United Methodism demonstrates its pietistic roots when we stress the joy of every person experiencing the love of God in a way that is personal, convincing, and transforming. Before Aldersgate, Wesley knew in his head that Christ had died for him, forgiven him, and loved him. After Aldersgate, Wesley knew Christ. The externals of religion—attending church, putting money in the offering plate, working in the church’s soup kitchen for the poor, standing and affirming the Apostles’ Creed in worship, reading the Bible—are essential. But heirs of Wesley and Aldersgate know that internal appropriation of faith—heartfelt, personal assurance of God’s love in my life, my wallet, my heart—is the first essential.
I ought to have my name on a church roll. It’s important that I know and understand as much of the Bible as possible. It’s valuable to show forth my faith through acts of love and compassion. But somewhere, someday in my life I must be able to say yes—yes to God in a deep, engaging way; yes in response to God’s yes to me in Christ.
This isn’t a United Methodist requirement. It’s a United Methodist gift. People, even people who are not Christian, know that religion is nothing if it’s not a force that enlivens me at the deepest core of my being, if it’s not faith that’s more than just truth in general for most people but that’s truth experienced particularly by me.
So people sometimes say things like, “It doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere”—a really misguided statement when you think about it. Of course it matters whether what you believe is true. Surely it’s not a virtue to believe a lie. What they mean by appealing for sincerity is that religion ought to bring truth down off cloud nine, down to earth, grip me firmly, turn me inside out, and work me over. It ought to be experienced.
Both Charles and John Wesley felt that experience of God’s grace was at the center of Christian existence. No one preached grace better than John; no one sang about grace better than Charles in his immortal hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”:
Plenteous grace with thee is found,
grace to cover all my sin;
let the healing streams abound;
make and keep me pure within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
freely let me take of thee;
spring thou up within my heart;
rise to all eternity.
Admittedly, our Wesleyan emphasis on love and grace can be perverted into a kind of mushy, all-affirming inclusiveness, open to everything and rejecting nothing. This is certainly not true of Wesley and not true of United Methodists at our best. In a success-oriented, achievement-infatuated society, our stress upon grace sounds strange to many. We challenge a self-help, mother-I-would-rather-do-it-myself culture with our Wesleyan claim that God’s grace is the only thing that connects us to God.
One of John Wesley’s most descriptive phrases was “grace for all; grace in all.” The first part of the phrase means that Wesley believed that no one can be excluded from the operation of God’s powerful grace—no one, be that person a prodigal son, a stuffy Oxford prig, or a dusty Bristol miner. No one. Calvinists, with their idea of limited election—Christ died for some, not for all—went ballistic. Wesley refused to give an inch in his cry, “Salvation for all!” The second part reveals Wesley’s discovery that grace is right now at work in every human being—right now, even as you read this. Wesley described this dynamism of grace in three primary ways:
is a distinctive United Methodist doctrine. We believe that from the beginning, God is busy working in every person’s life. The image of God is never completely erased in an individual, no matter how badly that individual behaves. Prevenient grace may precede any direct consciousness of God, any real awareness that one is being led by God, coaxed toward salvation. No one, whether that person knows it or not, is immune from the prodding, enticement, and flirtations of God.
is that first awakening, that “new birth” to God’s justification of us, the initial, life-changing experience that sets us on the road back to God. Jesus says that, in the far country, the prodigal son “came to his senses”; he remembered his waiting father and home (Luke 15 CEB). The father was his father all along. But now, in this moment of joyful recognition, the son knew him as his father. At Aldersgate, Wesley experienced God’s justifying grace. Jesus had justified humanity to God nearly two thousand years before. But that night Wesley said he knew that Christ “had taken away my sins, even mine.” So a chief Wesleyan emphasis is assurance of salvation. Probably because of his own misery before Aldersgate, Wesley believed that people ought not cast about, perplexed and confused about their fate with God. The church, our fellow Christians, the Bible, and all the other means of grace exist to bring us to a firm, conscious, resolute assurance that God is there for us, loves us with an unwavering, eternal love, and that we are here to work with God.
And well might the story of grace have ended with Wesley. After all, isn’t the point of Christ’s incarnation, and his death on the cross, to reconcile us to God, to set things right between us and our creator? Unfortunately, in much American evangelical Christianity, this is where the grace appears to end. Too many evangelicals tirelessly reiterate the first steps to salvation, the initial awakening to the reality of justification, with little attention to what happens next. Where do we go the morning after an Aldersgate experience?
is the continuing presence of God’s work in our lives after our first awareness of God’s work. The grace, the gifts, don’t stop. God has surprises in store for us still. We may now be fully Christian, that is, fully accepted, forgiven, reconciled. But God isn’t finished with us, not by a long shot. God may take us, as we United Methodists love to sing, “just as I am, without one plea,” but God never leaves us just as God found us. Justifying grace signifies what Jesus did for us in his cross and resurrection; prevenient and sanctifying grace is what Christ does in us in continuing to transform us, draw us closer, and enlist us in God’s good work.
