Mark K. Olson, “Opening Salvation’s Door: Acts 10:35 and John Wesley’s Inclusivism”

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Abstract: This article explores John Wesley’s inclusivism regarding the future salvation of non-Christians, like Jews, Moslems, and other religious people. Reflecting on Acts 10:35, Wesley became convinced that the foundation for future salvation was not assent to a correct creed but reverence to the one true God expressed in a holy lifestyle. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Wesley, his insights will surely encourage the reader to think more deeply on the subject.

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John Wesley’s Inclusivism

Then Peter opening his mouth said, I perceive of a truth that God is not a respecter of personsBut in every nation he that feareth him, Then Peter opening his mouth said, I perceive of a truth that and worketh righteousness, is accepted by him. (Acts 10:34-35 JW’s ENNT)

Late in 1767, John Wesley took the coach north from London to Norwich. Since it was a two-day journey, he found time on the second day to reflect on the matter of justification and eternal salvation, with several conclusions standing out to him as “clear as the day.” First, Wesley reasoned that salvation does not require a person to have “clear conceptions,” nor does it demand that a person properly express themselves on specifics, like “imputed righteousness.” Even if a person has muddled ideas about salvation, or does not even use the correct terms, they may be saved. He went further and concluded that salvation does not even require a clear understanding of the core doctrine of the gospel: justification by faith. Wesley reasoned, if someone like William Law can be saved, who explicitly denied the doctrine of justification by faith, then what becomes of the “article by which the church stands or falls”? It was “high time,” Wesley claimed, for Methodists to return to the plain teachings of the God’s word. He then appealed to Acts 10:35 as the fundamental condition for eternal salvation, “‘He that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.’”[1]

The conclusions Wesley reached that day would have far-reaching ramifications for his doctrine of salvation. For Wesley not only began to teach there was a level of saving faith lower than the faith of a child and the new birth—specifically, the faith of a servant[2]—he also became even bolder by declaring Acts 10:35 as the basic soteriological standard for eternal salvation of all people, including those of other religions. As he would later declare in the 1784 sermon “On Charity”:

“But it may be asked: ‘If there be no true love of our neighbour but that which springs from the love of God; and if the love of God flows from no other fountain than faith in the Son of God; does it not follow that the whole heathen world is excluded from all possibility of salvation?…I answer…‘He that believeth not shall be damned,’ [Mk 16:16] is spoken of them to whom the gospel is preached. Others it does not concern; and we are not required to determine anything touching their final state. How it will please God, the Judge of all, to deal with them, we may leave to God himself. But this we know, that he is not the God of the Christians only, but the God of the heathens also; that he is ‘rich in mercy to all that call upon him’ [Rom 10:12], ‘according to the light they have’ [Rom 12:6]; and that ‘in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him’ [Acts 10:35].”[3]

Wesley was even more pointed in the 1790 sermon “On Living Without God”:

“Nor do I conceive that any man living has a right to sentence all the heathen and Mahometan [Moslem] world to damnation. It is far better to leave them to him that made them…who is the God of the heathens as well as the Christians . . . I believe the merciful God regards the lives and tempers of men more than their ideas. I believe he respects the goodness of the heart rather than the clearness of the head; and that if the heart of a man be filled (by the grace of God, and the power of his Spirit) with the humble, gentle, patient love of God and man, God will not cast him into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels because his ideas are not clear, or because his conceptions are confused.”[4]

In these sermons Wesley explicitly affirms that eternal salvation is possible for those who have never heard of Christ or sat under the preaching of the gospel; that God judges the temper of the heart more than the correctness of one’s ideas. And Wesley affirmed that in regard to members of other religions, it is best to leave them in the hands of a just and merciful God. But we also detect a subtle shift in Wesley’s soteriological principles in the above sermons. Whereas the early and the middle Wesley emphasized the axioms of heart holiness and salvation by faith, the late Wesley began to emphasize a third axiom—the universal fatherhood of God.[5] Following the example of the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:29-30, Wesley asserted that God is not only the God of Christians, but of all people, including members of other religions. Implicit in this assertion is the core conviction of prevenient grace, which shaped Wesley’s doctrines of anthropology and soteriology,[6] and became more pronounced in his late period with the development of his servant/son conjunctive. So, by emphasizing the axiom of God’s universal fatherhood, Wesley could make the case that salvation’s door was open to members of other religions and Acts 10:35 became the primary scripture text Wesley appealed to in support of his inclusivism.

