How Does Grace Work in Arminian-Wesleyan Theology?
by Eric Landstrom
How grace is understood to work is the key to unlocking any Christian theology or theological tradition. As such, I thought it beneficial to unpack the Wesleyan or traditionally Methodist view of how grace is understood to work. The Wesleyan view should be of particular interest to Christians influenced by eastern theological thought since John Wesley, in his later years, backed away from the doctrine of original sin in favor of ancestral sin.* As a result, there are several “Wesleyanisms” that bear Wesley’s name that stem from different points of Wesley’s own theological development. Here I present Wesley’s mature view via Tom Oden’s works.**
Discussion: Grace and Sin
Tom Oden in his book The Transforming Power of Grace asks the question, “How could it be that one spiritually lost and dead could be yet possessed of moral ability that makes him responsible for his lost condition?” Answering his question from the general consensus of the first five centuries of Christian belief, Oden quickly surveys and rejects two options, writing: “The Pelagian view that freedom of the moral will has suffered no disability must be rejected. The deterministic view that natural man is utterly incapable of exercising free will leads to opposite excesses” (p. 44). Oden then begins a nuanced examination of how grace was considered to operate by those early Christians building upon his earlier survey of how God’s grace encourages the will to desire the good by challenging our prejudices, disarming our resistances, and enabling our ability to hear the Word of God, having argued, “grace transforms in its work of enabling is not simply our understanding of truth, but more so our disposition to embody the truth. The willingness and desire of the seeker behaviorally to embody the truth is made increasingly possible” (p. 43). “Grace,” Oden writes, “moves positively by helping to offer the soul an appetite for heavenly food, a desire to reach the celestial city” (p. 43).
The answer to his own question, Oden says, is a theological balance between the created nature as good and the fallen nature that is tempered by grace. Oden writes,
- No one remains merely in an utterly ungraced, fallen state…. The good that is found in the unregenerate fallen human will is not due to nature, as the semi-Pelagians would have it, but grace. This explains why all men are not as bad as they could be. “Grace arrested man in his fall, and placed him in a salvable state, and endowed him with the gracious ability to meet all the conditions of personal salvation. Fallen man has never been without the benefits and influences of the atonement,” wrote Tillet. The benefits of Christ’s righteousness and atoning death are coextensive with the effects of Adam’s sin (Ps. 117, 120; Rom. 5:12-21 [pp.44, 45]).
Oden then argues that nobody is condemned for Adam’s sin alone but because of personal and volitional desire to sin that exercises itself in sundry defective ways. Notwithstanding, God is more full of grace than the world is of sin.
The Consensual Schema of Grace
The psalmist taught both that “God will go before me” (Ps. 59:10), and that God’s “mercy shall follow me” (Ps. 23:6, KJV).
In the schema above prevenient simply means the grace that “goes before.” In this role our Lord gives grace before any action on the part of the person. God goes before the person encouraging the will to desire the things of God and God goes before to effect action. God wants the person to do something, namely the things of God. In point of fact, grace is always prevenient and going before us; even when encountered in sanctifying stages, grace goes before preparing and heralding the renewing of the soul. Grace goes before us, enabling and empowering us. Prior to any profession of faith, grace draws us to faith and empowers our faith. “Following justification, grace continues to move preveniently, preparing the way in a synergistic response to and with our acts of faith, generating elements and fore-tastes of God’s perfection within us. When we ‘improve’ upon grace, it moves on ahead, preveniently improving us still further toward the glory which God has for us. In every act of grace, God’s action is first, our faith is responsitory” (Rev. Neal, email 10/26/02).
In the sense of God’s ministry of grace coming before our embodiment and subsequent cooperation, it is best to not think of the different terms used to describe grace as different kinds of grace but as descriptions of the differing roles grace plays at differing points in every person’s relationship with the Lord, our God.
Framing the concepts of prevenient and subsequent roles of grace in terms of monergism and synergism, then the giving of prevenient grace may be considered a monergistic act by God that enables a synergistic cooperation between the person and God. If the person embodies and then acts upon the grace he or she has already been given, then our Lord improves upon this by again monergistically giving more grace to bring about a cooperative or synergistic action. And so on. When the questions “How are we healed?” and “Who does the healing?” are asked, we are able to place the doctrines of monergism and synergism into their proper contextual framework. Here monergism and synergism are not viewed as competing theologies but complementary theologies where Christians are all able to acknowledge the Who that saves as solely God and the how God saves as a work of God that brings about faith and repentance in persons.
In both the writings of the West and the East is preserved the understanding that God gives grace preveniently. Prevenient grace goes before enabling the will to do good, calling persons to salvation, and inviting those buried in sin to awaken and rise to new life: “Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14). “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him” (Rev. 3:20). Prevening grace enables those steeped in sin and dead to God to hear the voice of God and answer the call of salvation. Prevening grace illuminates and liberates minds from sin. God acts upon the person before the person can act. But God acts on the person not so that the person can do nothing but namely, so that the person will see and do the things of God. Prevenient grace goes before the soul can cooperate and works without us because it works before us so that we can then respond to God’s call of salvation. “God thus operates in the hearts of men and in free will itself, so that a holy thought, a pious plan, and every motion of good will is from God” (Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace, p. 51, quoting Gregory the Great).
Breakout Discussion Question:
- Oden’s method of developing a contemporary theology from a consensual understanding of early Christianity is well understood and documented. Does Oden’s understanding of the early Christian belief agree with your own in that Oden claims, along with the Wesleyan tradition, that grace arrests mans’ fall and thereby makes all people personally accountable for their own sin because grace, if embodied and acted upon, frees the will to do or not do the things of God?
* For Wesley, original sin is the theological explanation of humanity’s innate sinfulness, which is the natural result of an obliterated imago dei, not a universal inheritance of Adam’s forensic guilt, as many Western theologians have claimed. See Maddox, Responsible Grace, 73-83 (especially p. 82). Note that in Wesley’s early thought he stressed humanity’s inherited guilt from Adam, but in his more mature works he backed away from such a pronounced emphasis upon culpability. He would later claim that all guilt is nullified at birth by the universal efficacy of the atonement (see p. 75 note 76). See also Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” in Sermons Ill, 207.
** Thomas C. Oden is a Methodist theologian and Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology at Drew University who has authored over 40 books and numerous journal articles throughout his career. Dr. Oden is regarded as the foremost evangelical theologian alive within the United Methodist Church today. In addition, he is a noted scholar and an Executive Editor of Christianity Today. Oden has lectured the world over and held many positions of leadership throughout his lifetime. Aware that he is in the twilight of his years, he has taken up the challenge to produce a twenty-eight volume Bible commentary exclusively using Christian writers from the first eight centuries of Christianity (the era from Clement of Rome, 95 A.D., to John of Damascus, 645-749 A.D.). The resulting Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series is read by members of all three major Christian traditions.