Why John Wesley flopped on the Atonement and maybe more

Joel Tiegreen

The work that Christ accomplished on the cross for our salvation is a vital doctrine in the Christian faith that is usually called the atonement. John Wesley was adamant that this doctrine was of the utmost importance, and he vigorously detested what he thought to be misuses of it. Wesley clearly saw that all of a Christian’s doctrinal armor hangs on that divine person’s work whose name is Christ. If one’s armor were sagging, drooping, or dented, he would not be an effective soldier in the ranks of Christ’s army. But was Wesley’s amour dented or even missing? To know Wesley’s view on the atonement it is important to look at his thoughts and the opposing viewpoint to see what the similarities and differences are. Also very important to this endeavor is to see what the implications are of the differing views and why John Wesley and George Whitfield got into such a scuffle.

          Wesley believed that, “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of atonement.”[1] In this doctrine Wesley understood that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God. Wesley held that the purpose of Christ’s death was the restoration of man’s relationship with God. In the acquisition of this restoration, Wesley believed that Christ broke our enslavement to sin and death and reclaimed the possibility for man’s felicity with God. This restoration of man to God’s presence should produce a growing in divine likeness in the life of the believer.[2] Since, Wesley rightly valued the work of the atonement, we can see why he would so strongly oppose a viewpoint that allegedly would hinder the effects of its work.

Taking care not to infringe on his personal views of the means by which Christ accomplished his work, Wesley apprehended a view of atonement that was universal in nature and pardoning in purpose. Some have called this apprehension, universal atonement. Wesley asserted that Christ died to alleviate the wrath of God so that it would no longer be directed toward men. He used Bible verses such as, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,”[3] and, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation,”[4] to proclaim that Christ would pardon all men. [5] 

          Wesley’s adversaries (the Calvinists) held to the view that Christ’s death was a substitution for our sins. For the Calvinist, Christ’s death was for our sin. It was our sin that had deserved God’s wrath, and so Christ died in our place to satisfy the wrath of God that we accumulated by our sin.  The Calvinists believed that our sin was imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us. God’s wrath against our sins was infinite and so the satisfaction of the wrath on our behalf must also be infinite.[6]  However, Wesley was clever enough to see that this view was not compatible with his understanding of Christ’s work.

            Wesley rejected the Calvinistic view of substitutionary atonement because it leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the sinner and the sinner’s sin is imputed to Christ. Wesley believed that Christ’s death was wrath satisfaction rather then wrath substitution.  In a letter to James Hervey concerning the imputed righteousness of Christ, Wesley wrote , “ the metaphysical doctrine of Im­puted Righteousness leads not to repentance but to licentiousness.”[7] Later in the letter Wesley replies to Hervey on the matter of the substitution of Christ’s righteousness in our stead, Hervey asked, ““If He was our substitute as to penal sufferings, why not as to justifying obedience?”(page 135). Wesley responded with, “This is not expressly asserted there (in the Scriptures).””[8] Wesley obviously had a little animosity toward the imputed righteousness of Christ, but one can see why Wesley had made this objection.

            Wesley did not want people to believe that the blood of Christ saved them so they could then go live like the Devil. This is obviously a genuine and valid concern. Being concerned for the holiness of people’s lives is good, but that will never validate going against scripture and God’s means that he has instituted; at least that is what Whitfield would have probably said. Calvinists trust that believers are chosen and called by God; the believer will become righteous through Christ’s sanctifying work because he has already been declared righteous by God because of Christ. For the Calvinist, a believer will grow without manipulation because they are new creatures. The problem is that if Wesley was right about his view of God and of man’s will in salvation, then the Calvinist view would certainly lead to antinomianism.

            Part of the concern that Calvinists have with Wesley’s denial of imputed righteousness is that it effects justification. Wesley wrote in his Doctrinal Minutes that justification is “to be pardoned and received into God’s favor; into such a state, that if we continue therein, we shall be finally saved. Faith is the sole ‘condition’ of justification”.[9] Although this definition highlights many foundational truths that were accomplished in Christ’s work, it leaves out the imputed righteousness of Christ. This of course was intentional on Wesley’s part, being that he denied imputation. But why did Wesley adjust the Reformers view of the atonement, justification, and imputed righteousness?