John Wesley’s Exegesis of Acts 10:35

The roots of Wesley use of Acts 10:35 and the story of Cornelius reach back into the turbulent period of the Stillness Controversy in 1740.[7] But it was in 1747 that Wesley made specific appeal to Acts 10:35 in a couple letters: one to John Smith and the other to his brother Charles. In his letter to Charles, Wesley appealed to Acts 10:35 to support his notion that justification—defined as salvation from God’s wrath—is not conditioned upon one’s sense of assurance.[8] Then in 1749 Wesley appealed to Acts 10:35 as the basis for Christian fellowship and unity.[9] But it was in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (1755) that Wesley spelled out in more detail his understanding of Acts 10:35.

Wesley recognized that Cornelius was an unbeliever in the Christian sense of the term, since he did not have faith in Christ (10:4). When Peter proclaimed that God is “not a respecter of persons” (10:34), Wesley understood this to mean that God loves and wills for every person to be saved. Moving to the key terms in verse 35—“feareth God” and “worketh righteousness”—Wesley followed standard exegesis by understanding the first term to mean “reverence” and the second phrase to entail the avoidance of evil and the pursuit of goodness, according to one’s moral light. Concerning Cornelius’ acceptance by God, Wesley explained that it is “through Christ, though he knows him not.” He then continued, “The assertion is express, and admits of no exception. He is in the favour of God, whether enjoying his written word and ordinances ornot.” For Wesley, the present tense of the verb “is” allowed no other interpretation. That is, although Cornelius was an unbeliever in the Christian sense, he was already in God’s favor because he had a faith marked by reverence and righteousness.

When we turn to the commentators Wesley leaned upon for his Explanatory Notes, we see similarities and differences.[10] Nonconformist Phillip Doddridge, in his widely read Family Expositor, stressed God’s universal fatherhood and defined the key terms in verse 35 as “true filial reverence and obedience.”[11] But for Doddridge, Cornelius’ acceptance had more to do with the Gentiles and Jews standing on equal footing in regard to the gospel. In other words, contrary to Wesley, Doddridge linked the acceptance to what follows, with Peter’s proclamation of salvation in Christ, and not with Cornelius’ devout life expressed in his works of righteousness.

Another noncomformist commentator Wesley gleaned from was John Guyse. Guyse makes it clear that Cornelius was not in a state of salvation before Peter arrived. Instead, the acceptance that Cornelius enjoyed concerned those who are “proselytes of the gate,” who are admitted to the “privilege of the gospel for their own salvation.” In other words, Cornelius was at the threshold of salvation, ready to enter in upon Peter’s proclamation of the gospel. So contrary to Wesley’s inclusivism, Guyse felt that fearing God and working righteousness was good, as far as it went, but it did not give anyone a “claim to eternal life.”[12]

We have seen that both Doddridge and Guyse incline toward a more exclusivist reading of Acts 10:35. How about Johann Bengel, whom Wesley saw as the “great light” of scripture interpretation? Bengel understood the question of Cornelius’ acceptance in terms of God’s impartiality toward all nations through the gospel. As Peter declared in verse 36, Christ is now “Lord of all,” so God no longer requires people to be circumcised and embrace the Mosaic Law in order to become Christians. Concerning the phrases “feareth God” and “worketh righteousness,” Bengel understood these terms to summarize the OT prophets regarding the kind of piety God looks for in a person, even in those whose moral light is only the “light of nature.”[13]

