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Kevin Watson ~ Christianity with a Wesleyan Accent: Wesleyan Doctrine

Though Wesleyans are most committed to offering Christ, not to being distinct from other Christian traditions, there are differences in Christian traditions because various parts of the body of Christ articulate their faith with differing emphases or nuances. And although Wesley was primary focused on offering Christ, he was not indifferent to Christian beliefs or practice. The next three posts, then, will seek to understand Wesley’s call to “hold fast” to “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” (John Wesley, “Thoughts upon Methodism,” Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, 9:527)

As a reminder, my first post concluded as follows:

In short, Wesleyans believe that God wants to make us holy, now, in this life. This conviction is at the heart of Wesleyan doctrine, it infused the spirit of early Methodism, and a practical approach to becoming holy was traced out in early Methodist discipline. We do not have a monopoly on holiness within Christianity. But Wesleyans are sometimes so passionate about it that we sound almost as different to outsiders as an Irishman does in Oklahoma.

The goal of this post, then, is to describe the key ways that John Wesley articulated Christian doctrine with a particular accent. In 1746, Wesley used the image of a house to describe the “main doctrines” of Methodists. He wrote, “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” (Wesley, “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained”; in Works 9:227)

In other words, repentance brings someone to the threshold of a relationship with the living God. Faith brings them across the threshold into a new relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And holiness is the way that a person, after beginning a relationship with God, is enabled to move all of their life into God’s house.

Wesley begins with repentance because he believed that we are lost and we can only be found by Christ. For Wesleyans, all are in need of rescue, and we cannot rescue ourselves. Repentance is important because often, consciously or not, we are trying to save ourselves by our own efforts. As Wesley put it, “none can trust in the merits of Christ till he has utterly renounced his own.” (Wesley, “Salvation by Faith”; in Works 1:127) When we have stopped looking at ourselves and attempt to turn our eyes to Christ, we find that we are, by God’s amazing grace, standing on the front porch of God’s house.

When Wesley proclaimed the gospel, faith in Christ was at the center of his message. Wesley defined faith as “a divine evidence and conviction, not only that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself’, but also that Christ ‘loved me, and gave himself for me’.” (Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”; in Works 2: 161) Wesley believed that the two major moves in the Christian life, justification (pardon or forgiveness) and sanctification (being made like Christ), were both the result of faith. Indeed, he firmly stated that “faith is the condition, and the only condition, of justification.” And when he turned his attention to sanctification he repeated the emphasis on faith, stating that it “is the condition, and the only condition of sanctification, exactly as it is of justification.”

Wesleyans, then, are passionate that all people need to repent of their sins, their separation from God, and their tendency to rely on themselves instead of on God. The call for repentance is so that people can be offered Christ and invited to faith in Christ, which brings forgiveness of past sins, reconciles our relationship with God, and enables us to look to Christ as the source of our transformation. Faith, then, enables people to cross the threshold of God’s house.

To be fair, for the most part, what has been said so far really just represents basic affirmations of the Protestant Reformation. However, when Wesleyans speak about holiness, and the extent to which we can move all of our lives into God’s house in this life, our accent begins to become more pronounced.

In a letter Wesley wrote a year before his death, he described entire sanctification, or Christian perfection, as “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.” In other words, at the end of his life as Wesley looked back on the Methodist movement, he saw the doctrine of entire sanctification as the major reason God raised up the people called Methodists. So what is entire sanctification?

For Wesley, entire sanctification is the result of taking the possibilities of being made holy that are offered to us in Christ to its logical conclusion. How holy can we become in this life? Completely holy.

What is complete holiness? Here, I will let Wesley speak for himself: “Entire sanctification [is] a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief, or, as the Apostle expresses it, ‘Go on to perfection.’ But what is perfection? . . . Here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul.” (John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in Works, 2:160)

Full salvation from all our sins comes through faith in Christ. The ability to love to the exclusion of sin is also given through faith. Of course, much more could (and probably should) be said about Wesleyan doctrine. (Also, the next two posts will discuss the way in which the spirit and discipline of early Methodism were essential to bringing Methodist doctrine to life.) On Wesley’s own terms, however, one should not say less when discussing the doctrine that Wesley believed gave early Methodism the form and power of godliness.

When Wesleyans proclaim Christ they do so in a way that acknowledges the reality of the human condition and the extent of our separation from God, as well as the ways that we harm each other. But above all else, we proclaim salvation that brings not only forgiveness, but that also brings healing. In the words of Charles Wesley’s well-worn hymn, Jesus “breaks the power of canceled sin.” When we turn away from ourselves and put our faith in Christ, we are given forgiveness, a new start, and the power to live for Christ.

Praise the Lord!