John Wesley clearly viewed salvation as consisting of two parts: justification and sanctification. In his sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation” (Sermon 43, I:3), Wesley defines justification as being “another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and, what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God.” The result of justification is that we have peace with God. Our sins are forgiven, our debt has been paid, and we’re no longer enemies of God but at peace with Him.
When we are justified, our sanctification begins. We are born again, and as Wesley put it, we experience a real as well as relative change. Our relationship with God changes in justification — we have peace with God. But there is also a real change that takes place. Justification is what God does for us, while regeneration is what God does in us. We are transformed. We are regenerated or “inwardly renewed by the power of God.” This transformation as the result of the regenerative power of God transforms us in very real ways. Now, through the Holy Spirit that is given to us, we experience the love of God that is not only given to us but shines through us. We love all people, but especially fellow believers. The Spirit of God, now within us, expels those things in our lives that are not pleasing to Christ. Our renewal in the image of God begins.
Justification has been described as the “doorway to sanctification” for John Wesley.
Justification has been described as the “doorway to sanctification” for Wesley (Henry Knight, Anticipating Heaven Below). If this is the case, then regeneration is what lies through the door. It is through the presence of the Spirit, begun in regeneration, that sanctification is accomplished. While justification and regeneration happen simultaneously, they must be distinguished from one another. Wesley explains,
In order of time, neither of these [justification and regeneration] is before the other: in the moment we are justified by the grace of God, through the redemption that is in Jesus, we are also ‘born of the Spirit;’ but in order of thinking, as it is termed, justification precedes the new birth. We first conceive his wrath to be turned away, and then his Spirit to work in our hearts. (Sermon 45, On the New Birth, paragraph 1)
In his sermon “On the Great Privilege of Those that are Born of God,” Wesley articulates the distinction between justification and regeneration in this manner:
God in justifying us does something for us; in begetting us again, he does the work in us. The former changes our outward relation to God, so that of enemies we become children; by the latter our inmost souls are changed, so that of sinners we become saints. The one restores us to the favour, the other to the image, of God. The one is the taking away the guilt, the other the taking away the power, of sin: So that, although they are joined together in point of time, yet are they of wholly distinct natures. (Sermon 19, paragraph 2)
When we are justified, God’s righteousness is imputed to us. When we are regenerated, God’s righteousness is imparted to us. Wesley was adamant that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us as soon as we believe:
It is imputed to every one that believes, as soon as he believes: Faith and the righteousness of Christ are inseparable. For if he believes according to Scripture, he believes in the righteousness of Christ. There is no true faith, that is, justifying faith, which hath not the righteousness of Christ for its object. (“The Lord our Righteousness,” Sermon 20, II:1)
Wesley continues, “God justifies the believer for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, and not for any righteousness of his own” (II:9). But Wesley is not content with only imputed righteousness. He continues in the same sermon, in answer to the question, “But do not you believe inherent righteousness?”
Yes, in its proper place; not as the ground of our acceptance with God, but as the fruit of it; not in the place of imputed righteousness, but as consequent upon it. That is, I believe God implants righteousness in every one to whom he has imputed it. (II:12)
In the new birth (regeneration), the transformation that takes place enables us to live a wholly different life than before. Henry Knight describes Wesley’s view as the “optimism of grace: our relationship as children of God can be restored, the hold of sin over our lives can be broken, we can be freed to live a new life of love that takes root in our hearts.”
John Wesley was not content with only imputed righteousness.
Returning to Wesley’s sermon “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” Wesley believed that salvation “consists of two general parts, justification and sanctification” (I:3). Sanctification begins when one is regenerated through the Spirit.
From the time of our being born again, the gradual work of sanctification takes place. We are enabled “by the Spirit” to “mortify the deeds of the body,” of our evil nature; and as we are more and more dead to sin, we are more and more alive to God. We go on from grace to grace, while we are careful to “abstain from all appearance of evil,” and are “zealous of good works,” as we have opportunity, doing good to all men; while we walk in all His ordinances blameless, therein worshipping Him in spirit and in truth; while we take up our cross, and deny ourselves every pleasure that does not lead us to God.
It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go unto perfection.” (I:8-9)
After we are regenerated, God’s Spirit gradually transforms us more and more into His image. “But it is seldom long before they are undeceived, finding sin was only suspended, not destroyed. Temptations return, and sin revives; showing it was but stunned before, not dead. They now feel two principles in themselves, plainly contrary to each other” (I:6). What is needed is to “wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins” (I:9). This work of Christian perfection, like justification, comes by faith. God is “willing and able” to perform what He has promised and begun when we were born again if we will trust in Him to do His work.