This is the third of this attempt to capture the essence of the Wesleyan tradition...
A Generous Tradition
God is Love
What we have been expressing is the way God relates to his creation, a creation that is alienated from him in its knowledge and being. When we look to Scripture to tell us about what God is like, we find a number of pictures. God is love. God is just. When we ask what God's dominant mode of operation toward the creation is, surely love is the dominant characteristic.
John 3:16 captures this characteristic well. God's love stands behind his sending of Jesus into the world so that anyone might be reconciled to him. Wesleyans do not believe that God has only chosen a select few to rescue, seemingly arbitrarily. John Wesley himself taught that God had a "prevenient" grace that empowered us to move toward God long before we even know God is at work. It is a grace that "goes ahead" of us, indeed, that was in action in some respects before God created the world.
The way we think about God has massive implications. For example, the best of the Wesleyan tradition has always believed that God's judgment of humanity is a matter of "the light we have," rather than his measurement of us against an absolute standard. The end result is that we may find individuals in the kingdom of God who had never heard the name of Jesus while they were alive but who had responded appropriately to the prevenient light God had brought to them.
At the same time, it is not clear that God extends this light to us indefinitely. Perhaps we best take what the Bible calls the "hardening of the heart" as a rejection of God's light to the point that God abandons a person to his or her own destructive path. And however we might understand eternal condemnation, it surely represents a path set by our own rejection of God's advances, resulting in a permanent separation from him that reflects our own hardened identity.
Some Christian traditions do not think God could have complete authority and be "sovereign" if humans could disobey or defy him. But the Wesleyan tradition believes that God in his authority has every right to empower free will in humanity if he wants to do so. The best of the Wesleyan tradition does not operate from a sense of God enraged by our destructive actions. This is one picture we find in the Bible, but all such pictures are given to help us grasp a God who is beyond our understanding. The more important and dominant picture in the New Testament is of a God grieved by our self-destructive patterns. God demonstrates his love toward us in that even when we were his enemies, he sent his Son to die on our behalf (Rom. 5:8).
Again, the Wesleyan way of understanding God has implications that fit with what we find in the biblical witness. For example, while some Christian groups emphasize ethical absolutes, the best of the Wesleyan tradition emphasizes a priority of values and the importance of exceptions. By definition, an absolute has no exceptions. For example, if you believe that keeping the Sabbath is an absolute, then you believe there is no circumstance in which it would be right not to keep the Sabbath.
Wesleyans, as all Christians, do indeed believe in the two great absolutes that Jesus reiterated from the Old Testament: love God and love neighbor (e.g., Matt. 22:36-40). There is no situation that could ever arise when it would be appropriate to make an exception to these two principles. But the ethic of both Jesus and Paul focused on making exceptions to the "Law" when a higher value was at stake. People trump rules for their own sake.
Jesus does not come into conflict with religious leaders in Mark 2 because of his absolutism. On the contrary, it is his opponents who take an absolutist perspective on the Sabbath. Paul did not come into conflict with other Christians because of his absolutism, but because he set aside parts of the Law that were hindering the gospel. The normal level of Christian ethics is universal in scope, but not absolute in practice.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan captures this principle well. In this story, the Levite and priest ignore the love of their neighbor because of the purity standards of Leviticus. By contrast, the picture we get of God's character--and of his ideal for us is--is of a love that prizes people over rules. Jesus never agrees with the Samaritan over theology and practice. He just demonstrates that such things do not trump the love of one's "enemy." The best of the Wesleyan tradition sees God in these terms and believes that in his relationship to humanity, "mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13).