Wesleyan Covenant Service (Adapted)

We recently did the Wesley Covenant Service 2016 at our church.  You can click the red highlighted text above to see the content of the service in booklet form.

We began our evening of reflection over the Genesis 15 text.  In the text, Abram hears again God’s promise to give him an heir to carry the promise.  Abram is fearful that God is slow on fulfilling the promise and that there won’t be a true heir to follow him.  Abram complains about God’s timing or inability to make good on the promises given.

Despite the complaint, God invites Abram again into the mystery of the promise.  Go outside and count all the stars, if you can (in broad daylight).  God promises progeny as numerous as the stars, but there’s likely only one star visible in the daylight hours.  Just because something isn’t seen doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.  God’s promises apparently work in that way at times.

Then, God tells Abram to kill a heifer, and a male and female goat, and to bring two birds (not killed).  The heifer and two goats are to be killed and cut in halves and placed on either side, making a runway of animal parts.  Gruesome.

This ritual was significant in that time period.  It was called a Suzerain treaty.  When two parties and people would agree on peaceful terms, the more powerful of the two factions would march the lesser party through the dead animal parts as if to say, “Break this pact and you’re likely to end up like these animals – dead meat!”

The text says a dread fear fell over Abram.  Perhaps he recognized his peril.  God would grab him by the scruff of the neck, march him through the animal carcasses, and tell him that he would be ripped apart if he dared step a toe out of line.  Abram is clearly at God’s mercy as the weaker party in this agreement and how is Abram to make good on a promise that he can’t fulfill or keep?  After all, he’s too old to have children!

Suddenly, inexplicably, a fiery pot and a flaming torch appear – fire often is used to represent God’s presence.  And, rather than being force marched through the animal pylons, Abram is astonished to see God move through the gory pathway first – not Abram.  God makes the first move.

God stakes God’s very life on fulfilling God’s promises.  The One who promises is the One who is faithful to complete the work.  God puts God’s name on the line, placing God’s honor, reputation, and glory on seeing this plan through to fruition.

As we reflect on the nature of making covenant with God, Wesley reminds us that it is God’s work into which God invites us.  God invites us to participate in the divine life and plan, but it is something that God accomplishes – yes, working in and through us – for our sake and for the sake of the world.  The appropriate response, as with Abram, is awe, wonder, joy, and thankful receiving of the promise.

The promise may seem slow in coming, but we can rest assured in God’s faithfulness.  This is especially true for those that understand Jesus to be both the promise, fulfillment, and the one by whom the new covenant with God is entered.  All the promises of God are “yes” in Christ Jesus.  And, God is willing to put God’s life at risk to accomplish that which is promised.

To enter into covenant with this risky God means that God is not willing to settle for anything less than our whole selves.  God desires to be all in all.  Covenant is no small matter, no small step.  It is the bid to come and die.  Yet, in great surprise, we find that the risk we thought we had entered into was really our gain for we were invited to partake of God’s life, to drink deeply of the Spring of Life.  God shouldered the risk and, for those who commit their very lives to God, we became the benefactors of such abundant grace.

To be a covenant people is submitting our lives to be shaped into the likeness of Jesus, to fall upon his righteousness, and to humble our hearts for holy service.  The promise of God may seem slow in coming – but, God has given God’s very life to see it through to completion.  If God is willing to stake God’s life on God’s promise, then it seems like such a small risk (though perhaps very painful or difficult in practice) to give my life to the One who will complete the good work started.

“John Wesley’s Moral Theology” by D. Stephen Long

Long first wants to assert that John Wesley’s theology can speak for today precisely for the reason that it does not play by the rules of modern ethics. In fact, Long shows that Wesley was not an empiricist or pragmatist, as some have speculated. Rather, Wesley provided a moral theology that was more akin to Augustine and Aquinas than it was to Locke, Hume, or Kant. Because Wesley did not imbibe in the modern view of ethics, it does not also suffer the same destructive fate as modern ethics.

Eighteenth century philosophy provided a framework in which God and the good could be distinguished, separated, and even in contention with one another. The division of truth, beauty, and goodness undermined the very foundation of their being, as Wesley argued. The “good”, in essence, became a law or principle unto itself with no need for reference to a greater power. Thus, theology and ethics were ruptured. Theology, for many, became a dispensable practice since ethics was a “higher form of morality.”

Much of this separation between theology and ethics can also be attributed to the division of will and intellect. Long suggests that it is proper to understand the will and intellect as working in conjunction, rather than one coming before the other in a causal way. In connecting truth and goodness, Long notes:
This entails that doctrine and ethics are not finally separable. In opposition to this, modern scientific ethics separates the good and the true such that one would not need to know anything to be good, for there is finally nothing good but a goodwill. A person could be ignorant of truth and still be good. (69)

This not only ruptures theology and ethics, but centers “the good” within each human person.
Human secularism is not a far cry from this position. When this becomes the prevailing attitude, God, as for Nietzsche, is a non-entity. There is no root or ground for truth, beauty, or goodness. All that remains is the will to power, which renders ethics a tool to accomplish what makes one happy. Wesley’s “moral theology” would have rejected this sentiment outright, believing that such things are intimately connected with the Creator. As such, they cannot be self-contained values but are subsumed within the Triune God’s very character and nature.

Similarly, if God and the good are separated and found within each individual, then morality is no longer dependent upon the Church. Thus, as Hume posits, religion is the enemy of true morality and is an unsustainable discipline. Instead, according to Hume, morality is largely based upon the societal structures and desires for what they perceive to be the good. The “phantasm” of the good renders one capable of assuming that our thoughts are actually God, rather than our ideas and imagination being grounded in God. However, Wesley combats this notion vehemently, recalling our participation in Christ as participation in the divine mind (i.e., the commandments). It is only in grounding our ideas in God that we can appreciate and understand the fullness of morality (God’s will).

Wesley stood apart from the “disinterested” ethics of his day. Instead, he followed the principle of metaphysical participation. In other words, Wesley believed that we could participate in the divine life and mind through Jesus the Christ. Because Jesus was both fully human and fully God, he united the two in such a way that metaphysical participation was possible. It was not merely a phantasm of the mind, but a legitimate way of knowing God and who we were created to be.

Part of this bodily participation emphasized within Wesley’s framework is distinguished in three ways: do no harm, do good, and attend to the sacraments. However, Wesley did not believe that this was sufficient for salvation, but rather could become a mere “righteousness of the Pharisees.” Wesley maintained, as per Jesus, that our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. This does not mean that we are not to be hypocritical. The Pharisees were very devoted observers of the Law. Rather, their failure lies in neglecting the weightier matters of the Law and their efforts were not enlivened by the Holy Spirit’s life-giving power. Or, holiness of heart did not provide the impetus behind those practices.

Yet, Wesley’s caution did not keep him from maintaining the importance of attending the sacraments and living out the commandments. In fact, they were vital to a life of holiness, but they simply were not sufficient alone. Thus, Wesley seeks to maintain these practices while waiting on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of those who practiced charity and observed the sacraments. Inward and outward holiness of life had to be held together.

The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley

I’ve read through this book twice in the past couple of years.  This is a very basic primer to John Wesley’s theology.  It is very accessible and easy to read.  Harper does a great job of introducing the reader to a short biography of Wesley and walking the reader through the basic thought of John Wesley’s theology as it pertains to salvation.  I would recommend this as a great way to become acquainted with Wesley.

John Wesley’s Historical Context

In reading about Wesley’s history, I have found several things to be interesting and instructive.  First, we have to understand that Wesley was bound in some ways by his historical context and yet empowered by his historical context.  Wesley really was, in some sense, re-inventing the wheel.  He was quite an ecumenist.  He borrowed bands and classes from the Moravians and went back to Protestant roots in preaching and teaching.  His devotion to being a man of one book and being justified by faith alone became his mantra.  In many ways, he was a man of tradition, given that he never left the Anglican Church.  I believe Wesley tried to maintain the Methodists as a movement within that framework, not outside it.  Only as it became more evident that this could not be sustained did Wesley move to prepare steps for that body to move outside of the Church of England.  This was especially true where the Church of England no longer, or did not previously, hold sway.

What was truly phenomenal about Wesley was his use of lay preachers.  At first, his Anglican roots revolted against this until tempered by the advice of Susanna, his mother.  After this initial crisis, the process of empowering lay preachers became a fundamental part of the Methodist movement.  Wesley went so far as to allow women to also participate in this role.  I feel like this is the logical conclusion of the priesthood of believers.  We can find this very instructive in how we participate in pastoral ministry, as well as, our mission as a Church body.  Pastoral ministry is not about elitism or even proper education (ouch!), it is primarily about God’s call on people and reaching our communities.  Obviously, Wesley strongly encouraged his lay preachers to read and study, but this ultimately was not the defining qualification of a minister.  I think this helps us be aware of the ways that the Anglican Church has influenced our polity, both good and bad.

One of the things I did not realize until reading more about Wesley is how difficult it is to situate him in his context.  Of course, is history ever really clear cut and neat?  But, the social forces that coalesced in the 1700’s provided a wonderful kindling for revival fire.  There definitely seemed to be an air of progress and advancement in many areas of learning.  Granted, there were many challenges faced as a result of the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment didn’t see equality gained for everyone.  There were marginalized groups in abundance.  From the slave trade to the working poor, there was a huge delineation between the wealthy and the poor.  The Church, by the estimation of many (although this is disputed), had become quite lax enjoying its seats of power in Parliament.  The result, in some cases, was a catering to the upper class.  Wesley, in this case, did something extreme.  He began field preaching under the suggestion of Whitefield.  As Wesley increasingly became limited in preaching in a regular church setting, he began to view the “world as his parish.”  Although his message did reach some of the upper echelons of society, the lower classes were the ones that responded in droves.  A note of interest, this is the same type of ministry (to the poor) that Phineas F. Bresee participated in… and that eventually caused him to begin ministry outside of the Methodist Church.  Both Wesley and Bresee did not start sectarian movements.  They started movements to revitalize the Church, but the Church often misunderstood them.

