This is the Way
A Wesleyan Look at Soteriology
Salvation is the gift God gives us through the atoning work of Jesus Christ from Bethelhem to the cross, resurrected, and ascended. The work of the Holy Spirit, who regenerates us into reconciliation with God, enables faith, and works to sanctify us into the fullness of holiness given freely and enacting salvation. The Church catholic calls people unto salvation and proclaims the Gospel message of salvation in the Kingdom of God, but there is often a difference in or emphasis by various denominations and traditions. Within Wesleyan theology, salvation is offered as a completely free gift and, as a gift, humanity is free to choose that gift and free to reject the gift given. For the Wesleyan, soteriology is so central that the doctrines of scripture, humanity, and sin are all influenced by that concern. But how do Wesleyan Holiness people view salvation and what is the purpose of salvation? To answer that question, it will be important to understand a definition of salvation and the process leading to salvation. This includes the inevitable tensions in a Wesleyan soteriology between the therapeutic and the juridical (the tension between healing and legal concerns). A Wesleyan soteriology is also concerned with what is accomplished through salvation. Finally, what is the response to salvation?
Succinctly defining salvation in a Wesleyan context is difficult because of the many concerns and needs addressed in a Wesleyan spirituality. Avoiding oversimplification requires a dense packing of ideas into a small space. Wesleyan soteriology “implies the entire Christian life, from new birth to death and eternal life.” (Leclerc, loc.3429) Salvation includes the justification, regeneration, redemption, reconciliation, sanctification, and ultimately, glorification. (Leclerc, ch. 7 and Maddox, ch. 7) Salvation is not simply a means to avoid hell for Wesleyans. Instead, it encompasses the entirety of life and reaches into the community. Wesley’s own question was centered on how humanity can recover the moral image of God in their lives. (Maddox 172) This thought of being a lifetime of graceful transformation changes the way Wesleyans see the process of salvation.
Because of the holistic nature of Wesley’s approach to salvation as a saving into the hope of being a new creature living in a new creation reality, the process of salvation for Wesleyans is difficult to think of in a specific order, or the ordo salutis (order of salvation), instead it is more consistent to see the process of salvation as a via salutis, the way of salvation. (Maddox 154) Maddox highlights this emphasis by stating; “Wesley himself used “way” to describe Christian life in the titles of such major sermons as ‘The Way to the Kingdom’ (1746), ‘The Scripture Way of Salvation’ (1765), and ‘The More Excellent Way’ (1787).” (Maddox 154) Maddox does mention in his footnote that Wesley most likely used order and way interchangeably, but with the separation of time, contemporary Wesleyans can see salvation as a via salutis and that context is more consistent with the understanding of salvation as a lifelong journey.
As a journey, Wesley also leaned into the therapeutic nature of salvation as healing. (Wynkoop, loc. 2636) Healing becomes important as we consider the elements which become part of our response to grace on the via salutis. Undergirding the entirety of this journey is prevenient grace. Dunning writes: “It creates both awareness and capacity, but neither is saving unless responded to or exercised by one’s grace-endowed freedom.” (Dunning, loc. 5652) The Holy Spirit illumines the grace offered, but it is not salvific until we respond to that gift freely given. While prevenient grace empowers and enables the human being to respond to God’s grace offered, it is the responsible move toward that offer that allows one to take other steps along the journey. Repentance is a necessary step as it is the step in which we reorient ourselves toward God. “In essence, repentance is our personal acknowledgement of our spiritual need, as we are awakened to it by the Spirit.” (Maddox 161) This allows us to place our trust fully in God which is faith. (Maddox 124) Through that faith, we are justified and regenerated, thus tackling any tension between a legal concern raised by sin and the therapeutic concern of sins effects. The tension can be seen in Colossians chapter two when Paul speaks of the legal demands of sin (not God) being set aside by the work of the Cross. The therapeutic is seen in the fact that while sin has legal demands, God heals this through a relational method (the Cross). For Wesley, repentance could be a lifelong response, as the believer still has the capacity for sin. Repentance can also be seen as a response to the forgiveness offered by God. Within a via salutis, this seemingly out-of-order move is perfectly logical. This healing analogy is key to understanding some of the accomplishments of salvation.
At its simplest, Wesleyan soteriology accomplishes reconciliation between humanity and God and is a recapitulation of creation toward the original goodness declared by God in Genesis. Atonement is not within the scope of this essay except to state that the efficacy of atonement extends to all of creation. Although, it should be noted that theodicies and theories such as penal substitution are not consistent with a Wesleyan spirituality. Dunning explicitly writes why this is incompatible, as it rejects responsible grace or universal atonement. “The logical conclusion of the penal theory is either universalism or a limited atonement. If Christ suffers the penalty for sin, the justice of God is satisfied, and therefore nothing further is needed.” (Dunning, loc. 6064) Without the need to pay something to God, we are reconciled through the work of God when we respond to the grace offered freely. We experience the recapitulation enacted on the cross as we grow in grace on our lifelong via salutis. Tim Gaines writes about how our responses continue to remake us and work toward God’s new creation by speaking to the fact that our work is converted as we journey as we are; “being converted by love toward God’s new creation project.” (Gaines, loc. 317) But the Wesleyan response to salvation goes beyond responsible acceptance and the embracing of healing.
The response to salvation within a Wesleyan spirituality includes a sacramental life. Beyond being saved, walking the via salutis, and moving toward glorification, the Christian also participates in the means of grace. This includes prayer, study, good works, and the official sacraments of the Church. In baptism, there is a response by the believer that ushers them into the family of God as she or he is washed in a picture of giving over in solidarity. The sacramental participation of baptism extends to the infant offered to receive and be invited into the family through faithful parents and the community. More regularly, we are invited to celebrate Eucharist with the faith community. In receiving the Eucharist, we reflect the invitation to relationship as we gather at the Table underscoring the grace offered and responded to in love.
A Wesleyan soteriology is all-encompassing as it is the chief concern for humanity in a Wesleyan framework. Salvation is a gift offered by God. Humanity can respond to that gift through the power of the Spirit and prevenient grace. The juridical demands of sin are handled therapeutically by God through reconciling self-sacrifice. This allows the human to journey in salvation as relational holiness in God. Christians are invited to participate in means of grace and communion as we grow in the grace of God through love. This is the way of salvation.
Dunning, H. Ray. Grace, Faith, Holiness. Beacon Hill Press, 2011.
Gaines, Timothy R. Christian Ethics. The Foundry Publishing, 2021.
Leclerc, Diane. Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology. Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2010.
Maddox, Randy L. Responsible Grace : John Wesley’s Practical Theology. Kingswood Books, 1994. 3487778.
Wynkoop, Mildred Bangs. A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism, Second Edition. Nazarene Publishing House, 2015.