal, and its effect is to restore our ability to respond (our “liberty”). This work of grace is irresistible, but its purpose is to restore to us a degree of moral agency which original sin had taken from us.
The second aspect of universal grace has to do with the nature of salvation. The focus of predestination is on our eternal destiny, what happens after we die. While Wesley shared that concern, his focus was on salvation in this life. For Wesley, salvation “… 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” (“The Scripture Way of Salvation,” I.1, in Works, 2:156).
Thus salvation includes the work of prevenient grace, but is focused on justification (forgiveness) and sanctification (renewal in love). The goal is, through the gracious work of the Spirit, for us to grow in sanctification until God perfects us in love, and we once again bear the image of God, now and through all eternity.
While Calvinist predestination was a major influence in Wesley’s day, universal salvation is a common opinion in our own. Wesley’s theology is just as strongly opposed to universalism as it is to Calvinism. Both universalism and Calvinism presuppose irresistible grace, both downplay human agency, and both focus on salvation in the life to come rather than in the present. In contrast, Wesley insists on both divine and human agency, with the gracious divine initiative restoring human liberty. For Wesley salvation is both present and future, and has at its heart our being ultimately restored to the image of a God who freely loves.
This brings us to the third aspect of universal grace. Wesley’s claim that the reigning attribute of God is love. Because Calvinists wanted to insist salvation is by grace alone, they put the emphasis on God’s sovereignty. While not denying God’s sovereignty or salvation by grace alone, Wesley insisted that God is love. This in turn required grace to be universal. And if salvation is ultimately about humanity being restored to God’s image, then grace had to work in a way that enhanced human ability to love as freely as God does. It is this vision of God’s love, so powerfully manifested on the cross through Jesus Christ, which is at the heart of Wesley’s theology of grace and salvation.