One of the central claims of the Protestant Reformation is that salvation is by grace alone. Humans cannot earn nor do they merit salvation; it comes as a free gift of God. On this, all Protestant traditions agree, including the Anglican tradition of which John Wesley was a part, and the Wesleyan tradition to which he gave birth.
Yet it is not uncommon for persons—including pastors and seminarians—to say that while Luther and Calvin believed salvation was by grace, Wesley believed it was a product of free will. Such comments come not only from outside the Wesleyan tradition but from those within it. Yet they fly in the face not only of Wesley’s own explicit statements but also of the inner logic of his way of salvation.
In his 1739 sermon “Free Grace,” which led to a break between the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield and his Calvinist allies, Wesley makes abundantly clear his adherence to the Protestant claim of salvation by grace alone:
[Grace] is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power in man,
no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in any wise depend
either on the good works or the righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has
done, or anything he is. It does not depend on his endeavors. It does not depend on his
good tempers, or good desires, or good purposes and intentions, for all these flow from
the free grace of God. They are streams only, not the fountain. They are the fruits of
grace, and not the root. (§3)
That Wesley never wavered in insisting on this is shown in his 1785 sermon “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” perhaps his most complete treatment of grace. Commenting on Phil 2:3 (“for it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to do of his good pleasure”), Wesley says that the
position of the words, connecting the phrase ‘his good pleasure’ with the word
‘worketh’, removes all imagination of merit of man, and gives God the whole glory
of his own work. Otherwise we might have had some room for boasting, as if it was
our own desert, some goodness in us, or some good thing done by us, which first
moved God to work. But this expression … clearly shows his motive to work lay wholly
in himself—in his own grace, in his unmerited mercy. (§1.1)
But if this is Wesley’s position, how is it that, as his sermon title suggests, we work out our own salvation? Since he is there also quoting Philippians, this is an issue for Paul as much as it is for Wesley.
Protestant reformers like Calvin (and Augustine before him) solved the problem by seeing grace as irresistible. That is, the elect are regenerated such that they then of necessity grow in faith and do good works. But Wesley rejects this solution. In asking how the knowledge and love of God, producing holiness and happiness, shall one day fill the hearts of all, Wesley says
On one supposition … not only all impossibility but all difficulty vanishes away. Only
suppose the Almighty to act irresistibly and it is done…. But then man would be man
no longer; his inmost nature would be changed. He would no longer be a moral agent,
any more than the sun or the wind, as he would be no longer endued with liberty, a
power of choosing or self-determination. (“The General Spread of the Gospel,” §9)
Wesley agreed with Calvin that apart from grace we can do nothing. Because our dispositions and desires are governed by sin, we are oriented away from God. But instead of regenerating the hearts of a predestined few, Wesley believed God graciously restores to all the human capacity to choose, as well as giving persons a conscience that counters the desires of their hearts. This enables persons both to deny the desires of their will and to respond to the promptings of God through conscience.
This initial act of God is indeed irresistible, in that all persons have these faculties restored. But the effect is to enable persons to then respond to God’s further initiatives, placing them on the path toward a new heart and life increasingly governed by love.
Wesley describes the effects of grace in this way:
[God] 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 grace, you, like Mary, chose the better part. (“The
General Spread of the Gospel,” §11)
Wesley upholds not only the priority of grace but the necessity of grace, yet does so without compromising human freedom. It is grace that restores that freedom, enabling us to respond to God. As Wesley succinctly puts it in “On Working out Our Own Salvation, “ “God worketh in you; therefore you can work—otherwise it would be impossible” (§2.3), and “God worketh in you, therefore you must work … otherwise he will cease working” (§3.7). Thus, his advice to those on the way of salvation is to “stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace” (§3.6).