The key to both of these movements, both Wesley and Bresee, is heart holiness.  We read about the Great Awakening and the wonderful revivals that spread throughout the trans-Atlantic region during the 1700-1800’s.  We believe that the Spirit of God moved in tremendous ways in those moments because people not only hungered for such a message, but we believe that God had wanted to communicate this all along!  Wesley, and for that matter Bresee, did not re-invent the wheel as much as they used common convention.  They were much more concerned about the message and the continual propagation of that message in the lives of people, not necessarily the conventions they used.  For our current context, I think it is appropriate that we stop and realize that we do not always have to “re-invent the wheel.”  We are called to be faithful to the message that we are justified by faith alone and that God desires for us to be holy, made perfect in love.  On the other hand, I think we can learn a great deal from Wesley in that he was willing to do things differently than had been done before.  Granted, it was done so that many more could be reached and not simply to do the latest fad.  They used contemporary music (what!).  Not to mention, these weren’t simply theological tools for teaching their congregants: “the hymns were ‘rather the result of the revival experiences with the poor and unlettered.’  ‘The whole area of the operations of the Spirit in the heart is there charted out with firmness and precision.’  As sung by the believer, What we have felt and seen With confidence we tell was nothing more nor less than the literal truth” (Maddox 92).

There is a side of me that worries a little bit in looking at the continued history and heritage that has been passed down.  It is awesome that God is not restricted in moving His plan forward by using people who want nothing more than to be faithful.  Methodists, the Holiness movement, and the Nazarene Church all started out as small movements for reform that made huge impact on their culture.  What is worrisome is that so often the Church (obviously I’m speaking in generalities) rejected this movement out of hand.  The result is schism and fragmentation.  This is hardly what the Body was meant to be.  Rather, the evidence of our discipleship is that we love one another.  Be that as it may, it worries me that quite often the institutionalized Church becomes so comfortable that it misses the movement of God’s Spirit… so, as is evidenced in our history, God bypasses the institutional Church to make way for His Kingdom (these two elements are not always at odds).  We have seen it happen, we believe, in the Protestant Reformation, the Great Awakening, and the Second Great Awakening.  I hope the Nazarene Church is prepared to move in accordance with the Spirit so that our community might experience revival, while maintaining unity in the Body.

John Wesley’s Practical Theology of Entire Sanctification

John Wesley wrote, “There is scarce any expression in Holy Writ which has given more offense than this.  The word ‘perfect’ is what many cannot bear.  The very sound of it is an abomination to them” (Outler 70).  John Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection, due to its seemingly radical and fanatical nature, came under heavy opposition from many of his contemporaries, especially those of Calvinist leanings.

As recipients of this tradition, Wesley’s inheritors have not always clearly understood or communicated the doctrine of entire sanctification and Christian perfection.  The result inevitably has been confusion about entire sanctification, not only from the general public, but within the Wesleyan tradition itself.  What did Wesley mean when using the term entire sanctification or Christian perfection?  And, how did this influence his personal spirituality and practice of ministry?  These are the two questions this paper will attempt to answer.

First, I trace Wesley’s understanding of grace and how it functions throughout the process of being made holy.  Following this, I define preventing grace, convincing grace, justification and sanctification.  A great deal of attention is given to expounding Wesley’s concept of justification and entire sanctification or Christian perfection.  The concluding portion of the paper is dedicated to an overview of the practical theology of holiness.  First, I explore inward, personal holiness and its connection with “true Christianity”.  In addition, I describe the ordinary and prudential means of grace John Wesley thought important for growing in our relationship with God and with others.  Finally, I construct the connection between inward holiness and outward, social holiness.  Further commentary is provided on some of the practical ways that Wesley and the Methodists embodied their faith.


            Wesley asserts, as in Genesis 1:27, that humanity is created in the image of God.  Wesley writes, “Man was what God is, Love.  Love filled the whole expansion of his soul; it possessed him without a rival.  Every movement of his heart was love: it knew no other fervor” (Outler 15).  However, due to sin, that image is distorted and broken.  All of humanity participates in this sinful rebellion against God; we all live under the curse (Rom. 3:23).  We are under the bondage of sin and death.

God desires to restore creation back to its original state.  For humanity, it is the restoration of the divine image.  The work of grace shapes us into the likeness of Christ, the personification of God’s love.  This is the chief aim of God’s plan of salvation, to restore the love of God within us so that we might reflect His Love back into this world.  Wesley stated, “This great gift of God, the salvation of our souls is no other than the image of God fresh stamped on our hearts.  It is the ‘renewal of believers in the spirit of their minds, after the likeness of Him that created them’” (Wesley 28).  Furthermore, Wesley believes that it is only by grace through faith that humanity can be restored to right relationship with God and with each other.

In his sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption”, Wesley envisions three states of relationship that one can have with God: the “natural” person, the person “under law”, and the person “under grace.”  The “natural” person is equated with a person that is asleep.  They are not aware of God or their sinfulness.  God calls to this person to awaken them from their spiritual slumber.  They become aware of God and His Law.  They sense the gap between God and themselves.  Thus, they are “under law.”  Finally, they sense that they still are in bondage to sin, possessing a divided mind and heart.  The individual “under grace” is able to proclaim: “Here end both the guilt and power of sin” (Outler 141).

In the sermon “The Image of God”, Wesley lays out three stages in the work of grace.  These three stages correlate to the three states previously mentioned:

The first step to this glorious change is humility, a knowledge of ourselves, a just sense of our condition… (2) The understanding, thus enlightened by humility, immediately directs us to reform our will by charity… (3) Thus it is that the ‘law of the Spirit of life makes us free from the law of sin and death’; thus it restores us, first to knowledge, and then to virtue, and freedom, and happiness (19).

Thus, the grace of God is infused throughout the process of transformation.  God’s grace first awakens us to our depraved state, calls us to turn from our sins, and gives us freedom from the power of sin and death.

Wesley further divides and defines the work of grace indicative of God’s transformative work: preventing grace, convincing grace, justifying and sanctifying grace.

’Preventing grace’; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight, transient conviction of having sinned against him… Salvation is carried on by ‘convincing grace’, usually in Scripture termed ‘repentance’, which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone… By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God: by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God (488).

To better understand Wesley’s distinctive doctrine concerning grace, it is informative to see how he opposed the popular notion of grace demonstrated in Calvinism.  Wesley and Calvin both assert the total depravity of humanity; Wesley’s view of God’s grace and election, however, is very different from Calvin’s limited atonement and predestination.

Wesley [in the sermon Free Grace] totally rejected predestination in all its Calvinist versions…  Whitefield, an exciting preacher who was Wesley’s junior by ten years, took for granted that the doctrine of justification by faith stood or fell with the presupposition of irresistible grace… In 1765, Wesley claimed that on the point of justification, he had never differed ‘from [Mr. Calvin] a hair’s breadth’ (49).

Yet, because Wesley firmly believed God is Love, he could not abide in any theology that compromised this truth.  Thus, Wesley adamantly contended against irresistible grace.  For instance, in his sermon “Free Grace”, Wesley comments: “This doctrine not only tends to destroy Christian holiness, happiness, and good works, but hath also a direct and manifest tendency to overthrow the whole Christian revelation” (54).  In other words, it is inconsistent with the Scriptural witness to God’s nature and character.

Calvin’s doctrine of irresistible grace, Wesley maintains, compromises free will in the human agent, which is exactly what Wesley believes is restored by God’s work in the believer’s life.  If grace is irresistible, then it follows that God chooses to save some and condemn others.  Wesley argues that free grace, rather than limited grace, reflects a loving God consistent with Scriptures and consistent with his personal experience.  How could a loving God seriously only predestine some to eternal salvation and others to eternal condemnation?  Wesley is convinced this is entirely incoherent.

John Wesley describes grace as a gift that God extends to everyone.  “For it cannot be denied that he everywhere speaks as if he was willing that all men should be saved.  Therefore, to say he was not willing that all men should be saved is to represent him as a mere hypocrite and dissembler” (56).  Grace is available to all people at all times.  Whether a person responds to God’s grace is a different story.  For those who do respond to God’s invitation, growth in grace is never fully completed, even in eternity (Wesley 94).  So, there is never a point where we are beyond the need of God’s grace.

Thus, Wesley affirms that the awakening, justification, and sanctification of a person are entirely God’s work, by grace.  Moreover, God’s grace is made available to everyone at every moment.  God is not stingy or reserved in this matter.  Rather, He is willing to do the work, if we are willing to receive His grace.  His desire is that none should perish.  This stance protects the integrity of a God who is Love.  This becomes the very foundation Wesley constructs his concept of justification and sanctification upon.


