WESLEY’S DOCTRINE OF JUSTIFICATION:
A CONJUNCTIVE THEOLOGY
Thesis: Wesley’s doctrine of justification is a conjunctive theology based on both Protestant and catholic influences.
Some consider John Wesley the most influential theologian since the sixteenth century. Alternatively, many academicians do not believe Wesley was even a “real” theologian. Furthermore, the eclectic nature of Wesleyan thought has been coined Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and even Primitivist. This particular research paper will attempt to contribute to the ever expanding conversation by showing that Wesley’s doctrine of justification is a conjunctive theology based on both Protestant and catholic influences. For the purpose of this paper the term Protestant has a narrow focus and pertains specifically to the Reformation period, whereas the term catholic has a much broader perspective that encompasses the early church fathers and both Western and Eastern Orthodoxy up to the end of the Reformation period.
This paper first examines the critical doctrine of prevenient grace in light of Reformation and catholic influences as a pre-requisite to understanding Wesley’s doctrine of justification. Second, it provides an in depth analysis of Wesley’s doctrine of justification that includes a look at its relationship to faith and works, an evaluation of sola fide, and finally, an assessment of the conjunctive nature of the doctrine. The essay concludes by exploring a famous critique of Wesley’s doctrine of justification.
Prevenient grace provides the foundation for Wesley’s doctrine of justification. This section will show how prevenient grace inaugurates God’s work in humanity and then explain how Wesley’s view of grace broadens to the entire salvific experience. Finally, it explores the nature of Wesley’s conjunctive theology pertaining to prevenient grace in light of both Protestant and catholic influences.
Wesley’s doctrine of justification begins with the concept that prevenient grace consists of two separate forms. Wesley refers to the first dimension of prevenient grace as “pardon.” The term preventing grace is actually Wesley’s preferred term and it suggests a “first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him,” which implies “some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of deliverance.” At first, it may appear that Wesley’s view of prevenient grace aligns with a western theological perspective of original sin and total depravity as he claims that “concerning man in his natural state, unassisted by the grace of God…‘every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is’ still ‘evil, only evil,’ and that ‘continually.’” However, Wesley also notes that “no man living is entirely destitute of what is vulgarly called natural conscience…every man has a greater or less measure of” preventing grace. In other words, accordingly to Wesley, although the natural state of man is totally depraved, an actual person living in a natural state of total depravity does not exist; it is a “logical abstraction” because every man has prevenient grace. The unique combination of Wesley’s doctrines of original sin and prevenient grace allows him to hold that man has no ability to move toward God while simultaneously asserting that man is completely free to choose God. The distinct doctrinal synthesis makes God the source of man’s choice and the cause of man’s pardon, thus eliminating the risk of Pelagianism. Accordingly, Outler suggests that Wesley is actually attempting to “find a third alternative to Pelagian optimism and Augustinian pessimism with respect to the human flaw and human potential.” However, the pardoning dimension of Wesley’s prevenient grace does not provide a complete perspective, a second dimensions is also necessary.
Wesley utilizes the term “power” to define a second dimension of prevenient grace that transcends the narrow application of first dimension, “pardon,” which precedes justification.
In Wesley’s second dimension of prevenient grace, he expands its operation to “all the drawings of the Father; the desires after God, which, if we yield to them, increase more and more,” and includes “all the convictions which his Spirit, from time to time, works in every child of man.” In other words, prevenient grace powers all human response and encompasses the entire salvific continuum including repentance, justification, regeneration, and sanctification.[BW1] In Wesley’s words, God “worketh in you of his own good pleasure, without any merit of yours, both to will and to do; it is possible for you to fulfill all righteousness.” The breadth of prevenient grace is critically important in order to grasp the conjunctive nature of Wesley’s theology because, as will be revealed, Wesley requires a progressive human response to God’s grace in order to authenticate final justification. Accordingly, if prevenient grace is not the source of justification through the believer’s entire life, as opposed to innate human abilities, Wesley’s doctrine of justification is not only misinterpreted, but also potentially undermined by a works based religion.
The requirement of both the pardoning and empowering aspects of Wesley’s prevenient grace supports a conjunctive theology based on both Protestant and catholic influence. The Protestant influence in Wesley’s prevenient grace is compelling. Specifically, subsequent to Luther, the forensic nature of God’s grace in Protestant theologians focused primarily on pardon – the forgiveness of sins through Christ. In fact, grace in Calvin’s sermons usually means pardon as opposed to sanctification. Accordingly, to overemphasize the synergism of Wesley’s prevenient grace by ignoring the emphasis on its pardoning effect would be a mistake. Alternatively, the catholic perspective of prevenient grace also significantly influenced Wesley. The early church and Anglican sources both reinforce the concept that grace is prevenient throughout the entire salvific experience from the first dawn of light to the moment of glorification. More specifically, Article X of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion that define the doctrines of the Anglican Church states:
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we many have a good will, and working with us, when we have this good will.
