Wesleyan Ordo Salutis
Creation, Justification, Regeneration, and Assurance
Rev. Kendell Linh Healy
Properly understood, the Wesleyan ordo salutis begins with God’s sovereign act of creation ex nihilo. Notably, for John Wesley, the world was “freely” created out of God’s eternal attribute of holy love. Significantly, God’s freedom to create infers that the creation did not come about by happenstance rather God freely chose to create. That stated, divine holiness, in this sense, is understood as the culmination of all the moral virtues of God’s eternal attributes, and divine love is the component that necessitates relationship and communion. Notably, it is God’s holiness that keeps Him apart from His creation, thus avoiding the false ideologies of pantheism and panentheism. Further, the issue of God’s holiness keeping Him entirely separate is resolved in His divine love. In this manner, then, it is holiness that informs love – and again, it is out of holy love that God created everything out of nothing.
Continuing with God’s creation, Wesley embraced the theology that God also sustains that which He created. Wesley avoids the notion of deism that God is not involved in His creation by maintaining that the one and only God “continuously” sustains everything that He created. Further, God’s preservation of His creation directly correlates to the consistent motif of holy love, which, again, necessitates communion. In other words, God is not only involved with His creation, He is also intimately involved with His creatures.
In regard to God’s creatures, Wesley full well understood that God created both material and invisible creatures. In other words, there are purely spiritual beings without bodies and there are also physical beings – such as animals and human beings. However, being a purely spiritual being, such as an angel, does not negate animation. They certainly are animated – just not in the same physical sense that animals and human beings exhibit motion. That stated, it is vital to grasp the notion that all of God’s creatures were created out of God’s perfect goodness – His holy love.
Wesley’s understanding of what it means to be a human being is scripturally rooted in the Imago Dei (Gen. 1:26-27). That stated, the image of God in man is best understood through three classifications. The first image of God is the natural image where man is given freedom, understanding and will. Significantly, freedom is key here because without freedom – the will and even the understanding become mute and pointless. Further, this avoids the closed system of determinism. The second image is the political image. Though God is sovereign and holds the ultimate authority over all, in the political image – God shares His rule with human beings. In a word – human beings are vice-regents with God and are entrusted with the care for His creation and His other creatures. The third image is where Wesley places the most emphasis – the moral image of God in man. The moral image is where righteousness and holiness are embedded into the heart of man. Although everything is linked together – it is holiness (the moral image) that informs the other two images. For example, holiness and right tempers drive the understanding and will, which, in turn – informs how man will carry his “political” authority – in holy love.
Before addressing the fall of humanity, it is important to note that in Wesleyan theology – God created man out of His free grace, which Wesley expresses in his sermon – Salvation by Faith. Further, it must be understood that any ounce of goodness or holiness in man is from God. This means that without God there is no goodness or holiness to be discovered anywhere – man is simply void of the moral image.
With the fall (Gen. 3) came the loss of the image of God in man. The natural image of God was marred and so too was the political image. Man’s understanding became darkened and the focus of the will became opposed to God and directed toward evil thoughts only. Consequently, as God’s vice-regents the creation also suffered greatly and “how” man administered his authority and care over God’s creation and creatures became unjust. Unlike the first two images (being marred), the moral image of God in man was completely and utterly destroyed. In other words, upon the fall – man was completely void of the moral image of God, which means that there was no righteousness or holiness found in him whatsoever. Knowingly, then, there are theologies that perceive that the consequence of the fall diminished the moral image of God in man – sort of like a remnant of good was left. However, this is not the view that Wesley held. Again, Wesleyan theology understands that the moral image of God in man was completely destroyed. To this, humanity fell and every human being from Adam and Eve inherited their transgressions (traducianism). Of course, this leaves humanity in the most terrible state of total depravity.
Pre-requisite to Wesley’s teaching on prevenient grace is his understanding of what he called “the natural person.” For Wesley, the natural person is just as the above has described: Wholly fallen and his heart is evil only. Thankfully, Wesley did not end with this nihilistic anthropology. Wesley, having a very balanced theology, also taught that this natural person (completely void of God) does not exist, and to this end he leaned on God’s prevenient grace.
Rather than leave humanity in a state void of God’s grace – God, out of holy love, took restorative action and gave everyone, that is Adam and Eve and all who followed, a measure of His prevenient grace (grace that comes before all). In this manner, it is the work of God alone (synergistic). Notably, prevenient grace is not to be confused with justifying or sanctifying grace rather this is that grace that precedes justification and sanctification. Properly understood, God’s prevenient grace is embedded alongside of the fallen state of every person and for this reason man is not wholly fallen, nor is he wholly restored. It is that light that glimmers in the darkness of men. It is a portion of God’s goodness in humanity and it is one of degree.
