Consider Wesley

How Wesley Understood “Grace”

Henry H. Knight III

Wesley’s Methodism has its roots in the disciplined life of the Holy Club at Oxford, but it took shape as a distinctive movement within the transatlantic awakening of the eighteenth century. The term “Methodist” was given to any person or group within the awakening that embraced field preaching, itinerancy, and often lay preaching. Thus George Whitefield, Howell Harris’ Calvinistic Methodists in Wales, and the Countess of Huntingdon’s connection were all called “Methodists.”

Wesley’s connection was unlike the others, however, in part because it had a different understanding of grace. The other “Methodists” were all Calvinists; Wesley was an evangelical Arminian. James Arminius was a Dutch Calvinist theologian who rejected predestination; Wesley’s own “Arminianism” was probably not derived directly from Arminius but from sources within his own Anglican tradition. Wesley’s Arminianism was “evangelical” because he insisted that, with Luther and Calvin, salvation is by grace alone. Where he disagreed was in his understanding of how grace worked.

First, Wesley believed grace was universal. He rejected the Calvinist claim that God’s grace was given only to the elect, insisting with 2 Pet 3:9 that God is “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (NRSV). His was a highly invitational theology, reflecting the divine invitation. It is to this universal grace that Charles Wesley urges us to respond: “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).

Second, Wesley believed grace was empowering. He agreed with the Protestant reformers that the human heart is totally corrupted by sin. Apart from grace, we are unable to respond to God—we do not, in other words, have natural free will. But if grace is universal, no one is apart from grace, and if “God worketh in you,” Wesley says, “you can work—otherwise it would be impossible” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation” III.3, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 3; ed. A. Outler; Abingdon, 1986] 206).

Wesley rejects the Calvinist insistence that grace is irresistible. God wants humans who image God, and who therefore love freely. Should God act irresistibly, Wesley argues, human nature would be incapable of imaging God—a person “would no longer be a moral agent,” and thus “no longer be capable of virtue or vice…” (“The General Spread of the Gospel,” 9, in Works, vol. 2 [1985] 488-89). When God acts graciously to give you new life, Wesley says, God does “not take away your understanding,” but enlightens and strengthens it. “Least of all,” God does not “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” (“The General Spread of the Gospel” ll, in Works, vol. 2; 489).

Third, Wesley believes grace to be relational, in that it enables and invites us to enter into a relationship with God. “God worketh in you,” says Wesley, “therefore you must work.” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation,” III.7, in Works, vol. 3; 208.) This we do through means of grace, both works of piety (directed toward God) and works of mercy (directed toward our neighbor). Wesley depicts the relationship in this way. As the “Spirit or breath of God… is continually received by faith, so it is continually rendered back by love, by prayer, and praise, and thanksgiving—love and praise and prayer being the breath of every soul which is truly born of God. And by this new kind of spiritual respiration, spiritual life is not only sustained but increased day by day…” (“The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” I.8, in Works, vol. 1 [1984] 434).

Finally, Wesley believes grace to be transformative. It refers not only to unmerited favor, by which our sins are forgiven, but an equally unmerited renewal, by which God restores us to the image of God, which is love. We are then not only declared righteous because of Christ’s atonement, we are actually made righteous such that we increasingly have the mind that was in Christ, and walk as Christ walked. This fundamentally links grace to the power of the Holy Spirit, at work in our lives as well as in the world. In the end, grace for Wesley is the work of the triune God through Christ and the Spirit, renewing all things in love.

Posted Feb 01, 2007