            Justification, for Wesley, is freedom from the guilt of sin and restoration to the favor of God (Outler 488).  “The plain scriptural notion of justification is pardon, the forgiveness of sins” (115).  Wesley notes that this is not freedom from accusation from the Law or from Satan, nor does it mean that God “deceives” himself into thinking that “those whom he justifies… he accounts them to be otherwise than they are” (115).  God does not have amnesia about our sinfulness, but rather chooses to pardon us because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.  Furthermore, Wesley maintains that justification is not being made “just or righteous.”  That is the work of “sanctification; which is indeed in some degree the immediate fruit of justification, but nevertheless is a distinct gift of God, and of a totally different nature.  The one implies what God does for us through his Son; the other what he works in us by his Spirit” (114).  This is the key distinction between justification (what God does for us) and being born of God (what God does in us) (184).

As with the Reformers, Wesley contends that justification comes through grace by faith alone.  Good works do not justify anybody; rather, they are inextricably the fruit of a relationship with God.  In addition, good works cannot be accomplished apart from justification (117).  As noted earlier, prevenient (or preventing) grace is made available to all before we are aware of it.  Convincing grace confirms in our hearts and minds that we are sinners who cannot save themselves.  Justification comes through the realization that God alone saves us from our sinfulness, trusting him to work that salvation in us.  Grace marks the entire journey, from first to last.  Faith, Wesley contends, is the only “necessary condition of justification” (119).  If justification is dependent upon good deeds, we would likely become prideful.  Humility is the only appropriate temper to have in this model because justification is wholly God’s work.  However, this does not indicate that there is no action on the part of the human agent.  It is the work of God in us that empowers us “to work out our salvation” (488).  We are called to “fight the good fight of faith.”

Wesley’s view of grace and justification are optimistic, but hardly unrealistic about the challenges that face all believers.  In the sermon “On Sin in Believers”, Wesley states, “And this infection of nature [sin] doth remain, yea, in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh… is not subject to the law of God” (360).  However, that does not mean that Wesley does not set the bar high, nor that he excuses anyone acting upon temptations.  Instead, he announces, “And he has power both over outward and inward sin, even from the moment he is justified” (362).  This is the sanctifying power of God’s Holy Spirit enlivened within each believer.

Sanctification, which begins in justification, “save[s] from the power and root of sin, and restore[s] to the image of God” (488).  It might be formulated in this way: justification is the moment in which the work of sanctification begins the process of being made Christ-like.  The grace of God is made available to all: “So that no man sins because he has not grace, but because he does not use the grace which he hath” (491).  So, even at the moment of justification, believers are empowered to sin no longer, though the “being” of sin remains (366-367).

If sanctification begins at the moment of justification, what does entire sanctification or Christian perfection mean?  If we are capable of no longer sinning at the moment of justification, then what work is described by entire sanctification and Christian perfection?  Is this a different “state” or “level” of Christianity that believers can enjoy?  What is the qualitative difference between justification and entire sanctification in the life of the believer? And, furthermore, what is the telos of Christian perfection?  These are the questions to which we now turn.


To better understand the doctrine of Christian perfection, we must look at what Wesley believed Christian perfection was not.  In his tract, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley outlines the boundaries of perfection: “There is no such perfection in this life, as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God, or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood” (Wesley 35).  In other words, sanctification and perfection are not static realities.  Rather, they are dynamic realities that can progress and grow, even regress and diminish.

In addition to these allowances, Wesley further explains that Christian perfection does not mean that we are:

Perfect in knowledge… not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake.  We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient.  They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination.  Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behavior.  From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for ‘the servant is not above his master.’  But neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth.  There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase (Wesley 23).

Obviously, Wesley does not mean perfection in the typical sense that we use it.  He confirms that people are still prone to mistakes due to lack of knowledge or insight, lack of creativity or imagination, miscommunication, or infirmities that typically occur within humanity.  Perfection, then, must have a different definition than simply being without flaw.  So, we must ask: What does perfection entail?

Wesley’s reply to this question has two parts.  First, “even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin” (23).  The grace of God is made available and is sufficient for those who will respond to it.  Denying this premise is to affirm that sin is stronger than God’s grace or that God withholds grace from people.  Either way, this flies in the face of Scripture, which Wesley would not allow.  Secondly, mature Christians are freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers.  Christ cleanses the heart and mind of a person which causes that person to bear good fruit accordingly.  And, in fact, the mature Christian puts on the whole mind that was in Christ (26-28).  Wesley states, “It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers” (27-28).

If this is true, then what exactly does Christian perfection entail?  Wesley replies in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love” (51).  That does not mean that Christians cannot be tempted, for Christ was tempted.  Rather, our affections are subject to the Law of Christ, which is the Law of Love.  This is the telos of entire sanctification.  If Christian perfection falls short of this goal, then it has utterly failed.  Christian perfection is to be perfected in love.

As with justification, entire sanctification is the work of God, not the work of humans.  Christian perfection occurs by grace through faith.  We can only receive the grace available by faith alone; we cannot earn it through good works.  Wesley maintained Christian perfection could be either gradual or instantaneous (90).  It could be received in a moment.  If this is true, Wesley contended that this gift was not simply to be expected in death but in this life, at this moment, and at every moment.  Freedom from both the guilt and power of sin is attainable in this life.  Of course, it is not until death that we are freed from the being of sin within our lives, but we no longer have to be enslaved to the passions of sin but can be servants to the Law of Love.

Still, many questioned how someone could live without sin and be “perfected in love” when experience showed that people constantly make mistakes.  Wesley responded, “’A man may be filled with pure love, and still be liable to mistake.’  Indeed, I do not expect to be freed from actual mistakes, till this mortal puts on immortality.  I believe this to be a natural consequence of the soul’s dwelling in flesh and blood” (52).  Wesley further remarks:

This easily accounts for what might otherwise seem to be utterly unaccountable; namely, that those who are not offended when we speak of the highest degree of love, yet will not hear of living without sin.  The reason is, they know all men are liable to mistake, and that in practice as well as in judgment.  But they do not know, or do not observe, that this is not sin, if love is the sole principle of action (53).

As is evidenced in this excerpt, mistakes can be made with right, good intentions.  This does not alleviate the need for forgiveness when mistakes are made.  On the contrary, we are still totally dependent upon the cleansing power of Christ’s atonement, even though every word and action is guided by love (52).

To clarify, Wesley distinguishes between voluntary and involuntary “sin” in the life of the believer.  “I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions” (54).  As such, Wesley never employs the term “sinless perfection” (54).  Although people are still susceptible to involuntary transgressions, Wesley does not believe this is “sin, properly so called.”  In fact, Wesley is wont to call involuntary transgressions “sin” at all because he defines sin as a voluntary violation of God’s Law.  As such, involuntary transgressions, although in need of repentance and forgiveness, are categorized as failure or lack of knowledge and insight, not sin.  And, since involuntary transgressions are performed without awareness, this in no way violates love which governs the heart.  As such, it is “sin, improperly so called” (54).

To combat the problem of setting the bar too high or low, Wesley suggests that Scripture is the mediating medium.  In fact, Wesley maintains that his doctrine of entire sanctification is entirely in line with Scripture.  “It is nothing higher and nothing lower than this, – the pure love of God and man; the loving God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbor as ourselves.  It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions” (55).  This, of course, is the Greatest Commandment referred to in Matthew 22 and Mark 12.  Love is the sum of the Law and Prophets.

Although freedom from sin is an important element in entire sanctification, Wesley does not promote this as the most important aspect.  Even at the culmination of God’s saving work and the beginning of the new creation, sin’s banishment only opens up the possibility for something greater!  “And to crown all, there will be a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God; a constant communion with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, through the Spirit; a continual enjoyment of the Three-One God, and of all the creatures in him” (Outler 500)!

Freedom from sin is not the telos of Christian perfection.  It is only a means to something greater.  Love is the telos, the end goal, of entire sanctification.  It is the giving of one’s entire heart to God, not simply “orthodoxy or right opinion” (Maddox 201-04).  “We must be holy in heart and life before we can be conscious that we are so.  But we must love God before we can be holy at all, this being the root of all holiness” (202).  Yet, love is not only the source and root of holiness, it is also the fruit of holiness.

It is the love of God that is first given to us and that seeks us out; we call this grace.  It is the love of God that convinces us that we are far from what we were created to be; we are broken and need a savior.  God’s love, in Christ Jesus, pardons us from sin upon repentance.  And, it is God’s love that draws us deeper and closer to be more like Him, which is holiness.  But, should we ever believe we possess His Love, we cause it to be stagnant in our lives.  If we conceive of love being only a personal matter, then we miss the point entirely.  Rather, love must also flow out to our neighbor and our brothers or sisters.  Loving God and loving neighbor is the sum of Scripture and it is the sum of holiness.  If we have not love, we only possess an empty shell of works that is but a shadow of true religion.


            “Wesley wanted more out of knowledge than acknowledgement.  Just as ordinary knowledge is incomplete (or even meaningless) unless it can be re-applied to reality, so, too, the spiritual truths that reason has determined based on the data of Scripture must be re-applied to experience to have true value” (Crutcher 135).  As such, the experience of a person of faith, if genuine, should be able to be “experienced” by others in the faith community.  Theology, for Wesley, could not be purely theoretical but needed to be applied in concrete reality.  After all, Wesley maintained that even the devil was orthodox, so correct knowledge was not true Christianity’s only goal (Maddox 202).

John Wesley’s empirical understanding of knowledge would not allow his doctrine of entire sanctification to be an idle theory.  Rather, the work of God in one’s life called for a response in that believer’s life.  As a movement of grace in a person’s life, God “breathes into us every good desire, and brings every good desire to good effect” (Outler 488).  The process of sanctification motivates those being sanctified to respond to God’s grace, not only by abstaining from evil, but by doing good to others.

