In his book Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology Randy Maddox presents his views on the theology of John Wesley. One idea that he presents throughout his book is the idea that the theology of John Wesley changed over time. Throughout his life his theology was developing, so at one point in his life Wesley may have believed a certain way about one thing only to change his mind at a later point in time. This is an important concept to keep in mind as one reads through Maddox’s book. Another important thing to keep in mind while reading Maddox’s view of Wesley’s theology is that his take on what Wesley has to say is shaped by his own personal theology. The theology of Maddox is one that places important emphasis upon something that he refers to as “responsible grace,” from which the title of his book receives its name. The phrase “responsible grace” is a play on the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke of the Church issuing out what he called “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer’s issue with the church was that it had become lax when it came to sin. Believers could claim the grace of God and yet feel free to indulge in whatever sin they chose to so long as they came back to the church for forgiveness. “Responsible grace” is the opposite of this. It shows that while it is true that the grace of God is a free gift, it is not something to be abused or misused. It is God’s work, but we have work to do as well. The idea that we play a part in our own salvation is one of the key ideas that Maddox presents in his interpretation of Wesley’s theology.
Maddox’s book must be compared to another book on the theology of John Wesley. This second book is written by Kenneth Collins is titled The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Like Maddox, Collins is influenced by his own theology as he attempts to present the theology of Wesley. Collins does not focus on the issue of “responsible grace” as Maddox does. Rather than placing much emphasis upon the part that we play in our own salvation, Collins focuses more on the idea that grace is a gift of God, something that we receive because of the unconditional love of God. He does not say that we are not responsible for anything, but he does emphasize that we cannot do anything on our own without the grace of God working in us. Collins and Maddox both offer differing views on the theology of John Wesley.
Chapter one of Maddox’s book is on human knowledge of God and discusses the revelation of God to the world as an act of grace. Maddox presents what he believes to be Wesley’s views on both the universal revelation of God and the Christian revelation. Maddox writes that “Wesley was convinced that no one had access to God apart from the gracious restoration of Divine self-revelation” (29). He believed that by grace God has revealed himself to us, and that even by natural revelation of God, we are still subject to the grace of God because it is only by the grace of God that we naturally able to conceive of God. Maddox goes on to say that Wesley “also believed that this restoration took place in a continuum of progressively more definitive expressions, beginning with a basic knowledge that was universally available and reaching definitive expression in Christ” (29). This means that while by the grace of God we may receive a general knowledge of God through natural revelation, this natural revelation should only be viewed as the beginning of a process leading to Christian revelation which would then require a response from the individual on whether or not to embrace this Christian revelation. This leads to question of what the fate of those who have not received the Christian revelation would be. Maddox says that Wesley rejected any idea of another chance for people after death. Wesley believed both in the justice of God and in the universal love of God. Wesley said that this was all up to the “mercy of God, who is the God of heathens as well as of Christians” (33). He believed that it was not for us to say that those who had not been given a chance in this life would be excluded from heaven. Wesley recognized the dilemma of what God’s response would be to those who had not received the revelation of Christ. He saw the problem of a God who condemns those who had not been given a chance and a God who receives all who have not received Christ. Maddox says that later in life Wesley believed that God would judge all people by the amount of light they had received and how they had responded to it.
Collins also affirms Wesley’s belief in natural revelation, saying that Wesley believed that salvation began with prevenient grace, and that mankind devoid of the grace of God at work would be unable to even conceive of God. All natural revelation is a result of God’s grace. Collins quotes Wesley, saying, “It is undeniable, that he has fixed in man, in every man, his umpire, conscience; an inward judge, which passes sentence both on his passions and actions, either approving them or condemning them” (77-8).
Maddox also refers to the “Wesleyan quadrilateral,” saying that Wesley used scripture, reason, tradition, and experience to determine that which was theologically sound doctrine. Maddox also says that Wesley tended to favor a combination of scripture and reason. He used these two elements of the quadrilateral most often. Collins did not seem to be interested in discussing the Wesleyan quadrilateral in his book.
