The Marks of Conversion

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

“Conversion” is a tricky word. Everyone seems to know what it means, but the meanings are widely divergent. They are often quite different from how John Wesley understood the term. Wesley himself used the word infrequently, because he believed it was not a common scriptural term. It may be that he also thought other terms such as justification and regeneration were more precise, and less open to misunderstanding.

Our misunderstandings of Wesley are often due to reading him with later definitions of conversion in mind. One common definition equates conversion with a decision of faith, an understanding rooted in nineteenth century revivalism’s confidence in the freedom of the will. One piece of religious literature depicted our eternal destiny as an election, with God voting to send us to heaven and Satan voting to send us to hell. The result is a tie vote—and only our vote could break the tie!

Wesley placed the emphasis on God’s initiative, not ours. It was only because of grace that we could respond to God in faith. Those who were awakened to their sinful condition did not, as in twentieth century revivalism, come to the altar and make a decision. Instead, they entered into a relationship with God. This they did through attending a weekly class meeting and endeavoring to practice such spiritual disciplines as prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, Christian conversation, and serving the neighbor. What they sought was to be able to trust in God for their salvation and to know their sins are forgiven, an ability and knowledge that would come in God’s timing, not their own. Certainly, upon receiving this ability through grace, it was their responsibility to believe, but it was grace alone that enabled them to have this faith at all.

Conversion for Wesley consisted of four interrelated elements. The first was the faith of a child of God. This is in contrast to the faith of a servant, which marked the life of the awakened sinner. The faith of a servant involves dutiful obedience, a serious attempt to conform to God’s law combined with a fear of divine judgment. The faith of a child of God is marked by the joyful obedience of one who has come to know God’s love and acceptance, received as a freely given gift in Jesus Christ. I suspect there are those in our congregations who are genuinely committed to dutiful obedience, but have not encountered God’s gracious love in a way that is lastingly transforming.

The second is justification, which for Wesley meant divine pardon or forgiveness. To receive the forgiveness of God transforms our relationship with God from alienation, shame, and guilt to acceptance and reconciliation. In changing the relationship it lays the foundation for a change in motivation, from fear of judgment to gratitude for freely-given salvation.

Third is regeneration, or the new birth. Conversion for Wesley was not primarily about being forgiven so we can go to heaven when we die. It was most centrally about a new life of love, received in the present but which death cannot take from us. This new life, enabled by the transformed relationship accomplished in justification, was the beginning of sanctification and of God’s ultimate goal of restoring us once again to the image of God in which we were created.

Finally there is the witness of the Spirit, a divinely given conviction that one is a child of God. This does not in itself consist of feelings of peace or joy (though they may accompany it) but is more a kind of inner confidence or assurance that one is adopted by God. Wesley came to believe the witness of the Spirit was not essential to conversion—we are saved by faith, not by having an assurance—yet it was the common privilege of believers. If one lacked assurance, one could pray to receive it.

This points to another way Wesley’s description of conversion differs from some common understandings. Conversion is not simply a matter of having feelings, such as transports of joy or even a felt love for God. Certainly such feelings can accompany conversion, but they are not essential to it. Feelings come and go. The goal of conversion is not to make us feel loving but to enable us to become a loving person; not simply feel thankful but become a thankful person. It transforms the heart, and we begin to live a new life.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on March 01, 2004 at

Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).

Transforming Evangelism Online Course

Quick Info:

  • Dates: Dec. 5 – 16, 2022
  • Number of weeks: 2
  • Price: $70
  • CEUs: 1.0
  • Required books?: Yes
  • Live video session?: No
  • Part of a certification or series of courses?: Yes (Lay Servant Ministries)

This course leads you to learn from John Wesley how to practice relational evangelism. You will discover that evangelism involves not only sharing your faith with others but also welcoming people into a community where they can grow in faith. You will learn that evangelism/mission/outreach requires developing relationships with those that we are leading to Christ. It is out of those relationships that people see and hear about the transforming love of Jesus Christ and receive Him as their personal Savior. This course will also answer the “then what” question as we examine local church pathways to discipleship for growing disciples in Christ.

