John Wesley’s concept of the Atonement of Christ stands firmly within the mainstream of both the Reformers and the great Tradition. Here are some of the ways in which Wesley’s theology in this area is virtually indistinguishable from others in the Reformed tradition.
Let's examine the areas of overlap:
#1: The Atonement is based on the merits of Christ, not our merit.
Wesley is often accused (with other Arminians) of teaching works salvation. Yet this is demonstrated to be inaccurate by Wesley's own words. To enforce this point, Wesley quotes from numerous things he has published, including from the Hymns collection:
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress.
Even in a section of John Wesley's sermon “The Lord our Righteousness” that deals with Wesley’s strong promotion of the doctrine of sanctification, he insists: “The righteousness of Christ is the whole and sole foundation of all our hope.”
#2: The Atonement is based on the substitutionary death of Christ.
Wesley quotes from an Anglican homily he had republished:
"For whereas all the world was not able to pay any part toward our ransom, it pleased Him, without any of our deserving, to prepare for us Christ's body and blood, whereby our ransom might be paid, and his justice satisfied. Christ, therefore, is now the righteousness of all them that truly believe in him."
To demonstrate that there is little to no distance between Wesley and a Calvinist on this point, it should be noted that Wesley quotes from multiple places in Calvin’s Institutes, regarding the active and passive obedience of Christ bestowing “privileges, blessings and benefits” on those who receive it. He gladly receives those terms.
#3: The Atonement is accomplished by faith, not works.
In the sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” Wesley quotes from an Anglican homily which he had extracted and published the following: "These things must necessarily go together in our justification; upon God's part, his great mercy and grace; upon Christ's part, the satisfaction of God's justice; and on our part, faith in the merits of Christ.”
#4: God enables faith by his grace, not our strength.
Wesley continues to stand firmly with all the Reformers on the enablement of faith by God’s power, not ours. In Wesley's sermon "Justification By Faith" he shares:
“…for the sake of his well-beloved Son, of what he hath done and suffered for us, God now vouchsafes, on one only condition, (which himself also enables us to perform,) both to remit the punishment due to our sins, to re-instate us in his favour, and to restore our dead souls to spiritual life...”
While the manner of this enablement (prevenient grace) is different than the Calvinist, Wesley strongly agrees with Calvin that faith is not something that humans have or exert in their own strength.
Areas of Unique Emphasis in Wesley's Atonement Theology
As demonstrated above, it would not unfair to say there are significant areas of discontinuity between Wesley’s view of how the Atonement is accomplished and other Reformers.
Wesley’s concept of the Atonement does, however, have certain unique features or emphases which should be considered. These areas of contrast with earlier Reformers, such as Luther or Calvin, include the following:
#1: Wesley emphasizes Prevenient Grace instead of “common grace.”
Wesley’s “preventing” grace (grace that goes before) is a unique feature of his understanding of the Atonement. Wesley’s view of prevenient grace is that it enables a response of faith in any who are willing to use this grace by responding to it.
In his sermon “On Working Out Our Salvation” (1785), Wesley wrote:
“For allowing that all the souls of men are dead in sin by nature, this excuses none, seeing there is no man that is in a state of mere nature; there is no man, unless he has quenched the Spirit, that is wholly void of the grace of God. No man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience. But this is not natural: It is more properly termed preventing grace.” (Emphasis mine)
So Wesley views natural conscience (including appropriate guilt feelings and "should/ought" type thinking) as a function of prevenient grace. This fits well with Titus 2:11-12, "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age..." (ESV) He believes (with Paul) that this grace given is universal, and that our response to it is enabled by the giving of it, though that response is in no way meritorious of itself.
#2: A strong emphasis on actual holiness as the goal of the Atonement.
This emphasis is seen in Wesley’s writings in many ways.
It is seen in his desire to avoid antinomian tendencies:
“…what we are afraid of is this: -- lest any should use the phrase, "The righteousness of Christ," or, "The righteousness of Christ is imputed to me," as a cover for his unrighteousness. We have known this done a thousand times.” (from “The Lord Our Righteousness”)
It is seen in his call to moral clarity in preaching:
“Warn them against… making void that solemn decree of God, "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord," by a vain imagination of being holy in Christ! O warn them that if they remain unrighteous, the righteousness of Christ will profit them nothing!” (The Lord Our Righteousness)
It is seen in his careful selection and distinction of theological terms:
“I believe God implants righteousness in every one to whom he has imputed it. I believe ‘Jesus Christ is made of God unto us sanctification,’ as well as ‘righteousness;’ or, that God sanctifies, as well as justifies, all them that believe in him.” (The Lord Our Righteousness)
While some other reformers might stop with the imputation of righteousness in salvation, Wesley was very interested in impartation of actual holiness in those who called themselves Christian, whether they called themselves Methodist or not.
Wesley's unanimity with the Reformers on his view of the Atonement is clear evidence that he is orthodox on this point, regardless of the way some might misrepresent his views.
Wesley's unique areas of emphasis on the Atonement provide a vital and needed counterpoint to the "cheap grace" view that is common in churches today. One hopes that churches will recapture the desire of Wesley to see the church not just positionally holy by the power of Christ's blood, but living in actual holiness of heart and life.