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Grace & the Unevangelized

This is a follow-up to my John Wesley quote of last week: John Wesley the Hopeful Inclusivist.

While Wesleyan theology does not teach or imply Universal Salvation it does teach Universal Grace. The scope of grace is seen as being wider than it might be from some other points of view.

Here is what I mean.

Originally, John Wesley gave to the American Methodist Episcopal Church a statement of faith. He took the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church and edited them down to 25 Articles.

These serve as the
Statement of Faith for the United Methodist Church today, along side the Confession of Faith of the former Evangelical United Brethren church.

In whittling the 39 Articles down to 25 he obviously left several out. And, it is sometimes interesting to notice which ones he left out.

For example, the following article was left out:

XVIII. Of Obtaining eternal Salvation only by the Name of Christ

They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law of Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

And, this may seem strange. This notion is a common idea in modern evangelical thinking. Salvation is only in the name of Jesus. What could be wrong with this? And, indeed, there is a danger in reading too much into Wesley's editing of the 39 Articles. It may be that he thought this was unnecessary or redundant.

But, I think there is more going on here. I think this particular omission is significant. I think Wesley felt that this Article was in conflict with the following Scriptures:

"Then Peter began to speak: 'I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.'" (Acts 10:34,35, NIV).


"God 'will give to each person according to what he has done.' To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (Romans 2:6-16 NIV).

I think he also felt it was in conflict with the idea of the universality of the atonement by which some of the benefits of Christ's death were given to all people (prevenient grace).

Wesley left the issue of the salvation of the un-evangelized strictly in the hands of God.

Wesley scholar Randy Maddox writes:

By the 1780s Wesley .... now claimed that initial universal revelation enabled people to infer not only that there was a powerful, wise, just, and merciful Creator, but also that there would be a future state of punishment or reward for present actions. More importantly, he suggested that God may have taught some heathens all the essentials of true religion (i.e., holiness) by an 'inward voice.' That is, he raised the possibility that Prevenient Grace might involve more than simply strengthening our human faculties and testifying to us through creation. It might also provide actual overtures to our 'spiritual senses'! With provisions such as this, some people would surely pursue virtuous lives, and the late Wesley appeared willing to acknowledge some attainment. However, he was quick to add that such cases would be less pure and far less common than in the Christian dispensation. Moreover, he was convinced that these persons would not have the assurance that is available to Christians through the Spirit.


Then how does Wesley believe that God will deal with the unevangelized? Will they be 'saved'? Given his understanding of salvation as recovered holiness (not merely forgiveness), this issue had two dimensions for Wesley. At its most abstract level, it was simply the question whether those who lack definitive Christian revelation will be summarily excluded from eternal blessing. At a more concrete level it was the question whether such persons can or must develop at least a degree of holiness in this life, which is the Christian foretaste and condition of final salvation (for Wesley).

Wesley's answer to the first question is fairly clear and apparently consistent throughout his life. His conviction of the unfailing justice and universal love of God made it impossible for him to believe that people who lacked knowledge of Christ through no fault of their own (i.e., invincible ignorance) would be automatically excluded from heaven. Accordingly, he repeatedly prefaced claims about the qualifications for eternal salvation with an exemption from consideration of those who received only initial revelation. He argued that Scripture gave no authority for anyone to make definitive claims about them. Their fate must be left to the mercy of God, who is the God of heathens as well as of Christians. This conviction took its most formal expression when he deleted the Anglican Article XVIII ("Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ") from the Articles of Religion that he sent to the American Methodists.


The late Wesley (with his more positive estimate of initial revelation) turned to another solution for this problem that had recommended itself to many Christians before him: God will judge the heathens with some discrimination after all; not directly in terms of their appropriation or rejection of Christ, but in terms of how they respond to the gracious revelation (light) that they do receive. This assumes, of course, that some degree of true spirituality or holiness can emerge in response to God's gracious initial revelation — a possibility that the late Wesley was willing to admit. To be sure, this holiness may fall short of Christian standards for final salvation, but the lack would be supplied by divine indulgence.