Some United Methodists speak of Wesley’s Aldersgate experience as if that were the end rather than the beginning of Wesley’s journey. God continued to make significant moves in Wesley’s life and thought after Aldersgate. Wesley kept revising his sermons and pamphlets, trying this new procedure and that one. Wesley’s most enduring, far-reaching contributions to the church occurred long after Aldersgate. In other words, God’s sanctifying grace kept working in him.
John Wesley used the terms Christian perfection, holiness, and sanctification almost interchangeably. Sanctification was sometimes called a “second work of grace” or a “second blessing.” Holiness means the state of being holy or sinless. Sanctification refers to a condition of being free from the power of sin and restored to the image of God. Those bold claims drove Lutherans and Calvinists crazy. Surely, they asked, you don’t mean that a human life is ever free of sin?
Wesley considered sanctification a practical way of life available to and necessary for every dedicated Christian. All Christians, even those who lacked educational or economic advantages, can “grow in grace.” In the Bible, the word sanctification means to set something apart and make it holy, to commandeer something or someone for special use by God. At Aldersgate, John Wesley, who wanted so desperately to be holy, to be used by God for good, was commandeered by God, sanctified. He continued to examine his habits, lifestyle, speech, and behavior. He continued to rise early for prayer and Bible reading, to visit regularly at the prisons. But now he did so as one on the way and urged his followers to do the same.
This Wesleyan emphasis on sanctifying grace is perhaps our most distinctive contribution to the picture of Christian life. Yes, it makes United Methodists appear awfully concerned about personal behavior, ethics, lifestyle issues, social justice, and much busyness in doing good. But our stress on sanctification is the way we embody—personally and institutionally—our faith. We believe the Christian faith is confirmed in its performance, in the concrete, everyday way we link our love for God to our commitment to justice for our neighbors.
In his small groups, the societies, bands, and conferences, Wesley’s followers examined one another and encouraged one another to “grow in grace.” Our historic stress on Christian education is an outgrowth of our living out of sanctifying grace. We believe that even ordinary people like you and me can grow, can end up better people than we would have been if left to our own devices. We can “go on to perfection.”
Perfection? Yes. An outgrowth of Wesley’s experience of continuing, sanctifying grace was his stress on “Christian perfection.” He took seriously Jesus’s invitation to “be ye therefore perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48 KJV). By “perfection” Wesley did not mean moral flawlessness or utter sinlessness. He meant perfection in the sense of maturity. By God’s grace (and only by God’s grace) we can (even utterly ordinary folks such as us) make progress.
Trust me, I’m not the holiest person in the world. I’ve still got a long way to go with Jesus, but you would have liked me even less before God’s grace began to work on me and in me. By the grace of God we can end up looking better, more complete, more mature and perfected than when we began. With God’s help, we really are offered the promise that we’re getting somewhere, so far as our lives with God are concerned.
The notion of Christian perfection means more than the smug and simple, “We’re getting better and better, every day, in every way.” It may mean that we mature in our assessment of ourselves, that we assume more responsibility for the needs of others, and that we grow in our awareness of how sinful and inadequate we really are!
Christian perfection is at the heart of the strong ethical emphasis of United Methodism. Sometimes, in the debate on the floor of one of our Annual Conferences, a motion is made on some issue. Then the whole Conference gets into the act, offering suggestions, criticisms, and amendments to the motion, all with the intent of “perfecting the motion.”
Nobody believes that when all the dust of debate settles our motion will be flawless, the best piece of legislation ever written in the history of the church. We do believe that, due to the gifts offered by the whole body in “perfecting the motion,” we will have a much better, a much wiser motion than when we began.
My friend, Dick Heizenrater, who knows more about Methodist history than just about anybody, thinks that grace is one of the most misused words in Methodism. Grace, says Heizenrater, doesn’t mean a mushy pat on the head by a God who purrs sappily, “I love you just the way you are; promise me you won’t change a thing.”
According to the dean of United Methodist historians, grace is the power of God working in you, sometimes in spite of you, to help you live a different life than you would be living if God had left you to your own devices.
We United Methodists believe that through grace God is busy working among us, perfecting us, even us, even now.
This essay was excerpted and updated from chapter 2 of William H. Willimon’s book Why I Am a United Methodist.