The Order of Salvation in John Wesley’s Theology
John Wesley’s use of an “order” of salvation is rooted in the existence and recognition of original sin and God’s response to it. According to Wesley, salvation from original sin begins with justification, continues in sanctification and ends with glorification.
First, the root: original sin. Wesley points out that the current state of humankind is greatly changed from our original condition. God created both male and female in a perfect state. We were fashioned in the image of God and, in that image, He pronounced us good. This goodness, Wesley believes, indicates that we were free from “sin and filled with righteousness and true holiness.” But we did not remain in that state. Committing sin against God through disobedience, humankind fell from this position and lost “both the knowledge and love of God.” Through this loss, we became unable to reflect the full image of God that we were created with, and death entered our lives. This death is understood first to occur as a spiritual death, then, eventually as bodily death. This death is not dependent upon our sinning, but upon our birth into the family of Adam. This fallen, sinful nature separates us from God and leaves us without hope. Original sin, therefore, is the state of humankind that cries out for salvation. Therefore, the need for salvation is based upon the current, desperate state of humankind.
From the despair found in original sin begins then the first step of salvation according to Wesleyan theology: justification. Wesley observes that justification is the pardoning of our sin. It is making us righteous and just before God. It is only possible by an act of God through the atoning blood of His Son, Christ Jesus. It is not something we do for ourselves but is something God does for us. Wesley also observes justification is not a denial of truth or of God deceiving us by calling us something we are not. Rather, God recognizes the truth of what He has done for us through Christ.
Justification is provided only for the sinner, the lost and ungodly. Those who are righteous before God have no need of it. Good works performed after justification are just and righteous before God, because of what He has done in the heart of that believer. Any good work performed before justification cannot be considered by Wesley as “truly and properly good.”
Wesley affirms that justification can only be known by faith. It is not earned nor can it be attained in any way outside the mercies of faith. These terms, Wesley notes, are determined by God, not humankind.
In further examining justification, Wesley makes a distinction between it and new birth. The former Wesley describes as relating to that which “God does for us”, while new birth, he claims, is that which God does “in us” (John Wesley’s Sermons – An Anthology, Albert C. Outler, page 336). Although Wesley states that in the very moment one is justified he is born anew, he insists justification always precedes new birth. Wesley also believes that while one may not always immediately feel new birth, the believer can find full assurance of the justification that God has performed in his/her life. This assurance is evidenced in the believer’s life by a vibrant faith, which gives power over sin, and by the hope now found within the believer’s heart.
Justification deals effectively with original sin. A repentant sinner before God becomes justified through the merits of Christ imputed to him/her. However, though sin no longer rules the newly born Christian, it still resides in that person’s life. As Wesley writes, the newborn Christian may soon find that sin in his/her life has not been destroyed, but only suspended, is not dead, but only stunned. According to Wesleyan thought, justification does not reach beyond the new birth experience into the believer’s life in a way that wrestles it free from the grip of sin or to cause the believer to love perfectly. Rather, Wesley believes that the presence of sin in the believer’s life is defeated by the next step in the order: sanctification.
Sanctification, according to Wesley, is the process of change in a believer’s life from sinfulness unto holiness. It is also the process of becoming “more dead to sin” while we become “more and more alive to God.” It should be noted, however, that this holiness is holiness of living and is distinct from the righteousness reckoned to us by God through Christ. The holiness that we receive from God through Christ cannot be improved upon or added to. That is perfect, absolute and effective holiness. The holiness that Wesley taught, preached and sought to exemplify was holiness in living. It included good works, works of mercy and a rejection of sinful living. And just as we are justified by faith, Wesley believed we are sanctified by faith. All good works committed and evil deeds refrained from cannot be considered sanctification when apart from faith in God. Wesley firmly held that entire sanctification is full salvation from our sins and thus what the Apostle Paul described as perfection.
The third and final step Wesley sees in salvation is glorification. This is the end result of our Christian life. It includes the changing of our mortal state to become “like him” (1 John 3:2). Wesley, however, sees glorification as changing not just the state of humankind but of all creation, that was corrupted by the fall of Adam. In that day, not only our salvation, but the redemption of all the cosmos will be complete.
Integrating conversion and Christian nurture and growth – Wesley views conversion as prompted by prevenient grace. This is God’s divine love that surrounds all humanity and prompts our first awareness of God and our desire for deliverance from our sin. It is this love, Wesley believes, that moves us toward repentance and faith.
After conversion is prompted by prevenient grace, Wesley believes it is effected by justifying grace. This is God’s love that pardons the repentant sinner and accepts him/her into God’s family. This conversion experience can sometimes be dramatic as it was for St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or it can be quiet, even gradual. Either way, the experience, Wesley believes, is marked by a very real change in the heart of the believer. This change is most evident “as faith working in love” (The Book of Discipline – 2000, page 46).
Wesley, contrary to much of the thinking in his day, believed that the assurance of justification could be known and understood by the believer in her or his life. This assurance comes from the witness of God’s Spirit with our own that “we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
It is apparent that Wesley lived out his own theology, fully integrating the justification he received by faith with the assurance he came to recognize in his own spirit. He knew assurance not as an intangible idea, but as something he actually experienced. This is evident as he penned, “Each moment draw from earth away my heart that lowly waits thy call; speak to my inmost soul and say, ‘I am thy love, thy God, thy all!’ To feel thy power, to hear thy voice, to taste thy love, be all my choice.” [emphasis mine] (The United Methodist Hymnal, selection # 414). Even on his deathbed, Wesley’s saw an unmistakable blending of the God’s justification and the assurance he experienced as he proclaimed, “The best of all is, God is with us!”
Wesleyan interpretation of grace moves beyond justifying to sanctifying grace. This is the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. It is grace that draws us into perfect Christianity, which Wesley describes as having a heart filled with the love of God and our neighbors. Wesley could not divide these two manifestations of love. Loving God always implied loving our neighbors. Furthermore, the love God placed in a believer’s life always will naturally bring about a love for one another. This love is ongoing and always has the capacity to expand and grow. Wesley never discouraged its development. Rather, continual growth for the Christian is at the very core of Wesleyan theology. Charles Wesley echoes this burning desire for God’s continual and dramatic work in his own heart as he writes “Refining fire, go through my heart, illuminate my soul; scatter thy life through every part and sanctify the whole” (The United Methodist Hymnal, selection # 422).
An overview of the order of salvation in Wesleyan theology inclusive of the stages of grace is prevenient grace, justifying grace, justification, conversion, sanctifying grace, sanctification and glorification.
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