By Kevin M. Watson
Almost all of my writing for the church and the academy has focused in one way or another on the Wesleyan theological tradition. From time to time I am asked: Why are you Wesleyan?
When I was in seminary, I remember experiencing some shock at the wide array of opinions and denominations represented by faculty, students, and the assigned readings. I wrestled with what I was going to do when I graduated and began serving in full-time local church ministry. The models I saw seemed to focus on endlessly exploring ideas across a very broad swath of Christianity. The questions were often good and interesting, but they seemed to always lead to more questions. As someone preparing to pastor a local church, I was pretty sure God was calling me to offer the truth about Jesus Christ and his gospel. I needed to work through the questions to return to truth I could proclaim with confidence to the people God sent me to serve.
I eventually came to a place where I realized the best way I could proclaim the truth was by being deeply anchored in the theological heritage of my particular part of the Body of Christ.
This conviction came as I was taking United Methodist History and Doctrine with Dr. Doug Strong, who would become one of my most important mentors (and my first boss in the academy when he hired me for my first faculty position at Seattle Pacific University).
Doug’s passion for the Wesleyan theological tradition became my passion. He taught Methodist History and Doctrine by anchoring us in the writings of John Wesley. We read Wesley’s sermons and several other occasional pieces he wrote. We studied the basic practices of Methodism. I learned, among other things, that Wesley’s followers were called Methodists because of the methodical pursuit of a particular way of life.
Two things that happened in that class that are crucial for why I am Wesleyan today.
First, I read John Wesley’s teaching on entire sanctification and Christian perfection. I was captivated by Wesley’s optimism of what God can do in our lives through the power of the resurrection of Jesus. I was excited and energized by Wesley’s focus on the importance of salvation and his emphasis on the way of salvation, a journey with God that one grows in with expectation of seeing God deliver from bondage to sin and bring victory in Jesus’s name.
In short, entire sanctification is the Christian belief that the grace of God saves us to the uttermost, freeing us not only from external sins but bringing holy affections, holy tempers. Entire sanctification is loving God and neighbor to the exclusion of sin.
As I’ve spent time with this teaching, I’ve become more convinced that entire sanctification is true. It is powerful! When I speak to leaders in Wesleyan communities, I often say something like this: “There should not be a church in any of your communities that has a more bold and audacious optimism of what the grace of God can do in the lives of every single person in your communities than your church.” My intention in saying this is not to stir up unhealthy and unhelpful competition or strife between denominations. Rather, it is to call the followers of John Wesley back to the riches of their own heritage.
There are two key passages that capture this Wesleyan essential for me. The first is from John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation”:
“But what is that faith whereby we are sanctified, saved from sin and perfected in love? It is a divine evidence and conviction, first, that God hath promised it in the Holy Scripture…. It is a divine evidence and conviction, secondly, that what God hath promised he is able to perform…. It is, thirdly, a divine evidence and conviction that he is able and willing to do it now…. To this confidence, that God is both able and willing to sanctify us now, there needs to be added one thing more, a divine evidence and conviction that he doth it.”
After defining the faith by which we are entirely sanctified, Wesley then asks, Should we expect to receive entire sanctification gradually or instantaneously? This passage gets me every time!
“Perhaps it may be gradually wrought in some … But it is infinitely desirable … that it should be done instantaneously; that the Lord should destroy sin ‘by the breath of his mouth’ in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. And so he generally does, a plain fact of which there is evidence enough to satisfy any unprejudiced person. Thou therefore look for it every moment…. And by this token may you surely know whether you seek it by faith or by works. If by works, you want something to be done first, before you are sanctified. You think, ‘I must first be or do thus or thus.’ Then you are seeking it by works unto this day. If you seek it by faith, you may expect it as you are: and if as you are, then expect it now. It is of importance to observe that there is an inseparable connection between these three points – expect it by faith, expect it as you are, and expect it now!… Christ is ready. And he is all you want. He is waiting for you. He is at the door!” (John Wesley, “Scripture Way of Salvation”).
The second passage is from Scripture itself, and is one of the crucial passages in Scripture regarding entire sanctification:
“This is the will of God, your sanctification… May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thessalonians 4:1-3; 5:23-24).
I am a Wesleyan because I believe that God wants to sanctify everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and not just a little bit, but entirely! This is God’s will. And God, who calls us, is faithful and will do this!
The second thing that happened to me when I was in seminary that is a major reason I am not only Wesleyan, but got a PhD and became passionate about preparing people for leadership in the church, was that I was invited to join a Wesleyan band meeting. When I was invited, I did not know what it was. But I knew I was in seminary because the Lord had called me to give my life to Jesus and his church and I knew I was moving away from that calling and I didn’t know where to turn.
A band meeting is a small group of usually three to five people focused on confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. It is grounded on James 5:16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
Joining a band meeting was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was also one of the most important things I have ever done. We confessed our sins to one another, not in order to brow beat each other, or to shame one another, but in order to receive forgiveness through the grace of Jesus and in hope and expectation of experiencing healing and transformation.
The highlight of the group was when someone finished their confession and someone else shared words of forgiveness and pardon over them. We often used the words from 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
My life was changed because of my participation in a band meeting. This led me to study the history of the band meeting in early Methodism. It motivated me to write to help contemporary Wesleyans reclaim this practice, as well as the class meeting. The class meeting was a small group of about twelve people that was required of all Methodists throughout John Wesley’s lifetime and for the first several decades Methodism was a formal denomination in the United States (the Methodist Episcopal Church). The class meeting was less intense than the band meeting, focusing on a question like, “How is it with your soul?”
I am a Wesleyan because I have experienced the fruit of the method of Methodism. I am Wesleyan because I am captivated by the hopeful and optimistic theology which believes that the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is greater than sin and even death itself. Even in the times when I have been most discouraged by the state of the contemporary church, I still believe God wants his people to unplug the old wells that were dug by the first Methodists. I am convinced there is still living water there.
One last thing: I am a Wesleyan not because I want to be known as a follower of John Wesley. I do increasingly see John Wesley as the spiritual father of the Wesleyan/Methodist family. But Wesley was not interested in making little John Wesleys. He wanted to help people follow Jesus Christ. I am Wesleyan because it is the best way I know to follow Jesus Christ, to grow in holiness of heart and life.
More than being Wesleyan, I want to be a real Christian. The more I preach the gospel with a recognizable Wesleyan accent, the more effective I believe I will be in following Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.
Kevin M. Watson is Acting Director of the Wesley House at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is also Associate Pastor of Discipleship at First Methodist Church Waco. Dr. Watson is author of numerous books including The Class Meeting, Pursuing Social Holiness, Old or New School Methodism?, and Perfect Love. Prior to his position at Truett, he served as Associate Professor of Wesley and Methodist Studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Image:
“John Wesley Preaching at the Market Cross” by Richard Douglas. This is a color version of an earlier illustration by William Hatherell (1855-1928). It is part of the Richard Douglas collection of paintings at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.