Did Charles not know his Wesleyan theology?

Would we argue that Charles Wesley had bad atonement theology?

I take it that many contemporary Christians and theologians resist the idea that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied or turned back the wrath of God. It is not uncommon for this to be represented as something that neo-Calvinists or Baptists might say, but not we grace-oriented Methodists.

If so, have we written Charles Wesley out of our camp? I guess in one sense we have. Here are a couple verses from two of his hymns that are not in our hymnal.

A verse from “And Can It Be” that we don’t sing:

Still the small inward voice I hear,
That whispers all my sins forgiven;
Still the atoning blood is near,
That quenched the wrath of hostile Heaven.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.
I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.

A verse from “Depth of Mercy” not in our Hymnal:

Jesus speaks, and pleads His blood!
He disarms the wrath of God;
Now my Father’s mercies move,
Justice lingers into love.

I’ve not done a systematic study of Charles Wesley hymns. These were the first two I looked at when doing something else, and I was struck by the selection, which in both cases, dropped this kind of language. Could it be that Methodists think we reject a satisfaction model of atonement because we have purposely edited out such views from our own sung theology? I understand that there are various ways of comprehending the atonement. When, though, did we decide that Charles Wesley did not understand Wesleyan theology?

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6 thoughts on “Did Charles not know his Wesleyan theology?

  1. Is penal substitution (satisfaction) not a Wesleyan belief? Ken Collins, in (I think) his book on the Scripture Way of Salvation says that Wesley’s primary understanding of atonement was PSA.

    1. I agree with Collins, but I have heard and read people who argue PSA is bad theology and in conflict with Wesleyanism. I don’t agree with them, but I hear it.

    2. Wesleyan no question – there is more debate if it is Methodist but Bishop Jone’s book on Doctrine does a great job of explaining the political developments that enshrined the Standard Sermons as doctrine. Substitutionary Atonement is front and center in the first standard sermon!

  2. Penal Substitution is definitely descriptive, at least in part, of what God has done in Christ. Not only is it part of Wesley’s theology of the atonement, I believe it is the lynchpin of his theology and most certainly the key to understanding Aldersgate. If you doubt this, read his brief correspondence with William Law immediately preceding May 24, 1738.

    The only problem with penal substitution is with its most adamant supporters and its most vociferous critics. In both cases we have God in the hands of angry sinners on steroids.

    It’s Anselm vs. Abelard and its roots go back a long way. Liberal Protestants go apoplectic at the mention of the blood of Christ as an atonement for our sins. They can’t help it, because nothing God has done in time can possibly be objectively real in their worldview.

    Those who claim Penal Substitution is not Weslyan are just plain wrong.

  3. Actually I would go one further, Substitutionary Atonement is one of our established doctrinal teachings, in other words when a clergy person says they have read, understand, and agree with our doctrine, and that they intend to preach and maintain it, this includes Substitutionary Atonement explicitly.

    It is well documented that both through historical understanding, General Conference action, and Judicial council decision, that our doctrinal standards include: The Articles of Religion, The Confession of Faith, The General Rules of the Methodist Church (Which by the way prohibit working on Sunday – not sure even the most evangelical are preaching this), and John Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory notes on the NT. For an academic discussion of this history Bishop Jone’s United Methodist Doctrine book is a good place to start.

    Ok so, Given that John Wesley’s Sermons are doctrinally binding. The first standard sermon, “Salvation By Faith” clearly articulates the substitutionary theory as the bare minimum standard for Christian faith. In exploring what kind of faith is sufficient for eternal life, or to be a Christian, he includes this paragraph:

    [the saving kind of faith] … acknowledges the necessity and merit of his death, and the power of his resurrection. It acknowledges his death as the only sufficient means of redeeming man from death eternal, and his resurrection as the restoration of us all to life and immortality; inasmuch as he “was delivered for our sins, and rose again for our justification.” Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” or, in one word, our salvation.” (First Standard Sermon: Salvation By Faith)

    Now there is a reason this is the first standard sermon. It articulates the most basic points of unity we have with the broader Christian faith, and the ways in which we are distinct. In particular it makes unity and divergence statements from both the Catholic church and the Continental reformers. It is the sermon by which Wesley defines who we are as a distinct body, wile situating us within the broad range of Christian orthodoxy.

    So – For Wesley and by extension for United Methodists, what it means to be a Christian is defined at least in part, by an adherence to the Substitutionary Atonement.

    And yes – this might be the beginning of my dissertation work 🙂

    Chuck Russell

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