Furthermore, Wesley’s perspective of grace also echoes the Eastern Orthodox notion of uncreated grace, by which grace is the Holy Spirit constantly working in the lives of humanity to restore individuals to the image of God.
Many expositors have attempted to prove that Wesley gave weight to either Protestant or catholic, to either pardon or power, but Wesley’s conjunctive theology was primarily concerned with integration. Wesley strongly conveys the conjunctive nature the doctrine of prevenient grace as follows:
By ‘the grace of God’ is sometimes to be understood that free love, that unmerited mercy, by which I a sinner, through the merits of Christ, am now reconciled to God. But in this place it rather means that power of God the Holy Ghost, which ‘worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.’ As soon as ever the grace of God in the former sense, his pardoning love, is manifested to our souls, the grace of God in the latter sense, the power of his Spirit, takes place therein. And now we can perform, through God, what to man was impossible…a recovery of the image of God.
The combination of grace as pardon and grace as power influences Wesley’s doctrine of justification in two distinct ways. First, man is completely corrupt and depends totally upon God, not human effort, for the pardon necessary for salvation. In this way, Wesley attempts to remain within a Classical Protestant structure regarding salvation by grace alone. Second, Wesley’s prevenient grace stresses the responsibility of the individual. Specifically, grace empowers humanity to respond, but does not overpower. Wesley suggests, “God does not continue to act upon the soul, unless the soul re-acts upon God.” In other words, God’s “influences are not to supersede, but to encourage, our own efforts.” Accordingly, the nature of grace in the sense of power is both resistible and co-operant, which provides a more catholic tone.
It has been shown that Wesley’s doctrine of justification is based on a prevenient grace that initiates God’s work in totally depraved humanity via the unmerited pardon of Christ. Furthermore, a broad application of prevenient grace also powers the entire process of salvation from repentance to sanctification. Finally, Wesley ascribes equal weight to both aspects of prevenient grace, pardon and power, which naturally illuminates the influence of both Protestant and catholic that is supportive of a conjunctive theology. The two-fold version of prevenient grace lays a proper framework to continue the exploration of Wesley’s view of justification[BW2] .
Similar to prevenient grace, Wesley relies on two separate dimensions to support his doctrine of justification – a present justification and a final justification. This section will provide an analysis of the dual perspectives of justification, expand into an examination of the relationship between faith and works, and provide a brief inquiry into whether Wesley’s doctrine of justification is by faith alone – sola fide. Finally, it will explore the Protestant and catholic influences evidenced in Wesley’s doctrine of justification that support its conjunctive nature.
Wesley’s binary doctrine of justification begins with present justification. Wesley’s Dictionary expresses the definition of justification in one word: forgiveness. According to one of Wesley’s sermons preached in 1740, God’s justifying grace is “free in all to whom it is given. It does not depend on any power or merit in man; no, not in any degree, neither in whole, nor in part. It does not in anywise depend either on the good works or righteousness of the receiver; not on anything he has done, or anything he is.” In what appears to be an attempt to add emphasis Wesley explains, “Whatsoever good is in man, or is done by man, God is the author and doer of it. Thus is this grace free in all; that is, no way depending on any power or merit in man, but on God alone.” Accordingly, Collins observes that Wesley makes it clear that grace is not co-operant, but is free, noting the significance of the word “alone” or sola that was so critically important to the Reformers. Furthermore, Collins suggests that although one can reject free grace, in all other respects Wesley’s free grace aligns with Calvinism. In other words, with the exception of the doctrine of predestination, it appears Wesley’s understanding of justification is without Protestant controversy. However, an anomaly is noted in one short phrase in the essay “Predestination Calmly Considered” where Wesley explains that, “If then you say, ‘We ascribe to God alone the whole glory of our salvation,’ I answer, so do we too. If you add, ‘Nay, but we affirm, that God alone does the whole work, without man’s working at all;’ in one sense, we allow this also.” The phrase “in one sense” provides a clue that Wesley’s Protestantism may not align as strongly as one might suspect from the use of the word sola. Lindström illuminates Wesley’s language of sola and the surreptitiously consequential phrase by placing it within the context of Wesley’s career. The central object and potentially exclusive focus of Wesley’s references to justification in the early writings is present justification. However, similar to the dual concept of prevenient grace, which consists of both initial pardon and ongoing power, Wesley’s doctrine of justification expands into a two-fold perspective of justification comprising of both present justification and final justification.