Although the prevenient grace of God in every human being can be understood as synergistic, there is an element of cooperation involved regarding the individual person. Significantly, prevenient grace takes what has been lost (the moral image of God in man) and re-inscribes it upon the heart of man. Consequently, this means that human beings can, “again” comprehend God in some manner. Further, having the moral law re-inscribed also restores the human capacity to freely choose. To explain, without God’s grace the will is toward evil only and continuously, which means there is no choice in the matter because there is nothing to choose but evil. However, with a measure of God’s grace restored – so too is a measure of free will and the person is now liberated to freely choose God if he so desires. In this manner, then, there is divine/human cooperation; albeit the emphasis should be placed on the work of God alone.
Already stated, prevenient grace consists of that grace that comes before justification and sanctification. From this, then, the Wesleyan ordo salutis infers that God’s initiative in prevenient grace is directed toward a goal (holiness), which brings up the role of the Spirit in convincing grace (the porch of salvation).
Wesley rightfully understood that people, generally speaking, go about their lives unaware of the state of their souls in relation to God. Simply put, they are completely ignorant of their sin (the state of the natural man) so much that Wesley referred to them as being asleep. However, being asleep suggests that one can be awakened through certain means that the Holy Spirit employs. Through the work of God’s Holy Spirit (Scripture, preaching and other means), the eyes of the soul begin to awaken, thus, bringing the sinner toward a heightened awareness of their most depraved condition in relation to God. Resultingly, the person is convicted of their sinful disposition. As miserable as this state seems, it is good because it reveals that God’s initiative in prevenient grace is to draw the person toward Christ.
Convincing grace must be understood in light of God’s moral law. Significantly, within the Wesleyan framework, the moral law does not involve the ceremonial law rather it consists of those divine virtues, which are culminated in God’s holy love. More specific, the moral law is an expression of the divine being as human beings are able to bear it. What should come to mind are the ten commandments. That stated, it was previously pointed out that God re-inscribed His moral law upon the hearts of human beings – and here, the Holy Spirit draws forth that re-inscription in order to awaken the sinner to experience God’s convincing grace (the porch of salvation). Notably, the sinner is convicted but not yet saved; however, it is equally important to recognize the moral law’s role in moving the person ever-so-forward toward knowing Jesus as the Christ.
Once the sinner is awakened and brought into the miserable state of convincing grace, repentance comes into view. Still on the “porch of religion” repentance, at this stage, is still deeply connected to prevenient grace (truthfully speaking – the tether to prevenient grace is never severed). Properly defined, repentance is a change in either the mind or the heart. Notably, one can be convicted of sin (convincing grace) and engage in the self-will to change – that is, to repent. However, the self-will, as this paper has shown thus far, is opposed to the will of God and therefore, repentance must reach beyond the self and toward the full gospel message of Jesus Christ. Simply put, it must have the atoning work of Christ in view, and to this it must be a repentance that stirs up from the heart. Therefore, repentance, within the Wesleyan framework, must involve a person’s rejection of self-righteousness (works apart from God) in order to embrace the person of Jesus the Christ.
Still on the topic of repentance, Wesley taught about works that were suitable for repentance. Essentially, for Wesley, works suitable for repentance begins in the heart through contrition and then is outwardly expressed through certain works such as forgiving others, doing good, disengaging from evil, and using the ordinances of God. Further, these works can and should occur before and after justification. However, it is absolutely vital to understand that repentance is not justification and does not save. Although repentance is a response to conviction, and it is necessary in some sense, again, it does not save. Knowingly, then, these works suitable for repentance are to be integrated in a life of holiness – as long as there is opportunity and time permits. Simply put, as long as the person is alive there is time for works suitable for repentance, which is evidenced in the thief on the cross who clearly did not have the time – and being rather stationary at that time was blissfully incapacitated. That aside, the repentance that leads up to justification does not end upon justification rather there is a continued repentance that follows because although sin does not reign in the heart – its being does. However, before jumping headlong into life after justification, the sinner must move from the porch into the house, which occurs through justification.
For Wesley, justification means pardon – the forgiveness of past sins. Notably, the key word at justification is the term “past” in relation to sin. This is because although sin no longer has power over the person (it does not reign) its being still remains, which, as noted above, is one of the reasons for repentance after justification. Further, justification is punctiliar, and although there is a process that leads up to justification, it is an immediate, relative change where God pardons the sinner. Rightfully understood, justification is the work of God alone “for us” and apart from God – it is nowhere in the realm of human possibility. Lastly, justification is liberating in that it frees the sinner from the guilt and power of sin.
