Conclusion to Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Hillary of Poitier (300-368) was one of the great defenders of the faith in the early church. He is known as the “hammer of the Arians” because of his vigorous opposition to this Christological heresy which had spread so widely in his day. The Arians believed that Jesus Christ was not the eternal second person of the Triune God, but rather a created being before the foundation of the world. However, Bishop Hillary vigorously reminded the church that the position of Arius was not faithful to the Apostolic witness. In time, Arianism did not prevail, and the church re-emerged. In our own time, many of us have looked around and found that many expressions of Protestant Christianity have pushed beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy and begun to seriously erode the unity of Nicea. Many liberal Protestants – and a few daring Roman Catholics – finally came out in the open and, like Arius of old, denied the true Deity of Christ or the inseparable link between a truly Risen Christ and the Church. Christ, they argued, must be made more reasonable for modern men and women. Christ did not truly, bodily rise they insisted, but arose in the preaching of the Apostles. Some boldly claimed that the Enlightenment had finally delivered the crushing blow and called for the church to re-invent itself along lines more compatible with modernity, lest the church have no future in a secularized world. More recently, in some of the post-modern readings, we are called to all experience Christ in our own way and not be bothered by the confines of some ancient Apostolic proclamation. Post-modernism urges us to live as independent islands in a sea of meaninglessness. Your autonomous opinions, they argue, are just as meaningful and valid as those who deliberated at Nicea or who were first commissioned by the Risen Lord. A hermeneutic of proclamation and faith is replaced by a hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt and both called equally valid. According to this scheme, theology, it seems, is really – after all – only anthropology. The church is a human construct, not a divinely ordained community. Yet, in the face of all of this – though the tempest rages for a season, the church will, once again, be reconstituted into the truth.

With the emergence of global Christianity we are witnessing many new and faithful expressions of the church from other quarters, mainly in the non-western world and the great unanimity of the church throughout the ages marches on, because God is the one who preserves his church and its living witness to Jesus Christ. The church is constantly being reconstituted in the truth. Harvey Cox, in his book Fire from Heaven observes this phenomenon, calling it in the words of the Frenchman Gilles Kepel, “the revenge of God.”1  Indeed, every time the New Testament is opened and the Gospel is proclaimed it happens again and again throughout the world. The church, therefore, is called to persevere as the public witnesses of the apostolic message. We are a living community united to the Risen Christ. The word “saint” never appears in the singular a single time in the New Testament. The word for church, ekklesia denotes a public assembly, not a private cult.2  We are a community of witnesses and we cannot bear witness in isolation from our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world in space or the witness of the church through the ages in time. We are united to them both in worship and in witness in what the Apostles’ Creed calls the communion of the saints, the communio sanctorum. To forsake either that worship or that witness is to cross the boundaries and to cease to be the true Church.

Today, 2000 years into this great proclamation, after having weathered every storm from Gnosticism to Arianism to Protestant Liberalism to the current storm of post-modernism, I remain convinced that the true church will always re-emerge as the faithful witness. I say this because as I review the top eight reasons why I am a Methodist, I am painfully aware that many Methodist churches do not exhibit these great truths today. However, if we are all witnesses and stewards of a worship and a witness summoned forth by the Father, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and heralded through the ages by countless millions, then our voice joins the great chorus of other faithful Christians throughout the world and back through time. In this respect, despite my deep love for Methodism, I still remain far more identified with the common evangelical witness of all true churches than any particular outpost. As I noted at the outset of this series, our particularity only has meaning if it is built on the great common doctrinal, experiential and historical truths, which unite all true churches together. For if we don’t have doctrinal stability, we cannot have ethical stability and if we don’t have ethical stability we don’t have stability of worship and if we don’t have stability of worship, we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.  Our historic boundaries would become lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.

What a contrast from the Apostle John, who gives that final testimony at the end of time which gives us the courage to know that in the Final Day the Church will be preserved out of every snare. For he hears this act of worship in heaven, testifying not to another gospel or something novel, but to the Apostolic proclamation: “You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” and so “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever” (Rev. 5:9,13).

1 Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century, (Addison Wesley Longman, 1995) xvii.

2 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 501-536 .

Centrality of Worship: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The ninth reason I am a Methodist is because of the great emphasis on worship. Methodists sing their theology! Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess the great truths of the faith. We must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship. Music was one of the main ways early Methodists passed on the faith.

