IV: Sin, Salvation, and Christian Holiness: The Ruin and Restoration of Love

Section IV: Sin, Salvation, and Christian Holiness: The Ruin and Restoration of Love19

As with most Christians, Wesleyan reflection on the nature of salvation generally begins with serious consideration of the problem of sin.20 Everything was created by God, with all of creation ordered by God. Thus, humans were created in the image of God, intended for loving relationship with God and for reflecting God’s love in all of creation. But, because of sin (i.e., the Fall21), our love for God and creation has been marred. The image of God has been corrupted in such a way that we tend to place other desires ahead of our desire to love and serve God. This is the fundamental nature of sin and its consequences are universal. Sin corrupts our relationships, communities, societies and even the created environment. (Gen 1:26-31; 2:15).

Just as sin has corrupted the image of God in humanity, salvation is ultimately the restoration of the image of God with the potential reparation of all that sin has affected. The renewal of the image of God is made possible by the grace of God through the atoning work of Jesus Christ and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit seeking to reconcile us—indeed, all of creation—to God (2 Cor 5:18-21). For Wesleyans, salvation is not only a matter of our eternal destiny, it is the renewal of our capacity to love God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves in this life. The grace of God is given not only for personal salvation but also for the repair of human relationships, communities, and societies, and, indeed, all of creation. As Wesleyans we therefore embrace an expansive and all-inclusive hope for the renewal and restoration of all that has been damaged by sin. Many in the Wesleyan tradition refer to this as “the optimism of grace” or “the hope of glory.”

As Wesleyans we also affirm that we have been given a certain measure of responsibility in the work of salvation.22 Faced with the terrible power and consequences of sin, on our own we would only be capable of continuing to choose our own sinful, selfish way. But, we are never left alone.  God is with us even in the greatest depths of our sin. This continual presence of God is known as “prevenient grace”—the grace given to us by God before we have come to faith in Christ.  To talk about prevenient grace is another way of saying that the Holy Spirit perpetually convicts us of our sin, reveals to us God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness, calls us to repentance, and gives us the ability to offer ourselves in confession and obedience to God. In this way we are empowered by the gracious presence of God to respond by faith in repentance and obedience to the call of God for our salvation.23

Wesleyans believe that this encounter with saving grace involves two distinct but interrelated changes for believers: justification and sanctification.  In justification, we are “made right” in the sight of God.  Through grace-initiated repentance, our sins are forgiven and our guilt taken away.  The Wesleys believed that this encounter with God’s justifying grace also initiates what scripture refers to as the “new birth,” for we are literally “born again.” In justification believers are brought into a completely new life in which we are reconciled to God and experience the life-transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.  

For Wesleyans the new birth is just the beginning of a journey of growth in grace. After we have been justified, the grace-empowered work of sanctification begins.  As we continue to respond to God by participating in the means of grace (see Section VI), the Holy Spirit re-forms our character, our desires, our attitudes, and our behavior in the likeness of Christ.  In sanctification, the image of God is being renewed in us, restoring in us the possibility of love for God and neighbor.24  Wesleyans believe that, at some point in this journey,25 we can by the power of the Holy Spirit become completely devoted to God and filled to overflowing with all of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Wesleyans refer to this as holiness of heart and life, Christian perfection,26 or entire sanctification.27

As Wesleyans we affirm that God’s purposes for salvation are not limited to us as individuals, but have implications for all relationships, all communities and societies, and even the created environment. The Wesleys spoke expansively about the possibilities of God’s grace. Just as they believed that the effects of sin are pervasive, they affirmed that the grace of God can restore all that sin has ravaged. In the belief that God could transform unjust social structures, John spoke out against slavery and economic practices that especially caused harm to the poor and to children.28 John also affirmed that all God’s creatures are intended by God to be recipients of love, and therefore spoke out against cruelty to animals. 

For Wesleyans, the hope of God’s redemptive and restorative work is not limited to this life, but also extends to the life to come.  Wesleyans believe that God’s final kingdom has been inaugurated already through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in and through the Church as it gives witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Wesleyans also look forward to the return of Christ to fully establish God’s kingdom and restore all of creation.  The saints of all ages will be raised from the dead to join all believers in welcoming Christ back to earth. In this “new creation,” there will be no more pain, sickness or death and all things will be fully restored to God and perfected in love.29  And of God’s kingdom, there will be no end!

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19.  The best overview of the Wesleyan view of salvation is found in John Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation.”

20.  See John Wesley’s sermon “Original Sin.”

21.  The “Fall” refers to the sins of Adam and Eve recorded in Genesis 3, which Christians have traditionally affirmed as the pivotal entrance of sin into the world and the cause of the universal condition of human sinfulness. Some contemporary Christians would hesitate to blame Adam and Eve as the cause of all subsequent sin, but would still embrace the universality of sin, arguing that the story of Adam and Even is a kind of allegory or metaphor for the experience of all human beings as we come to encounter our own depravity.

22.  In this respect, Wesleyans draw especially from the work of the 16th century Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, and therefore are often called “Wesleyan-Arminian.”

23.  See John Wesley’s sermon “On Working out Our Own Salvation.”
24.  See John Wesley’s sermon “The New Birth.”
25.  For some this point is experienced through a critical moment of complete consecration, whiles others experience this as the culmination of a long and gradual process of growth in grace.
26.  See John Wesley’s sermon, “Christian Perfection,” and his treatise “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.” The Wesleys used the language of perfection because it was biblical, fully recognizing that such perfection only refers to love for God and neighbor, and not in relationship to knowledge, action, or human failings that are a consequence of our finite, bodily nature.
27.  Christian holiness has been one of the most contested doctrines in the history of the Wesleyan movement. John and Charles disagreed about the extent to which persons could be perfected in love in this life, with John being more optimistic and Charles being more cautious. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Methodists had generally come to embrace Charles’s more cautious approach, and to see Christian perfection as a goal which Christians are ever to pursue, even if they should not expect to experience fully in this life. In response to this development in Methodism, Holiness movement advocates, including early Nazarenes, understood themselves to be recovering John’s teachings when they affirmed that believers can experience the fullness of holy love in this life through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John actually did not identify entire sanctification with the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.
28.  See John Wesley’s “Thoughts on Slavery” and “The Scarcity of Provisions.”
29.  See John Wesley’s sermon “The General Deliverance.”