            Wesley believed that the Reformers view of imputation and justification hindered the believer’s motivation for sanctification. Since Wesley was a synergist he believed that sanctification was, “the ability to cooperate with God, and thereby to prosper and grow in grace, but also the obligation to do so.”[10] The cooperation of God and man in salvation that Wesley believed in was the reason why he held that substitutionary atonement lead eventually to imputation and then to antinomianism. Hervey makes another statement and then Wesley quickly retorts. Hervey asks, ““How must our righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Not only in being sincere, but in possessing a complete righteousness, even that of Christ.” (page 197.) Wesley replied, “Did our Lord mean this? Nothing less. He specifies in the following parts of His sermon the very instances wherein the righteousness of a Christian exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.”” [11] We see here that Wesley believed that Christ’s atonement was the beginning of sanctification, making it possible that we may actually become righteous. Maddox writes, “For Wesley, the value of justification was precisely its contribution to the higher goal of sanctification—our recovery of the Likeness of God.”[12] This shows that Wesley’s denial of imputation led him to an obscure view of justification and sanctification. Daniel Crowe asked the right question: “Which came first in Wesley’s ordo salutis, justification or sanctification?”[13]

            It seems that Wesley held a view of justification that was similar to that of Rome even though he stated it was a prerequisite to sanctification. Wesley’s sermon, “Justification by Faith” vividly displays his view:

Least of all does justification imply that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he counts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply that God judges us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous…[or]…judge that I am righteous and holy, because another is so.[14]

The statement by Wesley that God does not “judge us contrary to the real nature of things” is a direct denial of substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness and possibly justification by faith alone.  If God does not judge us contrary to the nature of a thing then all men will be damned unless “the thing” that God judges is Christ’s righteousness. But Wesley says that the nature of the man is actually righteous before God; he adds that it is by Christ’s power of course, but this does not fix the problem. In Wesley’s view our righteousness is enabled by Christ and given by his grace, but it is not Christ himself. Maddox explains,

Our very capacity for growth in Christ-likeness (New Birth) is contingent upon God’s gracious pardoning prevenience (initial justification), while the continuance of God’s acceptance (final justification) becomes contingent upon our responsive growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification). [Thus] Justification is…a facet of God’s saving grace permeating the entire Way of Salvation.[15]

When Wesley adds this doctrine of final justification he nullifies the initial justification because our salvation is then contingent on our cooperation. This means that our salvation is really resting on our cooperation (even if Christ enabled) to be sanctified and holy. This means that our justification is not from Christ’s righteousness that was granted to us in the atonement, but in the root of our own inward righteousness. Wesley would say that our righteousness was enabled by Christ and is our righteousness, not his.[16] So for Wesley, our justification is based on the fruit of our choices. For Whitfield (and God) this was a problem, because he believed that our justification was based on Christ alone and was not contingent on our works. The Reformers believed (like Whitfield) that good works are the fruit of justification and not the root of justification. As Luther himself wrote:

A Christian is righteous and holy by an alien or foreign holiness- I call it this for the sake of instruction-that is, he is righteous by the mercy and grace of God. It is a divine blessing, given us through the true knowledge of the Gospel, when we know or believe that our sin has been forgiven through the grace and merit of Christ. Is not this righteousness an alien righteousness? It consists completely in the indulgence of another and it is a pure gift of God, who shows mercy and favor for Christ’s sake.[17]

It is this alien or imputed righteousness that Whitfield held and Wesley rejected. Granted, Wesley’s doctrine of Atonement and justification are not the same in modus operandi as Rome, but in substance they seem to be rather similar. The implications of this distinction could be devastating to Wesley and his view of the atonement. Luther again writes:

If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time. And all the people in the world who do not hold to this justification are either Jews or Turks or papists or heretic; for there is no middle ground between these two righteousnesses: the active one of the Law and the passive one which comes from Christ. Therefore the man who strays from Christian righteousness must relapse into the active one, that is, since he has lost Christ he must put his confidence in his own works. [18]

Hopefully Wesley was just wrongly articulating these terms and could rightly explain his distinction if asked, because this sure sounds like Rome.

          Whitfield suspected Wesley was promoting salvation by works and Wesley supposed Whitfield was promoting antinomianism. It is easy to see how their friendship was strained. Randy L. Maddox writes, “tensions with the Calvinist Methodists on the concept of imputed active righteousness was used against Wesley as a defense for why Christians are already seen as perfect by God.”[19]           Wesley’s friend George Whitfield gave a clear response to Wesley’s objection that imputed righteousness led people away from good works,

Justification not only signifies remission of sins past, but also the federal right to all good things to come. As the obedience to Christ is imputed to believers, so his perseverance in that obedience is imputed to them also. Never did more absurdities flow from the denying of any doctrine than will flow from the denying of Christ’s imputed righteousness. You say because we preach this we deny good works; this is the usual objection against the doctrine of imputed righteousness. But this is a slander, an impudent slander.[20]

          The tension in Wesley and Whitfield’s relationship can certainly be felt in this letter.  The matter of imputed righteousness was definitely one of the key doctrines in the dispute between Wesley and Whitfield. This doctrine of imputed righteousness was also directly tied to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Substitution meant that Christ was our substitute. He took our sins and we took his righteousness.  This is why Wesley opposed the Calvinists in the matter of substitutionary atonement.

