A Wesleyan Understanding of Faith and Repentance

|

Faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Strictly speaking, faith alone is the instrumental cause of our justification; however, there is no faith without repentance. Jesus taught, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16), while Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38), since one always implies the other. For this reason, it is crucial to understand that in Scripture and in classical Wesleyan theology, both faith and repentance are the gifts of God. This firm conviction underlies a Wesleyan approach to everything from worship and the sacraments to prayer and revival.

God Has Done His Part, Now We Do Our Part?

When calling for a response to the gospel (e.g., in an altar call), evangelical preachers sometimes say, “God has done his part, now he is just waiting for you to do your part—repent and believe.” Or, “If you make one move towards God, he will come running towards you.” The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) is taken as a paradigm for salvation: the Father is waiting, and he will save us as soon as we choose to stop sinning and move towards home. The irony is that earlier in the same chapter, Jesus gives another parable in which a lost sheep is too dumb and helpless to ever return to the shepherd; the shepherd must leave the ninety-nine and carry him home on his shoulders (Lk. 15:1–7).

A full-fledged synergism is not biblical or Wesleyan.

When we treat the gospel as a proclamation of what the divine actor in salvation has done, while reducing faith and repentance to the free-willed response of the human actors in salvation, we promote a full-fledged synergism that is not biblical or Wesleyan. It overplays the role that humans play in salvation and opens us up to the charge of being Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian (the view that because man has free will, he has the natural power in himself to repent or believe whenever he wants to). Classical Wesleyan theology firmly rejects this kind of synergism and holds to the biblical teaching that faith and repentance are part of God’s free gift in salvation. The Spirit is with the sinner in the pigpen, bringing him to his senses and animating his every movement to the Father.

Faith and Repentance as Divine Gifts/Grants

While Scripture repeatedly commands men to repent and believe, it also makes clear that man does not have it in his own power to do either of these things, and thus attributes both to a divine work. Faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8–9), and repentance is a divine grant from God (2 Tim. 2:25; Acts 5:31; 11:18; Rom. 2:4). God alone is the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2), the initiator and completer of faith, for “‘every good gift and every perfect gift is from above’ (Jas. 1:17), and this includes all spiritual influences” (Pope, Compendium, 372). In his exposition of 2 Timothy 2:25, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,” John Wesley comments, “If haply God – For it is wholly his work.”

Christ has been exalted to the right hand of the Father for this reason: “to give repentance” (Acts 5:31; cf. 11:18). Repentance and faith are his to give, and he does this by the Holy Spirit which he pours out upon the earth: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11). Christ has poured out his Spirit from the Father to carry every person on the face of the earth to salvation, and every person will be saved unless they stubbornly and persistently resist God’s universal work of new creation. Grace unresisted will bear the fruit of active repentance.

Unless they stubbornly and persistently resist God’s grace, all will receive the gifts of faith and repentance.

This Wesleyan understanding of salvation is best explained in William Burt Pope’s Compendium of Christian Theology. Pope’s magnum opus of Methodist dogmatics begins discussing repentance and faith by defining both as the work of God. The subsection on repentance begins, “Repentance is a Divinely-wrought conviction of sin” (371). The subsection on faith likewise begins, “Faith as the instrument of appropriating salvation is a Divinely-wrought belief” (376). A man can neither make himself sorry for sin nor cause his heart to trust in Christ. If someone repents and believes, it is because the Spirit has brooded over him, graciously producing faith and repentance out of the darkness and chaos of his stubborn and unbelieving nature.

The Resistibility of the Grace Bringing Faith and Repentance

This is not to say that a person is inactive in his faith or repentance, but rather that “faith is the act of the whole man under the influence of the Holy Spirit” (Compendium, 381). When God freely, graciously, and sovereignly decides to grant faith and repentance unto the hearers of the gospel by his life-giving Spirit, a person must yield to God’s grace—that is, cooperate with God’s grace by not resisting it (Acts 7:51).

This is the point where Calvinists and Wesleyans differ. Since no one could or would ever repent and believe of his own free will, Calvinists conclude that faith and repentance must come as an irresistible gift to those whom God has unconditionally predestined for salvation. Wesleyans, however, conclude that since God is willing “that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 2:9), all will receive the gifts of faith and repentance unless they resist his grace. This is where prevenient grace comes in, as Chris Bounds explains: “Prevenient grace simply enables a person to cooperate with further works of divine grace made available at divinely appointed times and places through the means of grace.”

