MacDonald and Wesley

In chapter 20 of England’s Antiphon (which traces the course of English religious poetry from the 13th to the 19th centuries), published in 1868, George MacDonald described how, around 1730, “that life which had burned on in the hidden corners of the church in spite of the worldliness and sensuality of its rulers, began to show a flame destined to enlarge and spread until it should have lighted up the mass with an outburst of Christian faith and hope. I refer to the movement called Methodism, in the midst of which, at an early stage of its history, arose the directing energies of John Wesley, a man sent of God to deepen at once and purify its motive influences. What he and his friends taught, would, I presume, in its essence, amount mainly to this: that acquiescence in the doctrines of the church is no fulfillment of duty—or anything, indeed short of an obedient recognition of personal relation to God, who has sent every man the message of present salvation in his Son.”

Now, whether or not Wesley can properly be called an influence on MacDonald, or whether the Scotsman first read him after his own beliefs had been fully formed, and found him to be a kindred spirit, I am not sure; but it is at least possible that MacDonald discovered Wesley’s thinking as a young man, searching for an alternative to the oppressive religious atmosphere in which he grew up.

In this essay, I’ve drawn from Melvin E. Dieter’s chapter, The Wesleyan Perspective, in Zondervan’s Five Views on Sanctification, published in 1987 (part of their wonderful Counterpoint Series), and interspersed my own thoughts along with quotes from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons.

 “Wesley’s lifelong passion for Christian holiness was fired by his conviction that the Word of God teaches, by precept and by promise, that Christians should not be ‘content with any religion that does not imply the destruction of all the works of the devil, that is of all sin'…[men and women] would never be free from the possibility of deliberate, willful sinning in this life. They could, however, be delivered from the necessity of voluntary transgressions by living in moment-by-moment obedience to God’s will.”

Sanctification, Dieter explains, is at the “center of {Wesley’s} theological system.” The same can certainly be said for MacDonald, who saw the purpose and joy of our lives as becoming like Christ; and I think that for both Wesley and MacDonald, the achievement of that goal is salvation. For both men, what we are saved from is the slavery to sin that Paul wrote of in Romans.

Salvation and Sanctification
“We can fulfill the great…commandment of loving God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves,” writes Dieter, explaining the Wesleyan perspective. “Any lesser vision falls short of the fullness of the ‘great salvation’…The end result of Christian perfection is not an inner spirituality but works of love. Saving faith is fulfilled in the outgoing life of holiness and self-giving in the love of Christ; otherwise, it is dead. By salvation, Wesley meant: ‘not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven; but a present deliverance from sin…’”

Similarly, in his sermon The Way, MacDonald states that “if by salvation [Christians] mean something less than absolute oneness with God, I count it no salvation…” In Justice, he went on to explain that “[t]he salvation of Christ is salvation from the smallest tendency or leaning to sin. It is a deliverance into the pure air of God’s ways of thinking and feeling. It is a salvation that makes the heart pure, with the will and choice of the heart to be pure.”  

Imputed vs. Imparted Righteousness
“Wesley believed that the Bible clearly and persistently taught that God had wedded holy living and salvation by faith alone into one inseparable whole,” states Dieter. “The fulfillment of Christ’s work in atonement as it respects the law lies not so much in what He did on the cross ‘for us’ as in what His work on the cross does ‘in us’ as the life of Christ becomes ours in the new birth and sanctification…the Reformation tradition frequently emphasizes justification and adoption, it often neglects regeneration and sanctification; a wholly imputed righteousness…comes to the fore, but imparted righteousness…is neglected.”

In Justice, MacDonald asserts that Christ “died that I may be like him,[and] die to any ruling power in me but the will of God.” In Righteousness, his views on imputed and imparted righteousness—likely more extreme than Wesley’s—are forcefully set forth: “The doctrine of imputed righteousness is a mean invention, false, and productive of falsehood…Pray God I have no righteousness imputed to me. Let me be regarded as the sinner I am; for nothing will serve my need but to me made a righteous man, one that will no more sin.”

