THE NEW CREATION: THE WESLEYAN DISTINCTIVE
Wesleyan Theological Journal
Is it appropriate
to speak of “Wesleyan distinctives”?
Does this not give the impression that we are about the sound the trumpets and
attempt to prove the superiority of Wesleyan theology over all alternatives? My
own commitment to ecumenism is too deep and too long-standing for that kind of
chauvinism. However, I am well aware that ecumenical theology is not produced in
a vacuum, nor does it originate out of whole cloth. It emerges from the creative
confrontation of various historic traditions in interaction with the present
needs of the church and the world. And this is possible only if the traditions
are conscious of their heritages and seek to share them.
Therefore I ask whether there is
a distinctive contribution that the Wesleyan tradition has to make to ecumenical
theology and to the whole church? This is indeed my contention, and this is why
I believe that we as Wesleyans have a responsibility to retrieve our tradition.
“Retrieval of tradition” is a
rich notion first clarified by Martin Heidegger, then utilized by Karl Rahner,
and more recently by David Tracy. “Human historicity is such,” claims
Heidegger, “that when we go back to a text [or a tradition] we unavoidably
bring to it out of our cultural milieu questions which force the text to yield
answers not heard before. Something genuinely new comes to light. Granted that
this occurs within human subjectivity, it is not subjectivistic because it
arises out of the sensus plenior of the text [or tradition] itself.” The angle of our questions causes the light to
reflect off the facets of the tradition in a new way. Retrieval is therefore not
an attempt to repeat the past, nor to honor the past for its own sake, but to
allow the past to confront us in the present as it provides a key to unlock a
richer future. It is with this in mind that we approach the Wesleyan tradition,
a tradition that we are convinced has resources that can benefit the whole
In pointing to the Wesleyan
distinctives, however, we must remind ourselves that Wesley himself was an
amazingly ecumenical product. No less than five distinct traditions informed his
thinking: Puritanism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism by way of Moravian Pietism,
Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy by way of the Eastern Fathers. What
marks his approach, however, are the themes he drew from these sources, how he
critiqued them, and how he combined them.
of the more basic of the Wesleyan distinctives is the new creation, the very
real transformation in the creature and the world which salvation brings about.
The note of hope and expected transformation virtually sings its way through
many of the sermons produced by Wesley during the final years of his long life.
Listen to this passage from his 1783 sermon “The General Spread of the
[God] is already renewing the face
of the earth: And we have strong reason to hope that the work he hath begun, he
will carry on unto the day of the Lord Jesus; that he will never intermit this
blessed work of his Spirit, until he has fulfilled all his promises; until he
hath put a period to sin, and misery, and infirmity, and death; and
re-established universal holiness and happiness, and caused all the inhabitants
of the earth to sing together, “Hallelujah, the Lord God omnipotent
their latter days reformers often grow weary, disillusioned by the setbacks
which erase the memories of early victories and the first flush of success.
Wesley had reason enough to question the future of his movement. He had seen his
followers divide and separate over issues that seemed to him of secondary
importance. The increase in numbers of Methodists brought with it increased
opposition from the Church he loved and to which he was deeply loyal. The
sobriety and frugality of Methodists had led to their accumulation of material
wealth, causing him to fear that within the movement lay the seeds of its own
destruction. Yet, through all the negative signs on the horizon, this note of
hope and sure confidence persists. In what is this hope grounded? What were its
theological and experiential underpinnings? And is it a hope both accessible
and viable not only in Wesley’s time but today?
The Renewal of the Image of God
The new creation
is cosmic in its overall dimensions and its implications, but for Wesley it is
focused in the renewal of persons. “Ye know that the great end of religion is
to renew our hearts in the image of God.”
This renewing of the image is
what Albert Outler calls “the axial theme of Wesley’s soteriology.”
