What does it mean to be Wesleyan?

March 2nd, 2010 / 26 Comments

For some time, Christians in the various arms of the Wesleyan tradition have pondered what they share in common.  The Wesleyan theological tradition is diverse, but it offers a distinctive vision of the gospel. And that vision differs from other Christian visions.

The Wesleyan tradition arose from the impact of John and Charles Wesley.  These 18th century brothers began a revival in England that eventually touched regions around the world.

John Wesley’s view of the Bible and general ideas about Church and its practices are considered helpful by many today.  While not all of Wesley’s opinions and views are embraced, his general theological vision provides a profound resource for contemporary Christians. 

The Wesleyan theological vision and the tradition’s practices inspire nearly 100 million Christians around the world.  More than eighty Christian denominations today consider Wesley their primary theological ancestor. Among them are the United Methodist Church, the Salvation Army, the Free Methodist Church, the Church of God (Anderson), and the Church of the Nazarene.

The following is a list of some the Wesleyan tradition’s orienting beliefs. I don’t mean to imply that every Christian in the Wesleyan tradition would affirm this exact list or the precise language I use.  But I do believe that the following twelve items together provide a general picture of what most Wesleyans affirm today.

1. God’s primary attribute is love. Or, as Charles Wesley put it in a hymn: “God’s name and nature is love.”

2. God is triune. The Father has been revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. God acts first in every moment to offer salvation, and humans freely respond to God’s offer. God’s action that enables creaturely free response is called “prevenient grace.”

4. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make possible a fruitful relationship with God and hope for transformation in this life and the next.

5. God does not predestine some to heaven and others to hell. All have the opportunity to experience eternal life both now and in the future.

6. Christians should consult the Bible, Christian tradition, reason, and contemporary experience (i.e., the Wesleyan quadrilateral) when deciding how to think and act as Christians.

7. The Bible’s primary purpose is to teach the way of salvation. One may or may not affirm its statements about scientific, historical, or cultural matters.

8. The Church and its practices are crucial to Christian understanding, right living, and compassion toward others and oneself.

9. God values and seeks to redeem all creation: humans and nonhumans. God cares about the whole and not just a few.

10. Transformation from a life of sin to a life of love begins in this life. Christians are not merely waiting for the afterlife. They can experience and promote abundant life now.

11. Personal and corporate religious experience, not merely rational consent to Christian doctrines, characterizes the flourishing Christian. Both heart and head matter.

12. Christians are sanctified as they respond appropriately to God’s empowering love. Sanctified Christians love God, others, and all creation, including themselves. Some responses to live in holiness represent important turning points in the Christian life.

More could be said.  Theologians like me wrestle over the details and haggle over concepts and language. But these brief statements provide an overview of what makes the Wesleyan theological tradition so attractive to me and others.

Let me conclude with two quotes from John Wesley that I cite in my upcoming Wesleyan Theological Society conference presentation. I began preparing my presentation as I concluded writing my forthcoming book, The Nature of Love: A Theology. My presentation’s overall argument (and a major argument in the book) is that love should be the orienting concern in Wesleyan systematic theology.

Here are Wesley’s words:

“No scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works.”

“Love is the end of all the commandments of God. Love is the end, the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things.”


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Dave Gerber

Thanks Tom, I really appreciate your posts. They are encouraging to me and instructive. This is good stuff.

Brook Thelander

Good words, Tom.  Re: your #6, I would add my view that when it comes to the “experience” portion of the quadrilateral, Wesley was not merely concerned with contemporary experience, but with the experience of Christians throughout the history of the church, with particular emphasis on the first 4 centuries of the Church’s life.  Experience thus has a corporate and communal dimension in addition to the personal and individual aspect.

Craig Henderson

Thanks for your continuing determination to cast a theological vision of who we are, not who we were.

John Earp

I realize you are trying to generalize in your statements, but I was surprised to find nothing directly referring to entire sanctification or perfect love in your list. I realize not all who call themselves Wesleyan necessarily believe in Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection/entire sanctification/perfect love, just like not all Roman Catholics believe in all things officially Roman Catholic, but it is hard for me at least to imagine much that is all that distinctively Wesleyan apart from this key distinctive doctrine.