— Randy L. Maddox, "Wesley and the Question of Truth or Salvation Through Other Religions"

In "A Letter to a Person Lately Joined with the People Called Quakers" John Wesley indicates that he agrees with the following statement of Quaker belief, written by Robert Barclay:

The benefit of the death of Christ is not only extended to such as have the distinct knowledge of his death and sufferings, but even unto those who are inevitably excluded from this knowledge. Even these may be partakers of the benefit of his death, though ignorant of the history, if they suffer his grace to take place in their hearts, so as of wicked men to become holy.

Preachers and teachers in the Wesleyan tradition have been more willing to allow for the possibility of salvation (through Christ's atonement) being available to those who are unevangelized than in some other Christian traditions.

Notice these comments from Methodist Holiness writers:

[The Atonement] affords a basis for the salvation of such pious pagans as live up to their best light. 'They are saved through Christ though they know Him not.' (J. Wesley.) How about the condition of faith in Him? They have the spirit of faith and the purpose of righteousness; that is, the disposition to trust in the object of faith, the historical Christ, were He revealed to them in the Gospel, and a willingness to walk by the revealed law of God were it made known to them. What is your Scriptural authority? Jesus Christ intimates that the judgment day will proceed by the use of a sliding scale. Where much is given much will be required; where little is given little will be required. St. Paul declares: 'There is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without the written law will be judged by the law written on their hearts.' Peter looking upon a group of God-fearing heathen at the headquarters of Brigadier General Cornelius, declared: 'Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness is accepted with Him.' 'Many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.' Mr. Joseph Cook, who defends the rectoral theory, advocates the doctrine of salvation by possessing the essential Christ where the historical Christ is unknown. The essential Christ is an obedient attitude of the will toward 'the eternal Ideal required by self-evident truths, which has in Christ, and in Him only, become the historically Real.' In the last day the Judge will say, 'Come, ye blessed,' not only to those who have enthroned the historical Christ in their hearts, but also to those who have exhibited towards His brethren, any forlorn man, the spirit of love, the essential element in the character of Christ -- 'Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, My brethren, ye did it unto Me.' The standard is so low as to be applicable to all who know the distinction between right and wrong. The rectoral theory of the atonement needs no probation after death. What effect does this have on the missionary motive? None. That word stands in full force -- Go ye and teach all nations.' While the pagan can be saved without a knowledge of Christ, the Christian cannot be saved while selfishly withholding that knowledge. I believe it is easier for God to save a pagan without the Bible in Bombay than it is to save a professed Christian in Boston without a disposition to send him a Bible; in other words, without a missionary spirit. I repudiate the doctrine of geographical election and reprobation expressed in the saying, 'To exchange cradles would be to exchange destinies.'

— Daniel Steele, "The Atonement" Half-Hours with St. John's Epistles (1901).

Experimentally, Methodism, from the very first, has had a plain, practical, Scriptural faith. Starting on the assumption that salvation was possible for every redeemed soul, and that all souls are redeemed, it has held fast to the fundamental doctrine that repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ are the divinely-ordained conditions upon which all complying therewith may be saved, who are intelligent enough to be morally responsible, and have heard the glad tidings of salvation. At the same time Methodism has insisted that all children who are not willing transgressors, and all irresponsible persons, are saved by the grace of God manifest in the atoning work of Christ; and, further, that all in every nation, who fear God and work righteousness, are accepted of him, through the Christ that died for them, though they have not heard of him. This view of the atonement has been held and defended by Methodist theologians from the very first. And it may be said with ever-increasing emphasis that it commends itself to all sensible and unprejudiced thinkers, for this, that it is rational and Scriptural, and at the same time honorable to God and gracious and merciful to man.

— Bishop Willard F. Mallalieu "Some Things that Methodism Stands For" The Fullness of the Blessing of the Gospel of Christ (1903).

Each of these writers would also say that the explicit knowledge of Christ would be of benefit to all people and provide the power of the Spirit to more easily live the life to which God calls us. None of them would affirm universalism.

But, all would affirm that there is grace available — in some form — to all people.

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