Will Willimon’s book United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction is nothing less than a masterpiece. It distills Wesleyan theology into one brief, highly accessible volume—and I’m not even getting paid to say that. (I’m not above getting paid, mind you, if the fine folks at Westminster John Knox happen to be reading this!)
Our church has been selling copies of this book on Sunday mornings, along with a couple other Wesley resources. You’re not going to get a better, more readable introduction to Wesleyan thought. If you know Bishop Willimon, you know his writing style isn’t dry. He has more than a few opinions on the subject of Methodism that he doesn’t mind sharing along the way. His subjectivity, however, is never distracting to me.
Last Sunday I preached on sanctification, which Willimon identifies as the central emphasis of Wesleyan thought. This doctrine, with its robust understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life, is Methodism’s best gift to the universal Church. Willimon rightly identifies Pentecostalism as a “grandchild” of Methodism.
On the subject of sanctification, he addresses the central challenge facing Methodist theology, the point at which Wesley loudly parted company with Luther and Calvin, and the challenge we’ve been dealing with on this blog for the past month or so: Given our Wesleyan emphasis on human responsibility (including the free choice to accept God’s justifying grace in the first place), how do we, at the same time, claim that we’re saved by grace alone, through no merit of our own?
One of Wesley’s great achievements in soteriology was to keep a vital tension between God’s grace and our grace-driven but never-forced involvement…
A word of theological caution: When we Wesleyans speak of this triumph of prevenient grace, there is the danger that such talk will overshadow our truthful and orthodox assertion of the pervasiveness of human sin. How do we affirm with the Western theological tradition (thanks to Augustine against the Pelagians) that we are indeed sinners utterly unable to save ourselves from our sin? How do we avoid hedging on the historic affirmation that salvation from sin belongs only to God in Christ, working through the Holy Spirit without our help or encouragement, and (with Wesley) assert that God has given us the freedom to take some real responsibility for our situation?
We do it through prevenient grace.
Our sin, while obvious and undeniable, is not the last word on the human condition. God didn’t stop creating after the first six days of creation. God continues to get involved in each life, giving grace that enables all of us, despite our sin, to say—when confronted by the presence and work of Christ—”yes.”[†]
I recommend reading the book for the complete answer, but he’s right on: prevenient grace is the key.
†William Willimon, United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction (Louisville: WJK, 2007), 78.