Roger Olson summarizes the Arminian (and Wesleyan-Arminian) position: “No person can repent, believe and be saved without the Holy Spirit’s supernatural support from beginning to end. All the person does is cooperate by not resisting.” Olson uses the illustration of an unconscious man in a pit being raised to safety by the water of divine grace:

God calls to the man and offers help. The man awakens to consciousness. God pours water into the pit and encourages the injured person to float on the water out of the pit. All the man has to do is allow the water to lift him out by not struggling against it or holding on to the bottom. That is a picture (however homely and feeble) of prevenient grace. How could a person thus rescued boast of aiding in the rescue operation? All he did was relax and allow the water (grace) to save.

In his episode on “The Heart of the Calvinist-Arminian Divide,” John Piper engages with Olson and concludes that in the Arminian view, “man, not God, does the final and the ultimately decisive act.” “According to Arminianism,” Piper claims, “the very final act that brings me into Christ, that decisive moment in conversion, is one that I perform, not God.” Ironically, this is exactly what Olson denies: “No Arminian, including Arminius, will agree with the formula that the person’s mere acceptance of redemption from Christ is ‘the decisive factor’ in salvation. For Arminius, as for all classical Arminians, the decisive factor is the grace of God—from beginning to end.” The true heart of the Calvinist-Arminian divide is not whether faith and repentance are divine gifts; it is whether the grace that brings these gifts is resistible.

The true heart of the Calvinist-Arminian divide is not whether faith and repentance are divine gifts; it is whether the grace that brings these gifts is resistible.

Moreover, Piper and many other Reformed theologians overlook that Arminius himself was unambiguous on the heart of the divide: “the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, ‘is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?’” In the same section of his Declaration of Sentiments, Arminius insists, “the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace.” Calvinists and classical Arminians (especially Wesleyan Arminians) agree that the actions or operations of faith and repentance are the product of divine grace. Arminians simply believe that this grace is able to be resisted when it comes, because that is what Scripture plainly teaches: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:59).

Implications for Ministry

While the classical Wesleyan understanding of salvation is marked by an optimism of grace, many contemporary evangelicals are marked by an optimism of man. However, a person cannot choose the day of his salvation. He cannot wake up any morning that he pleases and decide by an act of sheer will, “Today, I’m going to repent and believe in Jesus.” Simply knowing or hearing the gospel is not sufficient for a person to be saved; the Spirit must act. Whether we are issuing an altar call or praying for an unsaved loved one, we must be deeply aware of man’s total dependence on God’s grace for any movement towards salvation. 

A person cannot wake up any morning that he pleases and decide by an act of sheer will, “Today, I’m going to repent and believe in Jesus.”

This is why Wesleyans have had such a strong emphasis on the God-ordained means of grace. Unlike Charles Finney, a Semi-Pelagian who insisted that revival is not a miracle and can be experienced at any time that we want to have one, classical Wesleyans have emphasized week-in-and-week-out faithfulness to the channels by which God ordinarily pours out his grace (especially prayer, preaching, and the sacraments). When we understand that faith and repentance are the gifts of God, our practices will be shaped by a focus on God’s freedom to give the gifts of faith and repentance through his ordained means, in his ordained time, rather than man’s freedom to repent and believe whenever he wants.

Both faith and repentance are the gifts of God. Recovering this firm conviction will lead to a renewed focus on systematic preaching (2 Tim. 4:2), unceasing prayer (1 Thess. 5:17), regular fasting (Mt. 6:16–17), and “constant communion” (Acts 2:42), to borrow Wesley’s phrase. Of all these practices, the Lord’s Supper, which Wesley calledthe grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God,” is most neglected. Consider, in closing, these words from his sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion”:

As God, whose mercy is over all his works, and particularly over the children of men, knew there was but one way for man to be happy like himself; namely, by being like him in holiness; as he knew we could do nothing toward this of ourselves, he has given us certain means of obtaining his help. One of these is the Lord’s Supper, which, of his infinite mercy, he hath given for this very end; that through this means we may be assisted to attain those blessings which he hath prepared for us; that we may obtain holiness on earth, and everlasting glory in heaven.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.