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What Is Wesleyan Theology?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Named after its most well-known figure, John Wesley (1703–1791), Wesleyan theology is the theology of the Methodist Church. Wesley, who remained in the Church of England throughout his life, did not intend to create his own denomination; nevertheless, issues of systematic and practical theology eventually caused his followers to break away from its parent church. Although it was influenced by Arminian theology, Wesleyan theology is distinctive in its three-fold vision of grace and its practical concern for social justice.

Wesleyan theology comes out of the Arminian tradition of soteriology, or theology of salvation. Whereas Calvinist theologians argue that people are saved by irresistible grace through divine election, Arminians hold that humans are able to accept or reject God's grace. Calvinists believe that God predestined certain people — known as the elect — to be saved, while all others are condemned. Arminianism, on the other hand, claims that all people have the ability to receive grace. Wesley expanded upon this theology of grace, presenting a three-part model of soteriology that consists of prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace, all of which are given freely by God and cannot be earned through good works.

Prevenient means "coming before." According to Wesleyan theology, God extends this type of grace to all people before they are saved. Without prevenient grace, no one would be able to reach out to God on his or her own, but the existence of this type of grace allows people to choose to accept or deny Christ. This contrasts the Calvinist belief that salvation is available only to the elect, who are compelled to accept it.

Justifying grace is grace that is given only to those who choose to accept it by faith. In the Wesleyan view, this is the type of grace that allows a person to be justified — or seen as holy — in the eyes of God. Only those who accept justifying grace are free from the guilt of sin and are, therefore, able to have eternal salvation.

The work of sanctifying grace, according to Wesley, is to transform or regenerate the believer into the image of Christ. While justifying grace is given at conversion as a one-time event, sanctifying grace works throughout the course of believer's life to actually make his or her heart and actions more Christlike and holy. While acknowledging that no human can actually be perfect, Wesleyans believe that sanctifying grace brings a person closer to that goal.

Closely related to this view of sanctifying grace is Wesleyan theology's emphasis on practical expressions of faith. As the believer becomes more Christlike, he or she will become more and more concerned with the development of spiritual community and with social justice. This belief in the connection between faith and works has often led Methodists to be involved with issues like healthcare reform, prison reform and human rights.

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Discussion Comments
By Scrbblchick — On May 15, 2014

As a United Methodist, reading this article does my little Wesleyan heart good. I was so glad to see the author covered the three kinds of grace, and how this grace works in the lives of believers.

You don't hear about sanctification as much now as in years past, but make no mistake -- the principle is still a vital one.

And yes, Wesleyans of every stripe are usually very concerned about social justice. American Methodists (including Southerners) were some of the most vocal abolitionists before the Civil War, and later were instrumental in getting child labor laws passed.

Social justice, meaning that all people across all social classes deserve respect and love, is a natural result of the feeling of Wesleyans that we "were once as they," so we cannot despise others, but rather, must reach out to help them as someone once reached out to help us.

The other hallmark of the Wesleyan theology is the lack of legalism. While the old time holiness Methodists used to preach against drinking, dancing and playing cards, nowadays, we're more laid back, although there is still (or ought to be, anyway) a strong emphasis on personal holiness. That is, we're not trying to somehow "make" others holy (as if we could!) but our general goal is to reach out to others so they see Christ in us, and accept Him for themselves, which then puts them on an individual journey of faith, even though we walk beside each other and are available for support and love.

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