Wesley lived at a time when the standard practice of the church in worship was to sing the Psalms, often with a brief Christian doxology at the end. However, just prior to the emergence of Wesley lived a man named Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts is sometimes known as the father of English hymnody because of his pioneer work in introducing new compositions of worship into the church which were not directly built around a Psalm or a specific scriptural paraphrase. This sparked a revival in worship which captured the life of Charles Wesley. Charles was a gifted poet and wrote thousands of new hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith and reinforce the grand meta-narrative of God’s redemptive story. Hymns such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Christmas), And Can it Be? (Redemption), O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Pentecost), Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Easter), and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (New Creation) are recognized all over the world as powerful hymns which capture the great themes of the Christian faith. Methodism is known for excellent singing and worship. Even today, every Methodist hymnal still reprints Wesley’s original instructions for congregational singing which includes such classic lines as, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”  Methodists have taken this to heart as well as almost any Christian group in the world.

Global Vision: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The eighth reason I am a Methodist is because of Wesley’s early appreciation for the possibility of what we know today as “global Christianity.” Few have given proper recognition that Wesley is one of the leading forerunners of conceptualizing the church in its full global, rather than sectarian, dimensions. In the post-Aldersgate period, Wesley’s preaching became so controversial that he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the Church of England. Since he continued to preach in the open fields, he was charged with “trespassing” on the parishes of other ministers. He replied to this charge in a letter written in March of 1739 with what has become the most famous quote of Wesley, “the world is my parish.” In the letter he says, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare, unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”1

It is difficult for modern-day Christians to fully comprehend the radical nature of this statement. However, the territorial conceptions, as noted earlier, were so strong that it was considered heresy to preach the gospel to those outside your parish. These territorial conceptions were one of the biggest barriers to the emergence of the Protestant missionary movement. In contrast, Wesley was ahead of his time in first conceptualizing the church in its full global dimensions and only secondarily in its particularity as, for example, Methodist Christians. Wesley asked why he should not preach the gospel in “Europe, Asia, Africa or America” for, with the Apostle Paul, he declared, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16-19). Wesley declared that he was prepared “to go to Abyssinia or China, or whithersoever it shall please God by this conviction to call me.”2  In today’s “post-parish” world we sometimes have a difficult time recognizing what a radical ecclesiology is embedded in this vision. Wesley seemed to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is indestructible, since Christ is the Lord of the Church and has promised to build his church. However, the indestructibility of the church is not tied to any particular institutional or geographic manifestation of it. With the dramatic rise of Christians from the Majority World, many of whom do not trace their history to the Reformation, there is a need to discover a deeper ecumenism which can unite all true Christians. Wesley anticipated the future multi-cultural diversity of the church and the common experience of rebirth from above, which unites all Christians of every age.

1  Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616.

2 Ibid., 615.

Doctrinal Clarity – Catholic spirit: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The seventh reason I am a Methodist is due to the wonderful way Wesley combined doctrinal clarity with a generous, warm-hearted spirit towards other Christians. John Wesley’s reluctance to produce any precise doctrinal formulation for the “people called Methodist,” along with his “catholic spirit” have led many to wrongly conclude that Wesley was indifferent about the core doctrines of historic Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Wesley’s famous dictum taken from 2 Kings 10:15: “If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand” as a kind of theological blank check to endorse departures from historic Christianity as long as it is done with a warm heart. However, Wesley was fully orthodox and fully ecumenical in a way which should inspire us today. On the one hand, Wesley was able to embrace considerable diversity among Christians who held different convictions than his on various points. On the other hand, Wesley frequently found himself embroiled in various controversies with Roman Catholics, Anglican bishops, and Calvinist thinkers. He held strong theological convictions and firmly upheld all of the historic Christian confessions. Wesley would have been dismayed at the erosion of orthodoxy in mainline churches due to the increasing embrace of secular ideologies and a post-modern epistemology. Wesley was both ecumenical and orthodox; he held firm convictions and had an irenic spirit and warm heart towards those with whom he disagreed. How was Wesley able to embrace both of these so ably? The key is to understand how Wesley understood theological inquiry.