There is only one means by which a person can receive justification and that is by faith and only faith. That stated, Wesley made blissfully clear the type of faith needed to obtain pardon of past sins. Accordingly, Wesley taught by via negativa that it is not the faith of a heathen who affirmed the existence of a divine being. Nor is it the faith of a devil who understood the Scriptures and who knew Jesus the Christ. Nor is it the faith even of the apostles while Jesus was physically present and walking with them. None of these, according to Wesley was the proper faith. Appropriately, for Wesley, the kind of faith necessary is more than mere assent rather it is a disposition of the heart. In the heart, a person believes that God was acting in Christ on behalf of “all” sinners. It is a faith that is fully reliant upon Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. It is a faith that puts complete trust in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It is by this type of faith alone that a sinner is justified and at the same moment born from above.
Simultaneous to justification is the soteriological event of regeneration – otherwise known as the new birth. That stated, the new birth is a qualitative change in the person where they are sanctified; albeit not entirely. In other words, the new birth is the beginning of holiness for the person. In a very real spiritual sense, the person has just been delivered over from death into life. Recognizing that the two occurred simultaneously, Wesley drew a distinction between justification and the new birth by referring to justification as God’s work “for us” and regeneration as God’s work “in us.”
In regard to the new birth, Wesley taught that there was a process of gradual maturation involved in sanctification. To be clear, although a person is justified and sanctified instantaneously, that person is by no means “entirely” sanctified in that moment. Wesley used the example of a child being born out of the womb in order to describe this process of spiritual maturation. In the moment that a child is born that child begins to grow and mature. Correspondingly, like that child, upon regeneration the person must now mature incrementally into the fullness of Christ. Of course, this is accomplished through the Holy Spirit who continues to work within the newly regenerate believer. That stated, sanctification for Wesley is both instantaneous and process.
Just as there is a measure of sanctification involved at regeneration – likewise, there is a measure of assurance that is also given at the new birth. Being that there are degrees of assurance, Wesley understood that assurance could be occasionally marked by doubt and fear; however, assurance can also deepen. Further, though Wesley did affirm that some could be justified without assurance (for a various number of reasons such as experiencing heaviness due to temptation(s) or even ignorance) – assurance was the common privilege for the child of God. Knowingly, then, full assurance comes at entire sanctification. That aside, there are certain evidences that can be considered in regard to a person having the assurance that they are now a child of God. These evidences involve the testimony of God’s Spirit, which is the antecedent to the testimony of our own spirit.
In regard to the testimony of God’s Spirit, Wesley, in his sermon, The Witness of the Spirit, looked to Romans 8:16 where Paul writes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (ESV). Here, Wesley understood that there is a divine evidence being communicated within the person. In other words, it is through God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within the person and giving testimony directly to their spirit. More specifically, a person cannot know if they are “holy” until they are actually holy, and a person cannot “love” God until they are first loved by God. Note, within this framework is the motif of God’s holy love, which is threaded throughout the fabric of Wesley’s ordo salutis.
On the Testimony of our own spirit, Wesley looked to the fruits of the Spirit. By fruits Wesley was focused on those holy virtues such as love, peace, joy, goodness and keeping God’s commandments (moral law). Of course, keeping the commandments equates to a conscience that is free of offense. For Wesley, then, if a person has evidence of these fruits of the Spirit, that person is a child of God. Unsurprisingly, Wesley emphasized that the love of God should bear forth the immediate fruit of loving neighbor. Accordingly, when a person experiences the holy love of God in their hearts, the proper response is to love others, which springs forth the fruits of the Spirit.
Conversion in the Wesleyan tradition is not one particular thing rather it encompasses the entire gamut beginning with sin and then culminating in entire sanctification. In other words, it is the process of God taking the unholy and moving them toward the end goal of religion, which is holiness. In this sense, it involves divine/human cooperation.
Many cling tightly to the misunderstanding that conversion is simply when a person goes from being unsaved to saved. Unarguably, this can be defined as a conversion in the sense that a change has occurred in that punctiliar moment. The danger of narrowing down conversion to one specific point, however, is that the person can fall into the trappings of antinomianism. Simply put, they believe that because they are saved, the conversion process is complete and therefore there is nothing left to do but live freely and wait for heaven. For Wesley, this was the grave error of the times and he believed that upon justification and the new birth that the person was called into a life-long process of holiness that moved toward entire sanctification – a conversion process so to speak.
Lastly, Wesley’s call to conversion was to take place in the context of the church. Wesley understood Christianity to be a social religion. Within the context of the church a person could be held accountable, thus avoiding the error of self-deception. Wesley’s formation of class meetings, band meetings and select societies played an integral part in the spiritual maturation of its members, and conversion – that is, a life continuing toward perfection provided the thread that held them together. To conclude, then, conversion can be understood as both instantaneous and a lifelong process where the Holy Spirit prepares the individual to be holy in the presence of God.
Thank you for this very clear elucidation of Wesley’s ordo salutis. I enjoyed it and it also touched me.