• Darrell Stetler II

Who was John Wesley?


Who Was John Wesley, and what did he accomplish?

What is John Wesley famous for?


John Wesley (1703-1791) was an Anglican priest who became the leader of Methodism, a renewal movement within the Church of England that began in the late 1730s. Eventually, after his death, it became a denomination distinct from the Anglican church.


What Did John Wesley Believe?


John Wesley's "A Short History of Methodism" (1765) summed up the core of Methodist and Wesleyan-Holiness teaching.


John Wesley's beliefs about prevenient grace

Wesley held that Adam's disobedience plunged the human race into a condition of sinfulness from which, barring divine intervention, there is no escape. A common misunderstanding about Wesley's theology is that he believed in free will. However, this is simply not true. Wesley believed, not in free will, but in "freed will." He subscribed wholeheartedly to the doctrine of inherited depravity and original sin, even publishing a sermon "On Original Sin" in his "52 Standard Sermons."


Wesley believed in election, predestination, and that salvation is entirely by grace through faith. However, he rejected Calvinistic ways of understanding election, predestination, and irresistible grace, focusing instead on what he called "preventing" or "prevenient grace." This is "grace before grace" -- a grace given by God before saving grace, that does not inevitably produce salvation, but creates the ability to respond to God's offer of salvation. Such grace enables the individual to respond to God's invitation to salvation by repenting of their sins, and believing in Jesus Christ, when this would be utterly impossible on their own.


This grace is freely offered to all men by God's sovereign choice, as illustrated by 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)


What did John Wesley believe about salvation?

Wesley observed that there are three things that work together to produce salvation.

  • The first is the mercy and grace of God;

  • the second is God's righteous judgment of sin based on the sacrificial and substitutionary death of Christ;

  • the third is the individual's personal faith in the merits of Jesus Christ.

Wesley insisted that such faith is not merely giving cognitive assent, but it is heartfelt trust in Christ for forgiveness of sins.

Wesley insisted that the doctrine of holiness is grounded in the command to “be holy as God is holy.” He understood it in the theological sense as having to do with purity of heart producing Christian maturity and ever-increasing love for God. Wesley wanted to avoid comparisons with the Reformers whose idealistic notions of perfection led them to believe that holiness or personal sanctify was not possible in this life.


Wesleyan-Holiness biblically is both a linear movement forward, and an instantaneous second work of grace – and both of these are based on the mighty working of the Spirit.


He taught that despite the inner assurance and regeneration of character that results from justification, it is never too long before the new believer discovers that there is still a root of sin within. Unlike the earlier Reformers, Wesley came to argue that this full sanctification or "Christian perfection" could occur ten, twenty, or even thirty years before death.


What did John Wesley accomplish?


John Wesley's Theological Impact

Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in the Scripture and the Bible is the sole source of theological or doctrinal development.


His theological method allowed for significant innovation in his methodology. Unwilling that people should perish in their sins, Wesley began field preaching and resorted to the use of his father's grave as a pulpit when banned from preaching in some Anglican congregations of his day.


John Wesley developed a theological method that has come to be known in popular parlance as "the Wesleyan Quadrilateral." This method included four layers of inquiry about a theological or practical subject:

  • Scripture: What does the Bible say?

  • Tradition: What has always been believed and taught by Christians?

  • Reason: What is coherent and logical?

  • Experience: What aligns with the way that people actually live and function?

However, many scholars object to the term "Wesleyan Quadrilateral," since the four potions of the "Quadrilateral" are most certainly not equal. Wesley consistently used all four methods, although he did not always mention all four in particular places in his writing when he was applying his theological method. In Wesley's mind, the Scripture always occupied the primary place, and the others only assisted in its proper interpretation.


John Wesley's Political Impact

Rev. John Wesley affected the lives of many politicians in his time. The last letter that John Wesley wrote that is extant was a letter to William Wilberforce, encouraging hin to continue his opposition to the slave trade. Apart from Wilberforce, Wesley also inspired Clarkson who played a primary part in inspiring Wilberforce in spearheading the abolition of slavery in England.


Reverend Wesley fought against the futility of war especially Britain's war with the American colonies, attempting at one point to convince the American colonies to remain obedient to the British crown. This did little for his popularity in the colonies, but Methodism still spread rapidly in American, due to the efforts of Wesley's appointed leader in the US, Francis Asbury.


John Wesley's social impact

Drew (2016) says that he wrote and spoke vigorously against the use and abuse of money and privileges in society. He even refused to allow his Methodists to patronize pawn shops, which were notorious for taking advantage of the poor during their time of hardship. He did not show off his influence by appearing glamorous, he wore inexpensive clothes and dined on the plainest food.


Drew (2016) notes that Reverend John Wesley established and kept an eye on Kingwood School and opened the first free medical, dispensary for the poor, a rheumatism clinic in London. He also established a small bank at the Foundry (Methodist headquarters for a time) for loaning capital to those who needed to establish business enterprise. Many scholars believe that the Wesleyan revival is what spared England a bloody revolution such as the French Revolution. "Undoubtedly, these renewal and measures saved England a disaster that could have downed the country and by extension the whole world."


For an examination of John Wesley's most famous sermons, or the powerful Hymns of Charles Wesley, you may click through to read more.


For a modern expression of a Methodist view of sanctification, you should check out the Pursuing Holiness curriculum from NewStart Discipleship.


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