Who is God? What is the central characteristic at the heart of God’s nature? There have been many answers in the Christian tradition. God has been seen as essentially immortal, undivided in essence, sovereign in power, as being itself. Although Wesley would agree with many of these, they do not for him describe the heart of God’s nature.
Wesley is both clear and consistent in his own answer to this question. Commenting on 1 John 4:8, Wesley says “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract as he is said to be love; intimating that this is … his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections” (Explanatory Notes on the New Testament).
By “abstract” Wesley does not mean divine love cannot be concretely described, but that love that has no bounds, makes no exception, and knows no limitations. Consequently Wesley cannot accept the strict Calvinist claim that God’s sovereignly decides to love some but condemn others. Nor can Wesley accept the common view (even today) that yes, God is love, but God is also and equally holy and righteous. For Wesley God does not have two sides, one loving and accepting, and the other judging and condemning. God has only one side, and that is love.
Of course, Wesley can speak of God’s judgment, even God’s wrath. But he sees judgment and wrath directed at sin, not at people. God condemns sin in all its destructiveness because God is love. For Wesley, even God’s wrath is governed by and in service to God’s love. As Kenneth Collins notes, for Wesley God’s anger is not “wild, animated and vengeful” but is “best understood as a firm and loving opposition to sin, as a holy antagonism to all that opposes the Kingdom of God” (The Scripture Way of Salvation [Abingdon, 1997], 84).
If God is love, much depends on how it is defined. We have multiple understandings of love in contemporary culture, and almost none are helpful. Even in the church, as Kenda Creasy Dean has shown, all too often “love” simply means a God who accepts us without changing us or making a claim on our lives, only expecting us to be “nice” to others. What if, she asks, this “watered-down gospel” is “so devoid of God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit that it might not be Christianity at all?” (Almost Christian [Oxford, 2010], 12). It certainly would not be true Christianity for Wesley, who had his own difficulties with a watered-down gospel in his own Church of England.
For Wesley, the love of God is concretely described in Scripture, and most fully revealed in Jesus Christ. Nowhere does Wesley more passionately argue this than in his sermon “God’s Love to Fallen Man.” There he describes that advantages of the Fall of Adam as giving us “a capacity of attaining more holiness and happiness on earth than it would have been possible … if Adam had not fallen. For if Adam had not fallen Christ had not died…. So there would have been no room for that amazing display of the Son of God’s love to mankind” (I.1).
Charles Wesley gives concrete expression to “God is love” in this way: “O Love Divine, what hast thou done! The immortal God hath died for me! The Father’s co-eternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree. Th’immortal God for me hath died; My Lord, my Love, is crucified!” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 287).
The heart of God is love, a love that suffers and dies for sinful humanity. It is no contradiction to say that for the Wesleys such love is beyond words, yet at the same time such love must be proclaimed to the world.