Grace and works in the Christian life

John Wesley offers us an interesting both/and view of the Christian life.

He has a strong doctrine of grace and the grace-powered life in Christ. He inspired the holiness and Pentecostal doctrines of the second blessing and the belief in the power of grace to make deep changes in the soul, mind, and spirit of the believer in an instant. As it has been written about him, he was extremely optimistic about grace.

And at the same time, Wesley had an interesting psychology of holiness. In sermons such as “On Zeal” he writes about the way Christians cultivate “holy tempers” — or character traits — by habit. It is by doing good, that we become good.

So in him, you can find an argument both for the notion that we need a powerful pouring out of grace for our depraved and wicked hearts to be made good and the idea that we develop the character to live in Christian holiness by habit and practice that molds us into different people.

I’ve not studied this with extreme care, but I do think I am at least in the vicinity of correct in this observation. For some, I imagine, this is yet another reason to view Wesley theology as an unsystematic mess. I tend to view it as a sign that he did not let intellectual boxes get in the way of pastoral wisdom.

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5 thoughts on “Grace and works in the Christian life

  1. From what I understand of Wesley, he came closer to understanding and following Augustine than either Luther or Calvin. Many Protestants today misunderstand Augustine or present him as having taught Reformed doctrines of justification and grace, but truthfully he held both that we were dead in original sin to move towards grace ourselves, that grace could free our wills to choose to follow to Christ, and that it was through “faith working in love” that we were justified and molded to the image of Christ. You might check out my most recent post, in which I take some meaty quotes on Augustine from Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei.

  2. I agree with your reading of JW, John. It’s one of the things I appreciate about him most. One might think that he would have tossed all of his rigorous “methods” out the window once he had his Aldersgate experience, but instead he saw the “both/and” you speak of. He realized that without the supernatural work of God changing a heart, making one “born again” then no “method” will matter. Yet at the same time, once such heart is converted, the “method” becomes a joyful expression.

  3. Great post and observations, John. It is in the area that you are pressing that connects Wesley with the virtue tradition (a characteristic of his theology from his Oxford period onward that remained central to his view of how sanctification happens, even with the influence of Aldersgate and the assurance of faith). You get a good sense of how virtue formation is reflected in the practice of the means of grace in a sermon like “On Visiting the Sick,” where Wesley clearly sees a work of mercy like visitation to be as beneficial for the visitor as for the visited.
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    I’d also add that a beautiful paradigmatic expression of this part of Wesley’s theology of sanctification is in “The Circumcision of the Heart,” which dates from 1733. There, Wesley explores how the virtues of humility, faith, hope, and love are formed in the lives of those who are being transformed by God’s grace over time. In that sense, “On Zeal” serves as a great later articulation of the same point, with its memorable image of the throne of love.

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