Some Helpful Wesleyan Perspectives
Below I want to share some quotes from this essay. These are quotes that — to me at least — illustrate the continuing value of the Wesleyan theological perspective. I do not believe that everything ever said by Wesley needs to be followed by those who claim to be Wesleyan in their perspective — Wesley himself (as I noted in my last Holiness Texts post) disagreed with some of the expressions he himself had used in his early sermon on the Circumcision of the Heart — and indicated this by adding footnotes to it. Rather, Wesleyan theology is a theology that takes its cues from the theological directions in which Wesley was moving — bringing together East and West, insisting on holiness of heart and life, insisting on the universal love of God for all people. I certainly grant that the way people appropriate these insights may be different.
These are some perspectives that are especially important to me as I continue to think about the Christian faith and its relevance to our times.
1. Prevenient grace
Because of prevenient grace, everyone has a conscience and everyone is able, if they so choose, to respond positively to God's preliminary saving graces to a certain degree. Indeed, that much true goodness remains in humanity due to this grace, and that some human beings are actively pursuing genuine goodness by this grace, seems nearly undeniable. Those who respond positively to prevenient grace do not do so through their own strength but by the power of the grace and light available to them.
This is a Wesleyan distinctive. Just recently I served as Spiritual Director on a Mens’ Walk to Emmaus where there were several men present who were from a small Christian Reformed Church. During Question and Answer time the question came up: is the concept of Prevenient Grace taught at the Walk to Emmaus consistent with Calvinism? My answer was: no, it isn’t. The comparable concept in Calvinism (as I understand it) is Common Grace — but, in Calvinism God saves by Irresistible Grace — since has God has predetermined those God is going to save.
Prevenient Grace means that I can assume that God is offering a relationship of grace to everyone. Prevenient Grace means that I can assume that a person is capable of responding to the call and claim of Christ. I don’t need to second guess God. I don’t need to worry about whether or not a particular person has been pre-chosen by God or not. I can assume that everyone should be told about the message of Christ — because God’s love is for all. It also helps me to see how God was working in my life prior to any conscious faith on my part: “…in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:4 NRSV.)
Actually, this is often on of the most helpful things that pilgrims learn from their experience at the Walk to Emmaus. Prevenient grace is often mentioned in casual conversation in Emmaus gatherings. I think this should also become generally true in church gatherings of churches in the Wesleyan tradition. Prevenient grace is a is an idea that gives us a wonderful perspective on the breadth of God’s love.
2. The Bible and the fate of the un-evangelized
We are convinced that when it all shakes out, the Bible does not directly or explicitly address the question of the fate of the unevangelized (nor the fate of the poorly evangelized). It is therefore the task of theology to infer the best answer it can from what the Bible does say about God and salvation. Our answer minimally has to be consistent with biblical teaching and ideally judged to be reasonably implied by it. We do not think exclusivism is implied by biblical teaching, nor do we think it is consistent with central biblical teaching about the universal love of God.
This is another insight which I find especially helpful in the Wesleyan perspective. I have mentioned it before and will do so again, see: Christ & Non-Christians. To the question: what is the fate of the un-evangelized we can reply simply that God will be fair. God will take circumstances into account.
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.
Notice also the quote I posted yesterday: John Wesley the Hopeful Inclusivist. In this matter, teachers in the Holiness movement also agreed, see: Saved Through Christ, Though They Know Him Not, Was Cornelius Already Saved When Peter Was Sent to Him?, and The Gospel as Preached by John Wesley.
God’s love and grace are extended to all people. The knowledge of Christ is the way to the experience of justification, forgiveness and spiritual life. But, it is Christ Himself who is the Way — not our experience of Christ or our knowledge of Christ. Christ alone determines who is “in” and who is “out.” Grace is at work in all people. This does not mean that grace is mediated through various world religions — or any religion. Salvation is by grace through faith.
This perspective is extremely helpful. And, I don’t think it undermines evangelism in any way. There is benefit to the explicit knowledge of Christ. But, Christian faith is far more than a matter of heaven and hell someday. It is a matter of life in the here and now. It is God’s desire to lead all people into the life of holiness — this is also the life of fulfillment and true happiness — and grace is extended to make this possible.
This really does line up with what Paul teaches in Romans: "For [God] will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all." (Romans 2:6-16 NRSV)
While affirming a universalistic hope, this is not universalism. It is not true that all will be saved. It is true that in Christ there is hope for all. It is true that in Christ we know that God is loving and just — and thus, will deal with all people with justice and fairness. But, we have no reason to believe that all will be saved.
This idea saves us from teaching that salvation is by correct theological opinions. And, we can affirm that God will be fair, judging people by the knowledge they have been given. And, this doesn’t undercut the motive for evangelism (any more than it did for the apostle Paul), since knowledge of Christ and faith in Christ is of benefit to those who believe.
I think, however that it is very important to distinguish this from the idea that God’s reality is mediated to people through the various world religions. This position was advocated (as I understand it) by Karl Rahner — and is not at all the “Inclusivism” advocated by Wesley and his followers. Such a position makes religion the Way and not Christ. It undercuts evangelism. It makes unwarranted claims about various world religions. And, it forgets the Bible’s strong critique of religion. In no way can we endorse all other religions — or any religion — as saving. But, we do affirm universal grace. And, we do affirm that God is loving, just and fair.
3. Sanctification and final salvation
But the Bible stresses the role and necessity of becoming actually righteous through God's sanctifying grace — not just having righteousness imputed to us — to experience final salvation and enter into heaven (Mt 25:31-46; Rom 2:7-16; Heb 12:14; Rev 20:11-15). Indeed, despite certain popular forms of evangelism, there is both a strong biblical and intuitive connection between becoming a genuinely good person — that is, a Christlike person — and being ultimately saved.' This is not to say that we earn heaven by our good deeds or that we must become like Christ before we receive saving grace, but it is to say that the more Christlike we become, the further along we are on the path of salvation. Accordingly, when a nonbeliever seeks to be more like Jesus, we contend that he or she is beginning to respond to God's grace, though the person knows it not. And sanctifying grace is rooted in the cross of Christ just as firmly as justifying grace.
I have also written about this before — when I wrote about my agreement with the ideas of Wolfhart Pannenberg on the Last Judgement, see: Reflections on the Last Judgement.
As John Wesley often said: “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” The whole point of repentance and faith is to bring us into the life of holiness. The shape of this life will not look exactly the same from person to person — we do not begin at the same point, our personalities differ, and our knowledge and convictions differ. Thus, I have no right to judge any other believer. God looks upon the heart. Trust in Christ is necessarily life-changing. It bears fruit. It is not “faith” or “belief” in the sense of merely intellectual assent. It is not opinion, but a deep trust in Christ — a trust that is life-altering.
God’s desire for us is not simply that we have the right ideas — but, that we live the right kind of life.
The Christian message is moral to the core. It should not be transformed into a message about having the right theological opinions. But, sanctification is by faith — and it is not an optional “add on” — it is the heart and core of what God is seeking in our lives — to make us morally and spiritually into the people we were always created to be. Faith naturally bears fruit morally. And, we are repeated told that the final judgement will be on the character of people’s lives — not on their profession of faith per se.
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