Four Great Wesleyan Distinctives (Part II)

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

This is the 2nd of a 3 part series. Read Part I and Part III.

It is in this context alone that we can now speak properly of Wesleyan distinctives.  Without understanding the four interlocking foundations we improperly think of our distinctives as weapons which we wield against other Christians.  Distinctives should never be viewed as ammunition against the five points of Calvinism, or as weapons to attack the Lutherans because we don’t agree with their understanding of the relationship between the two wills of Christ.  If you think of Wesleyan distinctives that way, then you fall into the pit of sectarianism.

There are, of course, real disagreements between Christians and there is a place to speak freely and even passionately about those.  Wesley does that.  But we should never forget our shared foundations.  Wesleyan distinctives should be viewed as gifts or offerings which we bring to the body of Christ, like bringing a special dish to a great banquet.  We are not the only ones with gifts to offer at the great banquet, but we do have gifts to offer.  Wesleyan distinctives are meant to be celebrative offerings, contributory gifts given to the whole body; not our own private stash of weapons to use against our brothers and sisters for sectarian purposes, or merely to help us in some ecclesiastical version of intermural sports.  That puts us on the wrong road.  None of the gifts we offer to Christ will be complete without the gifts of others in the Body.  The light of Christ will, of course, bring searing correction and illumination to all gifts, but that will be His work to which St. Paul mysteriously points to in I Cor. 3:10-15.

I would like to explore four great distinctives which we humbly offer to the Body of Christ, the loss of which would be grave for the church of Jesus Christ.

First, the Wesleyan view of grace.

Wesley accepted the Reformation emphasis on justifying grace, but lovingly reminded the church that to equate salvation with justification was a great loss to the biblical doctrine of salvation. Wesley saw God’s grace punctuating the whole of our lives within an expansive understanding of biblical salvation.  God’s grace comes to us before we even become Christians.  It is prevenient grace which enables us to respond to the gospel.  This is why although we describe this as free will, we really mean freed will, i.e. God has taken the first step and sovereignly acted to free us from Adamic guilt and sinful depravity, thereby enabling the whole human race to hear the gospel and respond.  For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner.  Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will.  Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).  This clearly refers to a 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) which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ.  Prevenient grace is God’s  universal grace to the entire human race, situating Wesleyanism between Augustinian pessimism and Pelagian optimism.  Because prevenient grace means that which comes ‘before’ some Wesleyans mistakenly think that this is grace which only comes to us prior to justifying grace.  However, prevenient grace also includes all the ways God moves in sovereign prior action calling us to respond throughout our Christian experience.  Again, Wesley manages to perfectly balance the classic tension between monergistic and synergistic views of salvation.  Prevenient grace is a testimony to monergism, whereas the full collaboration with God through our freed wills is a testimony to syngergism.

In addition to prevenient grace, Wesley speaks of sanctifying grace.  Just as God in Christ meets us to justify us, so the Spirit of God meets us to sanctify us and make us holy.   Prevenient and justifying grace enables you to become a Christian, but it is sanctifying grace which enables you to be a Christian.  Finally, it is glorifying grace which enables you to be fully conformed to the image of Christ in the New Creation.  So Wesley unfolds for us a great vision of God’s grace which is rich and textured and punctuates the whole of our pre-Christian and Christian lives stretching even into the New Creation.

Wesley developed a whole doctrine of the “means of grace” which he defined as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God…whereby he might convey preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace).  Like a trail of bread crumbs, Wesley saw that however far we stray God leaves little markers of his grace so we can find our way home and reorient ourselves to Jesus Christ.  Wesley identified three primary “means of grace”:  prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper.  Now most Christians accept the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace” to help us grow in Christ.  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 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.  This is why we practice open communion.  Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” only have power because of Christ’s presence in them.  Christ is the only true “means of grace” and He meets us at the Table, in prayer and in the reading of Scripture.

Second, the Wesleyan view of the community.

Wesley had the distinct advantage of living over 200 years after the Reformation. This allowed him to view the Reformation from a distance and to see not only the great strengths of the Reformation, but, frankly, the trajectories in certain areas which were not helpful, even revealing crucial areas the Reformation had neglected.  So, just as he embraced the restoration of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith but saw that grace was far more expansive than that, we see a distinctive Wesleyan contribution regarding how we understand the cross.  The Reformers rightfully positioned us as condemned sinners needing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ.  However, over time it became clear that even committed Christians were viewing the cross from the perspective of a solitary condemned sinner who needed to flee to the cross to be saved.  Wesley saw that we must not only look forward to the cross as individual, condemned sinners, but we must also look back on the cross from the New Creation along with all the saints who have gone before us.  To put it bluntly, the cross not only draws condemned sinners to justification, but it also empowers justified sinners into a corporate life of holiness as the church, the people of God.  This not only gives Wesley a doctrine of assurance, but it is the basis for his whole understanding of ecclesial catechesis.

Wesley was committed to a form of community catechesis which is remarkably distinct.  For Wesley, catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation.   For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life within the context of the church.   Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was catechesis after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.  Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands.  The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care.  They 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.  They would also be instructed in the Apostolic faith.  They would worship together and go forth to serve the poor.[1]

The community emphasis for Wesley is not a technique or program the way we understand such things today but an insight into the very rhythms of faith and practice which re-orients us to the Triune God.  Wesley never distanced himself from the Christocentric emphasis of the Reformation.  However, he longed for us to see that salvation was the work of the Triune God!  The ultimate community to which the church and family conforms and reflects is, of course, the blessed community of the Trinity.  Remember, it was the Puritans who said “God in himself is a sweet society.”  The Father creates us, calls us and send us; the Son translates God to us in human terms, redeems us, and embodies the mission of God in the world; the Spirit catechizes the church into the realities of the New Creation, sanctifies us, endows us with discernment and God’s wisdom, and empowers us for effective mission in the world.

Stay tuned for the following distinctives next week.


[1] Kevin Watson, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (Seedbed:  Wilmore, Kentucky, 2014).  This is an excellent contemporary treatment of the class meeting and how it can be adapted to our own time.

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