Wesley understood the outcome of God’s work to have a two-fold purpose: “to will and to do” (488).  “First, ‘to will’ may include the whole of inward, ‘to do’ the whole of outward religion.  And if it be thus understood, it implies that it is God that worketh both inward and outward holiness” (488).  Inward holiness is connected with our disposition toward God and outward holiness specifies our disposition toward others.  Because God has lavished such love upon us, we too can love God and others through the empowerment of His Spirit and the grace that He extends to us.  This is the goal of Christian perfection or entire sanctification: Love.  This is the work that God undertakes in making us holy.

To keep others from twisting this into a works-based salvation, Wesley clarifies that true religion is not simply a matter of outward deeds, but is foundationally about the disposition of the heart.  The cultivation of inward holiness is the chief ambition of true religion.  Yet, genuine Christianity does not exclude outward holiness.  “The Way to the Kingdom” records Wesley’s thoughts concerning the matter:

Yea, two persons may do the same outward work… and in the meantime one of these may be truly religious and the other have no religion at all; for the one may act from the love of God, and the other from the love of praise.  So manifest it is that although true religion naturally leads to every good word and work, yet the real nature thereof lies deeper still, even in ‘the hidden man of the heart’ (125).

Thus, “true religion” is always motivated by and aimed toward love of God, this is inward holiness.  Because God loved us first, we are enabled to love God, thus, we can rightly love our neighbor… which, in turn, is a way to love God.  Any other motivation than love of God is a distortion and malfunction of pride, not love.  It is a way for gaining praise for our piety instead of glorifying God.

Yet, to combat an idle religion, Wesley teaches that God will only work in one’s life if they are willing to receive the grace God extends.  Thus, he challenges his audience to work out their faith with fear and trembling (487).  This does not indicate that Wesley believed we could earn grace.  He explains, “First, God works; therefore you can work.  Secondly, God works; therefore you must work” (490).  Furthermore, he exhorts his listeners:

Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace… ‘he that made us without ourselves, will not save us without ourselves.’  He will not save us unless we ‘save ourselves from this untoward generation’; unless we ourselves ‘fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life’; unless we ‘agonize to enter in at the strait gate,’ ‘deny ourselves, and take up our cross daily’, and labour, by every possible means, to ‘make our own calling and election sure’ (491-92).

Thus, the work of God in believers is not simply a passive receptivity, though we are called to “wait upon the Lord.”  Rather, it is a response to God’s work and a partnering with God in that work.  As a result, Wesley calls his listeners to “work out their salvation… by every possible means.”

Encouraging his followers to continue to be perfected in love, Wesley constantly reminds them “that Christ had ordained certain outward means for conveying his grace into the souls of men” (158).  He explains, “By ‘means of grace’ I understand 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… a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same’ (160).  God can and does, at times, offer grace through extraordinary means, however, “ordinary channels” are the usual means by which God typically acts.  As such, Wesley calls for Methodists to employ all of these means as often as possible.

In the sermon “The Means of Grace, Wesley proposes three ordinary means of grace conducive to the development of inward holiness: prayer, Scripture, and communion.  Fasting is also added to this list “in the Minutes of the first Methodist conference in 1744” (Maddox 228).  True Christians are called to “wait upon the Lord” by the use of these channels.  “Waiting upon the Lord” is seeking God with a “single eye”, it is the primary desire of our hearts.  It is an expectant, active waiting through which people engaged the means of grace, focusing their affections upon Him.

There were other channels of grace that were commonly used by the Methodists.  “To the instituted means they also added ‘prudential means of grace’ – practices that the church had initiated for particular needs in various times and places, such as participation in accountability groups… visitation of the sick, and attendance at special services of worship” (229).

These means of grace have no merit or value apart from the power of the Holy Spirit and the merit of Jesus the Christ.

But we allow that the whole value of the means depends on their actual subservience to the end of religion; that consequently all these means, when separate from the end, are less than nothing, and vanity; that if they do not actually conduce to the knowledge and love of God they are not acceptable in his sight; yea, rather, they are an abomination before him; a stink in his nostrils; he is weary to bear them – above all if they are used as a kind of ‘commutation’ for the religion they were designed to subserve.  It is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness of thus turning God’s arms against himself, of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in (160).

To comprehend how Wesley envisioned inward and outward holiness being cultivated, it is necessary to briefly reflect on his early years of life and the Methodist movement’s practices.  In pursuing true, Scriptural Christianity, Wesley’s Pietist roots influenced his desire for rigorous discipline.  Susanna Wesley, John’s mother, believed in strict discipline of children early on to instill in them a sense of proper behavior and religion.  This attitude invariably carried over into John’s life and ministry.

While studying for the Anglican ministry at Oxford, Wesley and a band of fellow students became disillusioned with the spiritual emptiness that had fallen upon the Anglican Church as well as its subservience to the government and the aristocracy.  The group’s lives became such examples of piety and moderate regularity that their fellow students branded them ‘Methodists’ in derision (Sherman 545).

Engaging the format that the Holy Club had employed during Wesley’s time attending Oxford, as well as, implementing the group accountability found in the Moravian societies, Wesley constructed a movement within the Anglican Church that created and implemented discipleship effectively among Methodist membership.

Initially a movement within the Church of England, Methodists worshiped in their local parish church but met in small classes with twelve to fifteen other Christians.  The class encouraged spiritual growth and discipline, and met for structured Bible study.  The class leader, a mature Christian, kept in close touch with each member… Some mature Christians wanted a more intimate group than the relatively informal class and formed bands of six to eight people that met more frequently than classes and practiced encouragement and mu-tual [sic] confession of sins.  Class membership was a prerequisite for the bands, and bands consisted largely of class leaders.  The third level of Methodist organization was the select society… The select society was intended to allow Methodists to form an intentional community, sharing a common purse on the model of Herrnhut (Spickard 248, 250).

The Methodist movement, as it matured and grew, was often known for its strict, disciplined practices.

Even at a late period in his life, John Wesley remarks, “Deny yourselves every pleasure which does not prepare you for taking pleasure in God, and willingly embrace every means of drawing near to God, though it be a cross, though it be grievous to flesh and blood (Outler 490).  The Methodist movement had little room for those who did not constantly want to grow deeper in their relationship with God.  Although Wesley does make a distinction between “lower and higher orders of Christians”, he always pushes and exhorts other Christians to not be fully satisfied but to go farther and deeper.  It is a call to be perfected in love.

The societies, bands, and classes provided accountability for those striving toward Christian perfection.  Such “prudential means of grace” allowed for the “instituted means of grace” to be a regular, continuous part of the communal life.  Prayer, communion, fasting, and Scripture were all a vital part of the practices that were in place for those that met together for communal accountability.  Inward holiness, due to these means of grace, or acts of piety, allowed many to not only be justified, but to go on to sanctification.  Those that did not show evidence of desiring to pursue holiness were sometimes kicked out of the Methodist societies (they could re-join if they became serious about pursuing holiness again).  The societies, bands, and classes birthed members committed to being transformed by God’s grace rather than simply performing lip service.

Dr. Leo G. Cox, professor of theology and New Testament at Marion College, notes: “For the light to shine as it should, there must be moral discipline.  It is unique that the manual of rules and regulations for Methodists was called a Discipline.  Outward holiness came, not by a crisis of faith, but by gradual sanctification in Christian growth through earnest discipline” (162).  A disciplined life tills the soil of the heart so that it might produce good fruit, works of righteousness.

This disciplined life had several elements that comprised the whole of true religion.  In the sermon “On Zeal”, Wesley breaks down the order and importance of religious zeal.  As such, it touches on the disciplines that cultivate both inward and outward holiness.

In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne, which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.  In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers: long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, goodness, fidelity, temperance – and if any other is comprised in ‘the mind which was in Christ Jesus’.  In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men.  By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to.  Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety: reading and hearing the Word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord’s Supper, fasting or abstinence.  Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our bless Lord has united them together in one – the church (Outler 468-69).

Sustaining his focus on the Church as vital to holiness, Wesley diligently labored not to allow his theology to produce hermits closed off from the world.  Inward holiness may be true religion, but it could not help but be outward holiness as well.  “Let the light which is in your heart shine in all good works, both works of piety and works of mercy” (206).  In other words, inward and outward holiness cannot be separated out but are integrally and intricately intertwined.  Wesley fervently advanced the notion that inward holiness produces outward holiness.

Wesley claims that Christianity is “essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary one is to destroy it; secondly, that to conceal this religion is impossible, as well as utterly contrary to the design of its author” (195).  He qualifies the connection between personal and social holiness, commenting:

It is also true that bare, outside religion, which has no root in the heart, is nothing worth; that God delighteth not in such outward services, no more than in Jewish burnt offerings, and that a pure and holy heart is a sacrifice with which he is always well pleased.  But he is also well pleased with all that outward service which arises from the heart; with the sacrifice of our prayers… of our praises and thanksgivings; with the sacrifice of our goods, humbly devoted to him, and employed wholly to his glory; and with that of our bodies (201).

Genuine outward holiness can only be derived and motivated by inward holiness.  It is the seed of love for God growing in the heart which then bears tangible fruit in our lives as we love our neighbor.  In a real sense, outward holiness is a means of grace for both believers and unbelievers.  The sanctified believers are the embodiment and extension of God’s love to a hurting world.  They are a city on a hill for all to see.

