Wesleyan Tradition

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In the broad sense of the term, the Wesleyan tradition identifies the theological impetus for those movements and denominations (and their name is Legion) who trace their roots to a theological tradition finding its initial focus in John Wesley. Although its primary legacy remains within the various Methodist denominations (the Wesleyan Methodist, the Free Methodist, the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal, and the United Methodist), the Wesleyan tradition has been refined and reinterpreted as catalyst for other movements and denominations as well, e.g., Charles Finney and the Holiness movement; Charles Parham and the Pentecostal movement; Phineas Bresee and the Church of the Nazarene.

In the more narrow sense of the term, the Wesleyan tradition has been associated with Arminianism, usually in contrast to Reformed Calvinism. This could be misleading. Historically, Calvinists have feared that Wesleyans have strayed too close to Pelagianism. On the other hand, Wesleyans have feared that Calvinists have strayed too close to antinomianism. In fact, neither is necessarily true. Calvin was no antinomian and neither Arminius nor Wesley a Pelagian. Justification by faith is pivotal for both traditions. Although free will is an issue, in many respects the two traditions are not that far apart. For example, Wesley stated that he and Calvin were but a hair's breadth apart on justification.Sanctification, not free will, draws the clearest line of distinction. Good theology, for Wesley, was balance without compromise. This balance is most evident in Wesley's understanding of faith and works, justification and sanctification. Those who espouse such a tradition like to think of this as their peculiar genius.

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Wesleyan Distinctives

In a phrase, the Wesleyan tradition seeks to establish justification by faith as the gateway to sanctification or "scriptural holiness." Taken separately, justification by faith builds the foundation. Wesley himself in a sermon entitled "Justification by Faith" makes an attempt to define the term accurately. First, he states what justification is not. It is not being made actually just and righteous (that is sanctification). It is not being cleared of the accusations of Satan, nor of the law, nor even of God. We have sinned, so the accusation stands. Justification implies pardon, the forgiveness of sins. God justifies not the godly but the ungodly. They that are righteous need no repentance so they need no forgiveness. This pardon or forgiveness comes by faith. Then Wesley states what faith is and what it is not.

It is not that faith of a heathen, nor of a devil, nor even that of the apostle while Christ remained in the flesh. It is "a divine supernatural, evidence or conviction, 'of things not seen,' not discoverable by our bodily senses." Furthermore, "justifying faith implies a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that He loved me and gave Himself for me" (Works, V, 60 - 61). This faith is received by repentance and our willingness to trust Christ as the one able to deliver us from all our sins.

With justification by faith as the foundation the Wesleyan tradition then builds a doctrine of sanctification upon it. The doctrine develops like this. Man and woman were created in the image of God's own eternity. They were upright and perfect. They dwelt in God and God dwelt in them. God required full and perfect obedience, and they were (in their unfallen state) equal to the task. They then disobeyed God. Their righteousness was lost. They were separated from God. We, as their seed, inherited a corruptible and mortal nature. We became dead, dead in spirit, dead in sin, dead to God, so that in our natural state we hastened on to death everlasting. God, however, was not to be undone. While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly. He bore our sins that by his stripes we might be healed. The ungodly, therefore, are justified by faith in the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice. This is not the end, however. This is only the beginning. Ultimately for the true Wesleyan salvation is completed by our return to original righteousness. This is done by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Although we are justified by faith alone, we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that makes us holy.

The Wesleyan tradition insists that grace is not contrasted with law but with the works of the law. Wesleyans remind us that Jesus came to fulfill, not destroy, the law. God made us in his perfect image, and he wants that image restored. He wants to return us to a full and perfect obedience through the process of sanctification. As we continually yield to the Spirit's impulse, he roots out those things that would separate us from God, from ourselves, and from those around us. Although we are not justified by good works, we are justified for good works. To be sure, no good works precede justification, as they do not spring from faith in Christ. Good works follow after justification as its inevitable fruit. Wesley insisted that Methodists who did not fulfill all righteousness deserved the hottest place in the lake of fire. Fulfilling "all righteousness" or being restored to our original righteousness became the hallmark of the Wesleyan tradition.

To fulfill all righteousness describes the process of sanctification. Wesley insisted that imputed righteousness must become imparted righteousness. God grants his Spirit to those who repent and believe that through faith they might overcome sin. Wesleyans want deliverance from sin, not just from hell. Wesley speaks clearly of a process that culminates in a second definite work of grace identified as entire sanctification. Entire sanctification is defined in terms of "pure or disinterested love." Wesley believed that one process that culminates in a second definite work of grace identified as entire sanctification.

Entire sanctification is defined in terms of "pure or disinterested love." Wesley believed that one could progress in love until love became devoid of self - interest at the moment of entire sanctification. Thus, the principles of scriptural holiness or sanctification are as follows: sanctification is received by faith as a work of the Holy Spirit. It begins at the moment of new birth. It progresses gradually until the instant of entire sanctification. Its characteristics are to love God and one's neighbor as oneself; to be meek and lowly in heart, having the mind which was in Christ Jesus; to abstain from all appearance of evil, walking in all the commandments of God; to be content in every state, doing all to the glory of God.


