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Wesleyan Understanding of Grace and Responsibility, Essay Example

Pages: 10

Words: 2802

Essay

John Wesley, born June 17, 1703 in England, along with his brother, Charles Wesley, earned a reputation for the creation of the branch of religion known as Methodism. John Wesley struggled early in his career with faith and the meaning of salvation. Following in the footsteps of his father, John entered into religious teaching and preaching; assisting his father during his formative years. John hoped for personal enlightenment through preaching the gospel. After being approached to be a chaplain in an early colony developing in Savannah, Georgia, he accepted with the primary reason being the salvation of his own soul (Michaud, 1998, sec. 1, para. 7). His return to England and subsequent preaching in England, Ireland and Scotland were the foundation for Wesleyan principals of grace and responsibility as well as his evangelistic attempts resulting in the formal organization of Methodism.

Wesley’s theology revolves directly around the issue of salvation (Michaud, 1998, sec. 1, para. 8). This theology was derived by a lifetime of reading, investigation, travels and personal relationship with God. As his work matured, his focus shifted from query and self doubt into the concept of salvation through grace. “His theology moved to seek balance on faith initiated by divine grace and confirmed by works” (Michaud, 1998, sec. 3, para. 1). The maturity Wesley attained throughout his career demonstrated his belief in obedience and commitment to God and Christian holiness. He believed in “the primacy of grace into his enduring concern of Christian holiness including the issue of Christian perfection related to social concerns” (Maddox, 1994, p. 20).

Grace and responsibility are at the heart of Wesley’s doctrine of God and his deep theological thoughts on salvation. God’s goodness is defined in terms of love (Maddox, 1994, p. 55). God’s love and grace were meant to engage humans in a direct and individual relationship with God. Keeping in God-like practices meant personal responsibility and dedication to this relationship. He felt God’s holiness was a moral attribute tied up with redemptive acts founded on ‘responsible grace’ (Michaud, 1998, sec. 5, para. 3).

Grace is free to all who ask and accept. Wesleyan theology held three levels of grace; prevenient, accepting and sustaining. These three levels demonstrated the maturity of the person and their religious life. Prevenient or ‘preparing’ grace is given at birth. Accepting or ‘justifying’ grace is the conversion a person enters as they accept God’s grace. As a person accepts and move forward into a Godlike form of living, sustaining or ‘sanctifying’ grace is entered into. This is considered a part of Wesleyan doctrine.

Lindstrom (1950) notes that the tension between grace and responsibility is expressed structurally when the possibility of growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification), is made contingent on God’s gracious acceptance (justification), while the continuance in God’s acceptance (justification) is made contingent on growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification) (p. 37).

Responsible grace meant living under God’s mandates of free will. Wesleyan principals regarding free will and responsible grace were at the heart of John Wesley’s sermons and teachings. He argued adamantly that human beings were given free will by God. He felt this provided humans with the responsibility of developing and maintain a personal relationship with God. Thereby willingly receiving grace and learning God’s mercy, justice and his wisdom (Michaud, 1998, sec 5, para. 4). His concepts placed responsibility on humans and destroyed the notion of God’s wrath; promoting the loving and good God.

Wesley felt that exercising free will was a test of experience and emotion. His concepts were distinct for the time period. “Wesley’s emphasis on the role of experiential religion gave his theology a dynamic drive and life-relatedness which was absent in Protestant scholasticism and generally missing from the church of his day” (Michaud, year, sec. 13, para. 4). Wesleyan theology placed salvation in the hands of the sinner repenting to God and asking forgiveness. This was the sinner acting in free will; thereby gaining grace and responsibility. Having experienced this, the belief is that humans will gain knowledge from this experience to life a better life through sustaining or ‘sanctifying’ grace. The appeal to experience serves primarily to test understanding of scripture; however, it must have Scriptural warrant (Maddox 1994, p. 36).

Being able to exercise free will, Wesley believed humans were given an innate sense of God and his guidance. According to Maddox (1998) Wesley believed God provided all humans with spiritual senses to be able to sense spiritual realities; just as physical senses did for physical realities (p. 27). His strong believe in this led to his strict disbelief in the Calvinist view of predestination. This belief gave prevalence to his concept of Christians having an assurance of God’s acceptance. The concept of predestination to Wesley demonstrated a mean or illogical God over a loving and generous one. If predestination were true, Wesley saw God as playing games and manipulating humans in a cruel manner. Thereby, removing any concept of the free will, grace and responsibility he preached and held faith in.

Wesley’s sermon on “Free Grace” is a lesson against predestination and the dangers of its affect on Christian faith. Grace is the only thing which can free man from his ‘fallenness’ due to an inherent sinful nature. Wesley’s emphasis on the divinity of Christ was an affirmation that God is the one who takes initiative of our salvation (Maddox, 1994, p. 117). This can only be done by grace through faith with human understanding of free will responsibility through prevenient or ‘preparing’ grace followed by accepting or ‘justifying’ grace.

