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The Theology of John Wesley - Collins

In The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, Kenneth J. Collins, makes another important contribution to the area of Wesley Studies. Collins seeks to organize his discussion of Wesley’s theology around the “axial theme” of “holiness and grace” (6). The organization of the book is logical and easy to follow, essentially guiding the reader through the Way of Salvation, or more accurately (according to Collins’ view) the order of salvation.

A major strength of The Theology of John Wesley is Collins’ discussion of prevenient grace. Collins ends his summary of total depravity by arguing that “for those such as Wesley who followed the Augustinian tradition, the effects of the fall are so devastating that response-ability along the way of salvation is not a possibility at all unless God first of all sovereignly restores humanity through prevenient grace to some measure of the relation previously enjoyed” (73). It is almost as if Collins cannot help but talk about prevenient grace as soon as he has convinced the reader of the truth of human depravity. This is a thoroughly Wesleyan approach, as Wesley was only interested in discussing original sin in order to convince his audience of their need for the salvation which comes through Christ.

Collins beautifully distinguishes between Wesley and Calvin’s understanding of depravity and our dependence on grace, as well as their understandings of irresistible grace. Here Collins is at his best, “One of the chief differences… between Calvinism and Wesleyanism is at what point in the ordo salutis irresistible grace occurs. For Calvin, it is sanctifying grace that is irresistible; for Wesley, it is prevenient grace that ‘waiteth not for the call of man’” (82).

Collins’ discussion of the new birth has a particular sense of urgency. He notes that “What some Anglican clergy simply could not comprehend was how members of the church could employ the means of grace for years and yet lack regenerating, saving grace. But this presumption is precisely what Methodism called into question in the name of reform and in its concern for spreading scriptural holiness across the land” (212). In other words, the means of grace are not a pathway around the new birth. But rather, the new birth is the experience that results in the means of grace actually enabling the Christian’s growth in holiness.

In the section, “Did Wesley Maintain His Standard of the New Birth?” Collins rehashes arguments he has had with other contemporary Wesley scholars. Collins writes:

Moreover, if the Holy One does not transform the very nature of the children of God when their sins are forgiven… then they would shortly be committing the very same sins for which they had just asked forgiveness in the first place. Such a life would be marked not by liberty but by repeated failure and breaches of faith that would rob the conscience of what peace and comfort pertain to those who can cry, ‘Abba, Father….’ ‘But even babes in Christ,’ Wesley notes in 1766, ‘are so far perfect as not to commit sin’ (225-226).

Collins makes a thorough case for his reading of Wesley’s understanding of the new birth. There is, however, little distinction in Collins’ reading of Wesley between the new birth and entire sanctification, which is characteristic of Wesley’s thinking in the period immediately following Aldersgate. Collins understands the phrase “sin may remain, but no longer reign” to mean that after the new birth the temptation to sin remains, but that we do not act upon that temptation. If the struggle with actual sin is fully addressed in the new birth, then it would seem that entire sanctification, and indeed sanctification itself, would only involve the transformation of our wills. And yet, Wesley seems to change his view on this later in his ministry, recognizing that the victory over the power of sin may not be as thorough as he expressed it immediately after Aldersgate. One wonders, why did Wesley’s understanding change? In my own experience, and in the experience of many others, the struggle with sin’s reign has been much messier than this. Collins leaves me wanting to hear more about what happens when someone has experienced justification and the new birth and willfully sins? Is that possible in this account? If so, how does Collins (and more importantly, if Collins is right, Wesley) reckon with the reality that forgiven Christians sadly sometimes do commit sin? Ultimately, in Collins’ account, the Christian journey is abridged and the role of sanctification is minimized.

Collins is also occasionally too general in his comments and does not do justice to the arguments of those whom he disagrees with. Collins writes, for example, that “treatments of Wesley that have viewed him principally through the lens of some preferred theological tradition abound: Calvinism for Cell, Lutheran Pietism for Hildebrandt, Puritanism for Rupp, and the Eastern Fathers for Maddox” (4) Let’s take Randy Maddox’s Responsible Grace, for example, which Collins footnotes at the end of this comment. Collins’ comment seems to be an overstatement of what Maddox is trying to do in Responsible Grace. While Responsible Grace is a treatment of Wesley that views him through the lens of the Eastern Fathers, it does so in order to demonstrate their influence on Wesley’s thinking where it is particularly relevant. Maddux certainly does not read Wesley principally through this lens. Rather, Maddox gives an account of Wesley’s theology that demonstrates his understanding of Wesley’s orienting concern: responsible grace.

A wonderful contribution of The Theology of John Wesley is the “Today and Tomorrow” section that concludes each chapter. In these essays, Collins develops the contemporary implications of many of the ideas he explores. In “Conversion Revisited” Collins offers a particularly powerful reminder, “For E. Stanley Jones, the acid test of the validity of a Christian church is ‘whether it can not only convert people from the outside to membership but also produce conversion within its own membership. When it cannot do both, it is on its way out” (231-232).

Ultimately, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace is an important contribution to Wesley Studies due to its passion for demonstrating the coherence and legitimacy of Wesleyan Theology, and its desire to see Wesley’s practical theology continue to benefit the church. Collins summarizes Wesley’s practical theology, “It proclaimed nothing less than liberty to the captives as well as the acceptable year of the Lord. It offered succor where there was neglect; hope where there was despair; love where there was none. Pastorally sensitive without diminishing the high calling of the gospel, Wesley developed a ministry that was marked by a sophisticated balance, a balance that evidenced nothing less than abiding holy love, the very emblem of historic Methodism itself” (330-331). This is a grand vision that is worthy of contemporary Wesleyan denominations’ best efforts to reclaim.

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