Wesleyan Assurance , the Servant and the Son under The Dispensations of the Covenant of Grace


[The Servant and Son metaphor as a process of seeking perfection~ justified assurance ]


In John Wesley’s Theology Today Colin Williams concluded that the distinction between servant and son indicates that Wesley understood justification to have two movements: “Preliminary faith, which includes the free response to God’s prevenient grace and a desire to please him but is still only the ‘faith of a servant’” and “Justifying faith proper, which is a sure trust and confidence in Christ bringing a conviction of forgiveness, this being ‘the faith of a son.’”4 Bernhard Holland, however, suggested that John Wesley “finally came to accept that there are three kinds of faith which suffice to give acceptance with God: suppliant faith (the effort to keep God’s law and a pleading for a deeper faith); justifying faith (an assurance that “Christ died for me”); and saving faith (an assurance of God’s pardon).”5 He further contends that while Charles Wesley viewed suppliant faith—the faith of a servant—as justifying faith, and believed that “the act of supplication itself . . . is met by God’s saving response,” John Wesley did not equate the two and thus gave no such encouragement to those having “only the faith of a servant.”6

On the basis of his proposal that John Wesley’s theological thought in his later years was more akin to that of Eastern Christianity than to the dominating juridical concerns of Western Christianity, Randy Maddox concludes that “Wesley came to emphasize that there was a crucial degree of regeneration prior to the New Birth: the universal nascent regenerating effect of Prevenient Grace.”7 This involves Maddox in making an important shift, conceiving of the continuum of grace8 as a continuum of regeneration. Accordingly, he concludes that Wesley understood faith to be “justifying from its earliest degree—i.e., the mere inclination to ‘fear God and work righteousness.’” However, lacking “clear assurance,” this “nascent faith was not yet the fullness of Christian faith” but was “the faith of a ‘servant.’”9 Thus, the difference between servant and son is not a matter of whether one is justified but is simply a matter of whether one has a sense of assurance regarding her salvation.

Kenneth Collins takes exception to Maddox’s conclusion: “Though Wesley did at times link the phrase ‘fear God and work righteousness’ with justification, he most often associated it with preparation for the forgiveness of sins and thereby maintained an important distinction between prevenient grace and justifying grace.”10 For Collins, then, those having the faith of a servant lack assurance precisely because they are neither justified nor regenerated, though they have embarked on the way of salvation. Those having the faith of a son, on the other hand, have been justified and enjoy a sense of pardon as well as a discernible measure of freedom from the power of sin.11

Some Wesley scholars have determined that the distinction between servant and son centers not on the question of justification at all but on the matter of the degree of one’s progress in the Christian life. Like Maddox, Theodore Runyon declares unequivocally, “Wesley places the encounter with divine grace and love in Christ, testified to in the Lutheran doctrine of justification, within the context of the Eastern understanding of the transforming power of the Spirit both within us and through us.”12 However, he takes up the servant-son metaphor in his discussion of Wesley’s doctrine of assurance and asserts that Wesley relied on the distinction between servant and son primarily “to point to the advantages which the direct witness of the Spirit brings.”13 Richard Heitzenrater, in his essay “Great Expectations: Aldersgate and the Evidences of Genuine Christianity,” treats Wesley’s use of the servant-son metaphor simply as one of several descriptions used by Wesley to mark progress on the via salutis:

[Wesley’s] later distinctions between two orders of Christians, between the faith of a servant and of a child of God, between the young convert and the mature Christian, between faith and assurance (and allowing for various degrees of both), are all the result of his finally differentiating between justification and sanctification as theologically and experientially distinguishable steps on the spiritual pilgrimage.14

