John Wesley on Salvation
According to John Wesley, the goal of genuine Christian religion may be summarized concisely: “The end is, in one word, salvation (SW 43).” In this series of two articles I will explore John Wesley’s doctrine of salvation as explicated in two of his works: “The Scripture Way of Salvation” (cited as SW); and “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” (cited as PA). Both of these writings are contained in The Essential Works of John Wesley, pictured to the right.
In this first article I will describe salvation according to John Wesley in its broadest sense, and its link with faith. I will also describe Wesley’s narrower sense of salvation and its two components, justification and sanctification. In the second article I will explore John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection.
John Wesley: Salvation and Faith
In its broadest sense, John Wesley understands salvation as the entire redeeming work of God in a human life, “from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory (SW 44).” Indeed, Wesley includes within his concept of salvation even “all the drawings of the Father”—which he terms “preventing grace”—in the heart of a person as yet uncommitted to God (SW 44). Whether or not it is ultimately embraced, this preventing grace is part of salvation in its broadest sense.
For John Wesley, salvation is inextricably linked with faith. If the end of the Christian religion is salvation, the “means to attain it [is] faith (SW 43).” In its broadest sense, Wesley describes faith as a new way of seeing. It is a mode of sight by which people may perceive the previously unseen spiritual world, and become convinced of God and his work (SW 46-47). He notes that scripture refers to faith as “light exhibited to the soul, and a supernatural sight or perception thereof (SW 46).” It is both a new faculty of vision, and light for the exercise of that faculty.
John Wesley on Justification
Despite John Wesley’s broad understanding of salvation, in his analysis of Eph. 2.8 (“Ye are saved through faith.”) he acknowledges that Paul speaks of salvation in a more limited sense. According to Wesley, this limited sense of salvation includes two parts: justification and sanctification (SW 44). Justification occurs first (PA 441), and is the moment in which a person is pardoned of their sins and reconciled to God: “It is the forgiveness of all our sins (SW 44).” The moment of justification brings about a “real” personal change, not just a “relative change” in forensic status before God. The real change includes feelings of peace, hope, and joy (SW 45); the reception of the Holy Spirit as a confirming witness to justification (SW 45; PA 380, 420, 421); a sense of “the love of God shed abroad” in the heart (SW 45); and, most importantly for Wesley, the emergence of “love to all mankind” and the expulsion of sinful attachments (SW 45). This real change is the beginning of sanctification (SW 45).
Paralleling his broader doctrine of salvation by faith, John Wesley emphasizes that this narrower aspect of salvation—namely, justification—is the result of a narrower notion of faith. This narrower faith is the conviction that God has personally reconciled the believer to himself through the atoning life and death of Christ (SW 45, 47). It is by this faith that the believer receives Christ in all his offices: “Prophet, Priest, and King (SW 47).”
For John Wesley, faith is the sole condition of justification: “no man is justified till he believes; every man when he believes is justified (SW 48).” However, he does acknowledge that repentance and the display of appropriate moral fruit are necessary for justification in some sense. He argues that they are only necessary if there is time for them to develop, unlike in the case of the thief on the cross who was justified without them. Moreover, they are certainly not sufficient for justification; without faith it is impossible to be justified. He concludes somewhat vaguely that repentance and its fruits are remotely necessary for justification, but are not immediately and directly necessary as faith is (SW 48).
John Wesley on Sanctification
The second part of John Wesley’s more limited sense of salvation is called sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which Christians become holy, sloughing off their sinful character and taking on the loving character of Christ. According Wesley, sanctification is to be “saved from sin, and perfected in love (SW 52).” This process of sanctification begins at the moment of justification and consists in an inward renewal by God’s power, a sensing of God’s love, and the production of active love toward all humanity, especially the church. Moreover, the love of self and world is cast off (SW 45). Wesley also notes that sanctification is “enabled by the Spirit” and that the obedience it produces constitutes worship of God “in spirit and in truth (SW 46).”
As for justification, John Wesley states that faith is the sole condition for sanctification: “Every one that believes is sanctified, whatever else he has or has not (SW 49).” Faith is the purifying agent that produces love (PA 416). However, the faith that sanctifies is slightly different from the faith that justifies. Sanctifying faith is the divinely-given fourfold conviction that sanctification is promised in scripture; that God is able to perform what he promised; that he is willing to perform it now; and that “He doeth it (SW 52-53).”
Again paralleling justification, although faith is the only essential ingredient for sanctification—without which there is no sanctification—repentance and the practice of good works are, “in some sense, necessary to sanctification (SW 50).” Without them sanctification and faith cannot continue or increase (SW 49, 52). Nevertheless, they are only necessary conditionally—“if there be time and opportunity for them (SW 52).” Faith is the only immediate and direct condition of a believer’s sanctification.
In the second article in this series I will take up John Wesley’s view of Christian perfection.