The Wesleyan tradition's defense has normally exercised four basic proofs: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Although these "proofs" represent only a construct of Wesley's theology, the principles can be clearly identified.


Wesley insisted that Scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by men divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition. The Scripture references to justification by faith as the gateway to scriptural holiness are well known to true Wesleyans: Deut. 30:6; Ps. 130:8; Ezek. 36:25, 29; Matt. 5:48; 22:37; Luke 1:69; John 17:20-23; Rom. 8:3-4; II Cor. 7:1; Eph. 3:14; 5:25-27; I Thess. 5:23; Titus 2:11-14; I John 3:8; 4:17.


Although Scripture is sufficient unto itself and is the foundation of true religion, Wesley writes: "Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles" (Works, VI, 354). He states quite clearly that without reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Reason, however, is not a mere human invention. It must be assisted by the Holy Spirit if we are to understand the mysteries of God. With regard to justification by faith and sanctification Wesley said that although reason cannot produce faith, when impartial reason speaks we can understand the new birth, inward holiness, and outward holiness. Although reason cannot produce faith, it shortens the leap.


Wesley writes that it is generally supposed that traditional evidence is weakened by length of time, as it must necessarily pass through so many hands in a continued succession of ages. Although other evidence is perhaps stronger, he insists: "Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour. It is highly serviceable in its kind, and in its degree" (Works, X, 75). Wesley states that men of strong and clear understanding should be aware of its full force. For him it supplies a link through 1,700 years of history with Jesus and the apostles. The witness to justification and sanctification is an unbroken chain drawing us into fellowship with those who have finished the race, fought the fight, and who now reign with God in his glory and might.


Apart from Scripture, experience is the strongest proof of Christianity. "What the Scriptures promise, I enjoy" (Works, X, 79). Again, Wesley insists that we cannot have reasonable assurance of something unless we have experienced it personally. John Wesley was assured of both justification and sanctification because he had experienced them in his own life. What Christianity promised (considered as a doctrine) was accomplished in his soul. Furthermore, Christianity (considered as an inward principle) is the completion of all those promises. Although traditional proof is complex, experience is simple: "One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see." Although tradition establishes the evidence a long way off, experience makes it present to all persons. As for the proof of justification and sanctification Wesley states that Christianity is an experience of holiness and happiness, the image of God impressed on a created spirit, a fountain of peace and love springing up into everlasting life.

Development of Wesleyan Thought

The emphasis on justification by faith as the foundation and sanctification as the building upon it kept the people called Methodist moving perpetually toward God. Even entire sanctification as an instantaneous experience was never cause to sleep. Not to improve it was to lose it. One was to grow in love. Perfect love continually plumbed some new depth of the human experience. These distinctives of the Wesleyan tradition were powerful tools for the perpetuation of the Evangelical Revival. Unfortunately, many of these doctrines have been either lost or misdirected. Many with in the Wesleyan tradition have slipped into legalism, for example. Their understanding of sanctification has become too closely identified only with the form of godliness. Wesley intended that sanctification should be a disposition of the mind or a condition of the heart from which spring all good works. Wesley would be grieved to see good works become an end in themselves.

Ironically, in spite of an emphasis on "doing," many within the Wesleyan tradition have lost their social vision as well. Originally Wesley championed the fight against injustices like slavery and the lack of prison reform. Many followed in his footsteps. The cry of the early Holiness movement (which carried the banner of the Wesleyan tradition throughout the nineteenth century) was "Repent, believe, and become an abolitionist." Unfortunately, many within the Wesleyan tradition lost their social consciences when the Holiness movement became defensive and ingrown during the late 1800s. When such movements lose their theological head (Finney died in 1875), they tend to become more and more rigid. The social gospel became associated with liberalism, and many within the Wesleyan tradition overreacted. There was also a period of infighting. At the turn of the century the Wesleyan tradition, then deeply embedded within the Holiness movement, splintered. Now the Wesleyan tradition can be traced through many different movements and denominations which still hold, in one form or another, a view to justification by faith as the gateway to sanctification. Admittedly, there might have been some improvements on Wesley's legacy, but much has been lost as well. Wesley's own question, "How to reunite the two so long divided, knowledge and vital piety?", strikes a relevant chord. The principles of scriptural holiness still have meaning and contain much that is yet precious and important for our contemporary world.

R G Tuttle, Jr
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Wesley, Works, ed. T. Jackson, 14 vols.; H. Lindstrom, Wesley and Sanctification; P. A. Mickey, Essentials of Wesleyan Theology; J. B. Behney and P. H. Eller, The History of the Evangelical United Brethren Church; F. A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism.

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The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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