Laura Felleman’s view falls along the lines of Heitzenrater’s. “‘Full’ or ‘Proper’ Christian faith,” she writes, “refers to the promises of assurance and Christian Perfection. The servant of God has experienced justification, but this degree of faith does not include the full promise of sanctification. . . . The difference between the infant state and the mature state seems to be that those with the faith of a child of God sense the witness of the Spirit.”15 And Wesley Tracy, based on his evaluation of Wesley’s extensive correspondence with Ann Bolton, has proposed that Wesley called upon the servant and son metaphors in order to distinguish between those who have been justified and the justified who have gone on to perfection.16

The conclusions of Heitzenrater, Felleman, and Tracy were anticipated by Umphrey Lee in John Wesley and Modern Religion, published in 1936. By 1770, Lee asserts, Wesley “had adopted the theory of the infinite grades of faith and of assurance which he set forth to more than one correspondent” and “had decided on the division of Christian experience into two stages, the condition of a servant and the condition of a son, which is part of his mature doctrine of Christian Perfection.”17 Lee is not alone in suggesting that the distinction between the faith of a servant and the faith of a son was a relatively late development in Wesley’s theological thought.18


[The servant of God has no assurance of pardon ?]


Thus, his repeated distinction between those who have “the faith of a servant” and those who have “the faith of a son” appears to present-day readers of Wesley as something of an enigma, as evidenced in the array of conclusions drawn as to what he intended to communicate by it


The second consideration follows from this; namely, treating metaphors as literary objects that can be reduced to one-to-one correspondence like a scale model63 is a simplification that obscures the very insight they are intended to deliver. Consider, for example, the commonly-held conclusion that the central issue addressed by Wesley in his use of the metaphors is the matter of assurance of pardon. In this view, when Wesley says, “You are only a servant” he is saying, “You do not yet have an assurance of pardon”; and when he says, “You are a Son,” he is saying “You do have an assurance of pardon.”64

But what possible advantage would Wesley hope to gain by not speaking with Knox on the matter of assurance in a more direct manner, as he does with others on this very subject? Surely, such a view suffers from regarding the metaphor as purely ornamental, to use Ricoeur’s term;65 and the end result is to obscure meaning rather than to confer insight! The same may be said of investigations that reduce Wesley’s use of the metaphor to the single question, “Is the person with the faith of a servant justified or not?”


[The non-Christian’s works may have merit in God’s eyes?


While acknowledging the variety of experience, the mandate to articulate a unifying theological coherency encouraged the discernment of “a discrete spectrum of experience.”408 Those who, like Baxter, could not identify the precise moment of conversion might at least be able to point to evidence of a defined and discernible process underway in their lives, and thereby gain some degree of assurance that they themselves were among the elect.409 Perkins had identified just such a process in some detail at the end of the sixteenth century. In The Cases of Conscience, he identified ten divine actions by which a person is brought into God’s favor. The first four are those of “first grace” and “are onely workes of preparation going before [justifying] grace; the other actions which follow, are effects of [justifying] grace.”410

Similarly, Richard Sibbes acknowledged the preparatory activity of grace in his sermon, Lydia’s Conversion, published in 1638. Observing that Lydia “was one that feared God” but “was not ripened in the true religion,” Sibbes affirmed: “There is such a distance between the nature and corruption of man and grace, that there must be a great deal of preparation, many degrees to rise by before a man come to that condition he should be in.”411

It was the case of Cornelius, however, that specially influenced the forging of a Wesleyan Methodist soteriology. At the 1745 Conference the question raised was whether it is possible for a person to be in the favor of God apart from having a sense of God’s pardoning love. Consideration of the biblical account of Cornelius raised the possibility that a person may be in the favor of God apart from belief in Christ and, consequently, apart from a sense of God’s pardoning love. The Conference acknowledged, on the basis of the biblical witness, that Cornelius was “in some degree”412 in the favor of God despite his not believing in Christ, and affirmed as well that his works were neither “splendid sins” nor done apart from “the grace of Christ.”

The Conference then addressed the question of how it might reconcile this acknowledgement with its allegiance to Articles XII and XIII of the Thirty-Nine Articles.

