Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part I

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019

Beloved, we are facing the long and difficult work of rebuilding the church and remembering our heritage. Perhaps it might be helpful to dedicate a little mini series on four of the great themes of our Wesleyan heritage. We will start out with 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. We will dedicate a future article to saying more about this, but it is important for now to see how sanctification fits into Wesley’s larger view of grace. 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.


  • Marvelous! I’m currently doing an exigetical study of Ephesians and this fits in so well with Paul’s opening thoughts about the spiritual blessings we have been given. It fits well with ANY of Paul’s letters.

  • Dr. Tennent, thanks so much for pointing out the fact that justification, while an integral part of salvation, is not to be equated with salvation. Justification is part of salvation, but not the whole. This is a very astute and important distinction.

    To illustrate (hoping not to sound arrogant or preachy): Full salvation also includes grace for awakening, regeneration (1 Pet 1:3 the new birth through the Spirit, Jn 3:3,7, 1 Pet 3:3, 23), adoption (Ro 8:15, Gal 4:5, Eph 1:5), sanctification (initial and entire, spirit and life – 1 Thess 4:3-5:24), growth in grace 2 Pet 3, and glorification (1 Cor 15, and others) and eternal life (Ro 3:23).

    Each of these is part and parcel of the grace of salvation’s full work in our lives. Some are judicial, some relational, some developmental. All are accomplished by grace. No one aspect of grace alone is full salvation, but each distinct aspect of the grace of full salvation is inseparable from each the others.

  • Bev Mitchell says:

    Very helpful.

    Many (perhaps all) of those encounters with grace, to which we can be open or closed, reach toward or turn away, can also be presented as actions of the Holy Spirit. Of course, presenting them as the grace of God is traditional, and has the advantage of using the same terminology that a monergist would use.

    Expressing prevenient grace, the special presence of grace in the Eucharist, the grace that is always available throughout the long process of sanctification as acts (presence) of the Holy Spirit may help frame what is going on spiritually, and be less abstract, especially for those unfamiliar with the more classical formulations. As other examples, might it be that speaking of the broad work of the Spirit at all stages (pre-, during and post-salvation) make it easier to explain important distinctions such as centred-set faith/bounded faith? Or even the classic differences in how election is viewed?

    What rhetoric did Wesley use to combine the concepts of grace and Spirit in his writings?