This course will give you confidence and vision for evangelism as very achievable and less fearful to stretch out in love to a lost and broken world. As stated in our Discipline, “We need to be about the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.”

You will need a copy of Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith by Henry H. Knight III & F. Douglas Powe, Jr. for this course.

This class has been approved by Discipleship Ministries (formerly the General Board of Discipleship) as an advanced course in Lay Servant Ministries.

This course is eligible for 1.0 CEU.

About the Instructor

Christine Zimmerman faithfully served as a minister’s spouse for 28 years while caring for her family of four boys. She attended Geneva College where she received her K-6 teaching certificate and then Edinboro University for her Master’s degree in reading. Additionally, Christine took graduate-level courses at the University of Pittsburgh towards a supervisor of curriculum and instruction degree. She is also an approved Conference Evangelist in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church and is a certified Christian life coach.

Christine is a teacher at heart. She has taught in many settings, from working with teachers from the University of Pittsburgh to the public school setting. She now uses her teaching abilities in new ways with the About Face Church Outreach Consultants ministry, which she started with her husband, John. Christine is the heart of the ministry, as she is often found mentoring individuals out of the poverty of addictions and abuse. She speaks, teaches, mentors and leads workshops that illuminate scripture and engage the student with practical hope and real-life examples. She puts flesh upon the spiritual principles of mission and outreach that motivates the church into action.

Christine enjoys camping, reading, and spending time with her husband and family.

Originally posted at Shared with permission.

Look back, Give Thanks, Move Forward

Traveler pauses on the beach at sunset
Traveler pauses on the beach at sunset
Photo by Admiral General M.

Remember God’s past provisions, let go of expectations and find new ways God is working today.

By Laura Buchanan

Neighboring has changed. Technology has transformed our daily living. Relationship building must overcome screen time. As societal norms shift, each generation has a moment of realization: “Things just aren’t what they used to be.”

“It’s funny how we glorify things in the past and we tend to dread things in the future, the unknown,” says Anne Bosarge, Director of Leadership Strategies and Local Church Resources in the South Georgia Conference of The United Methodist Church. “We kind of forget the uncomfortable things that happened and yearn to go back to the familiar. We want it to be like it was – but the world isn’t like it was.”

Pause and remember

It’s healthy to take time to remember the past. Hindsight offers a chance to evaluate all that we have experienced. We see God fulfilling promises. We see God’s goodness and grace.

“When we remember who we are, whose we are, who God is and what he has done, we can give thanks and praise for God’s provision,” Bosarge shares. “Part of being able to see what God is doing in the midst of challenging circumstances is recognizing what he has already done and how he is working in spite of what is going on around you. And the only way to do that is to have a mindset of awareness.”

Go deeper by studying scripture

Find a new path forward

Ezra 3:8-13

Isaiah 43:18-19

Embrace the new

“Our past experiences form expectations that we bring with us as we move forward,” Bosarge observes. “We think we know what the future holds and what it will be like, but many times, it isn’t what we were expecting. It’s different. Then we have an interesting reaction: we compare the new things God is doing to the way it used to be.

“Some people joyfully welcome the new, while others mourn. We do this in our homes, churches and communities. It’s tempting to continually reminisce about the ‘way it was,’ but if we do this, we might not see the new ways God is moving.”

As our lifestyles morph due to technology and cultural changes, we must remain openminded.

“These new things are not bad, in fact, these are opportunities for us to consider how we will respond to God’s call to love our neighbors in this new time and space,” encourages Bosarge. “Don’t be so sad about the way that it used to be that you miss the joy and the possibility in the way that it is now. Don’t be so focused on what you have lost that you can’t see what you are gaining.”

Discover how God is working

Bosarge asks, “Do we look at our world and say, ‘God used to be working in my church, neighborhood and the relationships I used to have.’ Or, do we say, ‘Okay, God, show me where are you working.’ So often, the places where God is working are not the places we expect him to work.

