Grace, a Gift from God

53.6 Adventist Theology: The Wesleyan Connection

by Hubert F. Sturges, M.D.,, January 2009
Abstracted from the article by Woodrow W. Whidden, Andrews University

Seventh-day Adventists are known for their unique theology in several areas, yet at the same they have much in common with the Wesleyan/Arminian Tradition. This is particularly true in the issues of soteriology (salvation) and the closely related issues of the nature of man, law,[1] and sin, which were most directly formative for the core of Adventist theology.[2]

There was also a Wesleyan influence on Adventist theological methodology, Trinitarianism, the way Biblical authority is understood and used, and church organization.

There were similarities of belief in salvation by grace through faith alone. While this was primary, there was also an intimate connection with active participation in God's grace. Such a participating faith receives this grace in a responsible way. Thus Sanctification involves extensive character transformation and a carefully nuanced understanding of perfection.

This is in contrast to a common belief that salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone, and by the power of Christ alone. And the power of Christ alone is entirely outside of us – a legal justification. That what we do in response to His grace has no part in our salvation.

Human Nature and Sin

Adventists do not teach the Augustinian/Calvinistic understanding of original sin, taught in terms of original guilt or condemnation. Rather Adventists describe the effect of sin as "total depravity." John Wesley argued for "original sin" as original guilt; but due to the effects of "prevenient grace" this guilt was canceled and the ability to freely respond to God's redemptive initiatives ("free will") was recreated in the individual soul.[4]

Redemptive Calling and Prevenient Grace

"Prevenient grace" was one of Wesley's finely nuanced teachings. The essence of it goes like this: God comes to awaken sinners to a realization of His redemptive love and their great need caused by sin—both original and habitual. This belief has helped Wesleyans avoid the extremes of Calvinism and Pelagianism.[6] Further, sinners do not naturally seek for God, but He earnestly seeks for them to come into a redemptive relationship with Him. Such gracious seeking "creates" a proto-renewal which enables the sinner to respond to God's grace.

Pelagianism is a theological theory named after Pelagius (ad. 354 – ad. 420/440). It is the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without Divine aid. Thus, Adam's sin was "to set a bad example" for his progeny, but his actions did not have the other consequences imputed to Original Sin. Pelagianism views the role of Jesus as "setting a good example" for the rest of humanity (thus counteracting Adam's bad example). In short, humanity has full control and thus full responsibility, for its own salvation in addition to full responsibility for every sin (this latter also agreed upon by his opponents). According to Pelagian, because humanity does not require God's grace for salvation , Jesus' execution is devoid of the redemptive quality ascribed to it by orthodox Christian theology.

Comment: This heresy is well known in certain circles in Adventism today!


Pelagianism was opposed by Augustine of Hippo, who taught that a person's salvation comes solely through a free gift, the efficacious grace of God, and that no person could save himself by his works. This led to Pelagianism's condemnation as a heresy at several local synods, including the Council of Diospolis, Carthage (416, 418), and Ephesus (431). Its strict moral teachings were influential in southern Italy and Sicily, where Pelagianism was openly preached until the death of its follower Julian of Eclanum in 455.

The redemptive response of the penitent is the fruit of free grace which was "preveniently" bestowed, by the calling, convicting and converting work of the Holy Spirit. But this process always took human freedom very seriously and sought to avoid the predestinarian belief of Calvinism.[5]

Adventist theology has not usually used the term "prevenient grace," its evangelical Arminianism expresses the essence of the concept.[7]

Justification and Sanctification in Balance

Wesley's teaching on justification by grace through faith alone was clearly in the Protestant tradition. His views stoutly opposed any concept that smacked of works righteousness as the ground of acceptance. He was opposed to the Augustinian/Tridentine version of justification which understood divine acquittal and forgiveness as the fruit of an infused righteousness. In other words, in the order of salvation, justification and sanctification are two closely related facets of redeeming grace, but facets that must be clearly distinguished.[8]

While Wesley understood the priority of justification (logically, not temporally), he saw it as not just the door to sanctification, but its essential, constant accompaniment. Many in the English Evangelical Revival were claiming that since Christ covers their present actions, sins included, they need not be concerned with overcoming sin. In contrast Wesley taught that justification by faith alone must be accompanied by sanctification by grace through faith.