Wesley’s final justification is readily seen in later works, but even as early as 1744 a question was asked at the first Methodist Conference, “But must not repentance, and works meet for repentance, go before this [justifying] faith?” The answer was, “Without doubt; if by repentance you mean conviction of sin; and by works meet for repentance, obeying God as far as we can, forgiving our brother, leaving off from evil, doing good, and using his ordinances, according to the power we have received.” According to minutes of the first Methodist Conference, it appears at first that Wesley has completely usurped the alignment with Protestantism as well as the concept of grace explained just four years earlier in the sermon Free Grace. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the word “power” in the 1744 minutes provides the evidence necessary to reconcile the conflict. Just as “power” in prevenient grace connotes a second dimension of grace, “power” in the minutes point to a second dimension of justification – final justification. In other words, present justification does align with the Reformer’s concept of sola fide, but final justification depends also on works. Although Wesley now uses the words justification and salvation interchangeably in the treatise “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” the distinction between the two justifications, present and final, is now clear:
With regard to the condition of salvation, it may be remembered that I allow, not only faith but likewise holiness or universal obedience to be the ordinary condition of final salvation. And that when I say that faith alone is the condition of present salvation what I would assert is this: (1.) That without faith no man can be saved from his sins—can be either inwardly or outwardly holy. And, (2.) That at whatever time faith is given, holiness commences in the soul. For that instant the love of God (which is the source of holiness) is poured out in the heart.
Accordingly, in regards to final justification, Wesley views the relationship between man and God in terms of both works and grace, but exactly how the relationship exists is yet to be determined.[BW3]
Although the catholic influence upon Wesley’s works-based doctrine of justification is now evident, it is necessary to add clarity to the relationship between faith and works, which Wesley provides in the sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation”:
God does undoubtedly command us both to repent, and to bring forth fruits meet for repentance; which if we willingly neglect, we cannot reasonably expect to be justified at all. Therefore both repentance, and fruits meet for repentance, are, in some sense necessary to [final] justification. But they are not necessary in the same sense with faith, nor in the same degree.
Wesley clearly conveys that faith, repentance, and fruits meet for repentance are necessary for final justification. However, Wesley quickly clarifies that faith and works do not justify “in the same degree; for those fruits are only necessary conditionally; if there be time and opportunity for them…otherwise a man may be justified without them, as was the thief upon the cross.” In other words, if there is no time after present justification for the necessary works, then faith is the sole requirement of justification because one “cannot be justified without faith; this is impossible.” Wesley also explains that faith and works do not justify “in the same sense; for repentance and its fruits are only remotely necessary; necessary in order to faith; where faith is immediately and directly necessary to [final] justification.” The underlying logic simply suggests that faith is necessary, repentance is remotely necessary, and fruits are even more remotely necessary for final justification. Obviously, the potential nuances of Wesley’s definition of exactly what works or type of works qualify as “remotely necessary” for final justification are beyond the scope of this work. However, an important question remains – is it possible that Wesley’s doctrine of final justification is by faith alone? The answer emanates from the combustible nature of the Minutes of 1770.
The concept of sola fide in regards to Wesley’s final justification came under much scrutiny because of the Minutes from the Methodist Conference of 1770, which seem to support a Wesleyan doctrine of faith and works. The Minutes state that, “We have received it as a maxim, that ‘a man is to do nothing in order to justification.’ Nothing can be more false. Whoever desires to find favour with God, should ‘cease from evil, and learn to do well.’ Whoever repents, should ‘do works meet for repentance.’ And if this is not in order to find favour, what does he do them for?” The language was so strong that Roman Catholic writers claimed the Minutes were a final Wesleyan rejection of Protestantism’s sola fide. Accordingly, one is tempted to conclude that Wesley’s doctrine of final justification is not by faith alone, but nothing could be further from the truth.
