The Gifts of Wesleyan Theology

The Gifts of Wesleyan Theology

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Wesleyans have sometimes been accused of not contributing to the larger Church’s discussions about theology because we focus so much on the doctrine of salvation. And to be honest, if we are to be accused of anything, that’s not a bad accusation to make! We are very much interested in God’s saving work, both in individuals, the church, society, and ultimately in a new creation. But to say that we don’t contribute to the church’s theological exploration is simply not true.

Like every other part of the Church universal, we share basic Christian beliefs. We believe in God the creator of all things, revealed eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe that the Word—the second Person of the Trinity—became incarnate (one of us!) in the Virgin Mary. We believe that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection not only took place in time, but changed everything; his death a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and his resurrection as the launch of the new creation in which all things will be made new. We believe that Jesus not only established the Church to be his Body, but that God has given us the Holy Spirit, his very presence with us.

In other words, Wesleyans can affirm the creeds of the Church without any hesitation. It’s this basic Christianity that Wesley called “scriptural Christianity” and outlined in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit.” He famously said (quoting Scripture) in this sermon, “If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand.” Or to put it another way, if you believe in the revelation of God in Christ, in this scriptural Christianity, let’s walk and work together.

So what have Wesleyans contributed to the Church’s theological exploration since the days that the Wesley brothers and their army of lay preachers fanned across the British Isles in the eighteenth century? It’s not something new. Wesley said of theology, “if it’s new, it’s wrong.” Given this, we’ve arguably contributed something different, not something new. We’ve contributed a renewed interest in certain emphases of already established Christian belief.

But the early Wesleyans did this within the framework of the Church of England, the church in which the Wesley brothers were formed, ministered, and in which they both died. And this is vital. Acknowledging that the Wesley brothers were Anglicans is more important than it may seem, because it makes it clear that Methodists—on their own—do not have a unique theology. Methodism was a movement of the Spirit to renew, or better yet to restore, the Church and its mission. And so the Wesleys didn’t create a completely unique “Methodist theology” because they neither had to nor even wanted to. The basics were already there. The gift of the Wesleyan movement is renewed emphases, not new ideas.

So then the question is, what are key Wesleyan emphases? Wesley said that, “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three—that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness” (The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained). Later in his ministry he wrote to Robert Carr Brackenbury saying that Christian perfection, or holiness of heart and life, “is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly God appeared to have raised us up.” But none of this was new–Christians had taught these doctrines for centuries, even the doctrine of holiness.

But in the Wesley brothers’ day—and even in ours—renewed emphasis on certain points of the Christian message was needed. These might be described broadly as grace and holiness. For Wesleyans, grace is not something that is static, but rather dynamic. Grace transforms. Grace empowers. Grace changes lives. And for Wesleyans—just like Anglicans—grace is nothing less than the power of the Holy Spirit. So it’s not only dynamic, it’s relational. Some in Protestant circles had forgotten about the dynamic power of grace and had simply described it in a passive way, often as God’s unmerited favor. And while Wesleyans believe that it includes God’s unmerited favor, it’s transforming power—the very power of the Holy Spirit—is it’s primary attribute.

Secondly, the Wesleyans bring a renewed emphasis on holiness. Walking with Jesus changes you. The Church has taught about making saints since the very beginning. Holiness is found throughout Scripture. But some had forgotten that God’s call to holiness, or better yet his promise of holiness, is something that can be experienced now. We aren’t simply called to be holy after we die, but to be as Christ here and now. This optimism, or hope, can be found throughout Wesleyan theology, based not on human effort or trying to downplay the effect of sin, but by focusing on the power of God, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead and launched the new creation can change your life, my life, even now.

These are just two emphases from Wesleyan theology. There are more! But like every emphasis in our movement, every one of them points to the beauty of “the faith once delivered,” a faith that transforms, that makes us whole, and that calls all the world to salvation in Jesus Christ.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Wesleyan theology beautifully bears witness to Christian orthodoxy, consider our new resource, The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024). Included are 213 articles of faith centered around:

  1. Section I
    God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Section II
    Creation—Image Given and Marred
  3. Section III
    Revelation—The Image Revealed
  4. Section IV
    Salvation—The Image Restored
  5. Section V
    The Church—Life in the Image
  6. Section VI
    The Fullness of Time—The Glorified Image

An appendix in the back offers discussion/reflection questions for each section. Get it from our store here.


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