This year in Consider Wesley we want to look at four aspects of grace in Wesley’s theology. But before we begin with the first of these aspects, we should first see how John Wesley understood grace itself.
Commenting on 2 Cor 1:12 in his sermon “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).
In this passage Wesley extends the usual meaning of grace as unearned or unmerited forgiveness to include the power of the Holy Spirit. And while all grace is indeed a gift, it is the transforming work of the Spirit that effectuates the entire way of salvation, from prevenient grace to Christian perfection and beyond.
With this expanded definition of grace in mind, let’s now turn to the first aspect of grace I want to highlight, its universality. Against Calvinists who insisted that grace was given only to the predestined elect, Wesley was an uncompromising advocate for the Arminian insistence that grace is universal. “The grace or love of God,” said John Wesley, “whence cometh our salvation, is free in all, and free for all” (“Free Grace” §2)” “The invitation is to all,” wrote Charles Wesley, “ye need not one be left behind” (“Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” UM Hymnal, 339).
John Wesley would mount a series of objections to predestination, but the chief one had to do with the character of God. For Wesley, the most central attribute of God was love, and that meant love for all. Jesus Christ died for all persons, not just the elect.
But why then, a Calvinist in Wesley’s day might ask, are not all persons saved? Doesn’t universal grace imply universal salvation? Not at all, Wesley might reply, because grace is not, as the Calvinists assumed, irresistible. For Wesley, irresistible grace would subvert the entire purpose of salvation. If grace were irresistible, Wesley argues, “man would be man no longer; his inmost nature would be changed. He would no longer be a moral agent … as he would no longer be endued with liberty, a power of choosing or self-determination” (“The General Spread of the Gospel” §9). If the goal of salvation is not only a happy afterlife but the restoration of persons to the image of God in which they were created, so that they love as God loves, then they must have the capacity to love in freedom.
In contrast to irresistible grace, Wesley understands grace as enabling or empowering. “God works, therefore, you can work,” he says; “God works; therefore you must work”—otherwise God will cease working (“On Working out Our Own Salvation” §§III.2, 7). Put differently, God both enables and invites our response to God’s initiative.
What universal prevenient grace does is reach out to every human being, whether he or she has heard the gospel or even knows there is a God. Persons need grace because of original sin, which for Wesley means they no longer retain the moral image of God. Their wills or hearts are governed by unholy tempers, their understanding is clouded, and they have lost the liberty to resist the desires and motivations that govern the heart.
Prevenient grace gives each person a conscience, a general concept of good and evil, which partially restores the understanding. It also restores a measure of liberty, enabling persons to deny their own will and instead obey their conscience. When they do this, they are responding positively to the grace they have.
Thus, Wesley did not believe, as some philosophers of his day did, that we have a natural free will and a natural conscience. “Natural free-will in the present state of mankind,“ he wrote, “I do not understand: I only assert, that there is a measure of free-will supernaturally restored in every man, together with supernatural light [conscience] which ‘enlightens every man that cometh into the world’” (“Predestination Calmly Considered” §45)
This belief in universal grace enabled Methodists in early nineteenth-century America to be an appealing alternative to what became the dominant theology in the new republic. Orthodox views of original sin were being jettisoned in favor of enlightenment philosophies that insisted on human rationally and an innate moral sense. This was an optimistic anthropology suitable for a new nation devoted to self-government. Many American Calvinists were beginning to rethink original sin and move toward something more like natural free will.
But not so the Methodists, at least in the first third of the nineteenth century. They retained a traditional Protestant view of original sin coupled with the Wesleyan teaching on prevenient grace. Mark Noll in America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002) calls these early Methodists “an important counterpoint” to the dominant trend, showing “that it was entirely possible for a traditional Christian message that had not been adjusted to the norms of America ideology to flourish in the new American nation. (340)
Contemporary American society still could benefit from a theology that holds to both realism about human sin and optimism in what a gracious God can do. A realistic hope may be able to break through the tension between cynicism and rosy optimism that currently pervades our culture.