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The Theology of John Wesley

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Kenneth J. Collins offers an insightful study that blends the historical and contemporary in The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, published in 2007 by Abingdon Press. The book is Contemporary in that Collins makes a strong case for the relevancy of Wesley's theology and legacy for today. The author is quick to point out that John Wesley was not a systematic theologian, thus some theologians and scholars find him easy to dismiss, while others view him through their preferred theological traditions.

Collins argues that Wesley crafted a theology that was extremely practical and organized around the Ordo Salutis. The order of salvation is a theological term outlining God working in the process of salvation that liberates man from sin. It makes sense that the theology of Methodism's founder would emerge into a practical and invitational construct, since Wesley's mission was a powerful evangelical revival in conflict with a nominal folk Christianity that infected much of eighteenth century England.

The influence of the Protestant Reformers is heavily visible in John Wesley's views on justification and the atonement. While some liberal Methodist scholars have attacked the penal substitution theory of atonement, Collins reminds us that the substitutionary death of Christ was central to Methodist theology, just as it was for the Reformers. Collins notes, "Drawing the relation between the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and Christ, Wesley reveals that at Calvary, the lamb of God bore 'those punishments by which our peace, our reconciliation to God, was to be purchased.'"

Wesley's views on justifying faith mirrored Martin Luther and John Calvin. Wesley's own new birth experience occurred at Aldersgate in 1738 while listening to a reading of Luther's preface of the Epistle to the Romans. In his agreement with Calvin on justification Wesley declared, "I do not differ from him a hair's breadth." Collins goes on to state, "Wesley believed that this teaching was also expressed in the ancient authors; especially in Origen, St. Cyprian, St. Chrysostom, Hilary, Basil, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine."

While justification and the new birth offered a measure of assurance, there was a greater assurance in the witness of the Spirit to the life of the believer. "For Wesley, the doctrine of assurance, the direct witness in particular, was so vital to the Christian faith that he not only referred to it as 'one grand part of the testimony which God have given to [the Methodists] to bear to all mankind,' but also considered it to be an important element of the proper Christian faith," says Collins. Wesley himself declared:

By "the testimony of the Spirit" I mean an inward impression of the soul, whereby the spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.

Wesley's most controversial theological teaching is entire sanctification, or Christian perfection. It often evokes charges of works righteousness from critics. Collins skillfully traces Wesley's view on sanctification and explains the strong influence of English Reformers as well as the Eastern (catholic) Fathers. Wesley's views on entire sanctification also show a blending of Protestant free grace and the more Catholic view of co-operant grace. Entire sanctification is in part a reaction to antinomianism, where people disregarded God's law because of a belief in cheap grace or a "once saved always saved" mentality.

The passion and desire for holiness suffered, and Wesley's ministry stressed the need for believers to mature and grow in their Christian walk. "Christian perfection, then, is another term for holy love. It is holy in that believers so marked by this grace are free from the impurities and the drag of sin. It is loving in that believers now love God as their goal of their being, and they love their neighbors as they should," says Collins.

One of the strong points of this book is Collins's end of chapter sections titled "Today and Tomorrow," where he looks at how Wesleyan theology might shape matters of contemporary debate and significance. Collins even offers a rebuke to Wesley's economic views on wealth, however well intentioned. Collins explains:

Arguing ostensibly from a larger theme of proper stewardship, Wesley posited a "zero sum" world in which the maxim, "if the poor have too little it must because the rich have too much," by and large ruled the day. As such, not only did he fail to recognize how capitalism actually works in a growing economy, even in a mercantilist one, but also his concern for stewardship, of what he called "robbing the poor," often developed upon such petty matters as the size and shape of women's bonnets (and he forgets that poor workers often made these accessories) or upon his favorite moral foibles of censure, the consumption of alcohol.

Collins also sheds considerable light on Wesley's sacramental theology, his anti- slavery views, and his assistance to the poor. What emerges from this book is an excellent framework for Wesley's theology, with emphasis placed on Wesley's own voice. The connected theme of holiness and grace is a theology that arose out of nothing less than love for the lost sheep and the commitment to authentic conversion in the life of the believer.

The Theology of John Wesley is a strong reminder that Methodism's emergence and character was at its root an evangelical reform movement. Collins even cites the acid test by Methodist missionary and theologian E. Stanley Jones on the validity of a Christian church being "whether it can not only convert people from the outside to membership but also produce conversion within its own membership. When it cannot do both, it is on its way out." It's an inspirational reminder that many Methodists need to reclaim their rich and vibrant heritage and heed the advice from their founder "to preach Jesus Christ, and him crucified."

Perhaps nothing is more inspirational than the author's finishing remarks where he closes with a moving invitation for the broken, hurting, and marginalized to find real liberty in the Good News Wesley preached. That kind of impassioned invitation portrays a serious scholar with a pastoral heart, and nothing else is more Methodist or faithful to its founder.