Kenneth J. Collins. The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology. Nashville: Abington Press, 1997. See here to buy the book.
Kenneth J. Collins teaches Church History at Asbury Theological Seminary. I found this book at the Goodwill for $2.99, and that was too good of a deal for me to pass up. I can use all the scholarly books that I can get, especially when they come at an affordable price!
The book, as the title suggests, is about John Wesley’s view on salvation, and the book looks at Wesley’s sermons and letters. John Wesley was an eighteenth century Christian who was involved in the founding of Methodism. What I will do in this write-up is to summarize what I learned from the book about Wesley’s view on salvation, at least in terms of how Collins presents it.
Wesley had a strong view of original sin, the idea that the Fall of Adam and Eve led to human corruption, moral and spiritual. Wesley (to my surprise) did not believe that humans inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin, for he maintained that Christ’s death cancelled that. But Wesley did hold that humans inherited a moral corruption from that sin. And yet, Wesley also thought that God’s prevenient grace kept humans from being as bad as they could be. Humans could cooperate with that prevenient grace, or they could choose not to do so; in a sense, prevenient grace gives them the ability to choose.
For Wesley, even human beings who have not experienced justification—-who have not been saved—-should still repent of their sins and try to live a moral life. That can serve as a prerequisite for salvation, even though those good works are not enough to earn God’s forgiveness. Wesley considered this to be a servant relationship to God, one that served God out of fear. Wesley pointed to Cornelius (Acts 10) as an example of this sort of relationship with God: Cornelius was devout and did good works, even before he believed in Jesus and was saved. Wesley did not believe that people should rest on this kind of piety but should desire God’s special, saving, and transforming grace on their hearts, for only the justified would go to heaven; still, if they had not yet experienced that, Wesley encouraged them to keep on doing good, seeking and serving God.
Justification, for Wesley, was God’s forgiveness of past sins. According to Collins, Wesley shied away from saying that justification was God clothing the sinful believer with Christ’s perfect righteousness, the sort of view that is often attributed to Calvin and Luther, for Wesley thought that such a position could lead to antinomianism: if believers are clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness, after all, couldn’t they conclude that they do not need to be righteous themselves, through obedience to God’s commandments? For Wesley, believers after their justification need continually to ask God for forgiveness of any sins that they commit, and they should take heed lest they lose their salvation; at the last judgment, they will be judged according to their works and what they did with the grace that God gave them. Although such a position might make a number of believers afraid and meticulous about staying on the straight and narrow to keep God happy, Wesley actually thought that assurance is a characteristic of the justified. Whereas those under a servant relationship with God serve God out of fear, the justified have the assurance that they are God’s children, for God assures their hearts that this is the case.
For Wesley, believers are (or should be) on a path to perfection. Perfection does not mean never making mistakes, for Wesley acknowledges that people will always make mistakes, based on such factors as their limited knowledge. But it means not sinning voluntarily. Here, Wesley seems to me to be somewhat ambiguous, especially when he tries to define what exactly constitutes sinning voluntarily. Although he maintains that saving grace transforms the dispositions, as well as holds that special grace entails freedom from such inward character flaws as envy, Wesley does appear to deny in one place that being angry yet not acting on that anger constitutes a voluntary sin. Wesley believed that the path to perfection could be a process, but he also said that there are (or may be) times when God transforms a person instantaneously. This can happen at any time after justification, and yet Wesley held that, for most believers, it happens right before their deaths, and this is because that is when they are especially conscious of their vulnerability, the limitations of this life, and their dependence on God. For Wesley, even those at the height of spiritual maturity depend on Christ to be where they are; plus, even the spiritually mature can advance further in loving God and neighbor.
I was wondering in reading this book if Wesley was someone I would particularly like. Whenever a Christian talks about how a transformed life is a sign of grace, and how love and less frequent sinning demonstrate that a person is truly saved, I want to ask that person: “Oh, so you think you’re perfect?” Wesley sometimes seemed to believe that he had arrived at some measure of Christian maturity. There were points in his life when he was much humbler, however. When he read a book about the Christian life by one of his mentors, William Law, Wesley wondered if it was even possible for him to be half of a Christian! While one may conclude from this that Law was somewhat legalistic, he actually had some rather liberal ideas: Law denied, for example, that God had wrath, and Wesley disagreed with him on that. (While Wesley denied that God was passionately angry, he still believed that God was angry in a just sense.)
I have my doubts that I would qualify as saved under Wesley’s soteriology. Actually, Wesley had his doubts that many people he knew who were baptized were truly saved! Still, I do allow some of Wesley’s insights to inform my own spirituality. For example, I believe that, in some way, shape, or form, I should be guided by God’s law, and that salvation is not just about me being forgiven, but me being more like God in my character.
And, while I am on the topic of the image of God, I was interested to learn that, for Wesley, even animals are in God’s image, on some level, insofar as they have will and liberty; humans reflect God’s image more fully, Wesley held, but animals reflect it, too, in some way.
It was interesting for me to read this book after reading a book by atheist Victor Stenger. Stenger’s book, of course, heightened my questioning of whether or not there is a God; Collins’ book, by contrast, made me wonder if there are Christians who have authentic experiences of God, whereas I do not. Of course, Stenger argues that spiritual experiences have a natural explanation, that they are related to a part of the brain. That could be. Personally, I believe that there are people who are especially in touch with that, but I doubt that God condemns everyone who is not. I believe that God honors when people realize their need for forgiveness, try to do better, and rely on God for that, even if they lack powerful spiritual experiences.