The renewing of the face of the earth begins, therefore, with the renewing of
its human inhabitants. This is the pattern followed by the Eastern Fathers whom
Wesley admired, linking cosmic redemption to human salvation. This is the
renewal that Wesley saw beginning in the hearts and lives of those touched by
The distinctive that sets
Wesleyanism apart from the predominant Protestant heritage, however, is
Wesley’s insistence that the renewal of the image of God involves the creature
in actual transformation—in no less than re-creation. In “The Scripture Way
of Salvation,” Wesley describes it as a “real” as well as a “relative”
change in the believer, the actual renewal of the image.
Of course, the image of God
traditionally has been identified with those unique abilities or capacities
within human beings which have set them apart from other creatures. Thus the
Deists of Wesley’s day identified the image with reason, and soon after
Wesley the philosopher Immanuel Kant identified it with conscience. Reason and conscience were viewed as capacities
resident within human beings that can provide access to the divine. Wesley, by contrast, sees the image more relationally, not so much as something humans possess as the
way they relate to God and reflect God in the world.
In an early sermon Wesley
describes human beings as receiving the love of God and then reflecting
that love toward all other creatures, but especially toward those
likewise called to bear “the image of their Creator.” The image of God, then, was viewed not as a human
capability or inherent possession, but as a living relationship made possible by
divine, uncreated grace. In this he shared the understanding of image found in
the tradition of the Eastern Fathers. They used the metaphor of humanity as a
“mirror,” called not only to mirror God in their own lives, but to reflect
into the world the grace which they receive, and thus to mediate the life
of God to the rest of creation. It follows that the image is not understood as an
independent agent operating out of its own capacities—a mirror does not
possess the image it reflects—but as an agent who must constantly receive from
God what it transmits further. It images its Maker in its words and deeds.
Therefore, the image of God as
Wesley understands it might best be described as a vocation or calling to which
human beings are called, the fulfillment of which constitutes their true
destiny. Because it is not innate, the image can be lost, forfeited, or
betrayed. It resides not so much in the creature as in the way the creature
lives out relationship to the Creator, using whatever gifts and capacities have
been received to be in communion with and to reflect God in the world. In order
that the creature might do so freely and out of a heart responsive to the
Creator, the human being has been “endued not only with sense and
understanding but also with a will, . . . with liberty, a power of directing his
own affections and actions, a capacity of determining himself, of choosing good
The tragedy of the human
situation is that human beings have misused this freedom. They have revolted
against their Creator, distorting the image relationship for which they were
created. “By rebelling against God [Adam] destroyed himself, lost the favor
and the image of God, and entailed sin, with its attendant pain, on himself and
all his posterity.” By turning from God to seek “happiness
independent of God,” he threw “not only himself but likewise the whole
creation, which was intimately connected with him, into disorder, misery,
death.” A cosmic and interrelated Fall, if it is to be
reversed, requires a cosmic and interrelated recreation.
In referring to the Fall, Wesley
assumes that he is describing a historical event and its far-reaching
consequences. At a deeper level, however, he is describing the fundamental
nature of the human predicament, the fact that a creature given freedom in order
to be in a positive relation to the Creator has misused that freedom to turn
away and construct a self-sufficient world.
God does not abandon this creature to the consequences of disobedience. To the
question, “Did not God foresee that Adam would abuse his liberty? And did he
not know the baneful consequences which this must naturally have on all his
posterity?” Wesley espouses the classic felix culpa
position: God permitted this disobedience because the divine remedy for
it would far exceed in blessedness the harmful consequences of the fall. For
humanity has “gained by the fall of Adam a capacity of attaining more holiness
and happiness on earth than it would have been possible for [humanity] to attain
if Adam had not fallen. For if Adam had not fallen, Christ had not died.”
Wesley goes on to say:
Unless all the partakers of human
nature had received that deadly wound in Adam it would not have been needful for
the Son of God to take our nature upon him. Do you not see that this was the
very ground of his coming into the world? . . . Was it not to remedy this very
thing that “the Word was made flesh”? That “as in Adam all die, even so in
Christ shall all be made alive”? . . . So there would have been no room for
that amazing display of the Son of God’s love to mankind. . . . There could
have been no such thing as faith in the Son of God “as loving us and giving
himself for us.” There could have been no faith in the Spirit of God, as
renewing the image of God in our hearts.
