John Wesley and the Mission of God, part 3: A Therapeutic Understanding of Salvation

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.

Charisms and sanctification

A classic question in the theology of charisms focuses on the relationship between spiritual gifts and sanctification. Are the charismata sanctifying gifts of grace?  In the history of interpretation, this question arises from Thomas Aquinas, who classified charisms as gratiae gratis datae (gratuitously given graces), as distinct from gratia gratum faciens – sanctifying grace. For Thomas, sanctifying grace effects our participation in the divine nature and brings us to union with God, gratuitous graces are ordered to sanctifying grace, in that they are given to enable others to receive sanctifying grace. This is summarized well by Serge-Thomas Bonino:

Sanctifying grace (or grace gratum faciens) is a created participation in the divine nature, as much at the level of being as of acting.  It brings about one’s union with the last end, which is God.  Graces gratuitously given (gratis datae) – or charisms – are given to some so that they may dispose others to receive sanctifying grace…Charisms are thus wholly ordered to sanctifying grace (from “Charisms, Forms, and States of Life (IIa IIae, qq. 171-189),” in The Ethics of Aquinas (Washington  D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002), 341).

The charisms, then, “pertain especially to certain men” (Summa Theologica, 2a 2ae, q. 171, prologue). Since they are given “for the utility of the Church,” their purpose is not to unite the soul of the bearer of the charism with God, hence they can exist “without goodness of conduct” – evidence that they are not sanctifying.

For prophecy like other gratuitous graces is given for the good of the Church, according to 1 Cor. 12:7, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man unto profit”; and is not directly intended to unite man’s affections to God, which is the purpose of charity. Therefore prophecy can be without a good life, as regards the first root of this goodness (ST 2a 2ae q. 172, a. 4).

Karl Rahner suggests that this distinction, while not completely inappropriate in some cases, is foreign to Paul, who does not differentiate between gratuitous and sanctifying grace, but “only envisages the case where the charismata both sanctify the recipient and redound to the benefit of the whole Body of Christ simultaneously and reciprocally” (Rahner, The Dynamic Element in the Church, 55). Rahner rightly suggests that anyone truly fulfilling their function in the body of Christ must be doing so as the result of the Spirit’s sanctifying work, and that such service will surely further one’s sanctification.

For how else could one truly sanctify oneself except by unselfish service to others in the one Body of Christ by the power of the Spirit?  And how could one fail to be sanctified if one faithfully takes up and fulfils one’s real and true function in the body of Christ? (The Dynamic Element in the Church, 55).

In connection with this question, Gabriel Murphy makes the obvious point that the charismatic, as “a member of that Church which is built up by the Holy Spirit through the influence of His gifts,” will surely participate in the fruits of those gifts, even though the charisms “are not given primarily for the sanctification of the receiver, but rather for the good of his neighbour.” (Murphy, Charisms and Church Renewal, 56).

There are specific New Testament texts which lend support to the notion that charisms are not sanctifying gifts, in that they indicate the exercise of extraordinary gifts by those who are not in Christ. Chief among them, cited by Thomas, would be Matthew 7:22-23:

On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

We might also look to the question of discernment addressed in 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, noting that there would be no need for such a test if charismatic gifts were only given to the sanctified. For Rahner and Murphy, such cases should be treated as the exception, rather than the rule.

However, James Dunn raises some important questions about the potentially divisive character of charismata, notably, that in Corinth,

far from expressing the unity of the Spirit, charismatic phenomena in Corinth had in actual fact expressed lack of love, lack of faith, lack of hope; far from building up the Corinthian community, charismata constituted one of its chief threats (Jesus and the Spirit, 267).

Indeed, the attention that Paul gives to charisms in 1 Corinthians 12-14 indicates the extent of the challenge that proper exercise of these gifts was posing of the church in Corinth at that time.  While some might object that anything which destroys unity is necessarily not a genuine charism, Dunn points out that Paul does not question the genuineness of the Corinthian charisms, but rather notes the dangers inherent in the charismatic phenomena when exercised without love.

