The End of the Wesleyan Way of Salvation

The following is a very slightly modified excerpt from a paper I recently completed. This is why God the Father sent his Son into the world.

John Wesley’s refined soteriology is marked by very subtle nuances and distinctions along his via salutis (Way of Salvation); as a result it is also holistic in that he does not emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification, what God does for us and what God does in us.[1] Yet in his sermon on “The Way of Salvation” he alludes to the concept that sums up greater still what is the end of the way of salvation, namely to be renewed in the image of God, which he describes Christologically by alluding to Phil 2:5 as “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.”[2]

We should not underestimate how important renewal in the image of God was for John Wesley’s soteriology. In his sermon on “Original Sin” Wesley did not mince words:

Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul.[3]

John Wesley preachingTherefore, it is vital that we grasp Wesley’s understanding of the image of God in order to appreciate the full scope of his vision of salvation. We will also see how it is the nexus between human renewal and the renewal of the entire creation.

As Edgardo Colón-Emeric says, “the doctrine of the image of God lies at the heart of Wesley’s theological anthropology and soteriology.”[4] It is central to his teaching on original sin, foundational to his understanding of justification by faith, and essential for his doctrine of the new birth. These three scriptural doctrines, original sin, justification by faith, and the new birth, Wesley considered of utmost importance for Christians to understand. He considered justification by faith and the new birth to be fundamental Christian doctrines above all. Moreover, he says, the foundation of the doctrine of the new birth is the doctrine of humanity created in the image of the Triune God and the disastrous effects of original sin on our nature. “This then is the foundation of the new birth—the corruption of our entire nature. Hence it is that being ‘born in sin’ we ‘must be born again.’”[5]

The Three Dimensions of the Image of God

Whereas Deists identified reason with the image of God, and Immanuel Kant with conscience, Wesley saw it in a more relational sense.[6] He also thought of it in a tri-dimensional way. First there is the natural image. Like God, humans are also spiritual beings, albeit embodied spiritual beings, which possess an immortal soul. The natural image also includes a principle of self-motion, an agency driven by understanding, will, and liberty. Understanding involves the ability to discern truth from falsehood; the will is made up of a constellation of affections, passions, and tempers, which would have been completely filled with love before the fall; and liberty is the ability of choice that made humans capable of “holy love” in the first place.[7]

The second dimension is the political image. This dimension captures the fact that God not only created humans to be in relationship with God and other humans, but also nature itself, especially other creatures.[8] “Man was God’s vice-regent upon earth, the prince and governor of this lower world, and all the blessings of God flowed through him to the inferior creatures.”[9] From biblical passages like Gen 1-3 and Psalm 8, Wesley understood that God created humanity to be conduits and mediators of God’s blessing to the rest of creation, including other humans and other creatures. Humans were created with a responsibility for their relationship with God; they were also created with a responsibility for the welfare of their fellow humans. God does generally choose to bless humans through other humans (see Gen 12:1-3). Moreover, humans were created with a responsibility for the welfare of the other creatures.[10] This is how Wesley understood the dominion of humans over creation under the reign of God.

The third and, according to Wesley, the chief dimension of the image of God in humanity is the moral image.[11] It is this dimension that especially distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. But, for Wesley, it was not reason that made the difference. Wesley granted that animals also have some reasoning capabilities in terms of a measure of understanding. He speculated that before the fall those capabilities would have far exceeded what they are now.[12] For sure, he believed humans capable of reasoning powers far in excess of all other creatures except angels. Nevertheless, what really made humans unique is the capacity to know, love, and glorify God. Speaking of the moral image, Wesley quotes part of 1 John 4:16, “God is love” to say that so too “man at his creation was full of love, which was the sole principle of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions.” But lest we misconstrue this as a mere sentimental love, Wesley is also careful to highlight other moral attributes that humanity originally shared with God, “justice, mercy, and truth.” In fact, based on Eph 4:24, Wesley primarily identified the moral image with “righteousness and true holiness.”[13] Wesley says, “Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus; it consists of all heavenly affections and tempers mingled together in one.”[14] Again Wesley considered love to be the sole principle of those affections and tempers before the fall, but not understood apart from righteousness and holiness. The moral image “highlights the crucial truth that it was not just any love in which humanity was created but it was holy love.”[15]

The moral image in humanity was in perfect harmony with the nature of God and, therefore, with the will and law of God. The righteousness in which humanity was originally created “was the conformity of all the faculties and powers of his soul to the moral law.”[16] Wesley considered the moral law to be the universal standard of righteousness that is “a copy of the eternal mind, a transcript of the divine nature.”[17] According to Wesley it was written on the hearts of angels and humans when they were created.[18] As a copy the moral law is not to be identified as the actual mind of God or the image of God itself in humanity. Neither is it the basis of the humanity’s fellowship with God. But it is “a standard that is expressive of the integrity of that relationship and that reveals both grace and righteousness (and sin as well) for what they are.”[19]