  1. 9. How then can we maintain, that all works done before we have a sense of the pardoning love of God are sin? And, as such, an abomination to Him?
  2. The works of him who has heard the gospel, and does not believe, are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done. And yet we know not how to say that they are an abomination to the Lord in him who feareth God, and, from that principle, does the best he can.413

The solution, then, was to introduce a condition upon which the strict theological judgments of the two Articles would be contingent. That condition was simply whether persons whose performance of good works was in question had heard the gospel. If they had heard the gospel yet did not believe, their works “were not done as God hath willed or commanded” and they were not in the favor of God. If they had not heard the Gospel yet were responding in the fear of the Lord (so far as they might respond in view of the limited amount of light they had received), they were “in some degree” in the favor of God.414 With this condition in place, the Conference was able to demonstrate adherence to the Thirty-Nine Articles without having to forfeit its judgments concerning Cornelius.

But what, exactly, did this solution entail for a Methodist soteriology? What is the measure and meaning of the favor of God for those who have not heard the gospel? And what of those who have been privileged with the proclamation of the gospel but who, despite their receptivity and response, are not able bear witness to “the one Christian, saving faith”415 as their own? These questions weighed heavily on Wesley and necessitated his engagement of the long-running conversation on the question of the Divine regard for the responsive unregenerate to which we now turn.


[Membership in the Church is not assurance even in the Calvinist tradition]


Within the ranks of Dissent, the matter of divine regard for the responsive unregenerate arose in close relation to concerns over the matter of assurance. While the idea of a “middle state” stands in irreconcilable conflict with Calvinism at one level, the essential features of such a state are evident in the controversy over admission to the church which strained relations between Scottish Presbyterianism and some New England congregations.432 In those settings where church membership came to be explicitly identified with external calling (the calling incumbent upon elect and reprobate alike wherein both are fellow-citizens in the church) rather than effectual calling (the calling upon the elect who are alone fellow citizens with Christ), those who relied on church membership as a ground of their assurance of having been effectually called were shorn of that confidence


[But does faith alone provide assurance ?]


Over the course of the Conferences convened in the mid-1740s there emerged a greater recognition of the spiritual victory secured in justification. In matter of fact, at the 1745 Conference the problem of downplaying the rich rewards of justification in order to emphasize those gained by going on to perfection was acknowledged and a corrective direction given.461 Nevertheless, there seems to have remained a conviction that those “justified but not sealed” belonged to an intermediate state on the way of salvation. The lead question on the second day of the 1745 Conference appears to have challenged this distinction: “Is an assurance of God’s love absolutely necessary to our being in his favor?”462 Though the Conference never recorded an outright answer to this question, an affirmative answer seems to stand as an assumption. The only other discussion regarding the favor of God focused on whether there may be situations where favor is granted apart from “an assurance of God’s love” (in what the Conference identified as “exempt cases”) and where favor may be granted “in some degree” in spite of one’s not yet having believed in Christ (as in the case of Cornelius who had not yet heard the gospel).

Leaving aside both the question of exempt cases and the situation of Cornelius, the 1746 Conference aimed to clarify exactly what “the proper Christian faith” is, in part by clarifying what it is not. One distinction that arose in the discussion centered on the faith of those under the Jewish dispensation (such as the Apostles before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit). These persons were determined to have “an earnest” of “a low degree of justifying faith.” It is clear that possessing this “earnest” signified a point of spiritual advance but not of arrival, for it “abides for a short time only” presumably on account of the fact that “God hath not yet shined in their hearts.”463 At the Conference in 1747 the matter of whether a clear sense of pardon was essential to justification was again taken up. The leading question was very specific as was its answer: “Q. 1. Is justifying faith a divine assurance that Christ loved me, and gave himself for me? A. We believe it is.” When the case of the Apostles before the Day of Pentecost was raised, the Conference maintained, “The Apostles themselves had not the proper Christian faith till after the day of Pentecost.”464

