[Theology/Ecclesiology] The Church: A Grace-filled Community

The following is part 2 of a paper that I presented to the Centre for Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham. Part 2 provides a brief overview of the impact that John Wesley’s soteriology had upon his ecclesiology. To read part 1 of the paper, which briefly explores Wesley’s soteriology, please click here.

The Church: A Grace-filled Community

One of the striking aspects of Wesley’s ecclesiology is the manner in which the three, aforementioned, graces give shape to the life, ministry and practice of the Church. This should come as no surprise given Wesley’s belief­––drawing from the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christians at Ephesus (Eph. 4.1-6)––that each Christian is called, individually, to walk ‘with all lowliness’ and ‘endued with power from on high.’[1] Yet, the Christian life, in Wesley’s estimation, was by no means a solitary life. The Christian life was, and is, a life lived in community to others. Thus, it necessarily involved: ‘not injuring, hurting, or grieving each other…the bearing of one another’s burdens…and lessening them by ever means in our power.’[2] Furthermore, it was the charge of every Christian to strive ‘to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”’[3]

These beliefs were not merely ideals. Rather, Wesley believed that they should be some of the defining characteristics of the body of Christ. To this end, he suggested, that within the body of Christ there should be room for differences of opinion. All that truly mattered, according to Wesley, was whether a person’s heart was right. (By this, Wesley intended to suggest that what mattered was whether a person believed in Jesus Christ and was living with a ‘heart right toward [their] neighbour.’)[4] Therefore, rather than arguing and fighting over trivial matters, the Church should be a place where different and disparate individuals are united by a spirit of love.

One of the key reasons for this was Wesley’s belief in the prevenient (preventing) grace of God. Because he believed that God’s grace was freely available to all, he argued in favour of making allowance for those whose beliefs may be different from one’s own, but who, all the same, were growing in the grace and knowledge of God. Once again, however, this was not an abstract ideal that God’s people were to aspire to. Wesley envisioned concrete ways that the preventing love of God could characterize and give shape to the life and ministry of the Church. For instance, he believed that God’s grace could be experienced through ordinary channels: hearing and reading Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, fasting, baptism, etc. These ordinary channels––whether a sacrament, work of mercy or work of piety––could be real means of grace, whereby God conveys his grace to the hearts and souls of humanity.[5]

Undoubtedly, this helps to explain Wesley’s repeated encouragement to members of Methodist societies to observe the sacrament of communion as often as they could. As a ‘means of grace,’ Wesley believed that people could powerfully experience God’s love (and even God’s presence, with the aid of the Holy Spirit) as they ate of the bread and drank of the cup. Likewise, Wesley believed that the sacrament of baptism could serve as a means whereby a person could experience the grace of God in a profound way.

Wesley’s beliefs regarding prevenient grace led him to charge members of the Methodist societies to do a number of things that may appear to strange, and confounding, to modern readers. For instance, he encourages society members to remain a part of a parish even if the cleric was corrupt. Why would he suggest such a thing? Quite simply, he believed in the preventing grace of God so strongly that he could claim with confidence that God ‘can and doth send salvation to men [and women] even by those who will not accept of it themselves.’[6] In so doing, Wesley envisions the corporate worship of the Church, even when bankrupt or corrupt, to be a means by which God may convey grace to the hearts of men and women.

Another implication of Wesley’s soteriology was that God’s grace is manifest in and through the lives of ordinary men and women. What this meant, practically speaking, was that God could, and often did, work through ordinary people––just as God might extend grace to an individual through the sacraments, liturgy, homily, etc. A natural, but important, consequence of this line of thinking was that he commissioned untrained lay-people to be ambassadors and/or bearers of God’s grace. Some would receive the distinction of being commission to serve as a lay preacher for the Methodist societies.

In many respects, Wesley believed that an untrained, uneducated Methodist preacher was preferable to the educated, ordained clergy of the Church of England. He believed the Methodist preacher was particularly suited to the task, because their only qualification, and the one that mattered the most, was that they were supernaturally raised up by God to serve as extraordinary messengers.[7] Consequently, the message that these extraordinary messengers preached was: genuine and unmixed;[8] the pure and simple word of God;[9] spoken with ‘plainness and boldness’ without any attempt ‘to reconcile it to the tastes of men.’[10]

A further consequence of Wesley’s soteriology, which suggests that God employs a variety of means whereby the grace of God is conveyed to humanity, was that, in addition to such means of grace as the Eucharist and baptism, God’s grace can, and often is, conveyed through ‘works of mercy, as well as works of piety, which are real means of grace.’[11] Thus, in Sermon 98, which concerns the practice of visiting the sick, Wesley singles out two groups––the wealthy and woman––as particularly suited (gifted?) for the task of conveying God’s grace to the sick. While it was not surprising that Wesley envisages the rich as having an important part to play in the church, the part that he envisioned them playing was not the typical, expected role of financial benefactor. Instead, and this is where Wesley turned convention on its head, he taught that the rich were particularly suited for this task as they both have the means and the time to do so.[12]

Equally noteworthy was Wesley’s insistence that women have a part to play. He writes, ‘Undoubtedly they may; nay, they ought; it is meet, right, and their bounden duty.’[13] He goes on to call upon them to,

Let all you that have it in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too are called of God, as you have time, to do ‘unto all men.’ Be ‘not disobedient to the heavenly calling.’ Whenever you have opportunity, do all the good you can, particularly to your poor, sick neighbour.[14]

Wesley believed that women could bear the grace of God, were called of God, and could be used by God to minister to others––a belief was nothing short of revolutionary in his day. But a belief that was very much in step with, and informed by, his soteriology.