Mirrors of the Lord
“Wesley,” Dieter observes, “declared that the supreme and overruling purpose of God’s plan of salvation is to renew men’s and women’s hearts in His own image...‘Real religion,’ he preached in 1758 from the text 1 John 3:8, is the restoration of human beings…not only to the favor of God, but to ‘likeness to the image of God’; not simply deliverance from sin but being filled with all the ‘fullness of God.’ Nothing short of this is true religion, he declared.”

In The Mirrors of the Lord, MacDonald writes that “The Lord will work until the image of the humanity of God is wrought out and perfected in us, the image we were made at first, but which could never be developed in us except by the indwelling of the perfect likeness…the glory of God in the face of Jesus, mirrored in our hearts, has made us alive; we are one with God forever and ever.”

Summing Up: Free Will, Obedience, Love
For Wesley, the grace of God gives us the ability to choose to be obedient to God. Our resulting faith expresses itself in love; indeed, is obedient love. “The gracious work of the Spirit,” writes Dieter, “enables the sinful heart to respond in obedience to God’s call to salvation. By this process we are gradually brought to the point of repentance and faith…”

“Wesley’s synthesis [of Protestant and Catholic devotion] combined the Reformed view of God’s sovereign grace with the idea of saving faith as an active principle of holiness in the heart and life of a person. He joined the Reformed doctrine of an individual’s total sinfulness and entire dependence on grace with the Arminian doctrine of human freedom…”

 “Love, not faith, becomes the final goal of the plan of salvation…’the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God…’…”Biblical faith, for Wesley, is so entangled with love and obedience…that it does not exist without them…The essence of sanctification is love in action.”

Like Wesley, MacDonald believed that, while God alone makes salvation possible, we must make a free-will decision to turn to God. “We must choose to be divine,” MacDonald exhorts us in The Creation in Christ, “to be one with God.”

Obedience is one of MacDonald’s most important themes. In The Truth in Jesus, MacDonald writes that “it is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something other than obedience as faith in Christ.” The essential truth of Jesus is his absolute obedience to the Father. As disciples, as followers of Christ, we do as he did, for “the doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God.”

“Obedience,” explains MacDonald, “is not perfection, but trying.” God “knows that you can try, and that in your trying and failing he will be able to help you, until at length you shall do the will of God even as he does it himself.” “Ever aiming at the perfection of God,” MacDonald writes in Righteousness, is the very meaning of obedient faith in Christ.

The Soul’s Delight, the Gladness of Our Being
“…[entire sanctification] is a freedom, a turning of the whole person toward God in love to seek and to know His will, which becomes the soul’s delight.”

“Our relations with others,” says MacDonald, “God first and then our neighbor, must one day become the gladness of our being.”

“…a clear call for Christian perfection by faith,” notes Dieter, “was the logical consequence of the Reformer’s bold call for justification by faith.” This is the costly grace that Bonhoeffer wrote of, the cost of discipleship of which Jesus spoke and MacDonald acknowledged in a hundred different ways in his writing. How close we can come to that perfection in this life is a matter of controversy that has always swirled around Wesley’s thinking; but this is not all that interesting a question to me. That we should be aiming to be perfect, even as our Father in heaven, is everything. Judging from MacDonald’s insistence that even his saintliest heroes were indeed ‘realistic,’ however, I’d say he probably agreed with Wesley’s perspective.

End Note: Proof Texts
Dieter observes that Wesleyans “do not come to their biblical understanding of sanctification by a system of logical deduction from certain proof texts…their convictions…form out of their attempt to see Scripture holistically…” This is certainly true of MacDonald’s thinking as well. However, Dieter’s chapter is replete with proof texts for all of the propositions noted above. 

Five Views on Sanctification
By Melvin E. Dieter, Anthony A. Hoekema, Stanley M. Horton, J. Robertson McQuilkin, John F. Walvoord