If you’re like me, you might scratch your head when you consider just how many Christian denominations exist. Sure, we might anticipate religious diversity throughout the world, but who could have anticipated such diversity within Christianity itself? Think about how many churches you pass on your way to work, or better yet, how many churches you pass on your way to wherever you worship on any given week. How can we explain such a wide array of expressions of a supposedly unified faith?
In my life, different circumstances have led me to meaningfully experience several Christian denominations. I grew up in the Wesleyan Church, began to own my faith in a Southern Baptist congregation, attended a college with an Anabaptist heritage and, while in college, connected with the Presbyterian Church in America, Assemblies of God, the Brethren in Christ and the Church of Uganda (with Anglican influence). Each of these experiences has shaped me and my faith in important ways, and I can appreciate various elements of each denomination listed above. As I was finishing college, however, I realized that my lifelong tour of Evangelical Protestantism had left me disconnected from a church I could call my home. I began searching for a place where I not only felt welcomed, but also where I could continue to dive deeper into God’s love and grace in meaningful community. It did not take me long to find a place to belong in the United Methodist Church (UMC).
Before I learned much about what it meant to be United Methodist, two things in particular drew me into the Methodist connection. First, hearing of John and Charles Wesley and the core teachings of Methodist doctrine reminded me of language with which I was already familiar, having grown up in the Wesleyan Church. Rather than learning new vocabulary, I gained deeper insight and received more meaning from vocabulary that I already used (some of which I will discuss further below). Second, and most impressive to me, I appreciated the UMC’s openness to modern thought and scholarship. Too often in my experiences, churches, pastors and many Christians I knew saw the extent of their interaction with the world as simply resisting the world’s evils and waiting for God to fix everything in judgment. While the UMC still has a powerful prophetic witness against evil and injustice in the world, it also engages culture in a meaningful way, asking how our faith informs our interactions with science, sociology, biblical scholarship or other areas, rather than insisting our faith has nothing to learn from these fields to which countless women and men devote their lives with excellence.
But while these characteristics – the UMC’s Wesleyan heritage and openness to the modern world – initially attracted me to the denomination, there was something deeper, something woven throughout the church’s very existence that resonated not only with my mind, but also with my very soul. Methodists have a very unique way of describing their experiences and relationship with God, a phrase that John Wesley often called the “way of salvation.” Unlike some other expressions of Christian faith, the Methodist expression emphasizes that one’s salvation is not completed in a moment, but over a lifetime. Methodism tells a story, God’s story, that is being written through all of history in which God invites us to participate. The story of our salvation extends far before and long after our conscious decision to enter into relationship with God. Something far bigger is going on, and that something is God!
The way of salvation is a compelling narrative that resonates with the human experience, allowing all people to acknowledge brokenness in their life, community and world and see how God’s work in the past, present and future is making all things new. No matter where you are, where you’ve been, or what you’ve experienced in your life, God invites all into restorative fellowship with God’s self, offering healing to all our brokenness and ailments, even those we didn’t realize we had. Perhaps this theology will be as compelling to you as it was to me as you think about your life and your need for a place to belong.
God’s preemptive action to reach out in love and grace lies at the heart of Wesley’s way of salvation. When God shows us grace when we do not ask for it or realize our need for it, we label it prevenient grace, or grace that precedes us. Prevenient grace is God’s gift to all people, allowing us to not only experience God’s blessings without realizing their source, but also to use our own volition to seek and find God. We need grace to find God because our brokenness and self-centeredness prevents us from finding God on our own. This idea that all humans need healing from the power of sin remains consistent with traditional Christian teachings, and is central to the Methodist way of salvation. Amidst humanity’s brokenness, God has intervened to allow all people to find new life in God.
Charles Wesley reminds us of this theme in his hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast,” where he writes:
“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind
For God hath bid all humankind.
Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.”
Though the language of “sinners” finds less common usage in our era, Wesley highlights these themes: God invites all people into relationship, and this invitation is not earned but extended freely. In a similar fashion, John Wesley calls our first encounters with God “the first dawning of grace in the soul.” This dawning for some comes as early as baptism, when even as infants, entirely dependent on others for our very life, God freely extends an invitation into the divine community and the local church even before we have any awareness of that sort of invitation. The act of baptism serves as one of the church’s two sacraments, or ways that we tangibly receive and celebrate God’s transforming grace. According to the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, a statement of core Methodist doctrine published at the onset of Methodism’s distinct presence in the United States in 1784, baptism is the first sign of “the new life” offered by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The beginning stages of Wesley’s way of salvation emphasize that God is actively seeking us, even when we cannot or do not actively seek God.