Trinitarian character of this intervention by the Creator. Through Christ and
the Spirit the possibility of restoring and renewing that relationship
for which we were created is opened up again.
It is important to emphasize this
Trinitarian nature of the renewal, because it is here that Wesley differentiates
himself from the characteristic Lutheran emphasis on Christ alone, and it is
here that he introduces his distinction between the real and the relative change
which takes place in the believer’s relationship to God. Both types of change
are absolutely crucial. The relative change occurs with justification. It is
important to note, however, that when Wesley calls the change that comes with
justification “relative,” it is not because it is less significant. He
intends “relative” to be understood in its literal sense, as relational, referring to the change in the nature of the
relationship between the sinner and God which Christ effects. He takes our
place, sacrificing himself for us and satisfying divine justice. God accepts
this sacrifice, pardoning us and accepting us once again as his own children,
transforming alienation into reconciliation. In lifting us God sets us in a new
relationship which is basic to everything that follows. This is the first point
that must be made. Justification as a new relationship provides the continuing
foundation for the Christian life.
This is what Wesley learned from
Luther through the Moravians. Justification provides the foundation necessary
for genuine sanctification. This is why it is important to recognize that the
position taken earlier in some holiness circles that justification is a
preliminary stage, to be left behind as one goes on to perfection, was a
fundamental misunderstanding of Wesley. Justification provides the necessary
substructure of God’s grace for everything else that is built upon it. This
base is never outgrown or transcended. When Wesley says “justification implies
only a relative . . . change,” he is not questioning the importance of
justification, which he describes as God’s work in Christ “for us.” He
is—in contrast to those positions which emphasized only
justification—making the case for the equal importance of God’s work
“in us” through the Spirit. It is this work of the Spirit which
carries Christ’s work forward toward its intended goal the new creation.
Given the fact
that the relative change is essential, the point regarding the real
change must be made with equal force. The foundation of justification
is laid in order to be built upon.
This is the point that has been obscured in Protestantism whenever justification
or conversion have been viewed as completing salvation. And
this is the distinctive for which Wesleyans must make a clear case.
Justification is intended not as the end but as the beginning of the salvation
process. The relative change
lays the foundation for a real change
in the creature, and it
is this real change that brings about the renewal of the image of God. This
change begins with the new birth, which inaugurates sanctification.
Justification, says Wesley, “restores us to the favor,” sanctification “to
the image of God.” The one takes away the guilt, the other the power of sin.
By contrast, for Luther there is no goal higher than justification. In his
“Lectures on Romans,” Luther says:
The whole life of the new people,
the believing people, the spiritual people, is this: with the sigh of the heart,
the cry of the deed, the toil of the body to ask, seek, and pray only for
justification ever and ever again until the hour of death.
theologian Gerhard Ford defines sanctification as nothing more than “the art
of getting used to . . . justification.”
But Wesleyans are convinced that God is not content simply to forgive and
reconcile the sinner. God’s
intention is a new creation. Therefore, to be content with justification
alone is to truncate the divine action
and frustrate the divine goal. A full doctrine of sanctification is
necessary. Anything less will fall short of what Wesley calls the promise of
“the great salvation.”
Wesleyans are united, therefore,
in insisting that salvation includes the transformation of the creature. Many
would extend this transformation not only to the individual but to society. They
find a peculiar affinity between Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification and
movements for social change. When Christian perfection becomes the goal on the
individual level, a fundamental hope is engendered that the future can surpass
the present. A holy dissatisfaction is aroused with regard to any present
state of affairs—a dissatisfaction that supplies the critical edge necessary
to keep the process of individual transformation moving. Moreover, this holy
dissatisfaction is readily transferable
from the realm of the individual to that of society, where it provides a
persistent motivation for reform in the light of “a more perfect way” that
transcends any status quo. So Wesleyans are united on both the possibility
and the necessity for real transformation.
But Wesleyans divide when it
comes to the interpretation of the goal
of this process, entire sanctification.