Wesley makes a firm distinction between the theological unity which is necessary to our identity as Christians while, at the same time, allowing for broad diversity in the non-essentials of the faith. Historically, this has been expressed through the terms kerygma and adiaphora. The word kerygma comes from the Greek word meaning “proclamation.” It refers to the core essentials of the Christian faith as expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as alluded to in the introduction to this series. Wesley stayed firmly committed to the historic core of Christian proclamation. The word adiaphora comes from the Greek word adiaforus, which, as used by the Stoics, meant “things indifferent.” Thus, the adiaphora refers to those differences held by Christians which “are not sufficiently central to warrant continuing division or dispute.”1  In Wesley’s day there was an understanding that Christian belief and practice should conform to the larger national identity. In other words, if someone lived in England, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of England (Anglican). If someone was born in Scotland, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). This meant that Christians in a particular geographic region were compelled to reach agreement not only on the broad essentials of the Christian faith, i.e., the kerygma, but they also had to agree with all the diverse particulars (adiaphora) of whatever national church was in place. However, Wesley forcibly rejected this territorial understanding of Christian identity. In Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, he says,

I know it is commonly supposed, that the place of our birth fixes the Church to which we ought to belong…I was once a zealous maintainer of this; but I find many reasons to abate of this zeal. I fear it is attended with such difficulties as no reasonable man can get over: Not the least of which is, that if this rule had taken place, there could have been no Reformation from Popery; seeing it entirely destroys the right of private judgment, on which the whole Reformation stands.“2

Wesley goes on to argue that Christians should be able to dwell together in harmony even if they disagree about basic convictions such as the forms of church government, the modes of baptism, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and so forth. However, Wesley makes an important distinction between “catholic spirit” and “latitudinarianism.” The latter refers to those who wish to engage in endless speculation about the essentials of the Gospel or wish to remain indifferent to holding a particular conviction. In contrast, Wesley argues that “a man of truly catholic spirit” does not have the right to set up his or her own form of religion. Rather, a Christian should be “as fixed as the sun in his [or her] judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”3  He calls on his hearers to “go, first, and learn the first elements of the Gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”4  Wesley’s ecumenism was built on the foundation of a shared theological orthodoxy concerning the historic essentials of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, Methodists seek to take Jesus’ prayer in John 17 very seriously when he prays that we “may be one” just as He and the Father are one (John 17:22).

1 John Westerdale Bowker, The Sacred Neuron (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005), 120.

2 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, Catholic Spirit, 496.

3 Ibid., 502.

4 Ibid.

Missional Movement – Social Consciousness: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The sixth reason I am a Methodist lies in the fact that Methodism has managed to retain its DNA as a missional movement. Historically, Methodism was born as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Wesley carried this missional renewal emphasis right out into the streets of his day. He brought the Gospel to broken, hurting people who had been marginalized and forgotten by the church of his time. Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish.”1

Throughout the history of the church there has been a healthy tension between the active and contemplative traditions. The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism. They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream. Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the Rhineland mystics (e.g., St. Hildegarde or Meister Eckhart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton. This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina. This remains a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world. This is the great active tradition. The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life. However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor. St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor. Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter. Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world. Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor. While Wesley remained deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, his vision of the church existed as profoundly missional. Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons. For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him. Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e., we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

1Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616. I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than to James Hervey on March 20, 1739.

Discipleship, Catechesis in Community: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The fifth reason I am a Methodist is because of the strong emphasis on discipleship in our tradition. Eighteenth-century Oxford where Wesley studied was a place filled with spiritual apathy, deism, practical atheism, and low-Christology Arianism. In short, it was a world quite a bit like North America and Europe today. John and his brother Charles decided to gather a few students together to “observe the method of study prescribed by the statutes of the university.” The statutes (long ignored) required that students engage in the “frequent and careful reading of the Scripture.” The Wesley brothers decided to promote this by forming a small group for studying the Greek New Testament. It became known as the Holy Club. They were so methodical in their practice that the people in the Holy Club were given the nickname Methodist. So the very origin of the word Methodist lies rooted in a small-group-formation approach to catechesis.

Catechesis is, of course, a very important feature of the Reformed tradition. In my own experience, the Reformed emphasis on catechesis has been very effective in teaching the great doctrines of the faith. What is distinctive about the Methodist emphasis is how it seeks to go beyond simply giving correct answers to doctrinal questions. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life (the word catechesis comes from a root word meaning “to echo”). This is a natural extension of the Methodist theme to focus not only on becoming a Christian, but what it means to be a Christian. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model of discipleship. Normally, new believers were put through an initial instruction period prior to their baptism. This was an introduction to the Christian faith and culminated on Easter Sunday when the new believers were baptized. However, after baptism, the new Christian was put through a second phase, known as mystagogy, which brought the believer into the mystery of what it meant to be a member of the church. This was a period of instruction after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost. Wesley took this idea and united it with the community model of the early Celtic Christians. This developed an entire system of putting new believers in small groups or classes and various discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. These small groups would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. The new Christians would also be instructed in some aspect of the Apostolic faith. They would worship together by singing a song. The meeting would be over in about an hour and everyone would participate. To this day this is still an excellent model.