Wesley demonstrates much affinity with Doddridge and Bengel in his interpretation and application of Acts 10:35. But he moved beyond their exegesis by making the case that Cornelius’ acceptance meant he was already in God’s favor, and the authenticity of his faith was confirmed by his response to the gospel, evidenced by the spontaneous descent of the Spirit (10:44). Although Wesley does not at this time discuss the soteriological standing of members of other religions who display the piety of Cornelius, his exegesis of Acts 10:35 firmly placed him in the inclusivist camp that would become evident in his later sermons and writings.[14] Another factor which shaped Wesley’s exegesis of Acts 10:35 was his covenant theology. Stanley Rodes has shown in his PhD thesis that Wesley’s servant/son metaphor was based on a covenant theology which held that the covenant of grace began at the fall of Adam in Genesis 3.[15] This departure from standard Reformed theology allowed Wesley to place non-Christians under the covenant of grace, and therefore recipients of prevenient grace.

How does Wesley’s position measure up to more recent scholarship on Acts 10:35? F.F. Bruce identified Cornelius as a “God-fearer”— a Gentile who worshipped the God of Israel yet did not become a full convert to Judaism (with the sticking-point of circumcision for men). Bruce understood Peter to say that “God has no favorites” and whoever “fears him and acts rightly is acceptable to him.” That is, if the Lord’s primary requirements for his covenant people are to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God (Mic. 6:8), then “Gentiles might fulfill these requirements as readily as Israelites.”[16] More recently I. Howard Marshall brought out that the phrase “fearing God” expresses the basic attitude required in OT religion (referencing Deut. 10:12 for support[17]), and that in the Greek “working righteousness” is a parallel of Psalm 15:2 (LXX).[18] But it was James Dunn who addressed the core issue when exegeting Acts 10:35 and the soteriological standing of devout non-Christians. Dunn asks, “Was Cornelius ‘acceptable’ to God or already ‘accepted’ by him?” He adds that the Greek can be read either way.[19] However, Dunn’s position is that if Gentiles display the same spirituality expected of God’s covenant people then surely the Lord will accept them too. For Christ is Lord over all (Acts 10:36), therefore his work of redemption is for Gentiles as well as for Jews.[20] To conclude, even though this is a small sample of scholarly opinion (and contrary opinions exist), these three respected scholars add confidence that Wesley’s reading of Acts 10:35 is anchored on solid exegetical footing.

John Wesley and Recent Dialog

In recent history three basic positions have become popular among Christians regarding the question of salvation in other religions: pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. Pluralism argues that the world religions are saving in their own right. At the other end of the spectrum is exclusivism, which states that salvation is found only in a personal response to Jesus Christ. Between these two poles lies inclusivism that affirms the possibility of salvation in other religions, but grounds this salvation in Christ and his redemptive work.[21] A recent advocate of inclusivism, Clark Pinnock, appealed to the Cornelius story as a “key symbol” to the reality of God’s saving presence in the religious lives of non-Christians who nevertheless are devout and God-fearing.[22] Some Old Testament examples he cites are Melchizedek, Abimelech, and Job. Pinnock added:

The entire Old Testament record is a problem for [exclusivists] because it describes countless pagans and Jews who were saved by faith without knowing Jesus or calling on his name—all saved by faith even though they had no Christian theology. Unless we assume that God is stricter and less generous after Easter than before we must suppose that God responds to all sinners who call upon him, whether they employ Christian language or not.[23]

He then appealed to Acts 10:35 and God’s acceptance of Cornelius to counter the exclusivist claim that Cornelius was not saved prior to Peter’s visit.