Not everyone responded kindly to Wesley’s ministry that sprouted from his logical progression from inward to outward holiness.  In response to criticism concerning his unorthodox ministry, John Wesley articulates his calling:

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. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that his blessing attends it. Great encouragement have I, therefore, to be faithful in fulfilling the work he hath given me to do. His servant I am, and, as such, am employed according to the plain direction of his word,’ As I have opportunity, doing good unto all men:’ and his providence clearly concurs with his word; which has disengaged me from all things else, that I might singly attend on this very thing, ‘ and go about doing good’ (138).

Wesley’s response gives us insight into his conception of outward holiness.  Outward holiness is living into the call given to the disciples by Jesus in the Great Commission to go and preach the Gospel, which is also endowed upon contemporary disciples to fulfill (Matt. 28:19-20).

“Preaching the Gospel” is Wesley’s main concern in promoting Scriptural Christianity, keeping Christianity from becoming a “solitary religion”.  But, for Wesley, preaching the Gospel is not only orating sermons and teaching lessons over Scripture.  Preaching the Gospel is also achieved by living in faithful obedience to God and in humble servant-hood to others.  In addition, this quote evidences the natural overflow Wesley conceives between inward holiness and outward holiness.  Wesley’s love for God propels him to do whatever is necessary to fulfill his calling to preach the Gospel by doing “good unto all men.”

John Wesley “preached the Gospel” in myriad ways in his culture.  His entire ministry can be seen as the cultivation of outward holiness flowing from inward holiness of heart.  Loving his neighbor is not simply an option but a mandate.  And, he cannot accomplish this at a disinterested distance.  Love drives him to be intimately involved with his parishioners’ lives.  Although John Wesley is hardly a pioneer of methods for the practice of ministry, he creatively adapts others’ ideas with great skill and foresight.

Thus, George Whitefield and the Welshman Howell Harris had pioneered field preaching, but it was John Wesley who became the great organizer of itinerant, outdoor evangelism.  Again, the Moravians had pioneered the small-group cell meeting.  But it was John Wesley who attended diligently to organizing these small-group cells into bands, societies, and circuits, and in so doing founded the Methodist Church.  Once more, Wesley was not the first Protestant to organize voluntary agencies for reform in society but his campaigns against slavery and excessive drinking, and for the education of unschooled children, set precedents that many evangelicals have followed ever since (Noll 224).

Wesley maintains his loyalty to the Anglican denomination throughout his life, but his view of grace and his sense of mission allows him to circumnavigate the normal parameters of ministry for his context.  Thus, ministry for Wesley is not contingent upon structures given outside of Scripture.  Rather, the dissemination of the Gospel to society is the most urgent matter to Wesley.  As long as the structures promoted that end, Wesley operates within Anglican boundaries quite cooperatively.  Despite this fact, he is also willing to change methods if he deems them prohibitive to preaching the Gospel.

Wesley does not start Methodism as a new denomination but as a movement to revitalize the Anglican Church.  Wesley’s catholic spirit does not desire schism, but rather hopes that Scriptural Christianity would transform a society.  Wesley extends the hand of fellowship to any that pursue this same goal.  The preaching of the Gospel is not a trivial matter, but a mission entrusted to the Church, to all Christians.

Outward holiness, though not conclusive, is evidence of God’s work of sanctification in the life of the believer.  These are markers consistent with the experience and testimony of the Christian community throughout history.  John Wesley instructs his audience:

Over and above all this, are you zealous of good works?  Do you, as you have time, do good to all men?  Do you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction?  Do you visit those that are sick?  Relieve them that are in prison?  Is any a stranger and you take him in?  Friend, come up higher…. Does he enable you to bring sinners from darkness to light, from the power of Satan unto God (Collins 146)?

Wesley is really asking his audience whether or not the power of the Gospel is truly transforming their lives as evidenced by the transformation of their surrounding culture.  Has the very community that receives God’s grace now offering itself as a means of God’s grace?  And, are they preaching the Gospel by every conceivable means possible so that others too might be saved?

If entire sanctification is the full surrender of a heart to God so that it is perfected in love, then it cannot help but pour out that love toward others.  It is not a solitary religion, though it is a religion of the heart.  But, there cannot be holiness if there is a lack of social holiness.  If we do not love both God and neighbor then our piety and our deeds are dead.  Love must be the source, the motivation, and the product of true, Christian religion.


We are created in the image of God, reflections of His Love.  However, due to sinfulness and rebellion that image is broken and distorted.  The Gospel is a testimony to God’s redemptive plan through Jesus Christ.  God’s grace makes us aware of our depravity and sinfulness (preventing grace).  We are brought to repentance for our rebellion (convincing grace).  By grace through faith, God justifies us, removing the guilt of sin from us (justification).  And, finally, we are saved from the power and root of sin and restored to the image of God in sanctification.  Sanctification begins at justification.  Entire sanctification is for our affections to be governed fully by love.  This is what Wesley preached and taught during his life and ministry as the Methodist reformer.

We then looked at the practical implications of Wesley’s theology.  Inward holiness is not simply about passive receptivity but about active waiting upon God’s work in grace. Active waiting calls for us to “work out our own salvation”, whereby practice of both instituted and prudential means of grace become channels for God’s justifying and sanctifying work   A heart that has a loving disposition toward God is true Christianity.  However, Christianity is not a solitary religion, but a social religion.  Both personal and social holiness are intimately connected and cannot be pulled apart.  There is a natural outflow from inward holiness to outward holiness.  Ultimately, holiness is about fulfilling the Law of Love.  It is obedience to the Great Commandment: Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.


Works Cited

Collins, Kenneth J. A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley. New York: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Cox, Leo George. John Wesley’s Concept of Perfection. 1964. Reprint. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1968.

Crutcher, Timothy J. The Crucible of Life, The Role of Experience in John Wesley’s Theological Method. Lexington: Emeth Press, 2010.

Maddox, Randy L., and Jason E. Vickers. The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Sherwin, Oscar. John Wesley: Friend of the People. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961.

Spickard, Paul R., Kevin M. Cragg, and Gordon William Carlson. A Global History of Christians: How Everyday Believers Experienced Their World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.

Wesley, John. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1966.

Wesley, John, Albert Cook Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991.



The Wesleyan Catholic Spirit

We are told our fundamental principles are in jeopardy of destruction.  Arguments and accusations are cast haplessly, both sides demonizing one another.  Both parties sling mud at the opposition until nobody is left unscathed.  The liberal position unswervingly holds to its “truth” while the conservative adherents encamp behind their bastioned walls of defense.  It would seem there is little, if any, middle ground.  Bipartisanship and cooperation are not the typical modes of practice.  Each side is decidedly convinced they are in the right.  Delegates from each party fight tooth and nail to convince others to cast their ballots in the war against the evil that the opposing team is seeking to uphold.

This model does not employ dialogue and discussion as ways to open up communication between factions.  Both sides speak past one another, more concerned about proving a point than listening to the concerns that are raised.  Anger and resentment typically characterize these exchanges, thus driving the wedge of enmity deeper between each party.  Schism and division are the natural choice to “resolve” such heated conflicts.  Each position attributes ignorance as the primary problem for a lack of cooperation from their opponents.

This is not a description of politics as usual on Capitol Hill.  This is a depiction of what is often referred to as the “Protestant Problem”.  For nearly 500 years, the Church has become increasingly splintered.  Doctrinal disputes birth denomination after denomination.  We identify ourselves by what separates and categorizes us rather than what unites us.  Thus, the world too often sees a Church that is more similar to American political parties than it is to the early Church of the saints.

Enmity and division must not be the defining characteristics of the Church.  In fact, Jesus instructs his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn. 13:35).  He does not indicate that his disciples are known because of their superior wisdom or understanding of Truth.  No, Jesus’ genuine followers are identified by their love for one another.  If Love is the distinctive mark of real faith, then there is a real need to recover those traditions that cultivate love in our lives!

The Church of the Nazarene has inherited a rich theological tradition from John Wesley; one that speaks profoundly to our current situation.  It is a holiness tradition that emphasizes purity in heart and life.  Wesley teaches that a person must not only be justified but also sanctified.  In other words, not only must someone be pardoned from sin but the power of sin must also be broken.  God calls us to be holy as He is holy, perfect as He is perfect.  Those that heed this call, yielding their whole heart to God, are said to be entirely sanctified.

For fear of being vague, let us clarify what is meant by entire sanctification.  In the tract A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley describes entire sanctification as “The loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.  This implies, that no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words and actions, are governed by pure love” (Wesley 51).  When God entirely sanctifies us, love for God motivates and permeates everything we do.

Wesley believes that true faith is a religion of the heart, but he does not let it stop there.  Ultimately, true belief impacts one’s actions.  It is no idle faith we possess.  Love for God naturally flows out as love for our neighbors (including our enemies!).  Inward holiness becomes outward holiness.  Faith entails personal and social facets; it is never solitary.  Ironically, love for one another, not our doctrinal creeds, is a testimony to God’s transformative work in our lives.  It testifies to the Truth.  The element that separates the wheat from the chaff is not simply possessing orthodoxy (right beliefs), but it is primarily about loving God and loving others.

Far too often we have reduced Christianity to intellectual endeavors.  We construct systematic theologies, dogmatic doctrines, and complicated models of atonement theory.  Although there may not be anything as practical as a good theory, we often settle for a faith concerned only about possessing the right data sets.  We behave as if our knowledge and understanding of the Truth sets us free.