          First, he supposed that if Christians thought themselves already righteous then there would be no motivation to move on to perfection.[21] Being that he thought this way, Wesley engendered a view of the atonement that fit his doctrinal thesis and procured a foundation for his views on the work of Christ. In another place Maddox writes that, “these rejections (of substitutionary atonement) led to occasional charges that he had given up the atonement per se.”[22] But this was not the case. Wesley was not as clear on some of his doctrinal distinctions as one might desire. John Deschner reiterates well, “It is true that Wesley’s theology was not a settled system of doctrine, as Calvin’s was.”[23] While Wesley may not have had exquisite perfection in his beliefs, he did give us enough to understand his thought.         

          Another reason for the quarrel over substitutionary language was the nature of the atonement. As noted previously, Wesley saw that substitutionary atonement was the first link in a chain. It was followed by imputed righteousness and limited atonement; Wesley would not stand for that definition or comprehension of atonement. For Wesley, the atonement was representative of humanity and not substitutionary for humanity. As Maddox puts it, “Christ did not take our place in punishment, his death took the place of our punishment.” [24]  This small distinction may sound minute, but for Wesley it was the difference between God being the devil and God being God.  Wesley was wise enough to perceive that if substitutionary atonement was true then it would lead to one of two things: Universal Definite Atonement or Limited or Definite Atonement. That is, either Christ died for all men and therefore all would be saved, or Christ died only for those who repent and believe.[25] Wesley clearly did not believe that all humans would eventually be saved and so he emphatically denied Universal Definite Atonement. How could Christ be one’s substitute and then that person go to hell? This was impossible. Wanting to avoid the Calvinistic notion of election, Wesley also denounced Limited/Definite Atonement. Since Wesley believed that this was not scriptural, he advocated his position against substitutionary atonement with much enthusiasm. What Wesley probably did not know is that Calvinistic election does not have to be directly correlated to the atonement. In other words, Christ could have died for all and still ordained to only save the elect. This viewpoint is demonstrated in such persuasions as Amyraldianism or Hypothetical Universalism. However, most Calvinists consider this view to be incoherent and contradictory.

          Wesley’s greatest defense against the notion of substitutionary atonement was biblical texts with phrases such as for all and the world that he associated with Christ dying for all men.  Peering into a few of the key passages in this debate will help us better understand the foundations of the differing parties.

          Wesley commonly advocated verses like the following in his assault on limited atonement.

“Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died,” (Rom. 14:15,) — a clear proof that Christ died, not only for those that are saved, but also for them that perish: He is “the Saviour of the world;” (John 4:42;) He is “the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world;” (John 1:29;) “He is the propitiation, not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world;” (1 John 2:2;) “He,” the living God, “is the Savior of all men;” (1 Timothy 4:10;) “He gave himself a ransom for all;” (1 Tim. 2:6;) “He tasted death for every man.” (Heb. 2:9.)[26]

          John 3:16 was prime battling ground, stating, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”[27] Wesley would interpret this verse quantitatively to mean that Christ died for every man in the world.[28] A Calvinist would answer that if Christ died for these people then it would be unjust for God to send them to hell.[29] Calvinists typically look at this passage in light v19 and interpret world in a qualitative sense rather than a quantitative sense. That is to say, that God sent his Son to die for this evil world that did not deserve his sacrifice.

          Calvinists such as George Whitfield would present verses to Wesley such as,

“The righteous one, my servant, will make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. He was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”[30] “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[31]  “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”[32] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”[33] “Care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”[34] 

In response to verses like these that show the particular redemptive nature of the atonement, Wesley stated:

Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this; whatever its true meaning be. This cannot be its true meaning. Do you ask, “What is its true meaning then?” If I say, “ I know not,” you have gained nothing; for there are many scriptures the true sense whereof neither you nor I shall know till death is swallowed up in victory. But this I know, better it were to say it had no sense, than to say it had such a sense as this. It cannot mean, whatever it mean besides, that the God of truth is a liar. Let it mean what it will, it cannot mean that the Judge of all the world is unjust.[35]

          Besides the stark disagreements between Wesley and Calvinists like George Whitfield, there were areas of agreement as well. Wesley even said that, “His theology came within a hairs breadth of Calvinism.”[36] Although this should probably be taken with a large grain of salt, it is fair to say that Wesley and the Calvinists share some of the same ground. Both sides believe that Jesus died to save. Both sides believe that Christ’s death was defending God’s justice and showing love simultaneously.  And both Wesley and the Calvinists believe that the atonement of Christ is a necessary and key Christian doctrine. But, the differences between Wesley and the Calvinists do matter and should not be thrown to the side.