Paul does not dispute that the Corinthians experienced genuine charismata, including prophecy, faith, giving. But even genuine charismata of the most striking nature when exercised without love made for strife within the community and stunted the growth of the body (Jesus and the Spirit, 271).

The apparent immaturity of the Corinthian Christians, coupled with the fact that Paul treats their charisms as genuine, underlines the point that, while we might expect charisms, properly exercised, to be sanctifying, even genuine charisms provide no guarantee of sanctification.  Therefore, charisms should be taken as  potentially, but not necessarily sanctifying.  This has important implications for the recognition of ecclesial charisms: a claim to a charism by a particular group within the church should not be treated as equivalent to a claim to sanctity on the part of that group. 

Holiness is not a state

Many of the problems with Wesleyan/Holiness understandings of sanctification come from the drive to define a “low water mark” of holiness, by which I mean, a line in the sand – a threshold which we can identify as the indication that someone has experienced holiness or been made holy.  This whole idea is built upon the presupposition that “holiness” is a state, a status, or a place where one can somehow arrive.   Some of the “second blessing” holiness teachers (such as Samuel Logan Brengle) explicitly define holiness as a “state,” and then go about the process of trying to identify the ways that one can arrive at this state, by God’s help.

If we look back further, John Wesley’s famous “redefinition” of “sin properly so-called” as “a voluntary transgression of a known law of God” was part of his attempt to define the “low water mark” of Christian perfection.  Wesley would never say that anyone could reach a point in their Christian life where they did not constantly need the atoning blood of Christ.  While, in certain contexts, he used the above “redefinition”, he also believed in total depravity, which means that he believed that, as one journeys deeper into holiness of heart and life, one continues to find that sin “cleaves to all our words, and actions.” (The Repentance of Believers, §I.11)  Indeed, Wesley says of the children of God,

They are daily sensible of sin remaining in their heart, — pride, self-will, unbelief; and of sin cleaving to all they speak and do, even their best actions and holiest duties. [On Sin in Believers, §III.7, emphasis mine]

This is classic protestant teaching on total depravity, though I think later Wesleyans have, at least on a popular level, not always followed Wesley in maintaining this point.  The point is that even our “holiest” actions as Christians remain tainted by sin, possibly in ways we are not conscious of and don’t even understand.  However, Wesley felt that one could reach  a point of not voluntarily sinning, by becoming so overwhelmed by the perfect love of God that the intentions of one’s heart is made pure.   This was his “low water mark” of Christian perfection, though he never claimed it for himself.

It seems to me that this “low water mark” issue could be avoided if we simply made clear that holines is not a state.  There is no line in the sand of the Christian life which marks off “the holy” from the rest of us.  Holiness is a relative characteristic which all believers possess, to a greater or lesser degree.  From the moment of conversion we are being transformed, made responsive to the grace of God in our lives, and conformed to Christ’s likeness.   That is why Paul can address the Corinthians as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, and called to be holy.”

From a Wesleyan perspective, we can still maintain that it is not right for us to put a priori limits on the sanctifying grace of God.  That is, we cannot, in advance, say that any aspect of our lives will surely remain corrupted by sin.  What we can say, however, is that, as a relative characteristic, our transformation will always remain relative. Only God is absolutely holy.

Perhaps part of the problem is that later Wesleyans conflated Wesley’s category of “Christian perfection” with “holiness.”  While Wesley seems to fall into this “low water mark” trap I’m speaking of in relation to his discussions of Christian perfection, he nevertheless recognizes the fact that “holiness” is a relative characteristic shared by all believers.

Every babe in Christ is holy, and yet not altogether so. He is saved from sin; yet not entirely: It remains, though it does not reign. [On Sin in Believers, §IV.3]

Therefore, the answer to the question, “are you holy?” will always be “Yes” and “No.”  There ought always to be ways in which our lives reflect the holiness of God; and yet there will always be ways in which they do not.