One of the under-explored and under-appreciated discipleship treasures of the Wesleyan theological heritage is John Wesley’s understanding of salvation, which unites the Western church tradition of salvation as forensic (i.e., the forgiveness of sins) with the Eastern church tradition of salvation as therapeutic (i.e., healing from the sickness of sin). James Pedlar offers a helpful and succinct summary of Wesley’s views on the matter, so no need for me to repeat it here–please click through to read his piece–but I can’t resist including these two illustrative quotes from Wesley’s sermons that Pedlar uses to summarize Wesley’s views:
Forensic: Sermon 43, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.3
Justification is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and , what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God. The price whereby this hath been procured for us (commonly termed “the meritorious cause of our justification”), is the blood and righteousness of Christ; or, to express it a little more clearly, all that Christ hath done and suffered for us, till He “poured out His soul for the transgressors.” The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,” and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Therapeutic: Sermon 57, “On the Fall of Man,” §II.8
Hath he not then, seeing he alone is able, provided a remedy for all these evils? Yea, verily he hath! And a sufficient remedy; every way adequate to the disease… Here is a remedy provided for all our guilt: He “bore all our sins in his body on the tree.” And “if any one have sinned, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” And here is a remedy for all our disease, all the corruption of our nature. For God hath also, through the intercession of his Son, given us his Holy Spirit, to renew us both “in knowledge,” in his natural image; — opening the eyes of our understanding, and enlightening us with all such knowledge as is requisite to our pleasing God; — and also in his moral image, namely, “righteousness and true holiness.”
Pedlar follows these excerpts from Wesley with a helpful “therefore” that outlines the impact all this ought to have on how we think about discipleship:
The point of what I’m trying to say is that salvation, for Wesley, is not found simply in being “declared” righteous (justification), but in being healed of all the corruption of sin, and conformed to the likeness of Christ. Therefore, the salvation that God has prepared for us is something which begins now, but extends to the resurrection. People sometimes speak of receiving forgiveness of salvation as “being saved,” but this is not the whole story. Justification is one aspect of salvation, but properly speaking, salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification. These terms are ways of describing the initial, ongoing, and final deliverance from sin.
If salvation is purely forensic, discipleship is relegated to a “post-salvation” process, and its purpose and urgency are unclear. But if salvation is also therapeutic, then discipleship becomes central to the salvation process, i.e., one does not become a disciple after one has been saved but as part of being saved. One learns, over and over again, anew and ever more deeply and fully, how to be saved and what it means and looks like to be saved in every dimension and stage of one’s life and spiritual growth.
It’s surprising how much this rich, Scriptural understanding of salvation has been neglected in practice by evangelical Wesleyans; too often we embrace the therapeutic language but lack a concrete discipleship method and mindset to actively see it through in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. In contrast, liberal Wesleyans are only too happy to jettison the forensic view of salvation altogether in favor of a modified therapeutic approach, as if the two strands were somehow opposed to each other (and, worst case, as if the forensic view was holding the therapeutic view back). But once the strands unravel, social holiness has a way of devolving into social justice and salvation becomes more about recycling paper and plastic than it does the healing of sin-sick souls.
The beauty of the Wesleyan conception is that when you combine forensic and therapeutic you get more than you had with either separately, and you don’t have to (and don’t get to) pick and choose what you want salvation to mean (and not mean). Best of all, your understanding will serve you well across the vast theological territory of both Old and New Testaments, which is precisely what Wesley had in mind.
The best long-form read on Wesley’s uniting of forensic and therapeutic dimensions of salvation is still Theodore Runyan’s 1998 work, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today. It’s not perfect, but it arguably does the best job of portraying Wesley’s equal embrace of both dimensions of salvation while waiting until the final chapter to bust out the material on paper and plastic recycling, which, I expect, is how Wesley would have organized the book had he written it himself.