‘God, show me where are you working.’ So often, the places where God is working are not the places we expect him to work. – Anne Bosarge

“God is the same God now as he was then and he is moving us to new places in the future. He doesn’t say, ‘One day I will do this.’ He says, ‘I am already doing this.’”

Technology now allows us to broadcast worship services to those who haven’t entered a sanctuary in years. Children can see themselves as part of our beautiful, diverse, global community. Home is wherever we best connect with people who love us. Work-life balance is more prevalent. Volunteer and ministry opportunities abound.

“God is renewing our minds through fresh viewpoints and thinking so that we can see the possibilities he has for us,” says Bosarge. “God is making a way for new relationships in your life. It’s not like it used to be, but just because it’s not like it used to be doesn’t mean that it can’t be great. God is inviting you to see it. He’s making a new way. He’s already at work.”

Laura Buchanan works for at United Methodist Communications. This story was published on October 7, 2022.

Grant Supports Training for Ministry at the Border

FFE Pres. Jane Wood and Prof. Alma Tinoco Ruiz

There are times when a Foundation grant opens doors for the opportunity to make an even greater impact than originally envisioned. Through the Foundation’s multi-year Harry Denman Fellowship grant, we came to know Prof. Alma Tinoco Ruiz, now director of the Hispanic House of Studies and lecturer in homiletics and evangelism at Duke Divinity School.

Born and raised in Mexico, Ruiz moved with her husband to North Carolina where they eventually co-pastored a Spanish-speaking church with an undocumented immigrant community. This experience fueled her desire to help God’s people become the church Christ has called us to be—a place of unity, transformation, reconciliation, and holistic healing. She began her higher education in mathematics, but eventually answered the call to ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church. 

As the educational landscape and needs at Wesleyan-tradition seminaries and schools of theology change, the Foundation has sought ways to continue supporting and providing resources to Raise Up Gospel Leaders. This grant initiative has expanded in recent years, focusing on equipping leaders called to vocational Christian ministry, allowing the Foundation to equip the full spectrum of church leadership to be Wesleyan, evangelistic, and invitational in their spiritual leadership.

The Raising Up Gospel Leaders grants include a new approach for “Innovation Grants.” These provide opportunities to financially support experimentation and expanded approaches to evangelism. In 2021, the “door opened” for one such grant through The Foundation’s work with Prof. Ruiz. Bringing her experience as pastor and scholar to the table, she helps those engaged in ministry with Hispanic/Latinx communities to live out their faith as welcoming Christian leaders, fulfill the call to invite all people into relationship with Jesus and be part of a nurturing faith community. In 2021, when she was named director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School (formed in 2007) the Foundation welcomed the opportunity to support this expanded approach to evangelistic ministry training.

This year, under Ruiz’s leadership, the Hispanic House of Studies and the Latinx faculty at Duke Divinity (including include Daniel Castelo and Peter Casarella) formed the first cohort of “Teaching Borderlands @ Duke.” In this group, they offer their experience and knowledge to assist Duke Divinity faculty in thinking ethically, courageously, and critically about the U.S. borderlands and the essential work surrounding them.

A faculty immersion trip to the US-Mexico border and an immersion experience in the Hispanic/Latinx community in The Research Triangle area in North Carolina are planned for 2023. To prepare, the participants are attending workshops led by members of the Hispanic Summer Program including Daisy Machado, Greg Cuéllar, Teresa Delgado, Eduardo Fernández, and Efraín Agosto.

One of the workshops held recently helped the group to rethink how the history and geography of a place are key issues to be considered in the teaching of any immersion course, especially of a racialized location like the U.S. borderlands. During the discussion after the presentation a participant asked if immigrants cross the border for the so-called ‘American Dream’ or because they have no other choice due to poverty, climate change, or other reasons.