My 2c,

John Earp

Kathy Burns

The concept that “love should be the orienting concern . . .” sounds so simple, but when put into perspective with all the other concerns we take on, it is freeing and affirming to know that we are to govern our lives by love – God’s love and ours toward God and others.

Donald Minter


Really well done as usual.  Couple points needing clarification in my mind.

You wrote:

“God acts first in every moment to offer salvation, and humans freely respond to God’s offer. God’s action that enables creaturely free response is called “prevenient grace.”

I radically affirm that God ‘acts’ in ‘every moment’ to offer salvation, suggesting that Arminians affirm the value of every moment because God is ‘acting’ in that moment to bring about ‘salvific’ opportunity in each and every moment.  I am understanding you to say that prevenient grace is God’s action in ‘each moment’?  Or would you affirm that prevenient grace was an initial response of restoring grace with lasting consequences?  Or both?  And would you affirm ‘the moments’ are infused with value because God is indeed at work in each moment?

Secondly, you suggested:

“Christians are sanctified as they respond appropriately to God’s empowering love. Sanctified Christians love God, others, and all creation, including themselves. Some responses to live in holiness represent important turning points in the Christian life.”

Is sanctification our response or does God sanctify as we respond?  Is sanctification what we do (consecration) or God does (sanctification).  Yes, I show my bias… LOL…

Brook Thelander

Tom, I must correct myself with respect to prior comments about “experience.”  I had a brain cramp and was thinking of Wesley’s views on “tradition,” not experience.  Oops.

Chris May

Great summary.  Love your descriptions. I would chime in with Brook “contemporary experience” ties to your Process foundations rather than to Wesley.  Wesley embraced the voice of those who came before him.  Tradition in the quadrilateral was not just a record of previous events that the present moment has carried forward but superseded on its way to a better, more creative, higher evolved future.  I get the feeling from the older Wesley that Tradition became more and more an anchor for handling the increasingly complex realities of the life of the Methodist movement.

Greg Crofford

Tom, good post, as usual.

I would quibble with this line:

“These 18th century brothers began a revival in England that eventually touched regions around the world.”

This slights the important role that George Whitefield and the Calvinistic branch of the Methodist Revival played. Arguably, the Wesley brothers joined a revival already in progres.

Mirche Tanchev

What does it mean to be Wesleyan?

I am not sure if John Wesley would wrestle over the details and haggle over concepts and language like us today. Because he was speaking in another time the biblical message understanable with utmost plainness.

1. God is love – »This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.« (NNT to 1. Joh. 4, 8)

John Wesley seems to speak about love in the abstract as the love is His »darling, his reigning attribute« (Sg.!). As it is the only »attribute« different from all the other »perfections«, or because God is a holy, righteous, wise and perfect love in his nature and name!

6. About »the Bible, Christian tradition, reason, and contemporary experience (i.e., the Wesleyan quadrilateral) when deciding how to think and act as Christians« I think it is of great significance to understand that for Wesleyans only the Holy Bible is enough, and that the Christian tradition (the experiance and reason until today) are to be submitted to the Experiance and reason in the Bible. Simply because thay can only help us to understand and experiance what the Bible is all about.

I like the Wesley word’s at the end. »… Ye diff’rent sects, who all declare, Lo here is Christ, and Christ is there; Your stronger proofs divinely give, And show me where the Christians live!« (NNT to Act. 2, 42. 45) »…It was a natural fruit of that love wherewith each member of the community loved every other as his own soul. And if the whole Christian Church had continued in this spirit, this usage must have continued through all ages. …«


I enjoyed reading this. I do not consider myself to be a Wesleyan so it was good to read the general beliefs of those who are Wesleyan. My religious background is not Wesleyan at all and some of these concepts were rather foreign to me when I first began to learn of them. But now I find that agree with these points.  From what I know, this is a great summary! Especially for a person who doesn’t know too much about Wesleyan doctrine to begin with.

David van Beveren

Thanks Tom,

I translated it in Dutch for publication in our church bulletin.