A few months after the Methodist Conference of 1770, Wesley rejects the interpretation of the Minutes in a sermon named “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” wherein Wesley states that Christ “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification. Here then is the sole meritorious cause of every blessing we do or can enjoy; – in particular of our pardon and acceptance with God, of our full and free justification…‘not by works, lest any man should boast,’ but by faith alone.” It may appear astonishing that such diametrically opposed language would appear just months removed from the Minutes. However, John Fletcher, an important eighteenth century interpreter of Wesley, sheds significant light on the apparent inconsistency by differentiating between the phrase “evidence of works” and the phrase “merit of works.” In other words, final justification is from the evidence of man’s works, not from the merit of man’s works – man does not earn final justification[BW4] . More specifically, the second dimension of God’s prevenient grace provides the power for human works that are conditions of justification, thus, in this sense, final justification, as well as present justification, is dependent solely on Christ.[BW5] To clarify Wesley’s allusive logic even further – since God’s prevenient grace powers the works necessary for the condition of final justification, and grace emanates from faith, Wesley can state that final justification, which includes the condition of works, is by faith alone. Accordingly, the following year the Methodist Conference Minutes of 1771 signed by Wesley and fifty-three other preachers clarifies the following:
Whereas the doctrinal points in the Minutes of a Conference held in…1770 have been understood to favour ‘justification by works:’ Now the Rev. John Wesley and others, assembled in Conference, do declare, that we had no such meaning; and that we abhor the doctrine of ‘justification by works,’ as a most perilous and abominable doctrine…our works have no part in meriting or purchasing our justification, from first to last, either in whole or in part.
Consistently, in 1783 an elderly Wesley could confidently write in a sermon “we are justified by faith alone.”
Wesley’s doctrine of justification and its relationship to faith and works as well as sola fide support a conjunctive theology that is based on both Protestant and catholic influence. Generally, Protestants held that justification is by faith and not human works. Based on the above analysis it is clear that Wesley placed a significant emphasis on justification by faith, not works, and was a major element of Wesley’s corpus. The key to understanding Wesley’s apparent contradictions regarding justification is that in both present justification and final justification the power of both faith and works is always a work of God. Luther and Calvin both vehemently advanced the doctrine of justification by faith, thus Wesley’s connection with Protestantism is clear. In this regard, Wesley stayed completely within Protestant “scheme of salvation by faith through grace alone.”[BW6] However, an exclusively Protestant reading of Wesley would prove to be insufficient.
Alternatively, Roman Catholics contend that a connection exists between justification and works. In fact, the Council of Trent clearly recognized that justification requires a co-operant grace that entails both being and doing by anathematizing the following, “the free will of man…does not co-operate at all…for the acquisition of the grace of justification, nor can it refuse that grace, if it so will, but it does nothing at all…and is completely passive.” Without question, the co-operant nature of the Council of Trent resonates with the nature of Wesley’s theology as exemplified in his sermon “On The Wedding Garment,” which states, “when I began to declare, ‘By grace ye are saved through faith,’ I retracted that I had before maintained: ‘Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.’ But it is an entire mistake…the imagination that faith supersedes holiness, is the marrow of Antinomianism.” Furthermore, in the same sermon Wesley maintains a view of double justification and suggests that final justification is contingent upon sanctification, which reflects a catholic influence. Summarily, in Wesley’s perspective, holiness is a gift, not something achieved; sanctification is a condition of final justification, but not a merit of final justification. Accordingly, a conjunctive theology that encompasses both Protestant and catholic influences is the most proper perspective of Wesley’s doctrine of justification.
Without question, Wesley’s doctrine of justification relies on two dimensions – present and final. Furthermore, the evidence supports the integration of faith and works as well as the concept of sola fide into Wesley’s theological framework of the doctrine. Finally, the arguments clearly support both Protestant and catholic influences on Wesley’s doctrine of justification, which confirms the conjunctive nature of Wesley’s doctrine.
A FAMOUS CRITIQUE
Certain individuals such as Stanley Ayling may have been correct in arguing that John Wesley was the most influential Protestant leader since the Reformation, and although Wesley’s influence was certainly vast, others have been highly critical. Although the most vocal critics of Wesley were likely arguing the issue of predestination, it appears the most relevant critique regarding Wesley’s doctrine of justification was the attack pertaining to the 1770 Conference Minutes. This section explores the famous Minutes controversy followed by a short rebuttal.
It was the leader of the Calvinistic Methodists, Selina, Countess of Huntington, who ordered Wesley to reject the Minutes of 1770 or risk expulsion from the pulpits. The Countess charged Wesley with promoting a doctrine of salvation by works and an accusation of legalism as well as heresy. Lady Huntingdon took matters further by extending an invitation to all clergy in her jurisdiction to encourage Wesley to renounce the heresy of the Minutes or sign a protest. Unfortunately, Wesley did not help matters by writing, “If she has not profited” from the Minutes “it is her own fault, not mine; I have done my duty.”
Based on the language utilized in the Minutes, it is difficult not to sympathize with Lady Huntingdon. The statement that “we are rewarded according to our works, yea because of our works” would likely cause any Protestant in the eighteenth century to question its intent and meaning. However, the Minutes also clearly state that salvation is not by “works of merit,” but “by works as a condition.” Accordingly, consistent with the arguments provided herein, Wesley later emphasized that the works referred to in the Minutes did not pertain to initial justification, but as a condition or result of final justification, but never as meritorious works. Regardless, the evidence suggests that Wesley’s response did not satisfy Lady Huntingdon.