Just how complete can the transformation of the creature be? How new is the new
himself drew back from any notion of absolute perfection. He begins both
of his sermons on Christian Perfection with disclaimers. And in “A Plain
Account,” after the introduction, he adds a section on “In what sense
Christians are not . . . perfect.” Finite creatures do not, with entire
sanctification, suddenly become non-finite. “The highest perfection which man
can attain while the soul dwells in the body does not exclude ignorance and
error, and a thousand other infirmities. Now from wrong judgments wrong words
and actions will often necessarily flow. . . . Nor can I be freed from a
liableness to such a mistake while I remain in a corruptible body.” What then is the perfection that is possible in
A case could be made that
Wesley’s concern was mainly for perfection of intention.
If the intention is right, this is what really counts. “Intention”
was a theme important to him from his 1725 self-dedication onward. He recounts
the influence of Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living,
and reports: “In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly
affected; that part in particular which relates to purity of intention.
Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and words,
and actions.” And in his tract, “The Character of a
Methodist,” he describes a person whose “one intention at all times and in
all places is, not to please himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a
single eye; and because his ‘eye is single, his whole body is full of
Purity of intention does allow
for an interpretation of Christian perfection within the limits of human
finitude. We all know what the road to hell is paved with. This is not a
sufficient reason, however, to discount purity of intention as an adequate
rendering, especially when we recognize that Wesley understood intention as
“right tempers” and a “right disposition,” a value-orientation of
one’s life which he could view not as simply subjective, but as a work of the
Holy Spirit in the person. Nevertheless, this interpretation of Christian
perfection does not seem adequate because it does not do justice to the
trans-individual, to the social nature of sanctification. The renewed image is a
witness in society and accomplishes the purposes God has for it in that
context. This is why Wesley insists that “Christianity is essentially a social
religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.
. . . I mean not only that it cannot subsist so well, but that it cannot subsist
at all without society, without living and conversing with other men.”
be sure, Wesley was here reacting to “quietist” elements among the Moravians
and to William Law. But his point concerning the social context of perfection is
well taken. “Ye are the salt of the earth,” he says in his Fourth Discourse
on the Sermon on the Mount.
It is your very nature to season
whatever is round about you. It is the nature of the divine savor which is in
you to spread to whatsoever you touch; to diffuse itself on every side, to all
those among whom you are. This is the great reason why the providence of God has
so mingled you together with other men, that whatever grace you have received of
God may through you be communicated to others; that every holy temper, and word,
and work of yours, may have an influence on them also. By this means a check
will in some measure be given to the corruption which is in the world.
If “purity of
intention” is not an adequate rendering of Christian perfection, where
should we go to find an alternative? My suggestion is to look again at
Wesley’s axial theme, the renewal of the image of God. One of his favorite
Scripture passages was
describes this quickening in the Homilies
which Wesley edited for his Christian
“For if any man be in Christ, he
is a new creature.” For our Lord Jesus Christ came for this very reason, that
he might change, and renew, and create afresh this soul that had been perverted
by vile affections, tempering it with his own Divine Spirit. He came to work a
new mind, a new soul, and new eyes, new ears, a new spiritual tongue; yea, to
make them that believe in him new men, that he might pour into them the new
wine, which is his Spirit.
Wesley could speak
of the image of God being renewed, therefore, with this regeneration that
inaugurates the process of sanctification. Regeneration of spiritual sensitivity
opens up the communication between God and human beings that marks the
continuing process of sanctification. However, Wesley could also speak of the
recovery of the image as the telos,
the goal, of the process of sanctification. As Outler puts it: “The
restoration of our corrupted and disabled ‘image’ to its pristine capacity
is, indeed, the goal of Wesley’s ordo salutis.”
In this sense, the renewal of the image functions in a way similar to the
Eastern Fathers’ doctrine of theosis which, whether it describes the
beginning of the journey of faith or its culmination, is effective participation
in divine reality which both guides the believer at every step along the way and
culminates the journey.
The recovery of the image also
makes clear the social dimension of sanctification for Wesley, which is not as
evident in the perfection of intention paradigm. When asked to summarize his
doctrine of perfection, Wesley frequently quoted
But how is such love possible?
