John Wesley’s Understanding of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation


John Wesley’s concept of discipleship and spiritual formation is immensely deep and theologically rich. Many theologians have created well-integrated theologies that can help people to know God in his fullness and be transformed into his image, but Wesley was able to create a system to communicate and organize the journey of spiritual formation into a manageable, duplicatable journey. In his writings, he articulated a view of discipleship that was clear and consistent enough to be followed by both those who were learned and those who were laborers.

In this article, I’ll examine Wesley’s discipleship plan from within a theological framework, but with special attention to his opinion about how to execute a discipleship plan effectively.

A Summary of Wesley’s Theology and Process

Wesley’s theology and process of discipleship could be summarized as follows: Discipleship is the natural fruit of salvation, that begins with prevenient grace, creating by faith spiritual life and love for God, and that produces increasing holiness, through the means of grace, in the context of community, resulting in a restoring of the full image of God.

Let’s break down and examine each part of this theology of discipleship, paying close attention to the progression.

Discipleship is the natural fruit of salvation…

John Wesley’s idea of salvation is that it is a loving act of God that causes a loving response in man. This is, of course, mainstream Christianity. Yet many theological systems separate the idea of salvation from discipleship in practical, pastoral theology.

The purpose of salvation is to become a disciple, producing holiness in the heart and life of man.

For Wesley, salvation and discipleship are not two different goals. Discipleship is not separate from salvation. The purpose of salvation is to become a disciple, producing holiness in the heart and life of man.

That begins with prevenient grace…

Wesley’s idea of “grace before grace” is fundamental to his understanding of discipleship. Sinners are dead in sin, not self-motivated. God’s grace initiates and saturates the entire discipleship process. And, even though we will discuss “means of grace” later, it is worth noting that God’s grace precedes any desire or movement that humans may have toward those means.

God’s grace initiates and saturates the entire discipleship process.

Prevenient grace causes “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” (Sermon: On Working Out Our Own Salvation). Wesley explains, “If we take [salvation] in its utmost extent, it will include all that is wrought in the soul by …”preventing grace”; –all the drawings of the Father; the desires after God, which, if we yield to them, increase more and more…” (The Scripture Way of Salvation).

Discipleship, then, is all of grace, but (as we shall see) produces significant effort. One is reminded of the classic Dallas Willard quote, “Grace is not opposed to effort. Grace is opposed to earning.”

Creating by faith spiritual life and love for God…

Wesley’s discipleship was entirely accomplished by “faith, which works by love.” This began in the very moment of justification by faith:

… in that very moment, sanctification begins. In that instant we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit: there is a real as well as a relative change. We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”; producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God; expelling the love of the world… (The Scripture Way of Salvation)

Wesley had no time for creating those who had “the form of godliness” but lived without its actual spiritual power.

Wesley had no time for creating those who had “the form of godliness” but lived without its actual spiritual power. That spiritual power had no beginning whatsoever until the new birth and the love for God “shed abroad in our hearts” in that moment.

That produces an increasing holiness…

Wesley’s view of discipleship necessarily included growth in holiness. Ending the journey with justification was simply not an option.

This is in stark contrast to simplistic Christian thinking, where the good news is confined to justification in this life and heaven at the end. In that thinking, justification is treated as the good news, and Sanctification is treated as the irrelevant news!

This was the core of Wesley’s disagreement with theologians like Luther. Wesley loved Luther’s writings on justification. His famous heart-warming experience at Aldersgate came while “one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.” But Wesley parted ways with Luther in this: Luther’s fixation on sola fide (faith alone) caused him to lower the importance of sanctification, the increasing of actual holiness. Wesley wrote, “Who has written more ably than Martin Luther on justification by faith alone? And who was more ignorant of the doctrine of sanctification, or more confused in his conceptions of it?” (Sermon, “On God’s Vineyard”). In contrast to this devaluing of sanctification, Wesley aggressively promoted good works as necessary to sanctification and urged all Methodists to his view.

Wesley aggressively promoted good works as necessary to sanctification.

Certainly, Wesley’s early days were taken up with the Holy Club and desperate, flailing attempts to ensure his salvation by good works and self-denial. But after his new birth and the maturation of his theology, he set aside the fear, but never set aside the good works! He urged his disciples to continue steadfast in them, while also being conscious of their peace with God through faith.

But what good works are those, the practice of which you affirm to be necessary to sanctification? First, all works of piety; such as public prayer, family prayer, and praying in our closet; receiving the supper of the Lord; searching the Scriptures…fasting or abstinence as our bodily health allows. Secondly, all works of mercy; whether they relate to the bodies or souls of men; such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, entertaining the stranger, visiting those that are in prison, or sick, or variously afflicted; such as the endeavouring to instruct the ignorant, to awaken the stupid sinner, to quicken the lukewarm, to confirm the wavering, to comfort the feeble-minded, to succour the tempted, or contribute in any manner to the saving of souls from death. This is the repentance, and these the “fruits meet for repentance,” which are necessary to full sanctification. This is the way wherein God hath appointed His children to wait for complete salvation. (The Scripture Way of Salvation)

Through the means of grace…

Imagining discipleship without the “means of grace” in Wesley’s theology is simply impossible. It is a theme, a framework that permeates Wesley’s thoughts on Christian growth.

