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Wesleyan Theology. Part Two: Doctrine of Atonement. Wesley on Faith. Faith, as understood by Wesley, could be defined as a human’s personal reliance on Christ that involves opening one’s life to allow the Christ to work within them and through them in the world.

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Wesleyan theology

Wesleyan Theology

Part Two: Doctrine of Atonement

Wesley on faith
Wesley on Faith

  • Faith, as understood by Wesley, could be defined as a human’s personal reliance on Christ that involves opening one’s life to allow the Christ to work within them and through them in the world.

  • Recall how this definition blurs the distinction between Justification by Faith alone and Justification through Good Works.


  • Justification stands as the beginning of the Christian Life.

  • Faith, in turn, involves the willing openness to a relationship with Christ.

  • The hope of Christianity, according to Wesley, was tied to Justification and the emerging relationship with Christ.


  • Atonement understood as the historical source for the Divine Grace by which humans can be rescued from sin.

  • The Death of Jesus on the Cross stands as the Atoning Moment for Wesley, since Christ dies for all humankind.

  • Through Death, Christ becomes available to all persons.

  • Through Death, grace becomes possible.


  • Wesley believed the death of Jesus on the Cross demonstrated the extreme price God paid so humanity could experience Divine forgiveness for Original Sin.

  • Remember, from Wesley’s perspective, humanity could do nothing on its own to reconcile itself to God.


  • “…it is the blood of Christ alone, whereby any sinner can be reconciled to God; there is no other propitiation for our sins, no other fountain for sin and uncleanness. Every believer in Christ is deeply convinced that there is no merit but in Him.”

    • Sermons, I, 243-44

Three theories of atonement
Three Theories of Atonement

  • Moral Influence Theory

  • Penal Substitution Theory

  • Ransom (or Classical) Theory

Moral influence theory
Moral Influence Theory

  • Surprisingly, Wesley had little problem with understanding Jesus as the moral pattern for humankind.

  • “Sermon on the Mount” a pivotal Scripture for Wesley’s understanding of atonement.

  • Shows the path to salvation; the “true way to everlasting life” for the sinner Justified.

  • Jesus can be seen as the pattern of God sent to guide sinners toward salvation.

Moral influence theory1
Moral Influence Theory

  • Only when humankind is willing to live and suffer as Jesus lived and suffered does the death of Jesus take on its full salvific meaning.

  • However, Wesley believed that humans could only encounter Christ as the Moral Pattern after they accepted him as Divine Reconciler through death on the cross (Justification).

  • Death of Jesus reconciles God’s anger at humankind. Until sinners accept this principle, Christ as the Moral Pattern irrelevant.

Moral influence theory2
Moral Influence Theory

  • Yet Wesley did not understand “God’s anger” as parallel to “human anger.” Divine anger viewed as representing humanity’s willing separation from God at the Fall.

  • Likewise, “God’s mercy” viewed symbolically as the relationship God offers the sinner at the moment of reconciliation.

Moral influence theory3
Moral Influence Theory

  • The life of Christ, therefore, is the life for the Christian to follow upon Justification.

  • For this reason, Wesley believed in preaching “Law” to those persons who had yet received Christ as a Savior. After justification, one could understand Christ as the Moral Pattern for the life of the believer.

Moral influence theory4
Moral Influence Theory

  • By preaching the “Covenant of Law”, the sinner can recognize their guilt and experience “God’s anger” or wrath.

  • When this awareness holds fast to the sinner, the Covenant of Law has fulfilled its purpose.

Penal substitution theory
Penal Substitution Theory

  • Under this theory, Jesus dies on the cross as a necessary appeasement for “God’s Anger.”

  • Since humanity was incapable of atoning for the Divine Anger, Jesus presented himself as a worthy substitution.

  • Death of Jesus makes “God’s Mercy” possible. In this manner, a “Covenant of Grace” is established between God and Humankind at the death of Jesus.

Penal substitution theory1
Penal Substitution Theory

  • “…in the covenant of grace, seeing we have nothing to pay, God ‘frankly forgives us all’: provided only, that we believe in him who hath paid the price for us; who hath given Himself a ‘propitiation for our sins, for the sins of the whole world’.”

    • Sermons, I, pp. 138-139

Penal substitution theory2
Penal Substitution Theory

  • Wesley believed Christ to serve as the Mediator between the Covenant of Law and the New Covenant of Grace.

  • To serve as the mediator of the New Covenant of Grace, however, Jesus must be viewed as both human and divine: fully God and fully human. Without this dual nature, Christ would be an ineffectual substitution.

Penal substitution theory3
Penal Substitution Theory

  • When the sinner believes in Christ and enters relationship with Christ (Justification), the sinner leaves the Covenant of Law and enters the Covenant of Grace.

  • Death on the cross satisfies the requirements of the Covenant of Law while establishing the new Covenant of Grace.

  • In this sense, the death of Jesus ends the Covenant of Law.

Penal substitution theory4
Penal Substitution Theory

  • Benefits to the Substitutionary Death of Jesus:

    • Termination of the Covenant of Law

    • Creation of the Covenant of Grace

    • Availability of Prevenient Grace to humankind to prepare them for faith in Christ

Ransom or classical theory
Ransom (or Classical) Theory

  • This approach assumes that cosmic, demonic forces hold humankind hostage (sin).

  • God becomes incarnate as Jesus and submits to death on the cross to save humankind from the Evil One.

  • Drawn to the cross by the blood of Christ, the Evil One is trapped by God. Evil is thereby kept in check while the Covenant of Grace made available to humankind.

Ransom or classical theory1
Ransom (or Classical) Theory

  • This third idea of atonement received less attention by Wesley.

  • Little attention given by Wesley to the need for a deep awareness of human enslavement to demonic forces and the need for Christ’s victory through us over such cosmic forces.

  • To the degree that Christ represented both “prophet” and “king”, Christ—by necessity—addressed the presence of demonic forces.