After debating the applicability of a number of scriptures to this question, the conferees considered the question from the point of view of the experience of their own companions in the faith; namely, “J. A., or E. V., who have so much integrity, zeal, and fear of God, and walk so unblamable in all things” and “are continually longing, striveing [sic],—praying for the assurance which they have not.” In response to the query of whether these persons might, in fact, be “void of justifying faith,” the Conference concluded that such qualities may be found “by nature and habit, with preventing grace” and yet be absent “faith and the love of God.” And while acknowledging it to be “scarcely possable [sic]” to render certain judgment on the matter, the Conference concluded, “But this we know, [if] Christ is not revealed in them, they are not yet Christian believers.”465 In the end, however, the Conference determined that the eternal destiny of J. A. and E. V. would ultimately be settled beyond question: “Q. 11. But what becomes of them then, suppose they die in this state? A. That is a supposition not to be made. They cannot die in this state: They must go backward or forward. If they continue to seek, they will surely find, righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”466

It is certain that up to this time the conclusions of the Conference would have been consistent with those of Wesley himself. Over the course of his correspondence with the pseudonymous John Smith, Wesley had clearly articulated the conclusion of the conference that justifying faith is “a divine assurance that Christ loved me, and gave himself for me.” In his reply to John Smith on December 30, 1745, Wesley declared that the “distinguishing doctrines” on which he insists might properly be summed up in what Smith has called “perceptible inspiration”:

But be pleased to observe what we mean thereby. We mean that inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit whereby he fills us with righteousness, peace, and joy, with love to him and to all mankind. And we believe it cannot be, in the nature of things, that a man should be filled with this peace and joy and love by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost without perceiving it, as clearly as he does the light of the sun.

This is . . . the main doctrine of the Methodists. This is the substance of what we all preach. And I will still believe, none is a true Christian till he experiences it; and consequently, that ‘people at all hazards must be convinced of this; yea, though that conviction at first “unhinge” them ever so much, though it should in a manner “distract” them for a season. For it is better that they should be “perplexed” and “terrified” now than that they should sleep on and awake in hell.467

Wesley further asserted that he “will not move an hair’s breadth” from this position and that he takes it “to be the very foundation of Christianity” and necessary to salvation, except for cases of “invincible ignorance.”468

Yet, within six weeks of the close of the Conference Wesley was willing to move at least “an hair’s breadth.” On July 31, 1747 he wrote to his brother Charles from Beercrocomb “on a desideratum among us, a genesis problematica on Justifying Faith.”469 Wesley now clearly separates what he had so vehemently held together until this time. His conclusion “roughly set down” was clear: “Is justifying faith a sense of pardon? Negatur.” The question, he notes, is of immense importance, “lest [the preachers] should either make them sad whom God hath not made sad, or encourage them to say peace where there is no peace.”470 He carefully distinguishes the primary terms in question: “By justifying faith I mean that faith which whosoever hath not is under the wrath and curse of God. By a sense of pardon I mean a distinct, explicit assurance that my sins are forgiven.”471 And while he affirms that there is such “an explicit assurance,” and that such an assurance is “the common privilege of real Christians” and is “the proper Christian faith,” he “cannot allow that justifying faith is such an assurance, or necessarily connected therewith.”


[salvific  Anomalies in Assurance, Justification – existential  and soteriological – knowing oneself ]


For Wesley, the dilemma facing fallen human beings is their lack—indeed, their inability in and of themselves—to know themselves and thus to know accurately their own situation soteriologically. Consequently, existentially they are completely out of alignment with the soteriological reality of their lives. Restoring alignment requires the preparatory work of the Holy Spirit in “removing the veil,” “enabling us to know ourselves,” and “‘convincing us of sin.’”586 The end result of this work of the Holy Spirit is that the individual is brought into the experience of bondage and servile fear. These are the existential accompaniments of those situated, soteriologically, in the legal (Mosaic) dispensation.