Sanctification, A Reorientation of the Heart: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Fourth, I am a Methodist because of Wesley’s strong emphasis on the importance of holiness in the life of the believer and the necessity of Christian sanctification. On New Year’s Eve 1738 Wesley went to another society meeting. It was an all-night prayer vigil to bring in the new year 1739. In the early hours of January 1, 1739 something dramatic happened to Wesley. He received a sanctifying experience where God re-oriented his heart and life. Listen to Wesley’s own words:

On Monday morning, January 1, 1739, Mr. Hall and my brother Charles
were present in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. At about
three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power
of God came mightily upon us insomuch that many cried out for exceeding
joy and many fell down to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little
from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out
with one voice, ‘We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.’

This experience helped Wesley understand God’s ongoing work in the life of the believer. We have already seen the role of prevenient grace prior to our conversion. Then, we examined the role of justifying grace at the point of conversion. Now, we will look at Wesley’s understanding of how God continues to work in the life of the believer through sanctifying grace. Methodists have a view of God’s grace working before, at, and after conversion. This helps build on the Reformation which focused on becoming a Christian to the broader biblical emphasis on what it means to be a Christian.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is one of the most misunderstood of all Methodist doctrines. When most of us hear the word sanctification we think of it as a forensic term – i.e. sanctified means that you are divinely certified before God’s court of justice as someone without any sin in your life and, once sanctified, you will never sin again. That is not what Wesley taught or meant by sanctification. For Wesley, sanctification is not primarily a forensic term. You could be justified alone on a deserted island, but sanctification, in contrast, is inherently relational since it involves the whole of our daily interactions.

For Wesley, sanctification is what happens when we are brought fully into relationship with the Triune God. For Wesley, sin and God’s righteous judgment can never be reduced to only breaking God’s Law, i.e. forensic guilt. Our sins are, of course, never less than that. But they are also deeply relational. When we sin we not only break God’s law (I John 3:4), but we also breach a relationship. When we sin we, at that moment, elect the absence of God in our lives. Sin separates us from God himself, not just from our right standing under God’s law.

Methodists build on the Reformers’ understanding of “alien righteousness” by declaring that we must not only be declared righteous, we must increasingly live righteous lives. Luther famously declared that Christians are “dung hills covered in snow.” Wesley would not disagree, but would assert that salvation is about more than justification. Righteousness for Wesley is more than God just looking at us through a different set of glasses, i.e., we are filthy rags, but God sees us through the blood of Christ and, thereby, sees the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us. Wesley argued that alien, imputed righteousness must increasingly become native, actualized righteousness; wrought in us not by our own strength but through the power of the living God. We are marked, oriented, and re-oriented by love.

We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but we are sanctified by faith as we enter into full relationship with the Triune God. Wesley taught that we are justified by faith and we are sanctified by faith. As a relational term, entire sanctification means that your whole life, your body, and your spirit have been re-oriented. Entire sanctification means that our entire heart has been re-oriented towards the joyful company of the Triune God. You are in a new colloquy. It was, for Wesley, not the end of some long, drudge out of the life of sin, but joining the joyful assembly of those who have truly found joy. For Wesley, holiness is the crown of true happiness.

To be sanctified is to receive a gift from God which changes our hearts and reorients our relationship with the Triune God and with others, giving us the capacity to love God and neighbor in new and profound ways. The language of “entire sanctification” in Methodism uses the word entire in reference to Greek, not Latin. In Greek entire or complete can still be improved upon. It is a new orientation which no longer looks back on the old life of sin, but is always looking forward to the New Creation. It is a life which has been engulfed by new realities, eschatological realities, not the realities of that which are passing away.

Wesley also understood that holiness is not merely a negative term. It is not just about sins which we avoid. Methodists believe that even if you were to eradicate every sin in your life, you would only be halfway there. Because, for Wesley, holiness is never just about sins we avoid, it is about fruit which we produce! In Wesley, faith and fruit meet and are joyfully wed. We no longer have a view of holiness which is legalistic, private, negative, or static. It is not merely legal, but relational; not merely private, but embedded in community; not negative, but a true vision of the inbreaking of God’s rule and reign! The witness of the Spirit, which confirms faith, becomes in Wesley the power of the Spirit to produce fruit and to transform the world – to spread scriptural holiness throughout the world!

