by Rev. Laceye C. Warner*
Above all else, John Wesley emphasized God’s love and grace offered to all. Wesley tirelessly encouraged the people called Methodists to seek the one thing necessary: the renewal of the image of God in persons through receiving and responding to God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. While Wesley asserted that God saves, he also acknowledged the role of good works in response to God’s grace freely given.
Wesley offered numerous comprehensive sets of instructions to the people called Methodists and beyond in the forms of letters, journals, sermons, pamphlets, and advice. He distilled the essence of the Christian faith and introduced innovations and energy to the Church of England through the Methodist renewal movement.
The pervasive theme stretching throughout Wesley’s life and work is receiving and responding to God’s love and grace. Despite his many opinions and rivals — including George Whitefield and sometimes his brother, Charles — as well as his relative marginalization within the Church of England, John Wesley emphasized God’s love and grace.
In the midst of his compulsive organizational skills, intense work ethic, and consistent doubts, Wesley also responded to God’s love and grace through diligent participation in works of piety and mercy. From visiting persons imprisoned for debts to visiting women widowed in poverty, offering education, no- and low-interest loans, as well as medical care — Wesley never separated faith from works.
A defining characteristic of the Methodist movement throughout is the integration of faith and works, including to and with widows, orphans and strangers — particularly enslaved peoples and immigrants in Great Britain and the United States. In this way, Wesley highlights the role of works of piety and works of charity as means of grace within Christian tradition.
In his sermon “Scripture Way of Salvation,” published in 1765, Wesley briefly describes works of piety and mercy:
"But what good works are those, the practice of which you affirm to be necessary to sanctification? First, all works of piety; such as public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet; receiving the supper of the Lord; searching the Scriptures, by hearing, reading, meditating; and using such a measure of fasting or abstinence as our bodily health allows.
Secondly, all works of mercy; whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men; such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted; such as the endeavouring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to confirm the wavering, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succour the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the repentance, and these the "fruits meet for repentance," which are necessary to full sanctification. (John Wesley Sermon 43, The Scripture Way of Salvation, 9-10)
Wesley provides helpful clarification related to good works. He reminds the reader that works following justification, receiving God’s forgiveness and repentance, respond to God’s love and grace in gratitude. This contrasts with works prior to justification that can lead to the false perception of earning God’s love, which is freely given. Good works following justification demonstrate sanctification and the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.
“Above all, if they [good works/practicing the means of grace] are used as a kind of commutation for the religion they were designed to subserve, it is not easy to find words for the enormous folly and wickedness of thus turning God's arms against himself; of keeping Christianity out of the heart by those very means which were ordained for the bringing it in.” (John Wesley Sermon 16, Means of Grace, II. 2)
Wesley understood the simple beauty of Scripture’s message, which he summed up in two words: faith and salvation.
“It is easily discerned, that these two little words, I mean faith and salvation, include the substance of all the Bible, the marrow, as it were, of the whole Scripture.” (John Wesley Sermon 43, The Scripture Way of Salvation, 2)
Wesley spent his life both learning and teaching about God’s love and grace with others. He sought to enjoy and embody God’s love and grace in response to God’s gift of salvation through means of grace.
"Ye are saved." It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.” (John Wesley Sermon 43, The Scripture Way of Salvation, I.1)
“Many Voices, One Faith” is a forum for sharing theological perspectives on topics of interest in The United Methodist Church. This commentary responds to the question: “What are John Wesley’s essential instructions for Methodists today?”
The Rev. Laceye C. Warner is Associate Dean for Wesleyan Engagement and the Royce and Jane Reynolds Associate Professor of the Practice of Evangelism and Methodist Studies at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.
“Many Voices, One Faith” is designed to put the voices of the church in conversation with one another and build an understanding of what it means to be United Methodist today. Read more commentaries.