Nature, law, and gospel

Fundamental to John Wesley’s spiritual anthropology is his three-fold typology. Humans, he believed, were in one of the three states in relation to God – the natural, the legal, and the evangelical*. In his sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption” he summarizes the differences between these three states.

To sum up all: the natural man neither fears nor loves God; one under the law, fears, — one under grace, loves him. The first has no light in the things of God, but walks in utter darkness; the second sees the painful light of hell; the third, the joyous light of heaven. He that sleeps in death, has a false peace; he that is awakened, has no peace at all; he that believes, has true peace, — the peace of God filling and ruling his heart.

For Wesley, these follow one after the other as a set of links in a chain. He did not believe a person could skip over the middle link. He would not have believed our rather common theological embrace of the idea that we can know the love of God without ever coming to terms with sin and wrath. Such a person would – I imagine – call such natural men and women, blind to the true nature of God.

Indeed, he wrote that many – the majority perhaps – of people who we style as “good Christians” are still children of nature.

A man may be of a compassionate and a benevolent temper; he may be affable, courteous, generous, friendly; he may have some degree of meekness, patience, temperance, and of many other moral virtues. He may feel many desires of shaking off all vice, and of attaining higher degrees of virtue. He may abstain from much evil; perhaps from all that is grossly contrary to justice, mercy, or truth. He may do much good, may feed the hungry, clothe the naked, relieve the widow and fatherless. He may attend public worship, use prayer in private, read many books of devotion; and yet, for all this, he may be a mere natural man, knowing neither himself nor God; equally a stranger to the spirit of fear and to that of love; having neither repented, nor believed the gospel.

Like so many of Wesley’s sermons, this one offers me great insight and challenges me immensely. As a Christian, I find myself often without the assurance that Wesley taught belongs to the Spirit of adoption. As a preacher, I wonder if I give too much comfort to the children of nature without bringing them to crisis with law and gospel.

Of course, Wesley read Paul in the “old perspective.” He took seriously the notion that sinners were under the wrath of God and needed to repent. For him, it is faith in Jesus not the faith of Jesus that saved. I’m quite aware that Wesley’s interpretation of Scripture and salvation are not in favor today.

On the other hand, in the 2,000 year history of Christianity, Wesley’s reading has a lot of company.

I don’t want to let myself off Wesley’s hot-seat, in part, because it feels so natural and such a relief to dismiss him as a relic. He certainly produced much more fruit than my ministry has so far.


*Wesley said the three states are not mutually exclusive. They are often mixed together in one person. As in all things, Wesley was not prone to simplicity.