However, we must carefully consider the validity of this assumption.  Is it true that holding right belief equates with righteous living?  Wesley, who avidly pursues knowledge of Truth throughout his lifetime, denies this premise outright.  This is abundantly evident in Wesley’s words:

“For neither does religion consist in orthodoxy or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but the understanding.  A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God.  He may assent to all the three creeds… and yet ‘tis possible he may have no religion at all… He may be almost as orthodox as the devil… and may all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart” (Maddox 201-02).

Reflecting the thoughts from the book of James, Wesley points out that “faith” is not true faith simply because one has full, correct knowledge of the Truth.  Rather, it is how one lives out of that knowledge that defines real faith.

Does right knowledge then have a purpose?  The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”  Right beliefs and thoughts act as guides and boundaries for our actions.  They set us on a trajectory.  Correct ideology falls far short of its purpose if love is not the byproduct.  We become a clanging cymbal or a resounding gong if we have all knowledge yet do not love.  If that is the case, we tend to behave far more contentiously than redemptively in our broken world.

That does not insinuate that we accept without discernment what anyone and everyone professes as true.  We are not to be blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine.  Truth is to be preferred to falsehood.  Not to mention, Truth does exert a tremendous influence on our course.  Truth is not unimportant, but it is not the target of our faith.

Wesley demonstrates this principle in his interactions with those persuaded by John Calvin’s theology of irrefutable grace and limited atonement.  Wesley argues vehemently against these doctrines, citing them as especially detrimental to a holy lifestyle.  The argument is especially heated with Wesley’s friend, George Whitefield, a tremendous field preacher with Calvinist viewpoints.  After a very aggressive series of arguments, both men part company for some time.

Wesley and Whitefield eventually reconcile, although they never do fully see eye to eye theologically.  However, Wesley concedes being wrong in one point of thinking.  Despite viewing Calvinism as a deficient system of belief, Wesley later admits that it is conceivably less vicious than he had previously believed.  There were many good, faithful believers who led holy lives, despite adhering to Calvin’s theology.  This convinces Wesley that there is something far more fundamental to faith than obtaining and acknowledging correct information.  Thus, Wesley affirms the indispensable nature of sisterly and brotherly unity within the Church.

“By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ.  But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not attained.  No: ‘Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’  And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves.  Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question.  If it be, give me thy hand.  For opinions, or terms let us not destroy the work of God.  Dost thou love and serve God?  It is enough.  I give thee the right hand of fellowship” (Lindstrӧm 193).

Love at work in the lives of disciples distinguishes them from the world.  But, while love may mark us different than the world; it unites us within the Church.

Wesley’s own ministry within the Anglican Church is not always well received.  Many look down upon field preaching and itinerant lay-preachers that Wesley employs.  Wesley is barred from preaching in pulpits, accused of heresy, and shunned by many of his peers within the Anglican Church.  Yet, Wesley remains an Anglican priest all of his life.  Methodism remains a movement within Anglicanism until after his death.  Wesley’s motivation is never to induce separation from the Church.  Rather, Methodism is constructed to revitalize the Church.

Although Wesley is not so naïve to believe that Methodists will remain Anglicans after his death, he earnestly seeks to live and work in communion with the Church.  He urges and encourages Methodists to attend regular services and communion in the Anglican Church in addition to their meetings.  Despite receiving a great deal of opposition from Anglican ministers, Wesley maintains his loyalty to the Church.  Wesley displays his love for God through his love for the Church, despite its apparently malfunctions.

This commitment to God and to the Church goes beyond what many believers exercise today.  The Church is in flux.  There are pressures both from within and without.  We visualize our problems as so insurmountable that we diminish and dismiss the power of God’s grace.  We put Him in a box because we believe that somehow He will let His Church succumb to the world (we might not say this, but our actions betray us in this matter).  We visualize starting a new church or denomination as the way to “preserve the true Church.”

We feel it is our duty to protect the Church.  So, we dig our trenches, throw up our armaments, fortify our doctrinal positions and prepare to shoot it out with any that dare tread upon our theological box.  We replace sanctification with sarcasm; holiness with haughtiness; love with lashing out.  This is the result of thinking that we have everything figured out (or at least most of it).

However, Wesley is quick to clarify that entire sanctification does not mean that we are not prone to mistakes!  He asserts quite the opposite.  Despite being perfected by love, we are still prone to the same infirmities of mind and body as any other mortal.  We do not have perfect knowledge and are liable to make mistakes (“sin, improperly so called”) despite being fully governed by love.  This problem is not totally resolved until we shed this mortal body and are clothed with immortality.

Thus, Wesley believes that even holy people are susceptible to lack of imagination, failure of insight, or shortage of knowledge.  A person really can make an honest mistake.  Yet, we like to believe that we have everything figured out because it gives us control and security.  We garner power from certainty.  As a result, we keep faith captive to the mind for fear that we might lose control.  Our hearts grow stagnant and cold, keeping Love from revitalizing the dead stone now in its place.

Until we put on immortality, we must wrestle with our imperfect knowledge.  It is imperative that we do this with all humility, acknowledging our limitations. Following through with this requires relying on God’s grace to lead us in every moment by His Spirit.  We must pray that God quickens our mind with discernment and our hearts with compassion.

Holiness is a journey in which we travel together, fighting the good fight of faith before that great cloud of witnesses.  It is a journey in which we are called to imitate the author and perfecter of our faith by throwing off the sin that so easily entangles.  Hebrews 12:14-15 warns us, “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled” (NRSV).

So, we must qualify what is most valuable in our journey of faith together.  Is it more important to confirm six literal days of creation or evolution?  Or, is the fact that God created the heavens and the earth the most vital truth?  Is style of worship really so pressing as to promote schism?  Or, is it more paramount that we are gathered together as the people of God, the redeemed, who have responded to His call?  Is it more imperative to be known by our political affiliations?  Or, is it more relevant that we are marked as a follower of Christ?  The question we are asking is simple.  Is it more critical to be right or in right relationship?

In a world that is scarred and torn by divisions, shouldn’t the Church be united through reconciliation?  Is our church characterized by what makes us distinct from other denominations or do we envision our call as a unique expression in the One Body of Christ?  Are the conversations and discussion we engage in seasoned by humility?  Is Love the embodied expression of the Gospel we preach?  Are we being perfected in Love?   If there was ever a doctrine which the contemporary Church must fan into flame, it is holiness that cultivates the fruit of love, both for God and for our neighbor!  We have been called unto holiness as children of God.  May it be our watchword and song both now and forever.

Works Cited

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the

Apocrypha.. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Lindstrӧm, Harald. Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation. Wilmore:

Francis Asbury Publishing Company, 1983.

Maddox, Randy L., and Jason E. Vickers. The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Wesley, John. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1966.

Holiness and Entire Sanctification

Holiness pertains to two things: separation and purity.  But, we may ask, what are we separated from and what are the characteristics of purity?  Furthermore, holiness generates insiders and outsiders.  Who is included in this community?  And, how do we become a part of this social entity?  It is vitally important that we understand holiness and entire sanctification so that we articulate the doctrine faithfully, especially because it has led to so much confusion and questioning.  As we do this, we may faithfully call our congregations to embody the character and purposes of God in our world.

In the Genesis story of Creation, we see that we were created in the image of God, or the imago Dei.  Humanity was made in the likeness of God.  However, sin entered the world shattering that divine image.  Light became darkness in the human soul.  Sin distorted and twisted God’s creation, including humanity.  There is a sense of longing with which we groan to be restored to this glorious state.

For John Wesley, the restoration of the imago Dei was the chief purpose and telos of salvation.  He preached that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of this divine image, both God and man.  Whereas, the first Adam was the venue by which humanity was enslaved to sin, Christ became the second Adam by which humanity could be saved and restored to proper relationship with God.  So, in a very real way, the restoration of the divine image becomes Christ-likeness in the believer.  Ultimately, the recovery of this image means being perfected in love.  It is embodying the character and purpose of God, which is always life giving.  However, we must then ask, by what means are we saved and what do we mean by such terms?

John Wesley writes, “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness… the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (372).  In other words, salvation is the entire work of God wrought in the souls of men which restores them to the divine image.  Although Wesley broke salvation into several steps, although he believed they were equally important and inseparable in the life of all believers.  These instances of grace and salvation are: prevenient grace, justification, and sanctification (373).

God’s grace was the one and only catalyst in the cultivation of salvation.  Prevenient grace was simply the work of God, the stirring of the heart, in the sinner that leads to justification.  It is God working in our lives before we are even aware of His presence and power.  As one becomes aware of God’s working in our lives, we reach a crisis point which calls for decision.  We either accept God’s grace or reject it.  Upon acceptance, we move to justification through faith and repentance.

Justification is simply the pardoning of our sins.  In a sense, our debt has been paid.  However, Wesley points out that while sin does not “reign,” it does remain (377).  We are no longer slaves to sin but we are prone to backslide.  Thus, Wesley affirmed that justification, as well as, sanctification is both instantaneous and a process of maturing in our faith.  Wesley commented, “Faith is the condition, and the only condition, of justification” (375).  However, Wesley also affirms that repentance must be a part of this process.  Repentance is turning away from evil and doing what is right.  Yet, in the midst of this turning, we eventually come to understand how prone our hearts are to wander.  We become acutely aware of our lack of righteousness before a holy God.  For, even in doing good works, we at times find wrong motivation moving us in those actions.

