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).

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