By Jeff Paton
It has been assumed that the most controversial element in Methodist theology has been John Wesley's doctrine of Christian Perfection. On the average, this Biblical doctrine has been unfairly represented by bitter opponents who have never read Wesley for themselves. Many have set up a "straw man" claiming it to be the doctrine of Wesleyanism so they have an easy target to knock down. The problem is that the average person today now believes that Wesley taught an absolute, angelic perfection, which is far from the truth. Most Wesleyans in their effort to fit in with the "Evangelical" majority, shy away from this doctrine so they will "fit in." Early on in Methodist history the first effort to "fit in" was not centered around Perfection, but the issue of works.The most bitter and aggressive attack on Wesley was for his view on salvation and works. This controversy was the reason why John Fletcher, Vicar of Madeley, entered this theological debate. John Fletcher, in his attempt to defend his friend John Wesley, took up his pen to write rebuttals in defense of the statements made in the 1770 minutes. This ensued in a growing exchange of letters with the Calvinistic opposition, resulting in Fletcher's famous "Checks to Antinomianism," which have remained unanswered to this day.
Why the frenzy? Take a look at the 1770 conference minutes and see!
We said in 1744, "We have leaned too much towards Calvinism." Wherein?
A. (1) With regard to man's faithfulness. Our Lord himself taught us to use the expression : Therefore we ought never to be ashamed of it. We ought steadily to assert upon his authority, that if a man is not "faithful in the unrighteous mammon, God will not give him the true riches."
(2) With regard to "working for life," which our Lord expressly commands us to do. "Labor," literally, "work, for the meat that endureth to everlasting life." And in fact, every believer, till he comes to glory, works for as well as from life.
(3) We have received it as a maxim, that " a man is to do nothing in order to justification." Nothing could be more false. Whoever desires to find favor with God, should "cease from evil, and learn to do well." So God himself teaches by the Prophet Isaiah. Whoever repents, should "do works meet for repentance." And if this is not in order to find favor, what does he do them for?
Once more review the whole affair:
(1) Who of us is now accepted of God?
He that believes in Christ with a loving obedient heart.
(2) But who among those that never heard of Christ?
He that , according to the light he had, " feareth God and worketh righteousness."
(3) Is this the with "he that is sincere?"
Nearly, if not quite.
(4) Is this not salvation by works?
Not by the merit of works, but by works as a condition.
(5) What have we then been disputing about for these thirty years? I am afraid about words, namely, in some of the forgoing instances.
(6) As to merit itself, of which we have been so dreadfully afraid: We are rewarded according to our works, yea, because of our works. How does this differ from, " for the sakes of our works?" And how differs this from secondum merita operum? Which is no more than, " as our works deserve." Can you split this hair? I doubt I cannot. ...Whereas we are every moment pleasing or displeasing to God, according to our works; according to the whole of our present inward tempers and outward behaviour (Works 8:337- 338).
Wesley later clarified himself on this issue in a letter to Elizabeth Harper on March 1, 1774.
I enclose James Perfect's letter, on purpose that you may talk with him. He has both an honest heart and a good understanding; but you entirely mistake his doctrine. He preaches salvation by faith in the same manner that my brother and I have done; and as Mr. Fletcher (one of the finest writers of the age) has beautifully explained it. None of us talk of being accepted for our works: That is the Calvinist slander. But we all maintain, we are not saved without works; that works are a condition (though not the meritorious cause ) of salvation. It is by faith in the righteousness and blood of Christ that we are enabled to do all good works; and it is for the sake of these that all who fear God and work righteousness are accepted of Him. It is far better for our people not to hear Mr. Hawksworth. Calvinism will do them no good (Works 12:398-399).
Remarking on these statements, Fletcher said " Here Mr. Wesley strikes at a fatal mistake of all Antinomians, many honest Calvinists, and not a few who are Arminians in sentiment, and Calvinists in practice" (Works 1:30). Which could not have been stated more accurately for today than it was in 1771! Many Wesleyans today are much closer to the Calvinistic view of faith and works than the balanced biblical view of early Wesleyan-Arminianism.
Heresy! Dreadful Heresy! Was the cry then, and it is now. Contemporary Christian radio is filled from sunup to sundown with sermons against works. They confound the "works of the law" that Paul condemned as a means of justification with "good works" wrought within the believer though faith. At times, they take it a heretical step further by making all works an evil thing! To expect a Christian to live up to the standard of their profession is the quickest way to be labeled as a "legalist" and a "pharisee."Why then, would I take such an unpopular and unaccepted stance on this issue? First of all, I wish to resurrect a lost but vital element in theology. Secondly, I hope to give strength to those who have believed this truth to have courage that they are not alone, and even though the world condemns us, we should proclaim the truth in the interest of God's glory, and men's souls.
Though I love John Wesley and what he had to say, I like him want only what the Bible has to say on this subject. First, I will treat a few objections that are usually used to support a fruitless salvation, and then I will show where the scriptures say as they teach this doctrine.
