Outline/overview of Wesleyan theology. More detailed posts:
1. Faith (Introduction)
3. Creation and Alienation
Christians have long viewed Christ taking on flesh as the first step in the reconciliation of the world. God becomes one of us. He not only comes to us. He identifies with us. He assumes our situation and our problem, to some extent. He is tempted as us. His earthly life is part of the reconciliation.
5.2 Christ's Death
Christians of the ages have used a number of pictures to describe how Christ's death serves as a mechanism for our reconciliation. Christ's death satisfies God's anger toward sin or satisfies the need for justice and order in the world. It is an atoning sacrifice. Christ takes our punishment and substitutes for us. Christ shows us God's love and thus woos us back to him. Christ redeems us from slavery or defeats the power of Satan over us.
These are all pictures of atonement and Wesleyans can ascribe to all of them. The Wesleyan emphasis on God as love, however, sometimes shifts the focus. So Wesleyans often resist rigid views of penal substitution, where some mathematical sense of punishment had to be assumed for it to work. A Wesleyan may lean toward seeing Christ's death ultimately as a matter of God's choice in reconciliation rather than some inevitable path he would have to take. Would not God have the authority to forgive us outright if he wanted?
A Wesleyan might see the picture of God's wrath as one of the least literal of the pictures, though one with which we may most identify. Anger involves emotion and emotion involves new stimulus, but God knows all things equally from all eternity. A fuller picture is of God's love in action. We understand and identify with sacrifice for us. There is a certain order to things that Christ's death embodies. We are enslaved and we understand the defeat of our enslaver.
5.3 The Spirit and the Church
Christ's presence in the world continues through the Spirit and the Church. The Spirit inside us marks us as God's possession and empowers us to live reconciled lives. We are a new creation. We are an island of heaven in a fallen world.
God also uses his Church as a means of reconciliation. The invisible Church consists of all those with the Spirit in all times and all places, despite what visible Church they may attend. But the Church is also physical, visible entity that gathers together to proclaim God's word and participate in means of grace. Baptism is the image of entrance into the Church, although the Spirit is the more important threshold. Communion is the image of atonement, reminding and catalyzing our continued reconciliation with God.
5.4 Justification and Sanctification
Protestants think of justification as our legal acquittal of the charges against us for our past sins. Through Christ, all charges are dropped against us. Sanctification then positively empowers us to do what is right. Wesley largely adopted Luther's understanding of (initial) justification. A difference comes in his sense of final justification.
For Wesley, final justification is dependent on a continued relationship with God that manifests itself in right living. Lutherans fear such talk, because it seems to give too much importance to "works" in the equation of justification. Calvinists agree with Wesley that works must follow, but see no element of human will involved in the process and affirm the persistence of the elect from beginning to end.
Wesleyans do not believe in "eternal security" but see right relationship with God as breakable. A person must continue in faithfulness to that relationship after initial justification.
Calvinists and Wesleyans also disagree on the extent to which God makes us righteous in this life. Wesley even taught a crisis experience where one was freed from the power of sin, to be able to love God with all one's heart, mind, soul, and strength. Wesleyans do not believe that the fight against sin in this life must always be a struggle, and especially not a losing struggle.
Wesleyans have historically been activists for change in society where possible. An emphasis on helping those in need has been core to Wesleyan identity since Wesley himself. Many in the Wesleyan tradition were strong supporters of abolition and women's rights. Today, the best Wesleyan voices speak out against those who would intentionally or unintentionally oppress the disempowered of society. Even when someone has done wrong, the best Wesleyan attitude is one that looks to redemption and insists on love as the primary value.
A view of reconciliation that does not include the entire cosmos is an incomplete view. The best Wesleyan voices will be conscious of God's creation and strive to be good stewards of it. Paul says that the creation too is enslaved to sin and slated for redemption. It is the Wesleyan way to be optimistic about how much redemption we can see now on every level, without waiting for Christ's return.