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, January 1, 1739(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 170.

Conversion through faith in Jesus Christ: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Third, Methodists affirm (along with most evangelical movements) the importance of conversion. On May 24th each year Methodism around the world celebrates one of the most famous conversions since St. Paul on the road to Damascus. On May 24th Wesley “unwillingly” went down to a Christian society meeting and there encountered a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. During the reading of Luther’s preface to Paul’s Epistle, John Wesley experienced a profound conversion. Listen to Wesley’s words as recorded in his diary:

About a quarter before nine, while the reader was describing the change which 
God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 
I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that 
He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 1

Scholars and historians still debate what precisely happened to Wesley that night. What is clear is that, at some deep level, Wesley really heard the central truth of the Reformation: namely, that we are justified through the completed work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. We cannot add to that work. It is no mistake that Wesley’s transformation came as he listened to someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. Martin Luther had experienced a similar conversion in his so called “tower experience” in the Augustinian Black Cloister in Wittenburg. As Luther read Paul’s words in Romans 1:17 on the way the righteousness of God is revealed through faith, he recalled: “I felt myself born anew and to enter through open gates into paradise itself!”

This emphasis on conversion was re-discovered in the Reformation, and by Wesley’s day, was a vital feature of the pietistic movement. Finally, conversion experiences became fully embedded in Methodism because of Wesley’s own experience, and later, through the strong emphasis on revival preaching and conversion in the camp meetings and in the frontier church planting work of American Methodism.

1 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Journal Entry, May 24, 1738 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 103.

Means of Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Second, I am a Methodist because I believe in the “means of grace.” John Wesley lived two centuries after the start of the Reformation. This gave him a unique perspective on the strengths and the weaknesses of the Reformation. On the positive side, Wesley was a strong supporter of the major emphases of the magisterial reformers. Wesley could affirm all the great solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, all to the glory of God alone. However, Wesley also understood that the restoration of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the emphasis on the sole sufficiency of the work of Christ in our salvation could, tragically, lead some in the church to adopt a more antinomian view regarding the life of holiness and the call to continue growing in Christ. Wesley saw that in the years since the invigorating message of the Reformation, the churches were doctrinally and theologically sound, but the lived experience of Christians was still at a very low ebb. Wesley responded by developing a more robust understanding of how God’s grace works throughout the life of a believer. He was a keen listener to the non-magisterial Reformers such as the pietists, as well as the earlier patristic Christians (eastern and western) who could assist him in this reflection. It is here that Wesley developed his views regarding the means of grace. Wesley defines the “means of grace” as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”1  Wesley goes on to identify three primary “means of grace” which God has given to us: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper. Now, quite a wide array of Christian groups accepts the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace.” They are widely understood as the general means by which Christians grow stronger in their faith and grow in the grace of Christ. In other words, they are God’s instruments to sanctify us. However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace. What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also preventing (prevenient), and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith. Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” have no power in themselves to save anyone. Rather, they have the power to convey all forms of grace precisely because Christ himself is present in prayer, in the reading of Scripture, and in the Lord’s Supper. So, for Wesley, there is no such thing as an autonomous person reading Scripture, or praying, or taking the Lord’s Supper. These are all done in the presence of the Risen Christ. Remember, Christ is the only true “means of grace.” The customary “means of grace” are given to the church as channels to Christ himself. So, we should exercise our free wills and avail ourselves of the full range of the “means of grace.” Wesley encouraged people to wait in the means of grace, not outside them. He wrote, “all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.”2

Wesley conveys a deep reliance upon Christ not only in coming to faith, but in remaining in the faith. In Wesley’s journal he records a time in his life when he felt a complete lack of faith. He writes about it on March 4, 1738 (remember, Wesley’s heartwarming experience at Aldersgate does not occur until May 24, 1738). Wesley decided to quit preaching because, he reasoned, “how can you preach to others when you have no faith yourself.” Wesley asked his good friend Peter Böhler if he should give up preaching. Böhler famously replied, “Preach faith till you have it; and then because you have it, you will preach faith.”3  This captures well the importance of waiting in the means of grace, not outside the means of grace.

1. The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, First Series of Sermons (1-39), Sermon 16, II.1, Means of Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 187.