Prof. Ruiz answered, “The main thing I hear from the community [crossing the border] is that they don’t want to come. They come because they need to come. They don’t want to leave their loved ones, their kids, their parents. It’s all trauma. Crossing the border is not easy and so many people die. Many people decide to leave because it’s the only option they have.”

Through the work of Prof. Ruiz and her associates, and the relationship with Duke Divinity Schools’ leadership, this Raising Up Gospel Leaders Innovation grant is not only training students destined for ministry with Hispanic/Latinx people in the local church, but is equipping other seminary faculty members to lead and teach with an evangelistic mindset of inviting all people into the Body of Christ.

Trustee, Donor on Why He Gives to FFE

Photo by Julia Filirovska

By Dr. C. Daniel “Dan” Henry

Even as our society in The United States and worldwide moves away from the values incarnate in Jesus Christ, our local Christian churches (even those in the Wesleyan tradition), and the clergy and lay persons in them, seem unwilling or unable to share the Good News. When questioned about this, many admit they do not feel equipped or encouraged to invite people outside their walls into a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. 

That’s where The Foundation for Evangelism comes in. As a Wesleyan-tradition grant-making organization, their work is to promote, encourage, and provide resources for Wesleyan evangelism to equip disciples to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I believe in what the Foundation is doing to help Christian disciples share their faith and work together as the Body of Christ. I have seen and experienced first-hand how the Foundation is a catalyst that brings together gospel leaders, lay persons, and congregations so that they can be and do so much more than they could on their own.

I was raised in a Wesleyan-tradition church with a passion for Jesus Christ and the Bible. The positive effect that has had on my life makes me feel compassion for those who have not experienced that kind of life transformation. Through the work of the Foundation, I believe that Christ’s Church will survive and thrive, and our society and communities will be changed for the better. This is why I wholeheartedly support the mission of The Foundation for Evangelism.

Dr. C. Daniel “Dan” Henry is a retired engineer living in Bolingbrook, IL. He has served in unpaid lay servant leadership positions for over 30 years, and currently attends Wheatland Salem Church, a Wesleyan-tradition congregation in Naperville, Ill. He provided 20 years of leadership in the Northern Illinois UMC Annual Conference and was part of the national leadership of United Methodist Men for 15 years. Dan has served on several boards for non-profits, and has been a trustee of The Foundation for Evangelism since 2017.

The Significance of the Law for Wesley

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

Photo by Sean Foster on Unsplash

For Wesley, prevenient grace is a manifestation of God’s universal love for humanity. God reaches out to everyone, restoring a measure of the freedom which sin has taken away, enabling persons to turn back to God. The uneasy conscience is itself a call to respond to God; and to obey our conscience is a positive answer to that call.

But prevenient grace is not an end in itself, and responding to it is not yet the Christian life. Something more is needed. We cannot welcome new life unless we are convinced of the inadequacy of the life we now live. We need both a diagnosis of our ailment and the promise of a cure. It is this that the message of the gospel accomplishes.

The diagnosis is by way of encountering God’s law. By law Wesley includes not only the moral law such as the Ten Commandments, but Jesus’ summary of that law in the two greatest commandments to love God and one’s neighbor. Wesley also means by law the manner in which it was expounded in Jesus’ teaching and embodied in Jesus’ life. This law penetrates “all of the folds of a deceitful heart,” and “the sinner is discovered to himself” (“The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law”, § IV.l, in Sermons II, ed. A.C. Outler [Abingdon, 1985] 15). Seeing the true nature of our heart and life illumined by standing before God, we are awakened to our condition and convinced we are sinners.

It is not simply that we recognize ourselves as sinners in general, as profoundly unsettling as that may be. We enter into a relationship with God wherein the Holy Spirit begins to reveal the very real way sin operates in our lives in all its specificity. Newly awakened Methodists undertook a spiritual discipline of regular prayer, searching the Scriptures, worship and sacrament, and service to the neighbor, encouraged and enforced by a weekly class meeting. As they lived out this discipline, they discovered the myriad ways they failed to give thanks to God or show compassion to others, and how their lifestyles, values, and goals so often led them away from God. They learned how many things the surrounding society took as normal were at variance with the life to which they were called by God.