This is much more participatory than the teachings of Calvin[9]. For Wesley, believers "are pardoned in order to participate."[10] The thought that pardoned believers could abdicate the life of active appropriation of Christ's character through the workings of the Holy Spirit was simply anathema to Wesley.

This model of Christian experience is understood as a "way" of life. This "way" of salvation involves distinct way-stops, but each one is intimately related to what has happened at previous stops and prepares the way for future events and pauses in the march to the kingdom.

The work of God at each way stop calls for an appropriate "response" from the believer which will manifest itself in graciously "responsible" behavior—morally, spiritually, and socially. God's prevenient awakening and conviction are calls meant to elicit a "response" to God's pardon and pardon calls for "responsible" (as opposed to irresponsible) transforming participation. This "responsive" participation will result in "responsible" growth in grace that leads to fullness of transforming grace—Christian perfection.

This teaching is very similar to what one finds in Steps to Christ. Adventism, under the influence of Ellen White, has not accepted any salvation teaching which tends to denigrate either salvation by grace through faith alone or the importance of obedience and sanctification. Along with Wesley, we have sought to hold together both justification and sanctification.

Ellen White's presentations on justification and sanctification are for all practical purposes nearly identical to Wesley's. While she was more willing to use such terms as "imputation" and the "covering" of Christ's righteousness, their different understandings of justification by faith amount to nothing more than a "strife about words." Although the comparison of their thinking on sanctification and perfection calls for a more nuanced treatment than does justification, the gist of their message bore striking similarities. What were Wesley's teachings on sanctification and perfection?

Sanctification and Perfection

They saw sanctification as a dynamic experience of growth in grace. But he also taught a necessary end point or waymark which he referred to as "entire sanctification," "perfection," "Christian perfection," "perfect love," "holiness," or "fullness of faith." This waymark or state could be reached quite early in the "way", but more normally came after a lengthy walk with God—usually just before death.

The key to understanding perfection as a second, distinct work of grace, is to grasp Wesley's dualistic anthropology and his distinction between "sins proper" and "sins improper."

While the body was certainly affected by sin, the very seat of original sin was in the soul (mind?). What was understood to happen in the moment of perfection was that original sin was deemed to be eradicated. This meant that the perfected would no longer feel the promptings of inward sin and that "sins proper" would no longer be manifest.

"Sins proper" would be the freely chosen, high-handed sins of habit, presumption and rebellion. To choose to sin would cause a free-fall from grace. "Sins improper" would be more in the category of benign neglect, fruits of infirmity (forgetfulness, lack of knowledge, etc)—the blind side hits of life. While these "sins improper" still needed pardoning grace, they were not in the same culpable category as the "sins proper."

Stated more positively, the perfected were full of love, praise, joy, humility, and rich in works of charity, service and obedience. But such an experience was subject to loss if the perfected believer did not persevere in a trusting participation in God's imputed and imparted grace.[11]

Ellen White,[12] along with Wesley, emphasized sanctification as a process, not simply a single event. She tended to speak not in terms of eradicating original sin, but of gaining victory over sinful tendencies and habits.

Wesley never used the term "sinless perfection" to describe the state of the perfected. However, many understood it to be such and the door was opened to numerous bouts with fanatical perfectionism.[13] Except for Wesley’s teaching of instantaneous eradication of original sin, [14] Ellen White used most of Wesley's essential categories: a strong accenting of sanctification as process and the distinction between willful sin and the incidental sins of immaturity and infirmity.

Extensive reading into Ellen White’s understanding of salvation will show her major emphasis, both by dent of theological accent and sheer bulk of literature, was on sanctification, perfection and character transformation.