In making these points we can almost hear John Wesley speaking to us today. For Wesley’s point back in 1767 was that eternal salvation does not hinge on a person’s ability to recite correct Christian doctrine but consists in a faith-response that reverences God and practices righteousness. So, in closing what can Wesley’s exegesis of Acts 10:35 teach us today? I suggest three points:

First, God was salvifically present in Cornelius’ pre-Christian life. If, as Wesley taught, that salvation begins with the “first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will,”[24] then surely God was salvifically present in Cornelius’ life before Peter shared the gospel with him. The fact that Cornelius’ pre-Christian devotion and good works were received as an offering to God (10:4) and an angel of God was sent to him confirms this fact. So Wesley was correct to conclude that Cornelius was in “some measure” already in God’s favor.[25] But this implies that God is already present in the lives of those who follow other religions and mirror the devotion and good works of Cornelius. As Christians, we need to appreciate this truth and look for the signs of God’s presence in the lives of religious people. Recognizing God’s presence in their lives can become a foundation for positive dialog as we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Second, Cornelius was responsible to receive more light when presented to him. In an effort to understand the “orienting concern” of Wesley’s theology, Randy Maddox discovered there were “two truths that [Wesley] viewed as co-definitive of Christianity: without God’s grace, we cannot be saved; while without our participation, God’s grace will not save.”[26] That is, grace always presupposes responsibility. For Cornelius to remain in God’s favor, he was responsible to embrace Christ when presented to him. In the same way, devout non-Christians are responsible to embrace Christ when presented to them. Therefore, the Great Commission remains the church’s mandate. We are called to make disciples of Jesus Christ, even among those who have a faith that fears God and works righteousness.

Third, Cornelius’ salvation was in Christ alone. When Wesley declared Cornelius’ acceptance to be “through Christ, though he knows him not,” he expressed a fundamental soteriological conviction: Christ died for every human being. This means that if anyone is ever saved, it is through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. In the case of Cornelius, God sent an angel to reveal this truth to him. So our mandate remains the same as the Apostle Paul’s: we proclaim “Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all the wisdom God has given us. We want to present them to God, perfect in their relationship to Christ” (Col. 1:28 NLT).

[1] W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, eds. The Works of John Wesley: Journal and Diaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-Present), 22:114-15 (Hereafter: Works).

[2] “On Faith, Hebrews 11:6” I.9-10, Works 3:497.

[3] “On Charity” I.3, Works 3:295-96.

[4] “On Living without God” §§14-15, Works 4:174, 175.

[5] For the purposes of this paper, the three periods are early (1725-1738), middle (1738-1765), and late (1765-1791).

[6] “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” II.1 (Works 3:203); “On Conscience” §5 (Works 3:482).

[7] See my article “The Roots of Wesley’s Servant Theology” WTJ  44:2 (Fall, 2009).

[8] Letter July 31, 1747 (Works 26:255).

[9] “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” IV. 2, 3 (Works 11:265); “On a Catholic Spirit” III.5 (Works 2:94).

[10] The following three commentators are specifically listed as sources in the introduction of Wesley’s Explanatory Notes (§§7-8).

[11] Phillip Doddridge, The Family Expositor, vol. 3 (London: J. Waugh, 1748), 164.

[12] John Guyse, The Practical Expositor, vol. 2 (London, 1739-52), 120-21.

[13] Johann Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1877), 605-06.

[14] For example, in the 1770 Minutes Wesley appealed to Acts 10:35 to conclude who among those who have never heard of Christ are now accepted by God (Works 10:393).

[15] Stanley J. Rodes, “From Faith to Faith: An Examination of the Servant/Son Metaphor in John Wesley’s Theological Thought.” PhD Thesis (The University of Manchester, 2011), 70-73.

[16] F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 202, 211-12.

[17] “And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (KJV).

[18] I. Howard Marshall, ‘Acts,’ in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). Psalm 15:1-2 (KJV) “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.”

[19] Gk verb estim – present, active, indicative, third person, singular (Logos Libronix Digital System, Gk NT, Fourth Revised Edition).

[20] James D.G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1996), 141-43.

[21] Dennis L Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, eds. Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, 1996), 17-26. Cf. Gabriel Fackre, Ronald H. Nash, and John Sanders, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995).

[22] Ibid., 109.

[23] Ibid., 254.

[24] “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” II.1 (Works 3:203).

[25] Explanatory Notes, Acts 10:35.

[26] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 19.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]