John Wesley and the Imitation of Christ
One of the most significant debates during the centuries surrounding the Reformation (15th-18th centuries) concerned salvation, grace, and human works. It is an oversimplification to present a dichotomy between Reformation Protestants believing in salvation by faith alone and Counter-Reformation Catholics believing in salvation through faith and good works. In fact, as this article will examine, John Wesley, who founded the Protestant denomination known as Methodism, emphasizes the imitation of Christ as key for salvation. This belief put Wesley and his Protestant followers more in line with the Roman Catholics of their day than their fellow English Anglicans and Calvinists.
According to John Wesley, Scripture instructs the believer to imitate Christ. He attests to this in his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, as he describes his study of the Bible in 1729: “Hence I saw, in clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having the mind which was in Christ, and of walking as Christ also walked.”1 This imitation of Christ, walking as he walked, requires a whole transformation of the believer, for as Wesley notes, “and of walking as he walked, not only in many or most respects, but in all things.”2
Wesley interprets Christ’s main message to be that of pure love, love of God and love of neighbor from the wholeness of one’s heart. The believer, sanctified by the gift of grace and striving for Christian perfection, should love God and love “every man as his own soul” because Christ’s “Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper.”3 This pureness in love characterizes Christian perfection for Wesley. He states, in response to the question “What is Christian Perfection?”, “The loving of God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength,” which follows the command of Christ in Matthew 22:37.4 Through love, the believer imitates Christ, and acts as Christ did—always and consistently guided by the law of charity.
Thus Wesley’s understanding of the imitation of Christ is intimately connected to his theological emphasis on pure love. Grace transforms the believer, according to Wesley, into one whose heart is “renewed in the image of God, in righteousness and holiness,” for it has pardoned sin from their hearts. Indeed, the lack of inward sin characterizes Christian perfection for Wesley.5 With sin pardoned, the believer can grow in grace, and increase the capacity to love God with the whole heart, mind, and soul. For Wesley, this complete love of God with the heart is the epitome of Christian perfection, for it is the act of loving as Christ commanded.6
Contrary to the Anglican and Calvinist belief that man will always be a sinner in earthly life, Wesley expresses a firm belief that the imitation of Christ, for the perfect Christian, consists of no sin. Not only did God’s grace remove inward sin from the heart, but through walking with Christ the believer has become “one in whom is no occasion of stumbling, and who accordingly does not commit sin.”7 With a heart devoid of sinfulness and brimming with the pure love of Christ, the believer now lives a life of Christ-like holiness. Citing Scripture, Wesley asserts that Christian perfection permitted the believer to proclaim, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live: yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”8 Since Christ lives in the believer, and the believer imitates Christ, the believer becomes holy in his heart and in his actions, just as Christ is holy.
Yet John Wesley does not believe that justification led to the perseverance of the elect, and therefore, he believes that, even though Christ lived in a believer, one must continue to work out their salvation. Wesley adheres to Arminianism, which featured a belief that grace is resistible and perseverance of faith is uncertain. Therefore he understands holiness not as a one-time transformation that occurred in the believer with justification, but rather as a process of “growing in grace.” Furthermore, he admits to a role of human cooperation in the imitation of Christ. Holiness requires, for Wesley, both divine and human action. Although God made the first step through prevenient grace, man must obey His commands. This is evidenced in Wesley’s sermon “On Perfection,” in which he explained, “[Christian perfection] is the complying with that kind command, ‘My son, give me thy heart.’”9 Compliance implies human action, and thus holiness depends on the process of a believer giving up his or her heart to Christ, in order that He may dwell in the believer.
Thus Wesley maintains a firm belief that it was through the imitation of Christ that humans responded to God’s gift of salvation through grace. Wesley’s theology of grace, faith, and works indicates that there was no split dichotomy in Reformation theology, but rather that the theological currents of different denominations were often overlapping and complex.
1 John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” In John and Charles Wesley: Selected Writings and Hymns, ed. Frank Whaling, (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 299-300.
2 Ibid, 300.
3 Ibid, 304.
4 Ibid, 327.
5 Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” 319.
6 Ibid, 319.
7 Ibid, 315.
8 Ibid, 316.
9 John Wesley, “On Perfection (Sermon 76),” Wesley Center Online, Accessed 31 July 2013, http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition/sermon-76-on-perfection/.