“Repentance frequently means an inward change, a change of mind from sin to holiness.  But we now speak of it in a quite different sense, as it is one kind of self-knowledge – the knowing ourselves sinners, yea, guilty, helpless sinners, even though we know we are children of God” (406).  Even after justification, we are often confronted with the reality that sin still resides within.  We find ourselves desiring that which is opposed to the Spirit of God.  How might we then bring everything we are under obedience to Christ?

In knowing that sin remains, though it is no longer in control, we are convinced that we have yet to fully take hold of God’s promised life of perfection.  It is this promise that God saves us from the depths of our sins and perfects us in love.  We recognize that we are unable to bring about this perfection through our own power.  Moreover, we are entirely at the mercy of God to work in and through us.  However, we find that God has promised us that we will do such a work through His Spirit, that He is able to do such a work, and that He desires to work it now (379).  Faith, once more, is the catalyst of God’s work in us.  That is not to say that sanctification, or justification, are worked because of something we have done.  Rather, faith is the response to God’s grace that is available.  Sanctification is being set apart totally for the will and purpose of God.

One point of contention arose from Wesley’s viewpoint of salvation and Calvin’s viewpoint.  Calvin had asserted that grace was irresistible.  Essentially, God calls those whom He will to be saved.  We have come to know this doctrine as “Predestination.”  Wesley vehemently opposed this viewpoint by affirming that it is free grace to all that God extends.  This grace is given to everyone who might receive it.  However, God’s grace can be rejected because we do have the power of free will.

Scripture continuously affirms that Jesus died for the world so that none may perish but that all may have life.  It is an open invitation.  God provides the means and the way of grace to salvation.  Calvin believed that God had elected a select few to be redeemed.  Wesley countered that predestination denied the validity of preaching and teaching, as well as, any effort on our part because God was the only one doing anything.  If it be God’s will to obey or disobey Him, who can resist His will?  In a sense, this doctrine, stated Wesley, painted God worse than Satan himself.  Satan too, in this doctrine, did not have to work one iota because God had already determined the future, both redemption and condemnation.  However, if our choices are genuine and really matter, then we cannot neglect the doctrine of free grace.

The means of grace, in this doctrine, thus become important channels for God’s work in the world.  Wesley preached, “By ‘means of grace’ I understand 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” (160).  In addition, this outward signs of grace pointed to an inward reality.  Furthermore, one must be careful to keep these practices as means, so that they would not become the end in and of themselves.  In fact, if these means of grace do not move one to love through the Spirit of God, they are vain acts of self-glory.

Specifically, for Wesley, there were three means of grace most employed: prayer, Scripture, and Eucharist.  Each of these elements was equally important and interchangeable.  Neglecting one aspect is detrimental to the spiritual life.  These three sacraments were designed as a way to wait for the grace of God.  Everything found in salvation is worked by God alone and in His own timing.  Our works do not convince or bribe God to act.  Rather, it is by these means of grace that God conveys His grace to us.  So, that in everything we might say God works both our faith and salvation.  Wesley concluded, “The mere work done, profiteth nothing; that there is no power to save but in the Spirit of God, no merit but in the blood of Christ; that consequently even what God ordains conveys no grace to the soul if you trust not in him alone” (170).

In conclusion, entire sanctification is the restoration of the divine image.  We are perfected by and in the love of God, through His Spirit.  This salvation and sanctification is the instantaneous and process by which God restores that image and empowers us to live Christ-like lives.  Furthermore, this salvation is wrought by the grace of God alone through faith in Jesus Christ whose atoning blood pardoned our sins.  This salvation is not by works.  Yet, God has ordained means of grace by which he works to communicate salvation, grace, and mercy.  It is for this reason alone, that we participate in these practices, waiting on the Lord in prayer, Scripture, and the Eucharist.  Likewise, we respond to the grace of God in our lives by “ceasing to do what is evil, learning to do what is good” so that in all things God might be glorified.




Works Cited

Outler, Albert C., and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds. John Wesley’s Sermons: An    Anthology.Nashville: Abingdon P, 1991.

Tradition and Theology

What is the role of Christian tradition in Christian theology?

The role of the Christian tradition in Christian theology has been one of debate for centuries.  How much influence should this tool be allowed in our quest for understanding God and His character?  And, how might we correctly employ this tool for theology?  The answers to this question greatly vary across the centuries, especially given the tendency for human institutions to be broken and fallen.  Despite this fact, Wesley maintains it is necessary to affirm the Christian tradition’s role in theology while providing it with a means of accountability.

For some, the Christian tradition holds sole authority for interpreting Scripture and experience.  Moreover, many believe that the Church alone speaks as the very mouthpiece of God.  The problem with this mentality is that it led some to believe that the task of theology could be accomplished through the power of the Church alone, sometimes ignoring the Spirit.  Moreover, it often ignored the way in which the world influenced the Church negatively, pulling it away from its foundational principles.  The Church, especially after Constantine, became an extension, in many ways, of the government and culture.  Christianity became a way of affirming cultural values rather than allowing culture to be informed by Scripture.

Unfortunately, that often meant that there was little if any accountability for the Church’s power.  The Crusades are an ugly example where the two mixed horribly and forever marred Christianity in the eyes of many.  This misuse of authority ultimately made people skeptical of the Church and do not willingly submit to the Church.  In theology, tradition cannot be said to be the ultimate authority because it too can ultimately be swayed by ulterior influences.  It must have a counter-balance for its interactions with the world.  Scripture provides the measure by which the Church is guided.

However, to totally ignore tradition would be a sad loss for Christianity.  It would seriously limit our understanding of Christianity, as well as, the consequences when our preaching does not match our living.  Karl Barth believed that the Christian tradition was a conversation between students, each successive generation learning from the previous generations.  I believe this is a good way to look at the Christian tradition.  It maintains that we are all learning together and that we are dependent upon one another as well.  Therefore, in each generation of the past we can learn from both their successes and their failures.

Christian tradition can also be used in conjunction with experience as Wesley saw it.  It allows us to see the collective experience of Christianity and employ it as a tool for assessing whether or not we have been true to Christianity.  Furthermore, it is important that Christian tradition is not limited merely to historical events and thinking.  Rather, Christian tradition also has a future aspect to it.  It is passed to each successive generation.  The Christian tradition is the unbroken succession of giving away the Gospel all the way from the apostles to present day believers.  Hopefully, we continue to pass on a faithful rendering of what it means to live as a Christian in our world.

One example of tradition’s invaluable influence can be found in the doctrine of the Trinity, which is not explicitly outlined within Scripture.  However, after much deliberation and debate on the exact relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the Church formulated that they were three-in-one.  This doctrine sought to make sense of what Scripture was saying, even though it was not explicit in Scripture.  Initially, this was just a simple formula for talking about God.  In generations since, it was built upon to explain it more accurately.  There have been other doctrines set out by tradition that worked to provide a framework by which we might comprehend Scripture accurately and faithfully.  As Barth asserts, tradition captures the voice of fellow students and teachers by which we can seriously think through issues.  We continue that tradition to not only know but understand.

John Henry Newman believed that Church doctrine, as an idea, would ultimately develop as we searched and learned more.  It is open to revision and improvement.  This is especially true if we believe that God is continually revealing Himself, not that His revelation changes, but He guides us into all Truth.  Tradition is therefore the process of theology growing and building upon that which was laid before.  Theology, therefore, has a responsibility to listen and interact with tradition.  Tradition does not have the last Word in the conversation, but it is an invaluable voice in the discussion.

Creeds, many of which are a valuable part of Christianity today, preserve earlier generations’ assessment of the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  These have helped guide future generations on correct, essential doctrine.  That is not to say that they are above Scripture, but succinctly sets forth what Scripture affirms as necessary doctrine.  Christian tradition, like the creeds, can serve as a way of grounding our faith back to the essential elements of the faith.

Where the Christian tradition becomes problematic is where it oversteps its role, assuming an authority equal to Scripture and experience.  The result too often is a power that has no balance or accountability.  When it is allowed that type of power, as is the case with most human institutions, it becomes tyrannical and legalistic.  Furthermore, reason is not allowed a very prominent role in discovering Truth.  Rather, Truth becomes affirmed by tradition and is not open for interpretation or revision.  A close-minded dogmatism then is used to control people rather than free them.  Logic serves as a corrective device for such narrowness.

For this reason, it is necessary that the Christian tradition be looked at and studied carefully.  The Christian tradition is subject to the authority of Scripture and experience.  Does it hold before these two authorities as genuine?  Next, does it maintain under scrutiny of logic and reason?  If it does not, it must be called into question as to the validity of its assertions.  That does not mean that the Christian tradition does not still have something to offer even when it is found wanting.  Instead, we can use that as an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and sins of others.

As such, I believe the Christian tradition holds a great deal for us in theology.  It allows us to study history and learn from true followers of Christ and we can also learn from failure to live Christ-like and not make the same mistakes.  I believe this shows the dependency that tradition has upon experience, Scripture, and reason.  Tradition is simply a tool.  It is not the ending point.





Scripture and Theology

What is the role of Scripture in Christian theology?

In dealing with theology, Scripture is the starting point and its foundation.  Scripture is the revelation of God to us, apart from which we could not know God.  The Word of God perfectly and fully reveals the salvation of God for humanity.  Furthermore, it is the call of God to broken humanity, enabling them to live, through the power of the Spirit, in such a way that is pleasing to God.