Footnotes

[1]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 6, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 398.

[2]. Wesley, Volume 6, 399.

[3]. Wesley, Volume 6, 399.

[4]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 5, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 497-8.

[5]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 7, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 117.

[6]. Wesley, Volume 7, 181.

[7]. Wesley, Volume 7, 277.

[8]. Wesley, Volume 7, 471.

[9]. Wesley, Volume 7, 472.

[10]. Wesley, Volume 7, 472.

[11]. Wesley, Volume 7, 117. Emphasis added.

[12]. Wesley, Volume 7, 117. The rich, he observes, are ‘not under a necessity of working for [their] bread; [they] have [their] time at [their] own disposal!’ Because of this, he believes they may ‘allot some part of it every day for this labour of love.’

[13]. Wesley, Volume 7, 125.

[14]. Wesley, Volume 7, 126. Emphasis added.

[Theology/Soteriology] John Wesley’s Three Graces

The following is part 1 of a paper that I presented to the Centre for Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham. Part 1 provides a brief overview of John Wesley’s soteriology. In particular, it looks at his notion of the ‘three graces’: preventing, justifying and sanctifying. Part 2 explores the ecclesiological impact and/or outworking of Wesley’s soteriology.

Wesley’s Three Graces: Preventing, Justifying and Sanctifying

The Reverend John Wesley believed that men and women have not always been in need of salvation. He believed that being created in the very image of God, ‘humanity was created in an original state of complete perfection.’[i] Being thus created and existing as perfect beings, in the beginning, both the first man and the first woman were in right relationship with God. There were no mitigating circumstances to create distance between creature and Creator.

Humanity would not always exist in this state. Sin came into the world when ‘Adam, in whom all mankind were then contained, freely preferred evil to good. He chose to do his own will, rather than the will of his Creator. He “was not deceived,” but knowingly and deliberately rebelled against his Father and his King. In that moment he lost the moral image of God, and, in part, the natural: He commenced unholy, foolish, and unhappy.’[ii]

Through this one event, all of humanity found itself in need of salvation from sin. As Wesley states it ‘”in Adam all died:” He entitled all his posterity to error, guilt, sorrow, fear, pain, diseases, and death.’[iii] So as it were through one human being’s sin, the whole world, found itself in need of salvation. No longer would humanity live in covenant with God, rather by way of sin the covenant was broken and separation from God resulted.

Neither man nor woman could provide a solution to this separation. Humanity had been ‘not only deprived of the favour of God, but also this image, of all virtue, righteousness, and true holiness; and sunk, partly into the image of the devil.’[iv] Having thus lost the moral image of God and incapable of restoring itself, all of humanity was condemned to die, both physically and spiritually. Only an act by God could bridge the gap created by sin.

That is just what the loving Creator did. The Creator extended love and the opportunity for restoration to those who had been created, through the vicarious death of Jesus, the Christ. Wesley believed that this action was not earned. ‘It is free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in [humanity]; no not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part.’[v]

Wesley posited three types of grace, each of which is contingent upon the death and resurrection of Christ, extended to humanity. Each grace has a unique function, but is not to be understood as being totally apart and distinct from the others. Rather each subsequent grace builds upon the foundation laid by the previous one. Together these graces provided the holistic view of salvation that John Wesley posited.

The first grace that is extended to us in this process of being reconciled unto God is prevenient grace. This grace is part of our makeup; it is with us from birth. As part of each individual’s makeup it is free to all. There are not some who have this grace, while others do not. This grace is universal. Its purpose is to prepare us so that we can receive new life in Christ. It convicts humanity of their need for a Savior.

Justifying grace subsequently allows humanity to come into new life in Christ. This grace, like its forerunner, cannot be earned; it is the free gift of a loving God. Justifying grace clears ‘us from accusation, particularly that of Satan.’[vi] It is at this point that theological debates and divisions occur. Some believe that justifying grace is given only to those whom have been predestined by God to be saved. Whereas others, like Wesley, believe that justifying grace is given based upon the decision of the would-be recipient of this grace.

Wesley believed that at the point of justifying grace salvation becomes co-operant. An individual ultimately has the choice whether to embrace or reject this unmerited favor of God. Therefore, for Wesley, ‘grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation.’[vii] As has already been stated, grace is the gift of a loving God; but what is faith?