How can self-centered human beings aspire to this kind of dedication, this kind
of service? This question Wesley answered by a literal translation of the
We must love God before we can be
holy at all; this being the root of all holiness. Now we cannot love God till we
know he loves us: “We love him, because he first loved us.” And we cannot
know his pardoning love to us till his Spirit witnesses it to our spirit. . . . There is no love of God but from a sense of
his loving us.
The Perfection of God’s Love
point, therefore, of a re-appropriation
of the doctrine of Christian perfection would be, it seems to me, the perfection
of God’s love which we
receive from Christ through the Spirit. In the fast instance, therefore,
in rethinking the doctrine we
need to focus not on a concern about our own perfection, but on the perfection
of that which we receive. God’s love is perfect. There is no more
ultimate, more complete, more holy, more self-giving love than that which is
directed toward us from the divine Giver. And this perfect love God shares with
those called to be God’s image. We receive and participate in perfect love.
However, as the image of God we
are called not just to receive but to reflect this perfect love into the world,
to share it with our fellow creatures—and to share it perfectly, that is, to share it in such a way that it can be
received and appropriated by others. Now, what does this mean? It
means that perfection is not for our own sakes but for the fulfillment of the
vocation to which we are called, to image and reflect to others that which we
have received from God. This is in accord with Wesley’s emphasis on the
renewal of the image as a key to God’s redemption of the whole world.
Obviously, there is no way to reflect and share God’s love except by
participating in it. This is what Wesley meant when he observed, “There is no
love of God but from a sense of his loving us.” Love cannot be appropriated as an abstract idea;
it must be participated in. It must be allowed to work its transforming power in
the heart, at the center of human identity, where its affirmation is received
and responded to.
affirmation from our Creator is also the source of our love to our fellow
creatures. In an early sermon Wesley disagrees with the Cambridge Platonist,
John Norris, because Norris gives God exclusive rights to our love, claiming
that God should be “not only the principal, but the only object of our
love.” Wesley counters, quoting Psalm 104:31:
“The Lord rejoiceth in his
works;” and consequently man, made after his likeness, not only may, but ought
to imitate him therein, and with pleasure to own that “they are very good.”
Nay, the love of God constraineth those in whose hearts it is shed abroad to
love what bears his image. And we cannot suppose any love forbidden by God
which necessarily flows from this love of him. . . . The contrary opinion, that
we are forbid to love any creature in any degree, supposes the all-knowing God
to command our love of himself, and yet to prohibit the immediate necessary
effect of it.
effect is due to the nature of God’s love which, when we receive it, opens us
to all our neighbors. We are so to love God, who hath thus loved you. . . . that
ye are constrained to love all men as yourselves; with a love not only ever
burning in your hearts, but flaming out in all your actions and conversations,
making your whole life one “labor of love”, one continued obedience to those
commands, “Be ye merciful, as God is merciful;” “Be ye holy, as I the Lord
am holy;” “Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
a love forbids us from limiting our love to those with whom we have common
interests or the same social class. Instead we are
to regard every man as our neighbor
who needs our assistance. Let us renounce that bigotry and party-zeal which
would contract our hearts into an insensibility for all the human race but a
small number whose sentiments and practices are so much our own, that our love
to them is but self-love reflected. With an honest openness of mind, let us
always remember the kindred between man and man; and cultivate that happy
instinct whereby, in the original constitution of our nature, God has strongly
bound us to each other.
same love must be extended to our enemies, said Wesley, and not only to our
enemies, a task difficult enough, but to those we deem to be “the enemies of
Why? Because God loves them, and the heart of God yearns to overcome their
distance from him. Hence, for those who are conduits of God’s love, there is
no separating themselves from sinners, because it is precisely sinners that
divine love is seeking out. Contrast this with the account I heard from a
Scottish theologian recently returned from Bosnia where, in a conversation with
a Serbian Orthodox priest, he reminded the priest that Christ calls us to love
our enemies. “Our enemies, yes,” replied the priest, “but not the enemies
Thus far the emphasis has been on
the affirmative role of God’s perfect love in sanctification. But is there
not also a “negative branch” to sanctification, the negation of sin? This is
undoubtedly true, but it is also implicit in the positive force of that love
which we are to reflect into the world. The affirmation that wills the good of
the other and readily sacrifices for the other abhors whatever is destructive
of persons, society, or the good creation. God’s perfect love is therefore a critical
principle. It does not hesitate to fight injustice and falsehood wherever
they are found. It forms and informs the Christian conscience with sensitivity
to issues in heaven’s war against the forces of evil. Thus the negative
function of love, the prophetic and critical principle, does not compete with
the positive principle of the steady increase of love in sanctification
because both are part of the divine battle to reclaim the world and to enlist
humanity in that struggle.
