John Wesley on the Atonement


The following paper by Joel Tiegreen is presented here to show how Ellen White, who was raised in the Methodist Church, may have obtained her faulty teaching that salvation is comprised of justification and sanctification rather than being established through justification by faith alone.


 Why John Wesley Flopped on the Atonement

 Joel Tiegreen

            The atonement is a vital doctrine of the Christian faith. John Wesley was adamant that this doctrine was of the utmost importance, and he vigorously detested what he thought to be misuses of it. Wesley clearly saw that a Christian’s doctrinal armor hangs completely on the work of Christ. If one’s armor is sagging, drooping, or dented, he will not be an effective soldier in the ranks of Christ’s army. Unfortunately, Wesley’s own theological armor was severely dented on the doctrine of the atonement, and this deficiency stands starkly revealed in Wesley’s sermons and correspondence.

            Wesley believed that “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of atonement” (Letter to the Reverend Mr. Law, Jan. 6, 1756). Wesley understood that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God, and he held that the purpose of Christ’s death was the restoration of man’s relationship with God. In the acquisition of this restoration, Wesley believed that Christ broke our enslavement to sin and death and reclaimed the possibility of man’s fidelity to God. Thus, Wesley held that the restoration of man to God’s presence should produce growth in divine likeness in the life of the believer (Maddox, Randy L. Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology, 1994, p. 97). Wesley comprehended an atonement that was universal in nature and pardoning in purpose. He asserted that Christ died to satisfy the wrath of God so that it would no longer be directed toward mankind.

            Calvinists and Lutherans, on the other hand, hold the view that Christ’s death was a substitution rather than merely a satisfaction for our sins. According to traditional Protestant theology, Christ died under the imputation of our sins so that His righteousness could be imputed (credited) to us. God’s wrath against our sins was infinite, so the substitution on our behalf must also be infinite. Wesley was clever enough to see that substitutionary imputation was incompatible with his understanding of Christ’s work, which emphasized satisfaction over substitution. For Wesley, the early Reformers’ view of the substitutionary atonement leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer’s past, present, and future sins. When James Hervey asked, “If [Christ] was our substitute as to penal sufferings, why not as to justifying obedience?” Wesley tartly responded, “This is not expressly asserted [in the scriptures].” In addition, he expressly asserted that “the metaphysical doctrine of Im­puted Righteousness leads not to repentance but to licentiousness” (Letter to James Hervey, Oct. 15, 1756).

            Wesley did not want people to believe that the blood of Christ saved them so they could then go live like the devil. This is obviously a genuine and valid concern. Reformation theology teaches that believers are chosen and called by God, and they will become righteous through Christ’s sanctifying work after having been declared righteous because of Christ (imputed justification). For the Calvinist, a believer will grow naturally because they are new creatures. Under the substitution/imputation model of the atonement, licentious living could never occur because the elect are naturally molded into the image of God after their salvation has been assured.  On the other hand, Wesley’s satisfaction model, in an effort to avoid antinomianism, required that the believer produce sanctified works in order to be assured of salvation. 

            Wesley’s denial of imputed righteousness directly subverts the doctrine of justification (salvation) by faith alone. Wesley wrote that justification is “to be pardoned and received into God’s favor; into such a state, that if we continue therein, we shall be finally saved” (qtd. in Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity, p. 201). Although this definition highlights many foundational truths that were accomplished in Christ’s work, it leaves out the imputed righteousness of Christ, which Wesley denied. But why did Wesley adjust the Reformers’ view of the atonement, justification, and imputed righteousness?

            Wesley believed that the Reformers’ view of imputation and justification hindered the believer’s motivation for sanctification. He held that sanctification was “the ability to cooperate with God, and thereby to prosper and grow in grace” (Kenneth J. Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation, 1997, p. 154). Wesley’s insistence upon the cooperation between God and man in salvation was the reason why he held that substitutionary atonement led to imputation and ultimately to antinomianism. Regarding Matthew 5:20, Hervey commented, “How must our righteousness exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees? Not only in being sincere, but in possessing a complete righteousness, even that of Christ.” Wesley retorted, “Did our Lord mean this? Nothing less. He specifies in the following parts of His sermon the very instances wherein the righteousness of a Christian exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees” (Letter to James Hervey, Oct. 15, 1756). Wesley believed that Christ’s atonement was the beginning of sanctification, making it possible that we might actually become righteous. Maddox writes, “For Wesley, the value of justification was precisely its contribution to the higher goal of sanctification—our recovery of the Likeness of God” (Responsible Grace, p. 172). Wesley’s denial of imputation led him to a confused view of justification and sanctification. As Daniel Crowe appropriately asks, “Which came first in Wesley’s ordo salutis, justification or sanctification?” (Wesley on Justification).