Such an examination of the breadth and depth of sin in one’s life was an essential condition for change. It countered the self-deception to which we are prone and the cultural illusions to which we are subject. It is through this, says Wesley, that we come to recognize both our guilt and helplessness. By guilt, he did not mean simply feeling guilty, but the reality of our condition before God. By helplessness he meant that in spite of our best efforts, we find that sin has a hold on our hearts and lives. We have a disease we cannot cure, and this leads us to turn to the only One who can set us free.

It is for this reason Wesley argues the law is not only just but good. Its ground is the goodness of God, which it reflects. Humanity was created in the image of God, designed to manifest the divine nature of love. “And what but tender love constrained him afresh to manifest his will to fallen man” (“The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law”, § III.10, 13)? The giving of the law was itself an act of love, setting us free from the illusory life of sin and leading us to desire the life that God longs to give us.

The law is itself part of the good news. Its ultimate goal is not to evoke despair for our sin, but to point us to God’s promise of salvation. Whatever we have failed to be or to do, God offers to forgive for Christ’s sake. Whatever God commands as law, God promises to enable us to do through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the promise is that the law will be written on the heart, and we will once again be persons who image in our lives the love of God itself.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on February 01, 2004 at

Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).

Grant Panelists Share Progress, Challenges

A panel of three grant recipients from the 2022 Equipping the Local Church Grant Cycle spent the morning with the Foundation’s board or trustees and honorary trustee council at their hybrid in-person and online board meeting. During the hour-long panel discussion, grant recipients shared a little about their personal stories as well as the story of their ministry and how the Foundation’s grant – and partnership – have helped their faith communities share the Good News with their neighbors.

Building Community From the Ground UP

Dana Franchetti with Mission210, a Church of the Nazarene church plant, shared about her personal journey to become a church planter. In college, through internships, she saw how people in other parts of the world worshiped and witnessed to their Christian faith. She was particularly inspired while working at a church in Oregon following devastating wildfires that destroyed the homes of many in the community. The church housed families and individuals who lost everything. As she saw the church literally opening their doors to help the people of the area, she felt God calling her to work in church ministry. She was sent to rural Groveland, Fla., where she says there was not even a church building to meet in. She began meeting people at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the few public spaces for people in the town gather. Through the relationships built there with local families and businesses, she has seen how just listening has helped her and her small congregation hear the needs of their community. What has emerged is that there is a need for families and individuals in the community to have shared experiences and build friendships. Dana says that “[We want to ] let them know that Jesus cares about you as a whole person and there is a place for you here.” The grant has allowed for several small introductory gatherings to happen around the town. Now, the congregation is in the process of fitting a storefront for a multi-purpose space to serve as a church-run coffee shop and community gathering space during the week, and a place for worship and discipleship on weekends and evenings.

Overcoming the Stigmas of Addiction

Rev. John Zimmerman, a grant recipient, joined by Zoom and led the devotional earlier that morning.

Rev. John Zimmerman shared that in his work with About Face Church Outreach Consultants, he saw how many churches struggled with reaching out to and supporting people with addiction or the loved ones of addicts. He and his wife work and live full-time out of their RV so that they can go to different locations around the country to help churches connect with the needs of their community. Because of the growing addiction crisis in the U.S. he began working on a model that would allow people to connect in a nonthreatening online environment, to be supported and receive the resources they needed. Out of that, Higher Power Church was born. “Higher Power” is a buzzword in 12-step programs, so it seemed an appropriate name for the online church geared toward addiction recovery. The goal is to build a community of faith for all generations that include addicts and family members of addicts. While he admits it has been small to start, he is working to build awareness and to partner with related agencies to connect online attendees with vital resources.