According to Van A. Harvey (1992) libertarians, those who defend freedom of will believe the concept heavily relies on a person’s will, motive, or character (p. 101). Libertarians date back to Augustine and Pelagius, to Calvin and Wesley, and to current theologians such as Jean-Paul Sartre. The ideology of libertarians flow from the basic and total power of choice of freedom and necessity being a phenomenon which man just simply endures (Harvey, 1992, p. 102). For believers of predestination, libertarians argue if God has already placed a decree for all of eternity why try to believe or be saved? The issue of free will and predestination continue to be debated and argued by philosophers and theologians. With the large degree of empathic support from both sides, this debate will continue to be a topic of interest and examination.

Stephen T. Davis (2001) brings the point up that in the beginning God created an evil free world in which humans were given the ability to decide to freely love and obey God (p. 74). Creating this scenario also meant that something could go wrong; which it did as humans quickly fell into sin. Moral temptations and free will are companions and illustrate the never ending battle between good and evil, right and wrong. While God made a world in which evil can exist, it up to humans and free will for evil to happen. The question of human suffering enters the context of free will and evil. Davis (2001) states “suffering can be a stimulus to spiritual growth, an invitation to trust in God more fully” (p. 83).

The idea of an evil resulting in good is an ideology which promotes the concept of God using evil to produce a greater good. Humans have the freedom to resist God and cause worldly suffering; at least some of human free decisions can be used by God to advance divine purposes (Davis, 2001, p 84). Responsible grace is the aspect of Christianity to keep humans grounded in faith in times of trials and evil. Apostle Paul in Romans 8:18 states “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Lodahl (1994) believes the task of theology is to become actively and emotionally involved and “this does not mean that the theologian, professional or otherwise, never has any doubts about the story itself . . . and  . . . asking them with utter seriousness is virtually a requirement for the task” (p. 15). Just as Wesley early in his career questioned faith and God, most religious followers undergo the same questioning; rightfully so. The Wesleyan concept of responsibility supports this active participation in biblical understanding, beliefs, and stories. God and grace and responsibility require human knowledge to foster the feelings associated with understanding and complete faith in God.

John Wesley’s assumption about meta-theological issues concerns the sources of theological knowledge (Maddox, 1994, p. 26). Meta-theology, the stories and statements about how God in the Trinity has and will always be with human self as individual, family, society and nation, in Scripture (Chang, 2005, p. 9). Obtaining knowledge about God is a concept theologians have theorized over for decades. The question of what God’s purpose is for the world and the population cannot be easily answered with the varying interpretations of the Bible. Empiricists argued for life experiences being the basis for understanding and enlightenment. This is a concept which Wesley agreed based on his concept of spiritual senses. His thoughts differed, however, from empiricists in that he felt the spiritual senses provided a more direct knowledge of God. For empiricists the concept was based only in the physical realms. Wesley denied that humans have an innate idea of God and all knowledge must come through inference from creation or by direct sensation through the spiritual senses (Maddox, 1994, p. 29). God provides an innate free will for humans to act responsibly by using their spiritual senses to receive grace.

As Wesley began to centralize his theories around the concept of spiritual sensation, direct relationship with God, and divine grace and responsibility, a dramatic shift from Deism occurred. Wesleyan understanding of Scriptures is based on the spiritual senses Wesley taught during his lifetime. While John Wesley was well aware that the Scriptures were written by humans, he held the strong belief of the power of God speaking through the authors. He firmly believed the Scriptures were directly from God. Maddox (1994) quotes Wesley “in particular, the definitive revelation of God may come to us through Scripture but still be immediate because the Spirit who originally addressed the spiritual senses of the writers will also open our spiritual senses to perceive and attest to the truth they expressed (p. 31).

Wesley’s convictions of God and his mercy and love are the basis of his understanding of Scripture. His belief in the spiritual senses opening hearts to the words of God is a clear demonstration regarding grace and responsibility. His strong certainty of grace and responsibility is a direct influence of his determination of issues of Christianity, doctrine and practice (Michaud, 1998, sec. 4, para. 6). Wesley understood the important of the Bible both for the Scriptures and lessons but also for the historical documentation of the life of Jesus.

The Bible is a book of lessons and documents the historical events of Jesus Christ prior to and after death.

Lodahl (1994) states “this insight into the nature of history (histories) has important implications for our understanding of the Bible: recall that our reason for these reflections on history was the observation that biblical faith is rooted in historical events, and a conviction that God is at work for our salvation in those events” (p. 18).