William Hanson

Thank you for the post. This is a very good and concise list of what it means to be Wesleyan. There is a great variety in some of the other theological points within the Wesley tradition, but this list seems to encompass the core beliefs. I wholeheartedly agree that God does not predestine some to heaven and others to hell. If this were the case than God would be somewhat sadistic and we are merely living predetermined play with no real purpose aside from the amusement of God. And I find myself unable to accept this in light of the Bible and my experiences.

Susan Sukraw

Very well summarized in terms everyone can understand. Thanks!

Allison Dietz

I really liked how simply you explained these points of Wesleyan based Christianity. It really helps to have them laid out like this. I consider myself “non-denominational” but I would say that I do agree with all of these statements. I especially like and agree with the statements, “God cares about the whole and not just a few.” and “Transformation from a life of sin to a life of love begins in this life.” I think these are very important things to remember everyday.

Arielle Askren

Thank you for allowing those of us who are Wesleyan to have a summery of our root and core ideals. It is always wise to know what you believe as opposed to having a general concept of the denominational values. If we are going to follow under a certain code of theology knowing the basis of that is important.

Ben Pearson

I think this does accurately describe, in a compact way, most Wesleyan core beliefs. I do have a few questions however. Does this set of beliefs have any need for, or even consider, the Old Testament? It seems that there must be quite a bit of manipulation and truncation if it does. Also, considering point number nine; how does God seek to redeem nonhumans; such as rocks/minerals, turtles, and bacteria?

Tyler Mostul

It is nice to see a somewhat simple and straightforward presentation of our beliefs.  Something that I have been learning and have never really realized is the importance of love.  As your last two quotes stated, love is supreme in regards to belief and Scripture.  This is something that I had never realized the importance of before.  Reading Scripture through the lens of Christ allows us to view certain passages in the Old Testament that dont seem to be loving in a way that is more faithful to the Trinity and our revelation of God in Jesus.  God being a loving God is something that I think is essential, and something that I appreciate about the Wesleyan tradition.

Bob Hunt

Christians are sanctified as they respond to Gods love. Does the Church of the Nazarene still believe in the second definte work of sanctification?

Cheryl M. Haney

I was hoping to see a deeper comparison of what the difference is in the Christian vision today to the Wesleyan vision. And learn how the church could possibly see transformation within the hearts of people again.
Could this be a component to a revival in America today? Have we gotten so caught up in facts and scientific method, when it comes to talking about theology, which we cannot see beyond what is really happening with God and creation?
How can churches go back to the roots of Wesleyan theology to see where God is alive and moving? I believe God is awaking the people again for another move of God’s love and revelations.

Emmanuel Reinbold

I appreciated your placement of the concept of Sanctification.  My experiences in the Nazarene church have indicated that in our zeal to see people sanctified, we have made it the end goal, instead of an empowering that helps us reach the end goal of becoming and making disciples of Christ.

Steve Carroll

Hey Tom,

Thanks for including The Army. I was taking a recent WTS survey and we were grouped into the ‘other’ section of the Wesleyan world…

7. is very Nazarene in its language I think most Wesleyans are more divided on this issue mostly based on academic vs. layman. The Salvation army states that the Scripture are divine rule of Christian faith and practice so we offer the same flexibility but most of our lay people seem to take a rigid approach to interpretation.

10. and 12. taken together work as representation of the wide view of the Wesleyan heritage but i think ‘Plain Account’ makes it clear that Wesley would not back down on anything less than ‘entire’ Sanctification, although we can certainly haggle about what that means

Personally, if Jesus commands us to ‘Love’ God with our entire Heart Soul and Mind, To call it impossible feels like calling Christ a liar.


Being Wesleyan isn’t becoming a slave to a list of rules. It’s manifesting the love of God to the “least of these” for the sake of others.

It’s hard to be co-operant with God when your creativity is in bondage to the company code.

Siphiwe Matlhabadile

Hi Tom my name is Siphiwe Matlhabadile: What more could a human being look for or give each others and all creatures if it isn’t the Love of God. the Wesleyan tradition is exactly what we need from God. thanks for sharing the information with us about the Wesleyan’s foundation. God Bless you…

Shoshana Michael Zucker

As a Jew who sometimes puzzles over the distinction between different Protestant churches, this is very helpful.

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