To Be a Methodist: Justifying Grace

Justification has been the theme word of Protestant churches. It has been thrown around a lot. We talk about being made right before God and being justified through the cross of Christ who atoned for our sins. Often, though, the concept of justification, has been reduced to little more than a statement about a one-time action or event in our lives. The catch phrase of the Reformation, and consequently Protestant churches has always been “justification by faith.” In other words, it is not our deeds that make us right with God, it isn’t our works that merit grace from God. Instead, it is our faith alone that allows us to be justified before God. All we have to do is believe that Jesus Christ is who he said he was and willingly surrender ourselves to follow him. While this is certainly a core belief, we have often forgot that there is more to the Christian life than simply being justified before God. We are also called to be made into people who look more like Jesus Christ, which is called sanctification (but that I’ll save that for the next post). Here we are talking about justifying grace in the Methodist tradition. So here is a little bit about how John Wesley understood justifying grace.

For Wesley, justification marked the beginning of the process of salvation. The only condition of justification is faith, rather than works. It is faith in the work of God alone that pardons the human being, rather than any sort of works-righteousness theology. However, early on, Wesley did still place some emphasis on a “measure of responsible holiness” to precede justification, while the later Wesley became a strong champion of justification by faith alone. For Wesley, all good works were a result of faith, which is a response to God’s first action and movement towards human beings, but faith alone is all that is required to be pardoned by God.

Wesley was cautious in his defense of justification by faith alone, though, especially as he encountered a particular religious movement during his time called the quietist movement, which suggested that believers should await justification passively. Wesley could not support this idea because it completely did away with any concept of human responsibility, and Wesley always firmly stood on the conviction that even though God is always the first one to move through prevenient grace, human beings are ultimately responsible for accepting or rejecting that offer.

In the debates over justification by faith and works, Wesley posited that faith was the only thing needed in order to be justified. Works prior to justification are not necessary in order to be pardoned. It did follow, for Wesley though, that after justification, good works would be a natural response to justification, unlike those in other theological camps who believed that the expectation of good works should be avoided so there would not be any confusion about what merited justification.

Wesley’s understanding of the meaning of justification by faith alone can be summed up in a couple of key ideas that are still significant for us today:

  1. Our salvation is not something that we can ever earn, but it is a gift from God; that we are justified by the merits of Christ, rather than our own.
  2. At the same time, God does not effect salvation unilaterally, but instead allows a place for our participation, both before and after our justification.
  3. Justification is the starting point (rather than the ending point) of salvation, and it is a place that we arrive only through the grace of God. Human beings must respond simply with faith.

Justifying grace is probably a pretty familiar concept to many of us. The next post, which will be about sanctifying grace is where things get particularly interesting to me, as a necessary part of understanding sanctifying grace is to also understand the concept of Christian perfection.




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