It is important to identify and describe the primary themes and the unique emphases of Methodist doctrine and belief. These are the theological truths that we stress in our preaching and teaching.
From the first stirrings of the Methodist movement in England and America, Methodists have consistently lifted up the Bible as the ultimate authority. John Wesley’s often quoted creed, “Let me be homo unius libri.” (a man of one book) has permeated the theological, liturgical, and moral life style of Methodism for more than two centuries. With Wesley, we affirm that all Scripture is inspired of God and contains everything essential for salvation. “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires and supernaturally assists those that read it in earnest prayer. Hence, it is profitable for doctrine; for instruction of the ignorant; for the reproof or conviction of them that are in error or sin; for the correction or amendment of whatever is amiss; and for instructing and training the children of God in all righteousness.
The affirmation that God loves all persons even when they are totally undeserving of that love, is at the heart of Methodist belief. God not only loves every person, but He is actively reaching out with His love and is willing to forgive them for turning away from Him. He is constantly inviting everyone into a renewed, right, and loving relationship with Him. This activity of love and forgiveness, which God extends to every human being, is His grace and is active to some degree in every person at every stage of his or her life. With Wesley we affirm that God’s prevenient grace is active even before “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning His will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against Him.” Even though God’s grace is constantly inviting us into a right relationship with Him, we are also completely free either to accept or reject the gift of His love and forgiveness.
One of the primary conditions, set forth in the Gospel, for an experience of salvation is repentance. Repentance toward God and trust in Christ Jesus are united in the Bible. Repentance implies faith, and faith implies repentance; both of which are the results of the working of the preliminary (prevenient) grace of the Holy Spirit. However, repentance and faith never become operative until there is a free and willing cooperation on the part of humanity. Repentance is a condition and faith a means of salvation. Repentance is a broken and contrite heart, of godly sorrow, with a keen sense of sin, which result in a candid confession of sin and an inward turning from sin to Christ. There can be no salvation without an effectual working of the Spirit in the life; no redemption or regeneration without faith; and no faith without repentance.
Justification is the divine judicial act which applies to the sinner believing in Christ the benefits of the atonement, delivering him or her from the condemnation of his or her sin, introducing him or her into a state of favor, and treating him or her as a righteous person. To be justified is to be pardoned, “declared righteous,” and received into the fellowship of the children of God. This means that we can do nothing to save ourselves, except meet the conditions of the Gospel. The strictest adherence to a moral or ethical code will not produce the type of righteousness acceptable unto God. There are past sins, present weaknesses, and future uncertainties. Good works will not bring justification. Only the soul that trusts what God has done in Christ can receive the gift of salvation. There is no conflict between the teachings of Paul and James: each was meeting pressing problems that are reflected by their writings. Good works cannot be divorced from salvation, but salvation is not dependent on good works. Accepted righteousness, of life and works, is the fruit of and manifests the reality of saving faith.
Justification and regeneration take place at the same time, but are distinct in nature. Justification is what God does FOR us-forgives our sins and accepts us in the divine family. Regeneration is what God does IN us-makes us alive spiritually, gives us a new birth, and imparts to us the divine nature (the seed of God). Regeneration is being born again; it is being born from above; and it is being born of the Spirit of God. When we are regenerated, we experience a change of the heart or transformation of the inner life-thinking, feeling, and willing. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the latent principle of the spirit of man is quickened or brought to life. The power of the Holy Spirit removes or rather helps us to bring under subjection the principle of sin in the flesh. Thus we become a new creature, a saint in embryo. There can be no Christ-like life unless the Holy Spirit creates in us a Christ-like spirit. The fountain of the heart must be purified, and then the practical stream of life will be pure. God desires good works, but only those which issue from a regenerated life.
An important emphasis which has always been at the heart of the Methodist movement is the belief that we can have absolute assurance that we have entered into a new relationship with God through our faith in Jesus Christ. Through the activity of the Holy Spirit in us, we can know for certain that we are both justified and sanctified, that we have accepted God’s forgiveness, have entered into a new life in Christ, and that we are growing toward a perfect state of holiness. John Wesley wrote, “By the witness of the Spirit, I mean an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God; that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given Himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” Although assurance it is not an essential element of salvation, it is of great consequence, can be expected, and should be sought. Assurance of salvation aids in our spiritual growth and enhances our Christian witness.
Sanctification or holiness is that work of God’s grace by which we are renewed after the image of God, set apart for His service, and enabled to die unto sin and live unto righteousness. The Christian life is a lifelong pursuit of holiness, a personal quest for the loving qualities of Christ, under the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is a continuous growth toward perfect love and Scriptural holiness. It is achieved through prayer, Bible study, worship, the sacraments, personal morality, small group discipleship, social outreach, and confrontation of evil and oppression. But, most of all, it is achieved through faith. As John Wesley wrote, “From the moment we are justified, there is…sanctification, a growing in grace, a daily advance in the knowledge and love of God”, and “exactly as we are justified by faith, so are we sanctified by faith. There is no sanctification without social sanctification; there is no holiness without social holiness. From its beginnings, Methodism has exhibited a balance between an emphasis on the holy habits of personal morality and an emphasis on social action and confrontation of evil and oppression in the world. With Wesley we affirm that “true Christianity cannot exist without the inward experience and the outward practice of justice, mercy, and truth; and this alone is genuine morality.”