          In conclusion, we have seen that Wesley views the atonement of Christ as an immeasurably central doctrine to the Christian faith. Wesley believed that the atonement of Christ was the only way for God to pardon our sin and reconcile us back to himself. Wesley held that Christ died to satisfy God’s wrath so that God would not have to satisfy his wrath on our sin. Also he asserted that the atonement was universal in its nature. This was quite different from the biblical teaching of    the Calvinists whom he opposed. They held that Christ died for our sin to relinquish the wrath of God. Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us and our sin was imputed to him. They believed that Christ’s atonement was for his bride, the church, and not for the world that rejects him. Wesley saw that these views did not fit with his picture of God and advocated against them. Wesley went into dangerous territory with his view of the atonement that led him to throw aside imputed righteousness and possibly justification by faith alone. If this is the case should Wesley be considered apostate along with Rome? Luther would say so!

 

Bibliography

Calvin, John. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volume Set). 1559             translation ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Print.

Deschner, John. Wesley’s Christology: An Interpretation. Dallas: Southern Methodist             University Press, 1960. Print.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology - 3 Volume Set. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.             Eerdmans, 1968. Print.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 2009.

Luther, Martin, What Luther says, 710-11.

Maddox, Randy L.. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Kingswood             Series). Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. Print.

Wesley, John. A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Law (6 Jan. 1756).

- - -  Sermons of John Wesley: The Lord our Righteousness. (Nov. 24, 1765)

- - -. A letter to James Hervey. (Oct.15, 1756).

- - -. Letter to John Newton, 14 May, 1765

- - -. Works of John Wesley: (Works of John Wesley). New York: Abingdon Press,             1987. Print. Sermon 7 The Way To the Kingdom

- - -. Works of John Wesley: Sermons IV : 115-151 (Works of John Wesley). New             York:             Abingdon Press, 1987. Print.

Whitfield, George. Select Sermons of George Whitefield With an Account of his Life by             J. C. Ryle (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958 with Ryle’s Life written in 1873),


[1] Wesley, John. A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Law (6 Jan. 1756).

[2] Maddox, Randy L.. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Kingswood Series). Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. Print. P. 97

[3] Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Leicester, England: Crossway Books, 2009. John 3:16

[4] ESV 2 Corinthians 5:19

[5] Wesley, John. Works of John Wesley: Sermons IV : 115-151 (Works of John Wesley). New York: Abingdon Press, 1987. Print. Sermon 128 Free Grace

[6] Calvin, John. Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volume Set). 1559 translation ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Print.

[7] Wesley, John. A letter to James Hervey. (Oct.15, 1756).

[8] Wesley, John. A letter to James Hervey. (Oct.15, 1756).

[9] Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 201—Quoting Wesley’s Minutes, June 25, 1744.

[10] Kenneth J. Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997) 154.

[11] Wesley, John. A letter to James Hervey. (Oct.15, 1756).

[12] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 172.

[13] Crowe Daniel, Wesley on Justification.

[14] Wesley, John.  “Justification by Faith.” No Pages.  1999.

[15] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994),172.

[16] It is Christ’s righteousness only in the sense that he gave us the grace to go and work it out ourselves.

[17] Luther, Martin, What Luther says, 710-11.

[18] Luther, Martin, What Luther says, 710-11.

[19] Maddox, Randy L.. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Kingswood Series). Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. Print. P. 104

[20] Select Sermons of George Whitefield With an Account of his Life by J. C. Ryle (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958 with Ryle’s Life written in 1873), p. 129

[21] Maddox, Randy L.. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Kingswood Series). Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. Print. P. 104

[22] Maddox, Randy L.. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Kingswood Series). Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. Print. P. 102

[23] Deschner, John. Wesley’s Christology: An Interpretation. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1960. Print. P. 17

[24] Deschner, John. Wesley’s Christology: An Interpretation. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1960. Print. P. 17

[25] Maddox, Randy L.. Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Kingswood Series). Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994. Print. P. 104

[26] Wesley, John. Works of John Wesley: Sermons IV : 115-151 (Works of John Wesley). New York: Abingdon Press, 1987. Print. Sermon 128 Free Grace

[27] ESV John 3:16

[28] Wesley, John. Works of John Wesley: (Works of John Wesley). New York: Abingdon Press, 1987. Print. Sermon 7 The Way To the Kingdom

[29] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology - 3 Volume Set. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968. Print. V.3 P.329-330

[30] Isaiah 53:10,11,5

[31] ESV Mark 10:45

[32] ESV Ephesians 5:25

[33]ESV John 10:11 

[34] ESV Acts 20:28

[35] Wesley, John. Works of John Wesley: Sermons IV : 115-151 (Works of John Wesley). New York: Abingdon Press, 1987. Print. Sermon 128 Free Grace

[36] Wesley, John. Letter to John Newton, 14 May, 1765

Notes

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