Bringing Hope and Healing to a Broken Community

Pastor Tim Jackson admits that he did not initially feel called to Magnolia Avenue United Methodist Church. The church in East Knoxville seemed like a hopeless case. But eventually, God brought him back to this space – with its crumbling building and challenging neighborhood. But as he prayed and listened, and he began building relationships with the neighbors at a run-down motel and on the streets outside the church, he and his small congregation began to see the needs of the this community. The grant, he says, “allowed the breaking of bread to build relationships.” The church is slowly being rebuilt – both the building and the congregation. And the community surrounding the church is rallying behind it, with support from local officials and nearby churches. Invitations from pastor and attendees are helping the people in this neighborhood, who once felt abandoned, get the chance to live a more abundant life, in a church community that cares about them.

Watch the videos from the Panel Discussion

The Christmas Conference: 10 days that started a church

By Joe Iovino

For many of us Christmas morning means lounging in our pajamas, eating delicious food and slowly opening gifts. For those who started the Methodist church in America, their Christmas Eve in 1784 was the first of ten days of serious church business. In the end, their gift to us was the formation of a new denomination that would change history.

The decision to meet

When Thomas Coke bumped into Francis Asbury after a worship service at Barratt’s Chapel in Frederica, Delaware, he shared important news. John Wesley had sent him to ordain Asbury and appoint him superintendent of a new, Methodist church in the United States.

This had been a long time in coming. Church of England priests serving in America returned to England during the American Revolutionary War, leaving no one to administer the sacraments to the Methodists. Lay preachers kept the societies going with meetings and love feasts, but they needed ordained clergy.

When the Church of England continued to refuse Wesley’s requests to ordain some of his Methodist preachers and send them across the Atlantic, he took matters into his own hands. Wesley ordained two Methodist lay preachers to serve in the U.S., and appointed Coke a general superintendent.

After worship at Barratt’s Chapel on that November Sunday, Asbury and Coke decided to call a special conference for all the Methodist preachers in the United States. They would meet at Lovely Lane Chapel beginning December 24, 1784, to found and organize a new church. The 10 days they spent together would later become known as the Christmas Conference.

With the conference beginning in just 40 days, they needed to get the word out immediately. Freeborn Garrettson, leader of the society at Barratt’s Chapel, mounted a horse and set out. The Paul Revere of Methodism would later write in his journal, “My dear Master enabled me to ride about twelve hundred miles in about six weeks.”

The Conference

Garrettson was effective with this monumental task. According to Coke, 81 people met at Lovely Lane. “Nearly 60 of them” were “American Preachers,” he notes, “most of them young.”

As the conference to found the Methodist Episcopal Church began, only Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey—the two Wesley had ordained in England a few weeks earlier—were clergy. All other members of the Christmas Conference, including Asbury, were lay preachers. Coke would soon rectify that.

Beginning on Christmas Day, Francis Asbury was ordained a deacon, ordained an elder, and consecrated as a general superintendent on three consecutive days—a record that will never be broken.

Asbury, who had served as the de facto leader of the Methodists in America for years, refused to accept the role of superintendent solely by Wesley’s appointment. He insisted the preachers elect him to serve in that capacity.

Soon after the Christmas Conference, Methodists began to refer to Coke and Asbury as bishops, despite Wesley’s objections to the term. The United Methodist Church still elects our bishops today.

Asbury’s ordination contained another bit of foreshadowing. Philip Otterbein, a pastor in the German Reformed Church, participated in Asbury’s ordination. Otterbein would later help found the United Brethren, another predecessor denomination of The United Methodist Church.

No minutes of the Christmas Conference survive, but based on the journals of those present and the Discipline they produced, historians can piece together much of what happened. Twelve lay preachers were elected and ordained as elders (clergy). The Sunday Service John Wesley sent with Coke was approved for use in the new church—a forerunner of today’s Book of Worship. The conference also talked about forming Cokesbury College, and made a host of other decisions necessary for the formation of the new denomination.

When the conference was concluded and the church born, Asbury journaled about all this activity in his typically understated way. “We spent the whole week in conference, debating freely, and determining all things by a majority of votes,” he explained. “We were in great haste, and did much business in a little time” (The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, December 18, 1784, p 939).