Maddox and Collins both speak of Wesley’s views on the attributes of God. Collins lists the essential attributes of God as being love, holiness, eternity, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. He believes that the most important of these to Wesley however was the attribute of love. Collins agrees with Mildred Bangs Wynkoop that in order to truly be Wesleyan “the love of God must be at the heart of this enterprise” (20). Collins seeks to prove this by quoting Wesley from the later years of his life, saying, “But, blessed be God…we know there is nothing deeper, there is nothing better in heaven or earth, than love! There cannot be, unless there were something higher than the God of love!” (20). Collins also writes that Wesley seems to have perceived the holiness of God and the love of God to be at tension with each other at times.
Maddox says that Wesley describes both the natural attributes of God as well as the moral attributes of God. He says, “By ‘natural attributes,’ Wesley meant those characteristics that are definitive of the Divine nature; without these characteristics, God would not be God” (51). Maddox says that Wesley believed that God was “spirit” and but this did not mean that God did not have affections, as some claimed. Wesley did not believe that God’s sovereignty was jeopardized by His ability to love and perhaps be changed in one way or another by this love. According to Maddox, Wesley also believed that God is eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. As far as God’s moral attributes are concerned, Maddox claims that Wesley believed “that God’s moral attributes converge in two central virtues: justice and goodness (or love)” (53).
Collins and Maddox both discuss Wesley’s view on predestination. Collins writes, “One of the more important corollaries of the biblical truth that the foreknowledge of God is not determinative is the grace-infused freedom of humanity” (29). Wesley was very much against the Calvinist ideas of election, believing that while God had fore-knowledge He did choose before the creation of the world a select few to be saved and everyone else to be damned. Wesley believed that the Calvinist interpretations of the Scripture on these points put “the integrity of the gospel” at stake. Collins quotes Wesley, saying, “Wesley believed that the doctrine of predestination, as held by some of his contemporaries, ‘directly tends to destroy that holiness which is the end of all the ordinances of God.’” (31).
Maddox also discusses Wesley’s views on predestination. According to Maddox, the main issue that Calvinists have with Wesleyanism is that they believe Wesleyanism to have too high of a level of optimism at what mankind has the potential to become in this life. Calvinists believe that everyone sins in thought, word, and deed every day of their lives, regardless of whether or not they have the Spirit of God within them. Calvinists saw Wesley’s view of holiness as being too optimistic. Yes, those who had been saved would eventually become completely holy, but this would only be after death. Wesley believed that holiness was a possibility in this life, and only after one died and went to heaven. The issue that Wesley had with the Calvinists was a different one. Maddox presents before us the idea that “the fundamental difference between Wesley and his Calvinist opponents really lies more in their respective understanding of the nature of God than in their evaluation of the human situation” (56). Wesley believed that the Calvinists believed in an inappropriate understanding of the nature of God. He saw their view of predestination to be in conflict with the most important attribute of God, His love. Wesley simply could not believe in a loving and just God who would send his own creation to hell for no apparent reason other than that he could. He believed that God’s love extended to all, and not just a few. Wesley believed that the election of God was something that was dependent upon salvation. Election followed salvation.
Maddox also talks about Wesley’s belief in Original Sin. In this section of his book he presents two different Wesleyan beliefs on the nature of sin, the first being that of original sin, and the second being the idea of “inbeing sin.” Original sin is inherited from our first parents who sinned. With this idea is the belief that because of this original sin all of mankind is subject sin or born in sin so that they cannot help but turn away from God. Inbeing sin is the idea that sin is an individual choice that we all make. This does not necessarily mean that original sin does not exist, but it does mean that we are responsible for the sins that we choose to commit. Maddox again, as he does throughout his book, makes a point that the theology of John Wesley gradually changed over time. Maddox says that over time Wesley became more and more uncomfortable with the idea of original sin, but that he never stopped believing in the truth of this doctrine. Maddox says that the reason Wesley became uncomfortable overtime with the idea of original sin was not because he did not believe in it, but because he struggled with the idea of a person being judged for a sin they did not commit. Maddox writes, “Wesley’s growing uncomfortableness with the notion of inherited guilt was not due to any doubt about universal human sinfulness, but rather was an expression of his life-long conviction that God deals responsibly with each individual” (75).
