The first post in this section is here.
The Wesleyan tradition thus shares with many Baptists, Catholics, and various other pietist traditions some sense of "free will." We should be careful how we define it, however. We probably should not say that people can come to God any time they choose. And historically, the Wesleyan tradition is not saying people have any power in themselves to move toward God. We are saying that, at some point of everyone's life, God gives everyone the opportunity and empowerment to move toward him.
Now mind you, this is all Wesleyan theological glue. The biblical text no more spells these parts of our system out than it spells out the Calvinist idea that God does not really want everyone to be saved. We are picking some truth and playing it out, justifying it in the theological system of our creation. When we Wesleyans talk about prevenient grace, we are doing our best to work out a system of ideas that undergirds aspects of truth and practice we think are clear. We might think of these ideas as more suggestive than definitive, pictures more than equations.
One way to get a sense of Wesleyan identity here is to say that, for Wesleyans, God's mercy is his primary operating mode in this world than his justice. God would rather forgive than punish. Indeed, we would prefer to see God's punishment as formative rather than punitive. This orientation means when God disciplines us in this world, he does so to make us better and ultimately to save us, rather than to ensure that judgment is dispensed.
This orientation has all sorts of implications for life. Does a parent punish a child because she or he has it coming or to help the child to learn not to do harmful things? Do we discipline to redeem or to satisfy wrath? To be sure, we find both images in Scripture, but we remember that God revealed Scripture in the categories of its audiences, rather than purely on God's own terms.
Again, this communicative model coheres with the Wesleyan sense of God. God comes down; God reaches out and communicates in terms his audience can understand because he wants them to come to him. The other model pictures it unworthy of God to come to you. You must come to him and understand him on his terms and, since you are incapable, you are lost except for those lucky, arbitrary few he sends for.
So while many Wesleyans and Wesley himself believed in "penal substitution," many Wesleyans also sit rather loosely to it. Penal substitution is the idea that Jesus took our punishment on the cross, usually in a rather legalistic way. Did Jesus take our place on the cross? Certainly there is a sense in which he did. Paul says in Galatians 3 that we were under a curse and Christ transferred our curse to him. Did Jesus take our punishment? There is a general sense in which he did, since a sacrifice involves this dynamic of satisfying God's anger.
But the way these individual truths are often combined into a system can become quite questionable. So by the reckoning of some, God's justice demands that he get the exact amount of punishment required of every sin. So in order to reconcile us to God, Jesus had to take on himself this exact amount of punishment, which in effect was infinite because the smallest disobedience of God demands infinite punishment. To do so, Jesus had to be God to be able to satisfy infinite punishment, but he had to be human so that the right party was experiencing the punishment. Jesus' descent to hell satisfied this requirement of justice.
Again, what a logical system! And yet it is equally unbiblical. Is God really such a "bean counter" of offenses against himself? What of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where the father has the authority simply to forgive his dishonoring son? What of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant where the master has the authority simply to write off his servant's debt.
Something about Jesus' death does seem to satisfy the order of things. It is hard to imagine us as humans sensing the magnitude of our need for reconciliation without it. Nor does it seem we could grasp the magnitude of God's love for us without the cross. But could God have forgiven us by his command, simply because he chose to do so? It is hard for me personally to think he could not have. After all, do I not in love exercise this grace with my own children from time to time? Am I greater or more loving than God? Surely not.