John Wesley’s theology of salvation is sometimes said to combine the best of both the Western and Eastern traditions, meaning he combines a forensic understanding of salvation with a therapeutic understanding of salvation. Western Christianity has tended to focus on sin as a guilt problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of forgiveness (forensic/legal language). The Eastern tradition has tended to focus on sin as a sickness problem, and therefore preached salvation primarily in terms of healing (therapeutic language).
Wesley was able to draw on both of these traditions by integrating the Western concern with guilt into an Eastern-influenced therapeutic understanding of salvation. This meant that, overall, Wesley saw salvation as a dynamic, relational process of healing from all the sickness of sin, but included the classic protestant understanding of justification as an important aspect of this process.
Consider the following two quotes, illustrating these two aspects of salvation.
Forensic: Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.3
Justification is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and , what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God. The price whereby this hath been procured for us (commonly termed “the meritorious cause of our justification”), is the blood and righteousness of Christ; or, to express it a little more clearly, all that Christ hath done and suffered for us, till He “poured out His soul for the transgressors.” The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,” and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Therapeutic: Sermon 57, “On the Fall of Man,” §II.8
Hath he not then, seeing he alone is able, provided a remedy for all these evils? Yea, verily he hath! And a sufficient remedy; every way adequate to the disease… Here is a remedy provided for all our guilt: He “bore all our sins in his body on the tree.” And “if any one have sinned, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” And here is a remedy for all our disease, all the corruption of our nature. For God hath also, through the intercession of his Son, given us his Holy Spirit, to renew us both “in knowledge,” in his natural image; — opening the eyes of our understanding, and enlightening us with all such knowledge as is requisite to our pleasing God; — and also in his moral image, namely, “righteousness and true holiness.”
The point of what I’m trying to say is that salvation, for Wesley, is not found simply in being “declared” righteous (justification), but in being healed of all the corruption of sin, and conformed to the likeness of Christ. Therefore, the salvation that God has prepared for us is something which begins now, but extends to the resurrection. People sometimes speak of receiving forgiveness of sin as “being saved,” but this is not the whole story. Justification is one aspect of salvation, but properly speaking, salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. These terms are ways of describing the initial, ongoing, and final deliverance from sin.
This has important implications for our understanding of the mission of God. Mission is not simply about gaining “converts,” but also about cooperating with the Spirit’s healing work in people’s lives. This also means that God’s mission is not only for those outside the church but for believers as well, who are currently experiencing the ongoing healing work of God in their lives.
In other words, mission is not only “outreach” but also includes the corporate life of the church. Cultivating holiness, spurring one another on in our response to God’s ongoing work in our lives, teaching, catechizing, discipling – all these things which help to form people as disciples are part of the church’s mission
Wesley’s therapeutic understanding of salvation could be extended to other areas of “healing” (social, psychological, environmental), but I will leave that for another post.