We could know nothing about the nature of God if He did not reveal it to us.  We might possibly be able to assess things about Him through our empirical senses.  For instance, we could attribute all of creation to a Creator and could arrive at such a conclusion using our senses.  This might allow us to see that God exists.  And, we might be able to make some assumptions based on this conclusion (i.e. God is sovereign and powerful).  However, we could not know whether God is loving, hateful, gentle, merciful, conniving or otherwise without the revelation of the Divine by the Divine.  Scripture, as the Word and Revelation of God, is such a book that allows us with our “spiritual senses”, as John Wesley called them, to see God’s nature and character.  It is for this reason that we must start with Scripture as the provider of data by which we can begin to talk, learn, and know who God is.

Sola Scriptura” was the cry for many of the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, as they sought to correct the waywardness that they perceived in the Church.  Tradition, for some at that time, was considered just as important and equal in authority to Scripture.  Thus, some fallacies arose within doctrine, such as indulgences which were said to forgive sins through the Church.  Luther believed this was theologically inaccurate and therefore called for a re-commitment to the sole authority of Scripture.  It alone could stand as the evaluator of the Church’s actions… the Church was not independent of that authority.  As has been rightly judged, we cannot speak alone by our own authority.  Scripture is the lens by which we assess the worth of our theology.

Even John Wesley, who was an avid proponent of the Anglican Church, was willing on the basis of Scripture, to venture against the Church by sending out itinerant field preachers and ordaining ministers so that they could serve the sacraments.  He was supportive of the Church in the essentials of doctrine and willing to step outside of those bounds in non-essentials.  These actions were undertaken because Wesley viewed himself as a “man of one book.”  In other words, Scripture held the utmost authority when it came down to determining proper action, even when opposed to tradition.

The early Creeds even show the dependency of tradition upon Scripture.  The Creeds were written to set forth proper belief against and opposed to the heresies that had popped up.  The Creeds, such as the Nicene, summarized the Gospel, as well as, the foundational beliefs of Christianity.  However, those Creeds that came to be most accepted by the whole Church were those that simply asserted what Scripture asserts – no more, no less.  We see that theology can neither add nor subtract from Scripture’s own propositions.  Scripture sets forth proper orthodoxy, not tradition.  Scripture, as a reasonable truth claim, cannot be self-contradictory and must sit in judgment of itself as well.  In other words, tradition alone does not determine the truth of theology, Scripture is the standard.  It must be consistent.

In Wesley’s mind, the secular and the sacred were not distinct realities but enmeshed together.  As such, Scripture did not simply impact the “spiritual realm” but should immediately impact our daily lives.  Scripture was the lens through which Wesley sought to view everything.  All Truth was God’s Truth and would not be contradictory to one another.  And, more importantly, experience and Scripture worked together as mutual components.  Experience’s data can only afford us so much understanding.  Scripture is not merely a supplement to that knowledge, but helps us to enrich and construct a fuller account of reality.

For me, this answers the greatest part of the question: “What is the role of Scripture in theology?”  It is the very starting point of theology and it holds an authority position for determining true, correct theology.  Scripture provides the data and material that can be used by theology.  However, the question becomes how do we interpret correct theology from Scripture, given that there are so many interpreters and interpretations throughout the history of the Church?

Obviously, this is not an easy question.  However, I believe this provides a practical venue for Wesley’s hermeneutical circle.  The hermeneutical circle shows us that our interpretation of Scripture is not an independent authority.  Rather, there are other “tests” by which we may try the validity of our “understanding” of Scripture: experience, reason, tradition, Scripture.  As such, theology may be said to be consistent with Scripture, with reason and logic, with the experience of the faithful, and re-producible in other people’s lives.  A particular theology’s validity can thus be tested in the “crucible of life” where reason and tradition are tools and Scripture and experience are sources and arenas for experiment.  They are dependent on one another and must be balanced as such for theology to be consistent, practical, and true.  So, we see that even Scripture’s interpretation must rely on these other parts in order to function appropriately.

As said previously, Scripture provides the data and material for theology… it is the source of theology.  It is the revelation of God to us, which allows us to know Him.  Therefore, in interpreting Scripture, God’s Word and Revelation, it is necessary that God illumines us so that we might fully and correctly understand!  Theology is not done in a vacuum.  We bring many assumptions and “modern” interpretations to the table by which we have been shaped.  We tend to place those upon Scripture when we read and study it.  As biased readers, we must hear once again from the true Author and Perfecter of faith.  And, it is only by the Holy Spirit that we are led into all Truth.  There is only One who may speak about God and that is God himself.  To speak about God without God is to place ourselves in His role… which is idolatry.  So, although Scripture gives us the raw data, we cannot fully grasp its mystery without the quickening of the Spirit.  True theology does not simply interact with the text, but must engage the Spirit of that Letter.

Reason and Theology

What is the role of reason in Christian theology?

Reason plays an integral role in theology.  For those who claim that Christianity is a religion of ignorance, they seriously under appreciate the interaction of logic with experience and Scripture that has been implemented throughout the history of the Church.  Theology is where reason, guided by the Spirit, synthesizes the knowledge gained from both experience and Scripture.  Logic allows us to move from knowledge to understanding.  Jeremiah 3 promises that God will provide such leaders and shepherds to guide his people.  It is by discernment that we evaluate the profit of a belief, as well as, testing to see if it is cogent and sonsistent.

Experience and Scripture provide the information and data with which reason may construct a framework.  Reason, as such, is merely a tool for interacting with that raw material.  It is very much the refining process by which that information may be re-introduced back into the arena of experience to be evaluated.  Reason provides a coherence and consistency as both Scripture and experience are weaved together to express Truth in its many facets.

Of course, there have to be several commitments for reason to play such a large role in theology.  Like Wesley, one must believe that faith impacts reality.  Furthermore, one must believe that both the sensory and the trans-sensory realities work by the rules of logic.  In other words, it informs our experience both positively and negatively.  It defines what we might know and what is impossible to know (i.e. the average height of a unicorn).  As such, reason really helps provide boundaries and framework for our theology.   And, one must have a commitment that the secular and the sacred are really not separated but enmeshed in one another.

If this is true, the secular and the sacred work according to logic, we can assess the validity of truth claims by an “empirical” process.  This renders theology as a very practical endeavor.  It does not simply allow a theoretical, mental bent for theology.  That does not mean, as Wesley tended to think, that a truth claim’s validity rested upon its immediate applicability to reality.  There is room for knowledge that is in the process of being refined and tested.  Additionally, a claim’s worth does not rest on a time frame.  However, it ultimately must be able to be applied to the realm of life and experience.  Or, as Wesley might put it, knowledge and understanding must meet together to produce genuine Christian living.

If Truth is governed by the rules of logic, it is necessary for it to be consistent in its application to both experience and Scripture.  Experience and Scripture cannot be contradictory if they are both held to be authorities of Truth.  Reason provides a tool by which we work between the tension that is often found existing from the knowledge gained in Scripture and experience.  Reason helps us see the connections between the two and allows them to interact with one another, informing each other, giving accountability.

There is an undoubtedly important role that reason holds in theology.  However, reason, like our knowledge is limited in its scope.  Where knowledge is limited, reason, which is dependent upon experience and Scripture, will be limited in what it can assert.  For instance, Scripture only hints at the nature of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Speaking about something that in nature and character is both three and one is beyond the full capacity of reason to explore or understand.  Another example is the humanity and divinity of Jesus.  How is it possible that God became fully man as well?  It is a mystery which is not fully explained by Scripture.  As such, we can only guess and speculate with the information we do have… but this is often unsatisfactory in communicating the full reality of these mysteries.

In relying upon reason, one might tend to say it has the ultimate authority in determining Truth.  The danger in relying solely on our powers of logic is self-deception.  This can render us closed to Truth that other voices might add to our endeavors.  One voice that might be hindered by such pride is the Holy Spirit.  From a Christian perspective, it is only the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand Truth.  Without the Spirit to guide us, it is likely that our theology will be impractical or simply informational, rather than transformational.  Or, we might say that reason must be joined with love, as the apostle Paul exhorts us.  All knowledge and understanding means nothing if love is not present in our engagement with God and others.  Wesley understood this aspect well.  Christian history has attested that logic alone does not provide for Christ-like living.

Dr. Crutcher states, “If it is true what Wesley says, concerning a prophetic enthusiast, ‘When plain facts run counter to their predictions, experience performs what reason could not, and sinks them down into their sense,’ then we cannot say experience is always constrained by reason.”  Experience must be allowed to sit in judgment upon the value of truth claims proffered by reason.

Reason cannot be left to the individual alone, lest it become easily corrupted by personal bias.  Tradition, in the sense that Barth discusses it as a dialogue among students, provides a sounding board with which reason can interact.  It allows us to hear the voice of reason found in others throughout the history of the Church by which we might evaluate our own theology.  Again, this is based on the assumption that Truth will be consistent throughout time.  Therefore, reason must be in constant discussion with others to help guide, shape, and refine it.

Another problem that reason can present, given its empirical nature, is the dismissal of personal experience.  Whether those experiences be visions or some other type of activity attributed to the spiritual realm, Reason might not grant any credence to such events.  In fact, it might seek a natural explanation (i.e. delusions, drugs, sickness, or lying).  However, logic cannot necessarily disprove the validity of such events.  In such cases, it is important to understand the restrictions that bind logic.

This, I believe, shows the precarious nature of logic.  Logic is not an innate gift that each person is born with.  Rather, it takes effort and time to develop that ability.  That is also why it is important and necessary for logic to be guided by other “students” participating in the theological discussion.  Proverbs 27:17 reads, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”  Logic gives us a level playing field in which to begin the theological discussion.