Willimon’s book on Wesleyan theology is a masterpiece

August 28, 2012

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?

Willimon writes:

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.

3 Responses to “Willimon’s book on Wesleyan theology is a masterpiece”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I don’t know if I am a “Pelagian” or not, as not being particularly familiar with that debate. Regardless, however, I don’t believe it is ultimately possible to reconcile free choice with a “God’s-grace-only” approach to salvation.

    I certainly concur, and would insist upon, God’s grace as ESSENTIAL to salvation–we cannot “merit” God’s salvation. Also, God paid the price for that grace to be extended. And God is gracious to us in other ways, such as, indeed, our very existence to allow the prospect of salvation and heaven. Nevertheless, I consider it a thing impossible for us to have “no role” in our salvation–or else be a full-fledged five-point “Calvinist” TULIP.

    I also don’t consider that view to be consistent with Jesus’ many teachings and illustrations on how to become a disciple. We must make a critical and ultimate choice between God on the one hand and “everything else” on the other. As Joshua said, “Choose you this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

    Consequently, I have to stand on the position I advanced in my last comments–God is the “lover” who woos; we are the “bride” who then says, “Forsaking all others, I choose you.” Only upon such a response do the “two become one flesh”; only then does the Spirit come in to dwell. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man will open the door, I will come in.” And “opening the door” involves faith and repentance, per the rest of the New Testament.

    I think there is too much emphasis placed on Paul’s “dead in trespasses and sin.” We are all familiar with the expression, “You’re a dead man.” Also, we call someone headed down to their execution, “dead man walking.” Why? Because they are literally “dead”? No. Because they are under the SENTENCE of death. Except that sentence be commuted, there is no escape. But Christ has made possible that redemption.

    Is this precluded because it somehow makes us responsible for our salvation? I don’t see how God’s being responsible for 90% and me being responsible for 10% makes salvation dependent on me. However, I do believe the “final step” is, indeed, ours to take. If we have no such step to take on our own, then it is “all of God and none of me,” which is nothing other than predestination, however much the lily may be gilded.

    (Incidentally, I retract my concurrence as to Barth–I started reading his “Epistle to the Romans,” and find it incomprehensible; if, indeed, it is even Christian.)

  2. brentwhite Says:

    You tried to read his Romans commentary? That’s very ambitious! We just read a snippet in seminary. I bought it and only made it about a third of the way (so far). It makes for very dense and difficult reading. He emphasizes God’s transcendence. We Christians, he says, usually make God into our own image and worship ourselves.

    Among other things, Barth was the leader of the Confessing Church movement in Germany that opposed Hitler. He was a contemporary and friend of Bonhoeffer. I blogged about him here: https://revbrentwhite.com/2010/12/10/deprivation-and-hope/

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Brent, I did not know about and was impressed to learn of Barth’s opposition to Hitler and friendship with Bonhoeffer. However, I agree with “very dense and difficult reading.” I don’t really agree with “negative theology,” to the extent I could even see that much in what he says. It’s true we might have some tendency to “make God in our image,” but the fact is that God said he made us in his image. Therefore, there is some legitimacy in looking at ourselves to help in understanding who God is. God is the “revealer,” even though on occasion he does “hide himself.” We know that God is love, and that he is holy, and merciful, and mighty, and wise, because he has told us these things. God is simply “more” than I can understand, not “less” (i.e., incapable of being known at all).


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