What about the thief on the cross? Wasn't he saved without works? No!
The converted thief on the cross was not saved without works. How is this so? James writes that "Faith without works is dead, " so what work did the thief on the cross do that would prove that his faith was not dead? John Fletcher responded to this by saying "How will the converted thief, that did no good works, be justified by works?"
ANSWER. (1). We mean by WORKS " the whole of our inward tempers and outward behavior;" and how do you know the outward behavior of the converted thief? Did his reproofs, exhortations, prayers, patience, and resignation, evidence the liveliness of his faith, as their was time and opportunity? (2). Can you suppose his inward temper was not love to God and man? Could he go to paradise without being born again? Or could he born again and not love? Is it not said, "he that loveth is born of God;" consequently, he that is born of God loveth? Again: do not he who "loveth, fulfill all the law," and do, as says Augustine, all good works in one? And is not "the fulfilling of the law of Christ" work enough to justify the converted thief by that law? ( WORKS 1:85)One can make suppositions about the thief's heart, but it cannot be denied that he showed fruit of his faith, and was accepted of God. He expresses his conviction, repentance, his faith in the Messiah, his unabashed rebuke of the mocking criminal on the other cross, his prayer to be remembered by Jesus in paradise. Even with a deathbed conversion, he did not have a "dead faith."
How then can you reconcile Paul's statement in Romans 4:5 where he said "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness."?
Some have stated this as if it finalized the issue. The problem here is the confusion between the "works of the law" to merit salvation, and good works which are part of the fruit of salvation. The context is clear. Paul is arguing against earning salvation, and at this point, he has nothing to do with the works that accompany genuine conversion. In the preceding verse he said "Now to him that worketh, is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt." Which clarifies the meaning of the following verses. We could work forever and never repay our debt, but justification is a "gift" apart from any "meritorious works."
Ephesians 2:8-9 , states "For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."
Once again the Apostle is correcting the theory of salvation by works, and is not contending that a Christian can live out a "workless" salvation. Verse 10 illuminates the context by saying " For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." It is clear that the Christian is empowered to do good works because Jesus is working them through us! John 15:4-6 strengthens this truth "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine: no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: For without me ye can do nothing."
If we are saved, we must bear fruit. If we do not produce good works, it is evident that we are not one of his! The works we do are accomplished from the fact that Christ is working them through us. We have a part in this work, but since our hearts have been changed to do them with a right motive, God gives us rewards for what he does through us.
One last objection is taken from a passage in 1 Corinthians 3:4-15. Most usually focus on 10-15 as follows "According to the grace of God which is given to me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth upon it. But let every man take heed how he buildeth upon it. For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man buildeth upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work will be made manifest: for the day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will try every man's work, of what sort it is. If any man's work abideth which he hath built upon it, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he will suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."
Calvinists would like us to think that this verse is saying that a believer can not only be fruitless at the judgment, but also bring a life of post-conversion sin with them.
I would like to make a few observations: The Context.
John 5:28-29 "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, to the resurrection of damnation." Jesus has somehow missed the "grace only" message, he only mentions their "good works".
Romans 2:6-7, Paul writes that God "Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing, seek for glory, and honor, and immortality; eternal life." There is no conflict between Paul, James, and Jesus here, but perfect harmony.
John Fletcher lumps several verses as a whole to show the consistency of this doctrine. "the Lord," says he, "in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, will render to every man according to his deeds; to them that continue in well doing," (here is the true perseverance of the saints!) "Eternal life! Indignation upon every soul of man that does evil, and glory to every man who worketh good; for there is no respect of persons with God. We shall all appear before the Judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in the body," not according to what he believed, whether it be true or false, but "according to that he hath done, whether good or bad." St. Peter asserts, that the Father, "without respect of persons, judgeth according to every man's work." And St. John, who, next to our Lord, gives us the most particular description of the day of judgment, concludes it by these awful words: "And the dead were judged out of the things written in the books, according to their works." It is not once said, "according to their faith" (WORKS 1:74).
I would like to restate the areas where I believe that Christians allow presuppositions to lead them astray in their interpretation.
Paul's railings are against "works" and the "law" as a means of earning salvation. He is not against "good works" as concomitant with what he considers as "justifying faith." James argues that faith without works is dead, that is, ineffective, non-saving. Man is not justified for any good work he has done, but equally, he will not be justified in the Judgment seat of God without them. A man without works is a man who has not been justified.
This modern "faith without works" is at odds with not only Wesleyan theology, but the Bible as well. This appalling theology has produced a nation of fruitless and comfortably deceived psuedo-Christians who go around boasting of their sinfulness and unworthiness as if this were a sign of immense spirituality. They not only condone this "spirituality" in others, they also encourage others to join them in their destruction. They believe that they possess the true gospel and its theology. What they really possess is a firm grasp on error and deception!
I pray that this article impels us to be desirous of good works, and to help us to take a stand for this unpopular, but vital doctrine.