God is Love
Cross is Love
Optimistic about Love
Loving the Whole Person
Loving into Societal Structures
Protestantism was born in a debate over whether a person might gain favor with God by doing good "works." Martin Luther, of course, argued that we were saved "by grace alone" (sola gratia) only because of God's undeserved favor. This grace was triggered "by faith alone" (sola fidei), and even this faith was a gift from God. Ever since the standard Protestant position on "faith versus works" is that we are saved by faith alone, but that once we are right with God, he will empower us so that "works" will follow.
Where Protestants have debated is if the way we live our Christian lives has an effect on our eternal destiny. Once a person has become right with God, can a person thereafter become "un-right" with God again? To many Protestants, to say our actions can affect our status with God is tantamount to saying that works are part of our salvation. Others might resolve the potential conflict by saying that if a person were to become a serial killer after "conversion," she probably had never really been a true Christian in the first place.
Jacob Arminius disagreed in the 1500 and 1600s, and John Wesley followed his lead. To some it will be a weakness, but to Wesleyans it is a strength that Wesley was an Anglican, because the Anglican Church is a moderating tradition in the Catholic-Protestant debate. One might argue that Anglicanism, along with the Methodism that flowed out of it, stands on a kind of middle ground between the extremes of the Protestant Reformation, with the medieval Roman Catholic Church on the one side and the high Protestantism of Luther and Calvin on the other. The Wesleyan tradition is thus well-situated to incorporate the strengths of both Christian streams.
For Wesley's part, it was surely God who empowered us to have faith. But that same empowerment to choose also enabled us to walk away from him. Our "initial justification," our initial reconciliation to God might be by faith alone, regardless of our works. To put it in current language, "all sin is sin" when we first come to God. But Wesley rightly read Scripture to teach that "final justification" will take into account how we have lived, our "works," if you would. The Bible does not teach that "all sin is sin" after we believe.
Here we return to the Wesleyan orientation around the heart. Our walk with God is a relationship. In a relationship, our actions toward another person matter. Of course what matters even more is our intentions toward another. If you forget your spouse's birthday, you have sinned against him or her. But this "sin" is quite different from having an affair. It represents a whole different level of intention. So also, our "works" have a varying effect on our relationship with God, depending on our heart.
The Wesleyan-Arminian position here is logical, but it does not come from logic. It comes from Scripture. Once again, scholarship on Paul has of late been coming to grips with statements like 2 Corinthians 5:10, a verse directed at Christians: "All of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil" (NRSV). Romans 2 says exactly the same thing: "He will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury" (2:6-8).
And the fact that Paul himself did not consider his eternal salvation assured confirms his thinking on this subject: "I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.(1 Cor. 9:26-27). Similarly, he says in Philippians, "I want to know Christ... if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own" (3:10-12).
It also turns out that this way of thinking about the importance of faithfulness in the Christian life fits well with the meaning of "grace" in the New Testament world. Grace was patron-client language, relating to informal arrangements where someone without resources (clients) received gifts from those having an abundance (patrons). The recipient did not earn such grace, although it often came with certain expectations. We could rightly say, though, that the gift was not earned and, in a sense, came without formal obligation.
But if a client were to behave badly toward the patron--if they dishonored the giver--you can rest assured that the grace would not continue. In the same way, we are not surprised that God's grace in the New Testament comes with certain expectations. Nor are we surprised to find that one can insult God's grace (e.g., Heb. 10:29) such that it is "used up," in a sense (e.g., Heb. 10:26). Hebrews, as the rest of the New Testament, places an expectation that we continue in faithfulness to reach the goal of entering the land of “Canaan.” We have become partakers of Christ and remain partakers of Christ only if “we hold our first confidence firm to the end” (3:7, NRSV).
Wesleyans thus believe that God-empowered faithfulness is essential for the Christian life. One cannot simply pray a prayer of half-hearted reconciliation and then think that God will shower blessings without accountability or recourse. An eternal relationship with God requires the same elements that human relationships require. And if human relationships often fail because of infidelity or neglect, we should not be surprised to find that neglect or unfaithfulness to God is a path toward separation as well.