At this point, one other aspect of the existential dimension should be noted. In a letter to Thomas Rutherford, Wesley briefly delineates his understanding of assurance and concludes by commenting on the matter of “exempt cases”:587

Yet I do not affirm there are no exceptions to this general rule. Possibly some may be in the favour of God, and yet go mourning all the day long. But I believe this is usually owing either to disorder of body or ignorance of the gospel promises. Therefore I have not for many years thought a consciousness of acceptance to be essential to justifying faith.588

Wesley’s comment serves as an informative illustration of his distinction between the soteriological and existential dimensions. While he believed it was the common privilege of the child of God to know the witness of the Spirit to the pardoning grace of God, Wesley was willing—and even compelled—to distinguish the soteriological from the existential and to allow for the possibility of an occasional anomaly (i.e., an exempt case). He recognized that there are cases in which a person may be under the Christian dispensation soteriologically while existentially remaining in the throes of the fear characteristic of the legal (Mosaic) dispensation—a fear which results in “mourning all the day long.” This, too, is indicative of a misalignment of the existential with the soteriological. However, this misalignment is due not to sinful self-deception as in the case of the deluded self-assessment of fallen, unawakened human beings, but is “owing either to disorder of body or ignorance of the gospel promises.”589

Wesley’s carefully crafted appropriation of covenant theology is now beginning to come into view. There can be little doubt that the lineage of his covenant theology is broader than the Puritan influence mediated by Perkins, Ames, and the Westminster Confession. We might reasonably speculate, based on the foregoing, that while the classic covenant theology of Puritan descent was mediated to Wesley and deeply embedded in his theological thought, he seems to have consciously adapted structural elements derived from a Cocceian strand of covenant theology. The end result is hugely significant for his soteriology. But we have explored only one of the pillars of covenant theology, the salvific sufficiency of the various dispensations of the covenant of grace. The other pillar, and the one which brings Wesley’s covenant theology into full view, is the salvific perfection of the Christian or gospel dispensation of the covenant of gra


From Faith to Faith John Wesley’s Covenant Theology and the Way of Salvation STANLEY J. RODES




[The Covenant of Grace’s dispensations]


The essence of the covenant of grace is the same throughout the Old and New Testaments—God saves sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But its historical administration has varied by time and place. For example, the covenant of grace widened from the Old Testament to the New Testament, as it was administered first with small families (e.g., the families of Noah and Abram), then with the nation of Israel, but now with the church, which is made up of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). Also, it was administered in the Old Testament through what the New Testament authors describe as “types” and “shadows” (Heb. 8:5; 10:1), such as sacrifices, the priesthood, and the temple, all of which pointed to their reality, Jesus Christ (e.g., Col. 2:17).


The Reformed creeds and confessions express the continuity of God’s covenant of grace despite its many historical variations. For instance, the Heidelberg Catechism says: “… God himself first revealed [it] in Paradise, [and] afterwards [it was] proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law, and finally fulfilled in his well-beloved Son” (Q&A 19). This means the Bible is one story of the gospel, which God has spoken “in many times and in many ways” (Heb. 1:1), whether in Paradise to Adam; during the days of the patriarchs, such as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses; through the ministry of the prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and Joel; or through the ceremonies of the Levitical sacrifices. All of this came to fruition in Jesus Christ.


Likewise, while recognizing the variations in the administration of the covenant of grace between the Old and New Testaments, the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms the continuity of the covenant in the promise of Christ and His fulfillment of it:

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all fore-signifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations. (7.5-6)

When our Lord Jesus Christ was born, lived, died, and was raised from the grave, the covenant of grace reached its zenith in what the Bible calls “the new covenant” (Jer. 31:31; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 8:8, 13; 9:15; 12:24). Under the covenant of grace, Christ accomplished what Adam failed to do in the covenant of works, so we receive grace


What Is the Covenant of Grace?

from Daniel Hyde


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