John Wesley, like all Protestants, believed we are saved by grace alone. But what is grace? The common definition in both standard English and theological dictionaries is something like the unmerited favor of God.
The first point in the common definition is that grace is unmerited. Wesley strongly affirms this. “The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all,” he wrote, “It does not in any wise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not an anything he has done, or anything he is” (“Free Grace,” §§2-3). Except for the “free in all, free for all,” Luther and Calvin would have had no difficulty in agreeing with Wesley’s language.
The second point in the common definition is that grace is God’s favor. Although this is correct, Wesley believed it was incomplete. In “The Witness of Our Own spirit” Wesley notes: “By ‘the grace of God’ is sometimes to be understood that free love, that unmerited mercy, by which I, a sinner, through the merits of Christ am now reconciled to God. But in this place it rather means that power of God the Holy Ghost which ‘worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure’” (§15). For Wesley, no definition of grace is adequate unless it includes the power of the Holy Spirit.
If we recall Wesley’s understanding of salvation. we can see why this is important. If salvation is essentially about our postmortem destiny, and the key to a happy eternity is for us to be justified, then defining grace solely as the unmerited favor of God makes a lot of sense. But if salvation is about restoring us to the image of God in which we were created, then unmerited favor is necessary but not sufficient. Salvation by grace had to encompass the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.
This leads to a second aspect of Wesley’s understanding of grace. For him, grace is not something created by God, a kind of divine medicine dispensed through work and sacrament. Grace is not apart from God but is the presence of God. While that presence can be found wherever God chooses, it is normally found in the means of grace. These means of grace include prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, Christian conferencing, and works of mercy to others.
God, then, is not a faraway dispenser of grace but an immediate presence. Wesley insisted that “all inspiration, though by means, is immediate.” Suppose, he says, “you are employed in private prayer, and God pours his love into your heart. God then acts immediately on your soul; and the love of him which you then experience is as immediately breathed into you by the Holy Ghost as if you had lived seventeen hundred years ago” (“A Farther Appeal of Men of Reason and Religion,” part 1, §V.28).
To put this in different terms, our lives are transformed by entering into a relationship with God primarily through using the means of grace. This transforming work is both gradual and instantaneous, with the latter being the two events of conversion (justification and new birth) and Christian perfection, each of which lays a new foundation for further gradual growth.
Unlike most of his Calvinist contemporaries, Wesley believed the promise of salvation was offered to all. This means grace must be universal and cannot be irresistible. It “is free in all, and free for all.” But it cannot be irresistible as that would imply universal salvation, with salvation understood as eternal destiny rather than a present new life in Christ.
If salvation has as its goal to enable us to love as God loves, then grace has to operate in such a way that we can love with the same freedom as God loves. Grace, then, invites us into a relationship with God and enables us to respond to that invitation. Human agency is essential.
In “The General Spread of the Gospel” Wesley offers this description of how grace works: “You know how God wrought in your own soul when he first enabled you to say, ‘The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ He did not take away your understanding, but enlightened and strengthened it. He did not destroy any of your affections; rather they were more vigorous than before. Least of all did he take away your liberty, your power of choosing good or evil; he did not force you; but being assisted by his grace you, like Mary, chose the better part” (§11).
In “On Working out Our Own Salvation” Wesley makes the same point in a different way. “First,” he says, “God worketh in you; therefore you can work—otherwise it would be impossible” (§111.3). It would be impossible because of original sin, that is, the hold sin has over our dispositions, motivations, and desires. Only God can free us to respond, hence we are indeed saved by grace alone.
But “secondly, God worketh in you; therefore you must work”; that is, we must respond to God’s reaching out to us. Grace gives us the ability to respond, but then we must do the responding. For one who is encountering God through universal prevenient grace, that response might be obedience to a God-given conscience. For a Christian it is by a faith that works by love.
The promise of salvation by grace is more than the unmerited forgiveness of sin. It is the presence and power of God that enables and invites us to enter the way of salvation whose destination is to be filled with God’s love.