2. Ibid., Sermon 16, III.1, Means of Grace, 190.

3. Ibid., vol. 1, 2, Journals from October 14, 1735 to November 29, 1745, Journal entry, Saturday, March 4, 1738, 86.

Prevenient Grace: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

First, I am a Methodist because I believe in prevenient grace. For Wesley, the spiritual life has no hope of a beginning without God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is a collective term for all the ways in which God’s grace comes into our lives prior to conversion. Prevenient grace literally means, “the grace that comes before” and captures well what the early church called the preparatio evangelica, i.e. the preparation for the good news. One of the ways in which the Methodist-Wesleyan tradition is sometimes misunderstood by those in other traditions is in regard to our doctrine of sin. It may come as a surprise to some of our Reformed readers that the doctrine of total depravity (the famous T in the Calvinistic TULIP) is shared by Wesleyans and Methodists just as ardently as by Calvinists. Methodists, like our Reformed brothers and sisters, believe that salvation is impossible without a free and prior act of God on behalf of the sinner. Total depravity means that we are dead in our sins and therefore cannot help or assist ourselves. Sin is not merely a “ball and chain” which impedes our progress. We are dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Methodists affirm this truth. However, Methodists take very seriously the theological tension which exists between, on the one hand, the clear teaching of Scripture that we are dead in our sins and totally void of any ability to save ourselves (Eph. 2:1, Col. 1:21, 2:13; Lk. 15:24) and the universal call to the Gospel which requires us to “come” (Matt. 11:28), “repent”(Acts 2:38), “believe” (Acts 16:31) and a whole array of other commands, all of which call us to specific acts of faith and obedience. Since spiritually dead people have no capacity to respond, it is clear that God is bestowing grace in countless ways into our lives prior to our regeneration or conversion. Prevenient grace provides the link between human depravity and universal call. The important difference between Methodists and Reformed Christians is not on the fact of depravity, but on whether God’s prior action is limited to the elect (Limited Atonement – the L in the TULIP) or is universal. Despite the enormous respect we have for John Calvin, Methodists do not believe that the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement fits the biblical data as well as the doctrine of prevenient grace. The Methodists believe that God has universally acted on behalf of Adam’s fallen, depraved race. We believe that Christ, as the Second Adam, rescued the human race with an act of grace which grants them the capacity to accept or reject the good news of the Gospel when it is proclaimed. Wesleyans believe that if the doctrine of human depravity is not linked to God’s action in prevenient grace, then it creates an untenable theological conflict which, at least potentially, makes God either unjust or the author of evil, neither of which fits with a biblical view of God. For, if a spiritually dead person is incapable of responding to God’s call, then upon what basis is he or she held accountable for sin? Prevenient grace demonstrates how we can be totally depraved, yet given grace to respond and, if we do not respond, can be held fully accountable for our disbelief.

For Methodists, prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Prevenient grace lifts the human race out of its depravity and grants us the capacity to respond further to God’s grace. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). Methodists understand this text as referring to a divine drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), lifting us up and giving the human race the capacity to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Thomas Oden puts it well when he says that “the divine will always ‘goes before’ or ‘prevenes’ (leads the way) for the human will, so that the human will may choose freely in accord with the divine will.”1

Wesleyan thought affirms that God has taken the initiative to create a universal capacity for the human race to receive his grace. Many, of course, still resist his will and persist in rebellion against God. Wesleyan thought is actually a middle position between a Pelagian view (which makes every person an Adam and admits no sin nature or bondage due to Adam’s nature) and the Reformed view (which affirms limited atonement). What Wesleyans mean by free will is actually “freed will,” i.e., a will in bondage which has been set free by a free act of God’s grace. It is, of course, not free in every possible respect, since we are all influenced by the effects of the Fall in many ways; but we now have a restored capacity which has enabled our heart, mind, and will to respond to God’s grace. I love the fact that Methodists believe that even if you go to the ends of the earth with the gospel, you will always find that God precedes you and, in effect, “beats you there!” Perhaps prevenient grace is summed up best by the famous interruption to a missionary who was lecturing in Africa about how the missionaries brought the Gospel to Africa. The African believer interrupted and said, “The missionaries did not bring the Gospel to Africa; God brought the missionaries to Africa.” This insightful comment shifts the emphasis to God’s prior agency and the great missio dei (mission of God) whereby God is always the first actor in the great drama of redemption. Wesleyans fully embrace the importance of human decision and the exercise of the will. However, this is not possible without God’s prior action.

1 Thomas Oden, Systematic Theology vol., 2, The Word of Life (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 189. Unless otherwise noted, this blog uses the New International Version.