The influence of John Wesley is difficult to overestimate in light of the millions of Methodists around the world. With prevenient grace as a foundation, Wesley’s doctrine of justification is definitely a theology of Protestantism, which supports the integration of justification by faith alone. However, a version of co-operant grace also weaves through Wesley’s doctrine of justification. Although the connection between faith and works is not meritorious, it is certainly conditional, which echoes a catholic spirit. Accordingly, the evidence clearly supports the argument that Wesley’s doctrine of justification is a conjunctive theology based on a combination of Protestant and catholic influence. Of course, the breadth of Wesley’s entire theology obviously transcends the scope of this short work, but for further study, Harald Lindström’s classic, Wesley & Sanctification, is an invaluable resource for the investigation of a broader scope of Wesley’s doctrine of salvation[BW7] .
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Harald Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification (Nappanee, IN: Francis Asbury, 1980), 1.
Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 15.
Randy L. Maddox, “Reading Wesley as a Theologian,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 30, no. 1 (1995): 8-16.
Maddox, Responsible Grace, 85.
John Wesley, “Sermon LXXXV: On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 6:509.
John Wesley, “Sermon XLIV: Original Sin,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 6:58.
Wesley, “Sermon LXXXV: On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” 6:512.
Lee Umphrey, John Wesley and Modern Religion (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1936), 124-25.
Colin W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960), 41.
Albert C. Outler, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1975), 35.
John Wesley, “Sermon XLIII: The Scripture Way of Salvation,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 6:44.
Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 75.
Wesley, “Sermon LXXXV: On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” 6:512.
Maddox, Responsible Grace, 90.
Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (New York: Cambridge University, 2005), 270-71.
Maddox, Responsible Grace, 85.
Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, 76.
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Maddox, Responsible Grace, 86.
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Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today, 46.
Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification, 50.
Maddox, Responsible Grace, 86.
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Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today, 46
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John Wesley, “Sermon CXXVIII: Free Grace,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 7:373-74.
Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, 161.
John Wesley, “Predestination Calmly Considered,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 10:230; emphasis added.
Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification, 207.
Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, 159.
Ibid; emphasis added.
Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification, 208.
John Wesley, The Essential Works of John Wesley, ed. Alice Russie, kindle ed. (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2011), 983; emphasis added.
Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification, 208.
Wesley, “Sermon XLIII: The Scripture Way of Salvation,” 6:48.
John Wesley, The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained, trans. John Emory, vol. 5 of The Works of the Reverend John Wesley (New York: J. Emory and B. Waugh, 1831), 302.
Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today, 61.
John Wesley, “Sermon LIII: On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 6:178; emphasis added.
John Fletcher, Checks to Antinomianism (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1889), 1:87.
Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification, 212.
John Wesley, “The Life of the Rev. John Wesley,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 5:30.
John Wesley, “Sermon LXIII: The General Spread of the Gospel,” 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 6:281.
Maddox, Responsible Grace, 148.
Maddox, “Reading Wesley as a Theologian,” 9.
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Maddox, “Reading Wesley as a Theologian,” 9.
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Maddox, “Reading Wesley as a Theologian,” 11.
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Lindstrom, Wesley & Sanctification, 210.
Robert V. Rakestraw, “John Wesley as a Theologian of Grace,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27, no. 2 (June 1984): 203.
Allan Coppedge, John Wesley (Wilmore, KY: Wesley Heritage, 1987), 41, 191.
A Member of the Houses of Shirley and Hastings, The Life and Times of Selina Countess of Huntingdon (London: William Edward Painter, 1839), 2:239.
Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today, 62.
Coppedge, John Wesley, 210.
[BW1]I am so confused by this. Where does Wesley find this prevenient grade in the Bible? I just can’t find it!
[BW2]But where does he find this doctrine in Scripture? That’s what I am trying to understand.
[BW3]But if final holiness is the necessary condition of future salvation, this is Roman Catholic theology, not Luther or Calvin even remotely!
[BW4]But this is just semantics. If the final justification is based on the evidence of man’s works, it merits that person’s salvation!
[BW5]This still is Roman Catholic, isn’t it?`
[BW6]“Completely?” I doubt very much if Luther would have agreed. He was very familiar with this kind of approach and would have condemned it, I think.
[BW7]You needed to sum up the evidence here more completely. A conclusion should give the reader a summary of pros and cons and then come to some kind of conclusions.