The interpretation of Scriptures relies on the history and story which are tightly intertwined. Each chapter in the Bible is distinctively written by individual authors. Cultural history is also woven into the writings revealing the individual significance of each author. The rich history of the Bible is a part of Christianity and the ability to hear the stories told with the supporting historical significance.

Wesley reasoned that salvation was the forgiveness of sin and deliverance to heaven after death. Faith through grace is formed in a person’s heart by a direct relationship with God and the perseverance of Scripture study. God’s love and mercy shows responsible grace as inspirational and empowering our response but does not coerce that response (Maddox, 1994, p. 86). However, responsible grace does not end with salvation and repentance. Human beings must continually demonstrate faith and live in the transformation of salvation throughout their life. This imparts a connection with social issues and performing good works during a person’s lifetime.

Theology and a Christian life are synonymous. A saved person justified by God’s grace through Christ’s redemption is expected to do good works (Michaud, 1998, sec. 8, para. 7). Therefore, demonstrating faith and good works go hand-in-hand. One fact to clarify is that good works do not lead to grace, but rather come from receiving grace. Harvey (1997) states “man is not saved by his own efforts or without the grace of God working in him” (p. 29). Good works through grace and responsibility emphasize to society the love and mercy of God. The Trinity expects human failure and responsible grace is freely given with the expectation good works will follow freely to solidify the direct relationship between God and man. To Wesley society was charged with taking care of each other and looking beyond the circumstances of the individual. Grace is free to all humans willing to accept it. A person’s immortal spirit specifically is created to come to know God’s grace and love.

Maddox (1994) brings up the question of Wesleyan concepts of knowledge of God through Jesus Christ and revelation delivered by his death; natural revelation or natural theology (p. 28). Nature and grace and the relationship between the two are not completed clear in the various teachings of denominations. Wesleyan theory is not clear on this matter and the assumption has been any universal knowledge of God through the world and human life would be a natural knowledge rather than a gracious knowledge (Maddox, 1994, p. 28). However, Wesleyan theory supports a universal knowledge of God and although an individual may have never heard or experienced divine intervention, the information and availability is there for others to deliver information through evangelistic methods.

Although Wesleyan theory is founded in salvation and revelation, reasoning is also a concept which John Wesley considers an important part of Christianity. “Yet, he is in doubt that Christian virtue and doctrine come from revelation rather than from reason.  Reason is thus conceived, not as a source of revelation, but as the logical faculty by which the evidence is ordered” (Michaud, 1998, sec. 11, para. 2). Bringing reason into this theology helped support the basis of grace and responsibility. Religions and spiritual matters are often seen as mystical and verging on illogical without facts and reasoning. Reason is essential and necessary in evaluating truth from fiction.

The Age of Enlightenment questioned authority and basic establishment; in direct opposition to Wesleyan concepts. Wesley’s reputation for practical divinity flows from his classical doctrine of grace set in opposition to the positive anthropology of the Enlightenment of self-sufficiency (Langford, 1998, p. 38). Anglican tradition, the academic setting and the cultural context of the age shaped his thought as a practical theologian (Maddox 1994, p. 16).  His ability to stand firm in his convictions during a time of radical changes demonstrates the faith he solidified in his life. “Wesley believed that theology was intimately related to Christian living aimed to transform personal life and social conditions” (Michaud, 1998, sec. 12, para. 4). He saw the practicality of Christianity as being central to the individual person and each individual experiences and life situations were special and distinctive to each person.

John Wesley and his life of a practical theologian began early under the guidance of his father and strong family religious beliefs. His convictions in the intimate human relationship with God through Jesus Christ stood firm in the message of the gospel being inherent in people’s lives and society.  Reason and love is a gift from God. Through God’s love humans can realize how to live and experience free will, thereby earning grace and living responsibility to maintain a direct relationship with God.  John Wesley’s foundation of Methodism in a pre-Christian world has remained solid and influential in the lives and works of theologians and society.

Works Cited

Bible. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation,  1984.

Chang, Paul Kuk Won. Metatheology: An Academic Core of Christian Awakening, Renewal, Revival, Evangelism and Mission. Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2005.

Davis, Stephen T. Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy. Westminster John
Knox Press, 2001.

Harvey, Van A.  A Handbook of Theological Terms: Their Meaning and Background. New York: Touchstone,1992.

Langford, Thomas A.. “John Wesley and Theological Method,” in Randy Maddox, ed., Rethinking Wesley’s Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville Tennessee: Abingdon Press,1998.

Lindstrom, Harald Gustaf. Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation. London: Epworth Press, 1950.

Lodahl, Michael. The Story of God: Wesleyan Theology and Biblical Narrative. Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1994.

Maddox, Randy L. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Nashville Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1994.

Michaud, Derek. “John Wesley (1703-1791).” Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology, 1998. Retrieved January 1, 2010 from http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/wesley.htm

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