What does Wesley mean by “the means of grace”? He means the ordinary channels in which God communicates and continues his saving work to the souls of men. In his sermon The Means of Grace, he enumerates more specifically what he means:

The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the Scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s Supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.

…according to the decision of holy writ all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the means which he hath ordained; in using, not in laying them aside.

In his directions to the Methodist Band Societies, Wesley created a short list of what he intended:

“Constantly to attend on all the ordinances of God; in particular, —

    1. To be at church and at the Lord’s table every week, and at every public meeting of the Bands.
    2. To attend the ministry of the word every morning, unless distance, business, or sickness prevent.
    3. To use private prayer everyday; and family prayer, if you are at the head of a family.
    4. To read the Scriptures, and meditate therein, at every vacant; hour. And,
    5. To observe, as days of fasting or abstinence, all Fridays in the year.” (Directions Given to the Band Societies, 1744)

The rhythms of the “means of grace” are viewed by Wesley as crucial to new believer discipleship. Like conveyor belts, these rhythms underlie the journey of a Christian toward maturity.

Regardless of the certainty of justification, one cannot remain spiritually conscious for long without using the means of grace.

To use another metaphor for the means of grace, Dr. Chris Lohrstorfer refers to them as “spiritual respiration.” The use of the means is the soul seeking to exchange the earthly for the heavenly as regularly and naturally as breathing out and in. Regardless of the certainty of justification, one cannot remain spiritually conscious for long without using the means of grace.

In the context of Christian community…

A robust accountability to and support of the whole Christian community was crucial in Wesley’s view of discipleship.

A robust accountability to and support of the whole Christian community was crucial in Wesley’s view of discipleship.

In contrast to those Christian mystics who recommended solitary meditation alone as the source of spiritual growth, Wesley the theologian asserted,

“Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.” (Hymns and Sacred Poems, Preface, 1739 Ed.)

This worked itself out practically as an aggressive plan to provide significant accountability and support structures within local churches. It was this tiered organization of Societies (large gatherings), Classes (medium-sized, higher accountability gatherings), and Bands (small accountability groups) that helped the Methodists thrive in the absence of an established, professional clergy throughout their early existence and rapid growth. For a thorough description of how these structures worked, read The History and Significance of the Wesleyan Class Meeting.

Wesley created Class Meeting structures that would require his disciples to

meet the Minister and the Stewards of the society once a week; in order to inform the Minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly, and will not be reproved; to pay to the Stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding; and to show their account of what each person has contributed. (Nature, Design, and General Rules of The United Societies)

Giving, holy life, attitudes, and more were subject to regular examination by leadership. In our highly individualistic context, this surrender to a searching accountability from spiritual leaders might seem deeply uncomfortable. However, this examination was never carried out in aspiritually abusive way. Instead, it was to provide weighty spiritual counsel and prayer support in a shared desire for maximum growth. 

Wesley wrote of the band meetings, “the design of our meeting is, to obey that command of God, ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.’” (Rules Of The Band-Societies, 1738).

To this end, we intend, —

    1. To meet once a week, at the least.
    2. To come punctually at the hour appointed, without some extraordinary reason.
    3. To begin (those of us who are present) exactly at the hour, with singing or prayer.
    4. To speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.
    5. To end every meeting with prayer, suited to the state of each person present.
    6. To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest, in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations. (Rules Of The Band-Societies, 1738)

…resulting in a restoring of the full image of God!

Wesley consistently writes about restoring the created purity and blessedness of mankind. He begins with this concept in his sermons on The New Birth and Justification By Faith, and continually pointed to the recovery of “the mind that was in Christ” as the means to restore “our first estate.” To Wesley, the point of salvation (and its subcategories of sanctification and discipleship) was nothing less than a new humanity, redeemed and rebuilt into the imago Dei!

To Wesley, the point of salvation was nothing less than a new humanity, redeemed and rebuilt into the imago Dei!

One final passage from his sermon “One Thing Needful” will serve as a fitting conclusion:

To recover our first estate, from which we are thus fallen, is the one thing now needful – to re-exchange the image of Satan for the image of God, bondage for freedom, sickness for health. Our one great business is to raze out of our souls the likeness of our destroyer, and to be born again, to be formed anew after the likeness of our Creator. It is our one concern to shake off this servile yoke and to regain our native freedom; to throw off every chain, every passion and desire that does not suit an angelical nature. The one work we have to do is to return from the gates of death to perfect soundness; to have our diseases cure, our wounds healed, and our uncleanness done away.

This is the goal of discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition. We should accept nothing less. Let us fix our eyes on it, and encourage others to lift their eyes to it as well!

Additional Reading

Darrell Stetler
Darrell Stetler
Darrell Stetler II is the founder of NewStart Discipleship, a discipleship curriculum to enable any size church to disciple brand new believers. Darrell serves as pastor of a Bible Methodist Church in OKC, and is a dad of 7 children. He is the creator of 40 Days of Holiness, a video Bible study on holiness in modern language.