A prevalent understanding of Christianity in the western world, both inside and outside the church, goes something like this: Through Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven so that when we die, we will go to heaven instead of hell. This, it is assumed, is what salvation is all about.
But this is not the understanding of John Wesley. “Salvation,” he wrote, “I mean . . . a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature” (“A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” part 1, §1.3). Salvation for Wesley is the gift of new life in Christ, through which we recover the divine nature, which is love. This new life begins in the present and continues through eternity.
Grace, then, does much more than many assume. It is fundamentally transformative of hearts and lives, and therefore of relationships, motivations, desires, and values. Through grace, we become new creations.
The heart of salvation is justification and sanctification. These are, he says, the “two grand branches” of “the proper Christian salvation.” “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God; by sanctification we are saved from the power of sin, and restored to the image of God” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation,” §2.1). They are accomplished through grace and received by faith, but are grounded in different divine actions. “The one [justification] implies what God does for us through his Son; the other [sanctification] what he works in us by his Spirit” (“Justification by Faith,” §2.1).
Both of these are transformative, but in different ways. “Justification implies only a relative change, the new birth [which is the beginning of sanctification] a real change. God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again he does the work in us” (“The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” §2).
At first glance, it looks as if justification is not transformative. Through it sinners “are forgiven and accepted, not for the sake of anything in them or of anything that ever was, that is, or ever can be done by them, but wholly and solely for the sake of what Christ hath done and suffered for them” (“The Lord Our Righteousness,” §2.5). But when we think of it more deeply, we see that to be forgiven and accepted by God is itself life-giving, because we know just how much God loves us, even to becoming one of us to die for us all. This fundamentally alters our relationship with God (what Wesley means by “a relative change”), for we now know experientially and not just conceptually that God is love.
Coming to know God’s love for us in Christ enables the new birth, the beginning of sanctification. The Holy Spirit specifically brings to birth holy tempers in the heart, most especially love for God and neighbor. Sanctification is the process of growing in that love and other marks of the new birth such as faith, hope, humility, peace, and joy. This transformation of the heart leads to transformation of life as we begin to live these out in the world.
Holy tempers are dispositions of the heart; they make us increasingly the sort of persons who love God and neighbor, who have the mind of Christ. As a result, we have new motivations and desires; our intentions are increasingly aligned with God’s. We also see the world with new eyes, looking at persons and situations through the lens of love.
The new birth and sanctification address a common issue among persons in churches. They know they should serve God and often do. But there are things, like evangelism or regular prayer for instance, that they know they should do but (if they are honest) don’t want to do. Teaching them how to do these things doesn’t help unless they want to do them. It is sanctification that enables those desires and motivations to grow in our hearts that in turn move us into active discipleship.
Wesley was a leader in the trans-Atlantic awakening that dominated much of the eighteenth century. Those involved in it, Calvinist and Wesleyan alike, had a focus on the new birth and a heightened awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit. But none had an optimism of grace equaled to Wesley’s.
We can see this in his teaching on Christian perfection, which was the doctrine that most distinguished his Methodists from everyone else. By Christian perfection Wesley means “the humble, gentle, patient love of God, and our neighbor, ruling our tempers, words, and actions” (“Brief Thoughts on Christian Perfection”). It is love filling and governing the heart, restoring us to the image of God in which we were created. This, he argued, was a promise of God to all who believe.
While in one sense the goal of sanctification, Wesley understands Christian perfection to be an instantaneous work of the Spirit, parallel to the new birth that begins sanctification. Should Christian perfection occur prior to death, then it initiates our further growth in perfection.
Wesley’s optimism of grace then extends from prevenient grace to Christian perfection. He is fully aware of the power of sin, but even more confident that through grace love triumphs, in this life and the age to come. Whatever God has promised, Wesley is certain that in God’s own way and time God will do.