Wesleyan take on conscience

With all the conversation in the media over Pope Francis’ comments about following our conscience, I thought I would mention how our United Methodist tradition speaks to this very conversation.

John Wesley speaks of “conscience” in more than one place in his writings, but in two sermons in particular:

The Scripture Way of Salvation

On Conscience

In both of these, Wesley writes of what we call “conscience” as prevenient grace at work in the person. The voice that we call our conscience is in fact God’s grace wooing us toward God’s holiness. Wesley affirms the Reformed doctrine of total depravity, which says every aspect of our humanity is corrupted by sin. But he also argues that because of the work of God’s preventing grace (the grace that goes before our first consciousness of God) we all have access to the goodness of God if we choose to respond to it.

To Wesley’s Reformed critics, he views came out too close to Catholic doctrine, and Wesley was often accused of being a closet Catholic. In our day, he is often described as under the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy. In any case, he taught and believed that every person we meet has God’s grace within leading them to holiness, if they will follow their creator’s leading. No one must sin. We choose to.

This is my reading of Wesley. In the public conversation about Pope Francis, it might be helpful for United Methodists to understand our own doctrine on this matter.

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4 thoughts on “Wesleyan take on conscience

  1. John, thanks for this. I think you’re spot on in your interpretation of Wesley on conscience and prevenient grace. I also agree that UMs need to be more aware of our own doctrine and tradition.

  2. First Things has taken pains to point out that the media would relish a break between Benedict and Francis; in fact, the press accents any scrap of semantics that might suggest this. But First Things counters that Pope Francis is, after all, Roman Catholic; he will not deviate from his predecessor on orthodoxy.

    I take comfort from this because our own bishops cannot agree on sin, social policy or church discipline. One jurisdiction touts as “biblical faithfulness” what other parts of the church consider a chargeable offense. By the way, I don’t consider theological “incoherence” to be a credible Wesleyan doctrinal position.

  3. I am reminded of a statement by George Ogle (one of my seminary professors at Candler in the late 1970’s and a former missionary to Korea). He rocked my thinking to the core when he stated, “Just because you don’t feel guilty, doesn’t mean you aren’t.)

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