Collins also discusses Wesley’s views on Original Sin. Collins claims that Wesley believes God created all of the creation good, but humanity sinned and caused all of creation to fall into disrepair. Because humanity sinned then, it has been stuck in sin ever since. Wesley believed that the primary sin of humanity was not pride, pride was the sin of the devil, but in having a distorted relationship with God. The emphasis of this is again on the love of God. Sin is the absence of the reception of God’s love. Collins shows how Wesley was always a firm believer in the doctrine of Original Sin and in Total Depravity. Collins writes, “Wesley declared that all who deny this vital doctrine, for whatever reason and with whatever justifications, ‘are but heathens still.’” (65). While Maddox attempts to show that Wesley had a least a few similar beliefs as the Eastern Church, Collins shows just how different Wesley’s theology was from that of the Eastern Church, particularly when it came to idea of Original Sin. However, Collins points out that Wesley also differed from the Western Church in his understanding of grace.
Both Collins and Maddox bring up the concept of prevenient grace in their books. Collins writes that there are two aspects of prevenient grace for Wesley. The first is that prevenient grace comes before both justifying and sanctifying grace. The second is in Wesley’s belief that all grace is prevenient grace because all grace is initiated by God. In speaking of Wesley’s understanding of grace, Collins shows how Wesley believed in co-operant grace, meaning that we ourselves have some responsibility when it comes to our own salvation. We work with God. However, Collins is also quick to point out that Wesley also believed in free grace, meaning that even what would be referred to as co-operant grace was a result of the free grace of God.
In Maddox’s discussion on prevenient grace he says that Wesley believed that prevenient grace was only the first step in the process of restoring grace. Prevenient always has the larger picture in mind. As far as the idea of co-operant grace is concerned, Maddox says he prefers to call this “responsible grace.” He also writes, “In short, Wesley did indeed affirm a role for meaningful human participation in salvation. However, he always maintained that this role was grounded in God’s gracious empowering, not our inherent abilities” (92).
A discussion of Wesley’s theology would not be complete without bringing up the doctrine of entire sanctification. Amazingly enough, Maddox seems to a certain extent avoid talking about entire sanctification, while Collins speaks quite a bit about this. This again is due to their own theologies influencing them as they write about John Wesley’s theology. Maddox seems to be more prone to the idea of salvation and sanctification as a process in the life of the believer. However, Maddox does discuss the ideas of “final justification” and “sanctification proper” in relation to “first justification” and “the New Birth.” Maddox admits that Wesley believed that Holy Spirit empowered the believer prior to salvation to fulfill the tasks required of the holy life of the believer. However, Maddox still emphasizes his idea of “responsible grace,” saying, “[Wesley] was simply insisting that God’s gracious empowering acceptance enhances rather than replaces our responsive and responsible growth in holiness” (171-2).
Collins says that Wesley saw holiness as the end of religion. He does not hesitate to say that Wesley believed in the idea of Christian perfection. However, he also point out how Wesley believed that there was a sanctification process that led up to Christian perfection. Collins also says that Wesley believed that humans were incapable of being absolutely perfect. As long as they were alive, believers would live with infirmities. He writes, “Those who are perfected in love are still subject to ignorance and mistakes, a condition that is inseparable from their finiteness” (299). Wesley also believed that there was no state of grace from which a believer could not fall. Wesley believed that those who had been made perfect in love had not lost their ability to sin, but had lost their desire to sin. Collins shows how Wesley believed that those who had been made perfect in love received the power from the Holy Spirit to longer be subject to willful sins. In this sense, then, one who no longer sinned willfully because their desire to sin had been removed truly had by God’s grace been made perfect.
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