Many Adventists, influenced by Reformationists (especially Reformed/Calvinistic) are troubled by this holiness emphasis. But what they really seek to preserve is an emphasis on justification by faith alone. What they want to avoid is any tendency toward legalistic, salvation by works or the subtle inroads from Trent.

When both White and Wesley are clearly understood, all of the "faith alone" categories are present. But they are not accompanied by the antinomian concepts of irresistible election and perseverance. And the "imputed righteousness of Christ" is not used as an excuse to not keep the law. In other words, salvation is understood to be by grace through faith alone (not by works), but the nature of true salvation (in Christ) is that such a faith will never be alone. Participation in the grace of Christ will always lead to the fruits of faith—loving obedience, service, joyous witness and worship.

Wesley's Synthesis and the "Investigative Judgment"

Wesley’s articulated a concept which he called "final justification" or "final salvation."[15] This teaching played an important, formative background role for the development of the Adventist doctrine of the investigative judgment.[16]

While we cannot "merit" final salvation, or that our works are a prerequisite to God's acceptance, the truly saved person will have evidence of genuine faith as the fruits of their sanctification. Thus while sanctification is not "immediately" necessary for initial justification (only trusting faith is), it is evidentially necessary to final justification. It is the evidential fruits of participating faith that become the focus for any judgment according to works.

The implications of this understanding of "final justification" are: If one accepts that salvation can be lost, as opposed to the predominant emphasis of the Magisterial Reformers that it could not be, then the next question to be raised is: on what basis can it be lost?

Luther and Calvin, strongly influenced by Augustine, emphasized that salvation was bestowed irresistibly upon the elect. Since God irresistibly bestows this, then it is incumbent on Him to grant perseverance. The moment anything like Arminian categories of free-will are interjected, it is at this moment that the process of salvation becomes just as essential to salvation as that which transpires during the early moments—i.e. justification and imputation.

The responsible nature of grace calls for freely chosen initial acceptance and freely given constancy in on-going participation. It is the quality of this on-going participation of the responsible saints which finally legitimates the genuiness of their election. It is then logical to correlate the Biblical doctrine of a judgment according to works as the legitimate fruit and evidence of genuine saving faith. Believers are not saved by works, or faith plus works, but by a faithful participation in God's grace which works!

The great enemies of Wesley's views on final justification (those shaped by the Reformed Tradition) are the very same enemies that have stoutly opposed the Adventist doctrine of the Investigative Judgment. While all of the works of sinful humans need the merits of Jesus accounted to them, they nonetheless give witness to the genuiness of faith in the judgment. Any belief like choice, free-will, or free-grace, or a suggestion that salvation can be lost, requires at that moment an investigative judgment (pre-Advent, at the Advent, or post-Advent).

For Calvinists, such a judgment according to works becomes a perfunctory footnote to the history of salvation. For those in the Wesleyan Tradition, such a judgment reveals not only the will of God, but the evidence which justifies or vindicates the carefully weighed decisions of the judgment.

The implications are clear: the moment theologians open the door to choice and take faith participation seriously in the experience of sanctification—it is at that moment that a call for a real judgment of investigation is necessitated. Such a judgment will reveal the fateful choices that have truly determined the eternal destiny of God's professed people. No deterministic afterthoughts here!!! No salvation by good works, but the revelation of true faith which works by love and produces the evidence for acquittal.

Wesley did not teach that such an investigative judgment was Pre-Advent, but rather that it was "co-Advent"[18]. He deemed it to be a genuine judgment based on the evidence drawn from fruitful works of such who had trusted Christ's merits. In other words, their genuine, evidential works had arisen out of an experience of pardoned participation.


Wesley's carefully nuanced expositions of "responsible grace" have provided the more immediate backdrop for the Adventist soteriological developments (heavily mentored by Ellen White). Adventist attempts to hold to a balanced synthesis of law and grace, faith and works, justification and sanctification, have been clearly anticipated and broadly mentored by the teachings of Wesley and his American children. It was such categories which helped to lay the foundations for the very core of Adventist soteriology and one of its distinctive contributions to eschatology—the Pre-Advent, Investigative Judgment.


