Is there a Wesleyan purgatory?

Did John Wesley believe in something like purgatory? Something in a letter he wrote in 1770 to an unidentified recipient has me wondering.

The letter appears to be to a Methodist who has flagged in his faith. In the letter, he describes to the man the two ranks of Christians.

I have frequently observed that there are two very different ranks of Christians, both of whom may be in the favour of God, — a higher and a lower rank.

This statement is similar one in his 1787 sermon “The More Excellent Way,” which also describes a higher and lower path that a Christian may walk. It is worth noting, though, that  even the lower path is much higher than many people in our churches today even long to journey. Here is how Wesley describes the two paths in his letter.

The [lower rank] avoid all known sin, do much good, use all the means of grace, but have little of the life of God in their souls, and are much conformed to the world. The [higher rank] make the Bible their whole rule, and their soul aim is the will and image of God. This they steadily and uniformly pursue, through honour and dishonour, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; considering one point only, “How may I attain most the mind that was in Christ, and how may I please him most?”

Here Wesley clearly sees a distinction, but let us not ignore the standard by which he marks a “lower rank” Christian. Such Christians avoid “all known sin,” they do good, and use “all the means of grace.”

How many Christians in your congregation would fit this description? I would wager (were it not a sin) that Christians of this rank are considered prodigies of faith by many pastors and laity. Here comes a man or woman who does nothing intentionally that is a sin. What is more, they do seek opportunities to do good works. And on top of this, they pray daily, study Scripture daily, attend worship at every opportunity, fast, and meet in small groups with other Christians regularly.

Are these not the “best” members of nearly every congregation we have? And yet are not many of them, as Wesley describes it, much conformed to the world and often running on will power rather than the life and joy of God gurgling up in their souls?

In in the face of their fatigue we often hold out no vision for them that there is anything more possible in Christianity. Perhaps out of fear of sounding like John Wesley, we do not suggest that such folks are standing on the lower rung of their faith and need to call out for God to raise them to another, higher place.

Of course, the great mass of those who go by the name of Christians do not make it even over Wesley’s lower bar. They have not the faith that breaks the power of sin, and so they sin on and on. They can be sometimes beaten or guilted into good works, but they do not do them with the joy that comes from knowing themselves to be pardoned sinners. They make jokes about not reading their Bibles and approach worship like theater critics who do not expect to find God at worship, but will stay if the show is entertaining and the sermon engaging enough.

But the recipients of this letter have retained hold of the lower rank of Christianity in Wesley estimation. He calls them to the higher rank, however, with the language that got me wondering about purgatory.

I am afraid of your sinking beneath your calling, degenerating into a common Christian, who shall indeed be saved, but saved as by fire.

What does he mean by that phrase “as by fire.” Is he suggesting that there is some testing   or purging of souls of the departed lower rank Christians? Or is he here speaking more mundanely of the difficulty of being a Christian of the lower rank without the power of God in your life to sustain you in the face of the world’s trials and troubles?

This entire doctrine of “two ranks” of Christian has no warrant that I know of in Scripture and appears to grow out of Wesley’s experiences. In the end, these issues are not doctrinally binding in any sense on United Methodists as they are not raised in Wesley standard sermons or — so far as I know — in his Notes on the New Testament. But I am still intrigued by what he meant and what he thought about these issues.


12 thoughts on “Is there a Wesleyan purgatory?

  1. This puts me in mind of Fowler’s ‘Faith Stages’; indeed, faith and spirituality is a developmental process that can/should last a lifetime. That fewer and fewer progress to the higher ‘rungs’ as you say, is not too surprising. After all, we can infer that the twelve closest to Jesus were perhaps chosen for their capacity to sustain a drive to ever more emptying of self to fill themselves with the Master.

    1. I’m trying to sort it out. I cannot tell what he was trying to suggest by this, although some of the other comments have been helpful.

  2. I would think not, simply because he had no problem removing or editing the Anglican Articles of Religion when sending them to the Methodists, and he retained the article condemning purgatory. But I do wonder what he means by “as by fire.” Perhaps he’s referencing Luke 3 when John the Baptist speaks about baptism by the Holy Spirit and by fire (or maybe that’s just because my mind is there with this week’s Gospel lection). He doesn’t say anything about it in the Explanatory Notes on Luke 3, though, so I don’t know.