Once we accept God’s preemptive extension of grace, God pours out more in order that we can be freed from the guilt of our sin and begin living a life devoted to and restored to God. Many Christians place this moment of “conversion” at the pinnacle of one’s experience with God; once you have been “saved,” you will escape damnation and live forever with God in heaven after your death. Such an overemphasis on a single moment of salvation is absent from Methodist theology, for our experience of grace as our sins are forgiven is not the culmination of our journey with God, but the beginning. Charles Wesley describes this beginning in “How Can We Sinners Know?”:
We who in Christ believe that he for us hath died,
We all his unknown peace receive and feel his blood applied.
Our nature’s turned, our mind transformed in all its powers,
And both the witnesses are joined, the Spirit of God with ours.
For Charles Wesley, justification implies a beginning, a “turning” that makes humans right with God and sets them on the course of salvation. John Wesley articulates a similar understanding; as he reflects on the promise of God offered in 1 John 1:9, he identifies a singular moment of justification as the beginning of a salvation journey:
Now it is evident, the Apostle [John] here also speaks of a deliverance wrought in this world. For he saith not, the blood of Christ will cleanse at the hour of death…but, it “cleanseth,” at the time present, “us,” living Christians, “from all sin”…. Neither let any sinner against his own soul say, that this relates to justification only, or the cleansing us from the guilt of sin. First, because this is confounding together what the Apostle clearly distinguishes, who mentions first, to forgive us our sins, and then to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The journey with God that begins with justification allows a person’s entire life to potentially be transformed by the Holy Spirit. This lifelong process works on multiple levels. On one hand, God works to form the inner self of each person in relationship with God, cultivating right attitudes and behaviors, or personal holiness. On the other hand, Wesley extended this holiness beyond internal spirituality to how one interacts with the world. Without a meaningful social holiness, Wesley would question the authenticity of one’s salvation. This emphasis fueled the creation of general rules for gatherings of Methodists during the Wesley brothers’ time, generally categorized as avoiding evil, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God.
The reality and possibility of personal holiness is best expressed in the Wesleyan theology of total sanctification, or the possibility of having love of God and neighbor perfected in a person in this lifetime. This theology affirms the power of God’s grace over all evil in the world, including that which so directly affects our lives. Charles Wesley expresses this anticipation in the hymn, “O Come and Dwell in Me,”
Hasten the joyful day which shall my sins consume,
When all things shall be done away and all things new become.
The journey of salvation is in fact a journey, but it is also key to remember that our journey to God is not necessarily linear. Circumstances arise in our lives that threaten the bond of peace established with God in our lives, and we can far too easily wander from the way God has intended us to live. While we often depict prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace as different gifts offered on a linear journey with and to God, we actually experience the same grace in different ways depending on where we are in life. This theme emerges in one of John Wesley’s sermons on the “Means of Grace,” or, Wesley says, “the ordinary channels whereby [God] might convey to [people] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” God’s grace, accepted and entered into, restores us to God’s “[favor] and image,” by God’s “free grace…not by any power, wisdom, or strength, which is in [us], or in any other creature; but merely through the grace or power of the Holy Ghost, which worketh all in all.”
That’s really what’s at the core of this Methodist experience: God meeting us where we are and always having a place for us to go and grow. I know I’m still new to this denomination and my local congregation, but the idea that God wants to write our story into God’s story simply captivates me. No matter where you are, God has something for you: grace. I hope that grace pours out abundantly in your life today, and may God hasten the joyful day when all sin shall be done away and all new things become!
 United Methodist Hymnal (UMH) 339.
 John Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation,” in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 173-179.
 Article of Religion 17, in Ted A. Campbell, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials, Rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011), 120.
 UMH 372.
 John Wesley, “Christian Perfection,” in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 88-89.
 John and Charles Wesley, “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of the United Societies in London, Bristol, Kingswood, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, etc.” in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 95-100.
 UMH 388.
 John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” in Ted A. Campbell, ed., A Wesley Reader: Writings of John and Charles Wesley (Dallas, TX: Tuckapaw Media, 2008), 105.
 Ibid., 108-109.