The Effects of the Fall on the Image of God

As we have seen, the doctrine of original sin is foundational for Wesley, especially as it concerns the new birth, the beginning of human renewal. Thus, it is essential that we consider the deleterious effects of the fall. First, understanding the image of God as a “capacity for relationships,” we see that humanity’s rebellion in Adam severed humanity’s primary and most significant relationship, our relationship with God.[21] This brought spiritual death wherein the soul was cut off from the life of God. The cause according to Wesley was first and foremost unbelief. In unbelief Adam and Eve rejected the word of God and believed the word of the devil. Unbelief led to pride and self-will and love of the world above God. This left humanity plagued with evil affections and tempers and its liberty therein bound. Those created for virtue became slaves to vice. The moral image was completely lost, while the natural image was left marred and confused, hopelessly (apart from grace) prone to error and ignorance; the political image was greatly distorted, thus disrupting the flow of the blessing of God through humanity to the rest of creation.[22] For the rest of creation, rather than being a conduit of God’s blessing, humanity brought “disorder, misery, and death.”[23]

Although as a whole the entirety of the image of God was not totally effaced; it was overshadowed and despoiled by what Wesley called “the image of the devil” marked by “pride and self-will.” Humanity also fell partly into “the image of the beast” being dominated by “sensual appetites and desires.”[24] Actually humanity became worse than the devil in that “we run into an idolatry whereof he is not guilty: I mean love of the world,” which is “to seek happiness in the creature rather than the Creator.”[25] With 1 John 2:15-17 as his guide, Wesley further explained love of the world as living for the insatiable desires for pleasure, novelty, and praise of people rather than the will of God.[26] It is from this sad and hopeless (apart from grace) state that humanity needs to be saved. By the blood of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God reverses and heals the effects of the fall, thereby renewing humanity in the image of God.


Although John Wesley did believe in the conscious existence of the soul after death, he saw that as only an intermediate state. The renewal of all creation through human renewal in the image of God was always his greater hope. This greater hope is inherent to his vision of the image of God in which humanity was created, especially in what he called the political image. When humanity is in proper relationship with God in terms of the moral image, blessing flows from God through humanity into the rest of creation. What is implicit in Wesley’s understanding of the image of God, especially the political dimension, he makes explicit in his sermon on Romans 8, “The General Deliverance” (Sermon 60). With humanity fully redeemed in the resurrection of the body, harmony and full blessing will be restored to the rest of creation in the new heaven and earth.

It is also important to note that holiness and righteousness in terms of the moral image, and its relationship with the moral law, are absolutely essential for a genuinely Wesleyan vision of salvation. Holiness and the moral law are essential doctrines. Wesley would often quote Hebrews 12:14 as a reminder of that fact.

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: (KJV)

It is true that we are not saved BY holiness, but we are saved BY grace THROUGH faith FOR holiness, which is renewal in the image of God. This is the end-goal of grace, justification, sanctification, and all of the means of grace. Remembering this ultimate goal can keep us from losing sight of the forest for the trees and settling for truncated visions of salvation that would leave us with far less than God intends. Truncated visions of salvation include those that emphasize individual salvation at the expense of social and cosmic salvation, those that emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification, or those that promote so-called social justice to the neglect of individual salvation. It is foolish to expect to bring about a virtuous society without virtuous people. Only the grace of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can renew people in the image of God. To settle for anything less, in the words of Wesley, would be a “poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul.” But to accept the grace of God in Christ through faith is to have our souls saved and renewed “in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it.”  This is the end of the Wesleyan way of salvation!

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Charles Wesley ~ “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”


[1] Wesley, “Sermon 45: The New Birth,,” in Works, Outler, 2:187.

[2] Wesley, “Sermon 43,” in Works, Outler, 2:164.

[3] Wesley, “Sermon 44: On Original Sin,” in Works, Outler, 2:185.

[4] Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Wesley, Aquinas, and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 18.

[5] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:190.

[6] Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 13.

[7] Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 52-53.

[8] Collins, Holy Love, 53-54.

[9] Wesley, “Sermon 60,” in Works, Outler, 2:440.

[10] Collins, Holy Love, 54-55.

[11] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler 2:188.

[12] Wesley, “Sermon 60,” in Works, Outler, 2:441.

[13] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:188.

[14] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:194.

[15] Collins, Holy Love, 55.

[16] John Wesley, “The Doctrine of Original Sin,” in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 9:434.

[17] Wesley, “Sermon 34: The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,” in Works, Outler, 2:10.

[18] Wesley, “Sermon 34,” in Works, Outler, 2:7.

[19] Collins, Holy Love, 56.

[21] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 68.

[22] Collins, Holy Love, 58-63.

[23] Wesley, “Sermon 56: God’s Approbation of His Works,” in Works, Outler, 2:399.

[24]Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:190.

[25] Wesley, “Sermon 44,” in Works, Outler, 2:179-180.

[26] Wesley, “Sermon 44,” in Works, Outler, 2:181-182.

1 thought on “The End of the Wesleyan Way of Salvation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s