  3. The “saved as by fire” language is simply taken from 1 Corinthians 3:15, which, although it has been a text historically associated with the doctrine of purgatory, is certainly open to non-purgatorial interpretations. The specific doctrine of “two ranks” may not be Biblical, but the idea of rank in the kingdom of God certainly is: Matthew 11:11, where the mention of “the least in the kingdom of heaven” implies that there are “greater” ones in the kingdom of heaven or the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), where the reward is the same, but precedence (“last” and “first”) is not abolished; likewise the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. And there are of course all the Pauline contrasts of those needing milk and those needing meat. A favorite verse for this idea in Patristic and medieval literature is 1 Corinthians 15:41 “star differs from star in glory.”

    1. That 1 Corinthians text is really interesting, but of course still open to lots of different readings. The fire will burn away what we build on top of the foundation of Christ. Are we building with straw or with gold? I wonder what he means by building with straw on the foundation of Christ.

  4. I don’t think Wesley was talking about a “heavenly after death purgatory” but a real life, here on Earth purgatory.
    The fire referred to is the fire of trials one will surely face when they lack a “love of God” in their heart.
    These are persons going though the motions They believe in the good things written of and believe the God of the bible but they lack love for God.
    Their motives are all wrong.
    The greats of scripture were motivated by a sincere love of God. They willingly and with consent follow this God we worship. There is no resistance.
    They understand sin hurts God.

    To Mrs. Barton
    ARBROATH, May 8, 1770.

    MY DEAR SISTER,–Two things are certain: the one, that it is possible to lose even the pure love of God; the other, that it is not necessary, it is not unavoidable–it may be lost, but it may be kept. Accordingly we have some in every part of the kingdom who have never been moved from their steadfastness. And from this moment you need never be moved: His grace is sufficient for you. But you must continue to grow if you continue to stand; for no one can stand still. And is it not your Lord’s will concerning you that you should daily receive a fresh increase of love? And see that you labour so much the more to comfort the feeble-minded, to support the weak, to confirm the wavering, and recover them that are out of the way. In June I hope to see you. Peace be with your spirits! –I am

    Your affectionate brother.

  5. This timely article by Rev. Dan Detzell, a Lutheran pastor came out today. It addresses the topic being discussed on this blog plus much more. Rev. Dan Detzell is one of my favorite writers and theologians. I have a healthy respect for his commentaries even if he is a Calvinist and I am not. I am not an Arminian either. I believe in eternal security and freedom of the will. I am a lay member of the Methodist Church but my belief is non-denominational. I guess I belong in the Biblicist category.

    Here is what Rev. Dan Detzell wrote:

    ” There is a world of difference between a “gift” and a “reward.” A gift is “something given voluntarily without payment in return.” A reward is “something given or received for service, merit, hardship, etc.” A reward is something you earn. A gift is freely given and is not earned by the recipient”

    “A key passage on heavenly rewards is in 1 Corinthians. It describes man’s work being tested with fire at the end of time to see if his Christian work was done with the right motives. That is….was it done to shine the light and focus on himself, or to shine the light on Christ and keep the focus on the Savior? “His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor. 3:13-15)”

    “Did you catch that? It describes the man who gets into heaven because he received the free gift of eternal life….and so he was saved; and yet, he “suffers loss” of certain rewards that he would have received if his motives had been different in his service for Christ. He will still of course have a fantastic life in heaven forever….and he will not be even slightly jealous in heaven of anyone’s else reward. (Jealousy and the like are only found on earth….not in heaven.) But before he enters heaven, his work on earth will be tested with fire to see how much of it was noble, selfless, and Christ-centered.”

    “You can only “repent and believe” your way into the family of God. (see Mark 1:15 and Luke 24:47) You can only get into His family by receiving the gift of salvation….not by trying to impress the Father of believers with your hard work as an orphan. Many unbelievers (spiritual orphans) are working hard to get into heaven….and all of them will miss out unless they stop committing their sin of unbelief….and stop trying to earn their way into the family. Many religious people go to hell….not because of a lack of effort or zeal….but because they relied upon their efforts to make themselves acceptable to God….and yet were never adopted into the family of God by trusting in what Jesus did for them on the cross.”


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