[1]. Space does not permit a treatment of the consonance of Wesley's view of law with Adventism's emphasis, but the similarities are striking. I urge a thoughtful perusal of Randy Maddox's "Excursus: Wesley on the Nature and Uses of the Law" in Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (Nashville: Kingswood Books [An Imprint of Abingdon Press], 1994), pp. 98-101.

[2]. As an introduction to Wesley's theology, the following recent works should prove helpful: Thomas C. Oden has given an excellent digest of Wesley's major primary theological documents in his John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994); Randy Maddox's Responsible Grace is the best recent survey of Wesley's theology; Maddox gives a thorough digest of Wesley (especially as his theology unfolds during the Revival) and an exhaustive interaction with Wesley's major interpreters. Both Oden and Maddox provide extensive bibliographic references to the primary and secondary literature.

[3]. For further background and documentation of this contention, see my "Adventist Soteriology: Wesleyan Connection," Wesleyan Theological Journal 30 (Spring 1995): 173-86 and Ellen White on Salvation: A Chronological Study (Hagerstown: Review and Herald Pub. Assoc., 1995), pp. 15-22.

[4]. For a more extensive treatment of Wesley on sin and prevenient grace, see Oden, pp. 149--76; 334-43 and Maddox, pp. 73--93 and 180-85.

Wesley and his early American followers certainly wanted to talk more in terms of "free grace" rather than "free will." But no matter how it was expressed," the essence of the Wesleyan understanding was something more Arminian than most of the Calvinistic, Reformed competitors in both North American and Britain could tolerate.

[5]. Wesley would have said a hearty amen to Stephen Neill's elegant description of human freedom: "The characteristic dimension of human existence is freedom. On this narrow sand-bank between existence and non-existence, between coercion and chaos, God has withdrawn his hand so far as to make a space in which we can be really, though not unconditionally, free. In Jesus we see what a free man looks like" (Christian Faith and Other Faiths: Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1984), p. 23.

[6]. Oden's comments are especially trenchant; see pp. 149-59, 175 and 176.

[7]. The classic expression can be found in Ellen White's Steps to Christ (Takoma Park, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Assoc., 1908), pp. 24-29, 32, 35, 36, 40, 49, and 54.

[8]. For a more extensive treatment of Wesley's views on justification and sanctification (including perfection), see Oden, pp. 187-212; 311-34; and Maddox, pp. 148-51; 166-91.

[9]. Calvin's understanding of sanctification is much closer to Wesley's teaching than was the emphasis given by many in the Lutheran Tradition.

[10]. Wesleyan scholarship is indebted to Albert Outler for this "pardoned to participate" terminology; see Maddox, p. 168.

[11]. In other words, perfection was remissible—it could be lost.

[12]. For a popularized study of Ellen White's understanding of justification and sanctification, see my Ellen White on Salvation, Chapters 9-17. For a more detailed study, see my "The Soteriology of Ellen G. White: The Persistent Path to Perfection, 1836-1902" (Ph.D dissertation, Drew University, 1989), especially chapters 4-6.

[13]. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 205-11.

[14]. The terminology is that of R. Newton Flew; see Hans K. LaRondelle's Perfection and Perfectionism (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1971), p. 323.

[15]. See Oden, p. 329 and Maddox, p. 171, 172.

[16]. I know of no instance where Ellen and James White, Joseph Bates, or J. N. Andrews expressed direct, conscious dependence on Wesley as a source for the development of the Investigative Judgment teaching. I am simply arguing that such a doctrine of "final justification" is the logical outworking of the whole Wesleyan thrust of "responsible grace" and the Adventist, eschatological counterpart is the Investigative Judgment.

[17]. See Oden, pp. 351 ff.

[18]. My descriptive term, not Wesley's.