The greatest strength of the
Wesleyan doctrine lies in its ability to mobilize the believer to seek a future
that surpasses the present. It turns the Christian life into a project
constantly open to new possibilities. As we have seen, it is not blind to the
negative forces. However, it does not take them as the inevitable consequences
of original sin in human existence, but precisely as that which can be overcome.
It was this goal-orientation which Wesley did not want to give up to the critics
of entire sanctification. If
the conditions of life are fixed and sin is permanent, the future is robbed of
the kind of hope Wesley is convinced is found in the New Testament.
this Wesley is backed by the Eastern Fathers. A Lutheran commentator,
criticizing the traditional Lutheran position, points out that the Eastern
speak as easily as Paul [in
Allow me to
summarize very briefly the four main points I have sought to make above:
1. The perfection of God’s love
is, I believe, the most viable starting point of any reinterpretation of the
doctrine of Christian perfection today. This guards against the preoccupation
with self that has hobbled some past interpretations. And it keeps us constantly
open to the only source of genuine sanctification, the love and grace of our
2. The “renewal of the image of
God” was for Wesley a favorite way of characterizing sanctification, and lends
itself to describing both the individual and social dimensions important to
Wesley. Humanity renewed in the image not only becomes a new creation, it
reflects into the world the perfect love which it receives.
3. The renewal of the image also
does justice to the relation between justification, as Christ’s work for us, and sanctification, as the Spirit’s work in
us. Both undergird this renewal and make it possible.
4. The renewal of the image also
helps us to explain how sanctification is a process that begins with the
renewal in regeneration but continues toward fullness of perfection, with
ever-increasing possibilities of reflecting the perfection of divine love,
driving out sin, and renewing the creature and the world.
Therefore, the Wesleyan doctrine
of sanctification is worth retrieving and rethinking, not for the glory of the
Wesleyans, but for the contribution it can make to ecumenical theology and to
the life of the church today.
aware that most dictionaries do not allow “distinctive” to be used as a
noun, but I was pleased to find this nounal
use endorsed by the OED, which defines a distinctive as “a distinguishing
mark or quality, a characteristic.”
William J. Hill, The
Search for the Absent God (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 171.
John Wesley’s Works,
2:499. References are to the Bicentennial edition o the Works,
unless otherwise specified.
Immanuel Kant, Lectures
on Ethics (New York: Harper Torchbook,
With his commitment to a
Lockean epistemology, Wesley consistently
rejected natural theology, a knowledge of God inherent within the creature.
Cf. 2:570f., and note Albert Outler’s strange
interpretation of Wesley as a Platonist, in spite of the evidence to the
contrary in the passage itself (n. 14).
A Study of Gregory Palamas (London: Faith
Pres 1964), 120.
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop
deserves the credit for opening up the
undeniably relational character of Wesley’s theology in A Theology of Love (Kansas City: Beacon
Hill Press, 1972).
“Lectures on Romans,” The
Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
1961), XV, 128.
In Donald L. Alexander, Christian
Spirituality (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity
Press, 1988), 13.
Cf. Theodore Runyon, ed., Sanctification and Liberation (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1981), 10.
The Christian Library, vol. I (London: Houlston
This translation of energein,
translated “to work,” as “energy” is probably the result of the
Eastern Fathers’ similar use of the term.
Explanatory Notes on the New Testament,
vol. I, Luke 10:37.
Quoted in Dietrich Ritschl,
Memory and Hope (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967), 134.