Dr. Timothy Tennent: Why are We Wesleyans?
The global church is like a beautiful tapestry with gorgeous hues and variations which have their own unique contribution to the whole. If you step back and look at this glorious tapestry as a whole, the pattern is unmistakable and glorious and portrays a clear picture. This is the meaning behind that famous phrase of St. Vincent of Lerins which, in its short form, declares, “semper ubique ab omnibus” meaning “always, everywhere by everyone.” What he meant is that despite the myriad of differences evident in all denominations and Christian movements, there is an amazing unanimity and shared consensus around the basic, historic truths of the Christian faith. This emerged by the 4th century and is captured in time-tested documents such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian confession and the deliberations of Chalcedon. We often focus on our differences, but we must first remember the great unanimity which has been shared across the centuries by virtually all Christians in every place (semper ubique ab omnibus). Every denomination (even the ones we disagree with) bring unique gifts and insights into Scripture and the wider Christian message and we should always be attentive to why God raised them up in the first place. In short, we first must affirm our shared Christian identity with Christians across the globe and back through time. Only then can we look at the tapestry in more detail and talk about our own unique contribution to the whole. It is in this context that I want to explore some of the unique contributions of precious Wesleyan heritage, which is at the core of the identity of Asbury Theological Seminary.
First, we believe in “prevenient grace.” This means that God is active in our lives and in our world even before we can take the first step. This is the solution to the biblical dilemma which we all know well; namely, that we are “dead in our sins” and yet the Bible is full of verbs calling us to act and respond to the gospel. We are called to repent, to believe, to come, to return, and so forth. But, a dead person cannot do any of those things. The Wesleyan contribution is to note that God has provided a measure of universal grace, unearned, which is freely granted to the human race which enables them the possibility of hearing and responding to the gospel. This does not mean that everyone responds. This does not mean that everyone will be saved. This is “prevenient” grace, i.e. grace that “comes before” our justification. Reformed Christians solve this dilemma through the doctrine of regeneration whereby God acts in us; whereas justification is God’s forensic declaration of us that we are forgiven. The difference between the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace and the Reformed doctrine of regeneration is that Wesleyans believe this is universal, i.e. a gift to all people; whereas the Reformed Christians believe that this is a gift only to those who have been elected and only at the moment of justification. Thus, the Wesleyan doctrine is unique in that it is universal, occurs before justification (even without subsequent justification for those who continue in unbelief), and it also solves the problem of universal condemnation since it is considered unjust by some Christians for God to condemn someone who did not have the possibility of responding.
Second, we believe in “entire sanctification.” This has been sometimes misconstrued as an affirmation that we are without sin (sinless perfection). What it does proclaim is a powerful affirmation of the Trinitarian nature of salvation. We begin by asserting, with all Christians, that we are “dead in our sins” and “totally depraved,” and Christ has acted through the cross to justify us even while we were yet sinners. But, we also affirm that the Holy Spirit has the power to redirect our hearts towards holiness and that the grace of God continues to work, even after our justification, to sanctify us and to the uttermost. We are enabled by the grace of God to love God and our neighbors without the intrusion of sin. This is a miracle, but it does underscore the fact that the goal of the Christian message is not simply that people become Christians, but that they be Christians. It should be the normative expectation that every believer is transformed into the likeness of Christ in a way which profoundly and utterly impacts our actions, our ethics, our thought life, etc. This is the heart of a truly Trinitarian understanding of salvation. Otherwise, we are left with a “low bar” view of salvation which equates justification with salvation.
Third, we believe in the “means of grace.” This is the realization that God has provided specific means such as “baptism” and “Lord’s Supper” and “accountability groups” and the “reading of Scripture” and “serving the poor” which empowers us to grow in the grace of Christ. All Christian ministries believe in this, but the Wesleyan contribution is that this best happens in community. It is our gentle pushback that the journey to the heavenly City is not a solitary one and that true salvation cannot be done alone. We need the community. As I often tell our students at Asbury, “you can be justified on a deserted island, but you could never be sanctified there.” Our sanctification happens in community as together we share in Eucharist together, belong to an accountability band, serve the poor together and hear God’s word together (not just alone in our living room on Zoom!). The very nature of the gospel and the incarnation is about collective embodiment as the body of Christ. The Church, not the individual Christian, is the “outpost of the New Creation in Adam’s world.”
There are many other beauties found in a close examination of the Wesleyan part of the wonderful, global tapestry of the global church. I could just as easily expound on the unique contributions of the Eastern Orthodox, or the Baptists, or the Presbyterians, but that is their story to tell. I am telling our story.