That is not the way many of us would choose to spend our Christmas vacation, but as descendants of these forebears in the faith, we’re sure glad they did.

*Joe Iovino works for at United Methodist Communications. This story was originally published Dec. 12, 2017. It has been posted with permission.

Original Sin

By Henry “Hal” Knight III

Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace was his solution to a problem inherent in two central teachings of Protestantism. The first was original sin, which in Wesley’s day was under attack by influential advocates of human free will such as John Taylor. The longest single essay written by Wesley was a strong defense of the doctrine of original sin. He then turned the first part of the essay into the sermon “Original Sin” (1759).

In the sermon he insists on “the entire depravation of the whole human nature”; humans are “wholly fallen” and “totally corrupted.” Wesley saw this view of human nature as essential to genuine Christianity: “Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but a heathen still” (§III.1-2, in Sermons II, ed. A.C. Outler [Abingdon, 1985] 183-84). Clearly this was a doctrinal essential for Wesley.

He likens original sin to a terminal disease that has us in its grip. All our faculties are affected—our hearts are so governed by sin that we are not capable of knowing God or changing our lives; our vision is so clouded by sin we are unaware that we have a problem. We lack both power and knowledge.

Hence the necessity of the second Protestant teaching: salvation is by grace alone. We cannot save ourselves, so only God can save us. This God had done this through Jesus Christ. For Wesley, the two doctrines fit together; to deny the first was effectively to deny the second.

But herein lies a problem. If our only contribution to our situation is to make matters worse, then clearly we can have no role in our own salvation. God seemingly must do it all. Moreover, God’s grace must be irresistible because, given our sinful condition, we would be certain to resist if given the chance. Yet if grace is irresistible, and not everyone is saved, it is likewise clear that God must have chosen those who will be saved, and by implication those who will not be. The only other alternative would be universal salvation.

Not everyone found this to be a problem, of course. The Calvinists of Wesley’s day saw irresistible grace and predestination as a manifestation of God’s sovereignty. In this God is glorified, both by mercifully and graciously saving some, and justly condemning others for their sins. Wesley was not persuaded. While he certainly had a high view of God’s agency and power, sovereignty was not God’s most important attribute. As he said in his commentary of 1 John 4:8, “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom…as he is said to be love; intimating that this is…his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections” (Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament).

The Calvinist position was troubling to Wesley because it raised serious questions about the character of God. It also contradicted the clear teaching of Scripture that God seeks to save everyone, and that Christ died for all.

Prevenient grace (or “preventing grace”) was Wesley’s theological response to this dilemma. While all are indeed dead in sin and in themselves unable to respond to God, no one is entirely without the grace of God. Working in every human life, prevenient grace includes “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” (“On Working out Our Own Salvation,” § II.1, in ed. A. C. Outler, Sermons III [Abingdon, 1986] 203). Prevenient grace restores in each person a small measure of freedom, enabling them to respond to God’s initiative.

It was prevenient grace that allowed Wesley to insist, at one and the same time, salvation is by grace alone and God offers salvation to everyone. It also allowed Wesley to emphasize divine agency without diminishing the importance of human freedom. Prevenient grace does not take away our freedom, it restores it; it is not irresistible but enabling.

It is because prevenient grace gives us a measure of moral freedom that God holds us responsible for sin. We are without excuse, not because of our condition of original sin, but because we do not use the grace we have (cf. “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” § III.4, 207).

But we are also not without hope. God has opened the way to new life for everyone, and is inviting all to respond. All may come to know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and all may be renewed in that love.

This article was originally posted as part of the Considering Wesley series on November 01, 2003 at

Dr. Henry H. Knight III is Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies at Saint Paul School of Theology. His books include From Aldersgate to Azusa Street: Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal Visions of the New Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2010) and A Future for Truth: Evangelical Theology in a Postmodern World (Abingdon, 1997).