Faith, simply put, means believing that Christ is who He said He was, the Son of God who has come to free us from the bondage of sin and to give us life everlasting. ‘It acknowledges the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection. It acknowledges his death as the only sufficient means of redeeming [humanity] from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; inasmuch as he “was delivered for our sins, and rose again for our justification.”‘[viii] Thus, one cannot truly have been justified by faith unless one is assured that Christ loved and gave himself for us.

It must be asked whether justification has any present purpose, or if it is only provisional, in that it provides for eternal life. One must also inquire as to whether justification is the end of Christ’s work in reshaping and renewing us, or whether it is the penultimate pinnacle of what God has intended for us.

According to Wesley, if we accept this justifying grace, its purposes are both for the present and future. It is present, in that, immediately we experience the fruits of this grace. First, ‘we are saved from both the guilt and the power of it (sin).’[ix] In the salvific work of Christ, the guilt of our past sins was obliterated. Being freed from the condemnation that had previously accompanied our sinfulness we are also freed from the fear of God’s punishment.[x] The salvation, which results from our being justified and thereby initially sanctified, is also present implications. The crisis of justification and initial sanctification are part of the process leading to entire sanctification. This process is governed by the sustaining grace of God, which helps one to strive on to perfection. Although, entire sanctification can occur during his lifetime it is not always completed. However, the individual who is “by faith, born of God” has the capacity, and should desire, to progressively strive toward the point where he or she,

Sinneth not (1.) by any habitual sin; for all habitual sin is sin in reigning: But sin cannot reign in any that believeth. Nor (2.) by any willful sin: for his (or her) will, while he (or she) abideth in the faith, is utterly set against all sin, and abhorreth it as deadly poison. Nor (3.) By any sinful desire; for he (or she) continually desireth the holy and perfect will of God. And any tendency to an unholy desire, he (or she) by the grace of God, stifleth in birth. Nor (4.) Doth he (or she) sin by infirmities, whether in act, word, or thought; for his (or her) infirmities have no concurrence of his will; and without this they are not properly sins.[xi]

In short, the person of faith should be growing in his or her love of both God and neighbor to the extent that love may be made complete in them.

While entire sanctification is a perfection of love toward God and neighbor. Attaining this perfection of love does not mean that one will be free from mistake or folly. As Wesley writes,

While we are in the body we cannot be wholly free from mistake. Notwithstanding all our care, we shall still be liable to judge wrong in many instances. And a mistake in judgment will very frequently occasion a mistake in practice. Nay, a wrong judgment may occasion something in the temper or passions which is not strictly right. It may occasion needless fear, or ill-grounded hope, unreasonable love, or unreasonable aversion. But all this is no way inconsistent with the perfection above described.[xii]

Nor, does it mean that having attained this perfection of love that one cannot also lose it. Just as it can be attained in this life, so can it be lost!

Wesley’s soteriology endeavors to balance God’s love with humanity’s responsibility. As such, I contend that he viewed the Church, and Methodist societies, as training grounds whereby men and women might practice living a life of love and thereby participate and/or cooperate with God in doing God’s work in the world. It is to the manifestation of these aspects of Wesley’s soteriology in the life and ministry of the Church that we now turn our attention.

 

Footnotes

[i]. Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 67.

[ii]. John Wesley, “On the Fall of Man,” The Sermons of John Wesley- 1872 Edition, Edited by Thomas Jackson <http://wesley.nnu.edu/JohnWesley/sermons/topic.htm> (21 February 2014).

[iii]. Wesley, “On the Fall of Man.”

[iv]. John Wesley, “God’s Love to Fallen Man,” The Sermons of John Wesley- 1872 Edition, Edited by Thomas Jackson <http://wesley.nnu.edu/JohnWesley/sermons/topic.htm> (21 February 2014).

[v]. John Wesley, “Free Grace,” The Sermons of John Wesley- 1872 Edition, Edited by Thomas Jackson <http://wesley.nnu.edu/JohnWesley/sermons/topic.htm> (21 February 2014).

[vi]. John Wesley, “Justification by Faith,” The Sermons of John Wesley- 1872 Edition, Edited by Thomas Jackson <http://wesley.nnu.edu/JohnWesley/sermons/topic.htm> (21 February 2014).

[vii]. John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Sermons of John Wesley- 1872 Edition, Edited by Thomas Jackson <http://wesley.nnu.edu/JohnWesley/sermons/topic.htm> (21 February 2014).

[viii]. Wesley, “Salvation by Faith.

[ix]. Wesley, “Salvation by Faith.”

[x]. Wesley, “Salvation by Faith.

[xi]. Wesley, “Salvation by Faith.”

[xii]. John Wesley, “On Perfection,” The Sermons of John Wesley- 1872 Edition, Edited by Thomas Jackson <http://wesley.nnu.edu/JohnWesley/sermons/topic.htm> (21 February 2014).

 

[Photos] Snowy, snowy night

Playing around with my new camera. These were shot with a Nikon D5200. I experimented with the settings, shooting manually vs. auto, and some inexpensive macro and wide angle lenses that I picked up.

(These photos are unedited, untouched and are otherwise just as they were shot.)