Consider Wesley

A Theology of Grace

Henry H. Knight III

I have argued that John Wesley could be said to have a “theology of love.” Wesley’s theology could with equal accuracy be called a “theology of grace.” Thomas A. Langford held that “the grace of God, as the redeeming activity of divine love, is the center of Wesley’s theology” (Practical Divinity [vol. 1; Nashville: Abingdon, 1983], 20). Certainly there can be no question that Wesley stood with his Protestant Reformation forbears in insisting on the priority and necessity of grace. “We have nothing which we have not received,” Wesley argued, nothing that has not come from God as a prior gift. Hence there is no “room for boasting, as if it were our own desert, some goodness in us, or some good thing done by us, which first moved God to work” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation,” I.1, 4).

What sets Wesley apart from Protestant reformers like Luther and Calvin is his understanding of the extent of grace and the way grace works. For Wesley the extent of grace reaches not to an elect subset of humanity but to everyone. Grace is universal because God’s love is universal; Christ died not for some but for all. Thus, the “grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all” (“Free Grace,” 2). The result, in the words of Charles Wesley, is “the invitation is to all.”

Come, sinners, to the gospel feast;
let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
for God has bid all humankind.
(United Methodist Hymnal, 339)

The universality of grace is necessarily linked to its relationality. If grace were irresistible, as Calvin argued, then either it is not universal or else everyone would be saved. Wesley could not accept a partial grace, but neither could he accept an irresistible grace. For grace to be irresistible would undercut the goal of salvation, which is to restore persons to the divine image in which they were created such that they love in the same freedom as God does. Irresistible grace would deprive persons of their humanity by changing their “inmost nature” — they would no longer be moral agents, “any more than the sun or the wind” (“The General Spread of the Gospel,” 9). They would, in short, be incapable of genuine love.

Instead grace is relational, enabling us to respond to God and inviting us to do so. Randy Maddox makes this central to Wesley’s theology in his book Responsible Grace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994): grace enables us to respond, and so enabled we are then responsible to do so. Kenneth Collins describes Wesley’s view of grace as both freely given yet at the same time cooperant, upholding the priority of grace without negating its relationality (The Theology of John Wesley [Nashville: Abingdon, 2007], 6–18).

Wesley was aware that for many to insist on the necessity of our response was to deny that salvation was by grace alone. “If it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do,” they reason, “what need is there of our working?” Wesley’s response is twofold. “First, God worketh in you; therefore you can work — otherwise it would be impossible.” Salvation is by grace alone. But second, “God worketh in you; therefore you must work…” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation,” 3). Unless we respond to God through worship, prayer, and service to others we are not in relationship with God.

A relationship with God is transformative. Wesley understands the work of grace to be not only unmerited favor through Jesus Christ (justification) but transformation through the Holy Spirit (sanctification). We are not only forgiven and reconciled through the atonement of Christ, but inwardly changed to that we begin to have the mind that was in Christ, centered on love.

What grace provides is not only an assurance of life after death but a new life in Christ in the present, a life that death cannot take from us. The work of grace is to fit us for the kingdom of God by already setting up that kingdom in our hearts and letting it be manifested in both church and world through our lives.

Posted Feb 19, 2014