             Wesley held a view of justification that was similar to that of Rome, which teaches that salvation is dependent on God’s grace combined with Christian works. Wesley’s sermon “Justification by Faith” vividly displays his low view of justification:

Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous. Surely no. The judgment of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with his unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man to whom God hath given understanding, weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture.

The statement that God does not judge us “contrary to the real nature of things” is a direct denial of substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness, and the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.  If God does not judge us “contrary to the nature of things,” then all humans will be damned; God must “confound [sinners] with Christ” in order to save anyone. 

            Wesley is correct, however, to observe that imputational justification is irreconcilable with reason, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (I Cor. 1:25, NIV).  Wesley says that a sanctified former sinner can actually stand righteous before God (by Christ’s power, of course!), but this reflects an insufficient understanding of the total depravity of human nature. Wesley’s view directly contradicts the teaching of Martin Luther, who asserted, “Every good work of the saints while pilgrims in this world is sin” (Luther’s Works, vol. 32, p. 159). True righteousness consists of the believer literally having Christ Himself credited to the believer’s account; in Wesley’s theology, our righteousness is enabled by Christ and given by His grace (imparted righteousness), but it is not Christ Himself (imputed righteousness). As Maddox explains,

Our very capacity for growth in Christ-likeness (New Birth) is contingent upon God’s gracious pardoning prevenience (initial justification), while the continuance of God’s acceptance (final justification) becomes contingent upon our responsive growth in Christ-likeness (sanctification). (Responsible Grace, p. 172)

            When Wesley adds the doctrine of final justification, he nullifies the Reformers’ understanding of justification by asserting that salvation is conditioned upon cooperation with the work of Christ.  The believer must be made holy in order for salvation to be consummated. This means that justification is not imputed on the basis of the atonement, but imparted by the progressive establishment of literal inward righteousness. For Wesley, justification is based on the fruit of our choices. The Reformers based justification on Christ alone, apart from any dependence on works.  Good works are the fruit of justification—not the root of justification. As Luther wrote:

[A Christian] is righteous and holy by an alien or foreign holiness—I call it this for the sake of instruction—that is, he is righteous by the mercy and grace of God. . . . It is a divine blessing, given us through the true knowledge of the Gospel, when we know or believe that our sin has been forgiven through the grace and merit of Christ. . . . Is not this righteousness an alien righteousness? It consists completely in the indulgence of another and is a pure gift of God, who shows mercy and favor for Christ’s sake. (What Luther Says, vol. 2, p. 701)

It is this “alien” or imputed righteousness that Whitfield held and Wesley rejected. Granted, Wesley’s doctrine of atonement and justification are not the same in modus operandi as Rome, but in substance, they are quite similar. The implications of this connection should be devastating to Wesley and his view of the atonement. Luther wrote:

If the article of justification is lost, all Christian doctrine is lost at the same time. And all the people in the world who do not hold to this justification are either Jews or Turks or papists or heretic; for there is no middle ground between these two righteousnesses: the active one of the Law [imparted] and the passive one which comes from Christ [imputed]. Therefore the man who strays from Christian righteousness must relapse into the active one, that is, since he has lost Christ he must put his confidence in his own works. (What Luther Says, 710-11)

Wesley’s friend George Whitfield gave a clear response to Wesley’s objection that imputed righteousness led people away from good works:

Justification not only signifies remission of sins past, but also the federal right to all good things to come. As the obedience to Christ is imputed to believers, so his perseverance in that obedience is imputed to them also. Never did more absurdities flow from the denying of any doctrine than will flow from the denying of Christ’s imputed righteousness. You say because we preach this we deny good works; this is the usual objection against the doctrine of imputed righteousness. But this is a slander, an impudent slander. (Select Sermons of George Whitefield with an Account of His Life by J. C. Ryle, 1958, p. 129)


           Clearly, the matter of imputed righteousness was one of the key doctrines in the dispute between Wesley and Whitfield. Wesley feared that if Christians thought themselves already righteous, then there would be no motivation to move on to perfection (see Maddox, p. 104). Therefore, Wesley adopted a view of the atonement that fit his doctrinal thesis. For Wesley, the atonement was representative of humanity and not substitutionary for humanity. As Maddox puts it, “Christ did not take our place in punishment, his death took the place of our punishment.”  This distinction may sound minute, but for Wesley it represented the difference between God being the devil and God being God; for many Reformed believers, it represented the difference between salvation by faith alone and Catholicism. Wesley viewed the atonement of Christ as a central doctrine of the Christian faith, but he denied that our sin was imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. Wesley went into dangerous territory with his view of the atonement, which led him to throw aside imputed righteousness and possibly justification by faith alone. If this is the case, should Wesley be considered apostate along with Rome? Luther would say so.

©Joel Tiegreen, 2011. Used by permission.