Comparisons and Contrasts Between Confessional Wesleyan Methodism and Dispensational Baptistic Doctrine

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In 1709, a Church of England parsonage housing a minister and his family caught fire. As the flames raged, members of the family gazed up into the second-story window where five-year-old John Wesley stood; he was the only one remaining in the building. Moments later, the roof collapsed, but in God’s providence, the young Wesley boy made it out alive just prior to what very well could have been his death. He indeed was “a brand plucked out of the fire,” as stated by John’s mother, Susannah.[1] History later tells of how God would greatly use this young man to ignite a fire of evangelism in two continents, to play a significant role in the First Great Awakening, and to influence one of the most successful denominations in church history. This research will attempt to analyze the Wesleyan Methodism movement in its history and theological writings with the goal of understanding the similarities and differences with Dispensational Baptistic doctrine. Such an objective should be seen as applicable for not only a survey of the past, but also for a re-evaluation of the present.

Historical Considerations of Wesleyan Methodists[2]

Wesleyan Methodism is a movement that leads back to an identifiable person, whereas Baptists have no such founder, and thus can be more difficult to trace. The man behind the movement, John Wesley, came from the Anglican tradition of Christianity and sought to reform it from the inside rather than secede.[3] In fact, Wesley remained an Anglican his entire life.[4] Nevertheless, the vastly influential denominations and churches related to “Methodism” owe their origins to none other than John Wesley. A graduate of Oxford University and being one who was fond of theological writings such as Thomas å Kempis’s Imitation of Christ and William Law’s Christian Perfection, Wesley saw the need for holiness, yet ironically was not born again until a later time.[5] He and his brother, Charles, would gather a group of friends at Oxford for regular meetings of prayer and Bible reading, while each committed himself to several acts of piety such as daily personal devotions, partaking of the Lord’s Supper weekly, submitting to a high standard of moral conduct, having deep theological study and discussions among themselves, and other acts of religious duty.[6] Eventually this group of young people was criticized by other undergraduates, and thus labeled with names such as the “Holy Club,” though in time the name “Methodists” (due to the methodical structure of their meetings) became much more stable.[7] Although the name, “Methodists,” was given to this group, further history is still needed to be explored as the Oxford “Methodists” were not entirely the same as the later Wesleyan and Methodist churches.[8]

In 1769, just two years before his death, Wesley sent two volunteer ministers to North America to continue on the Methodist work, namely, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor.[9] Just before Wesley’s death, one other quite notable Methodist figure left for American ministry, Francis Asbury, a man who cultivated Methodism during the American Revolution and until his death in 1816.[10] It was during his life and ministry that the Methodist Episcopal Church was founded, specifically in December 1784 at the “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore, Maryland.[11] After several years of conflicts and even divisions among churches through the civil war era, the nineteenth century became another important time in Methodist history. In the middle part of the 1800s, the “Holiness Movement” broke out in the United States, led mostly by Methodist churches that felt that John Wesley’s teachings on Christian perfectionism had been weakened.[12] Subsequently, through the multiple resurgences of revival meetings, published literature, local churches, and other means of promoting the movement, certain denominations had even emerged such as the Church of God (1881) and the Church of the Nazarene (1908).[13] Thus, while the 1800s was certainly a time of increasing impact, plenty of developments had also taken place.

During the twentieth century, there was a significant amount of activity regarding Wesleyan Methodism’s impact on church history with the various changes and accomplishments, yet for sake of brevity a few of the most important matters will be analyzed. With the “Holiness Movement” producing the Church of the Nazarene in the early part of the new century, an interesting denomination was born out of a split from the Nazarenes in 1922, namely, the Pilgrim Holiness Church.[14] This particular institution is notable due to a development in 1968, when it officially merged with the Wesleyan Methodist Church to form the well-known denomination aptly titled, “The Wesleyan Church.”[15] This branch of churches is, of course, not the only group that would claim to have their heritage traced to John Wesley, for in the very same century, the United Methodist Church was birthed. The “prototype” of the United Methodist Church first came during the merging of the “Methodist Protestant Church,” the “Methodist Episcopal Church,” and the “Methodist Episcopal Church, South” to form the “Methodist Church.”[16] Finally, in 1978, this thriving denomination merged with the “Evangelical United Brethren Church” to shape what is known today as the “United Methodist Church.”[17] Thus, while there are many other prominent denominations and connections of churches that would claim to hold true to John Wesley’s theology, The Wesleyan Church and the United Methodist Church are two of the most well-known and have contributed much to the heritage of Christianity.

Theological Considerations of Wesleyan Methodists

The aim for this section is to get back to John Wesley’s theological beliefs, but to also be considerate of the Confessional documents within Wesleyanism. Ben Witherington III helpfully lays out one problem in surveying the history of Wesleyan theology:

The problem has not been primarily with Wesley [whom Witherington calls “a scholar of the same caliber as John Calvin”] or his immediate theological successor Richard Watson. The problem has been with their successors, very few of whom were experts in the Bible and many of whom cut their theological teeth on non-Wesleyan teething rings, for example, on German idealism (which led to the school of Boston personalism).[18]

Still, sufficient effort will be made to come as close as possible to both the theology of John and Wesley and Confessional Wesleyanism.

On the fundamental doctrines of historic, Orthodox Christianity, John Wesley, the Wesleyan Church, and the United Methodist Church are in common association.[19] Concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, John Wesley gave an entire sermon just on this doctrine, stating in one place “that God is Three and One,”[20] the very first article of the United Methodist Church’s doctrinal statement is “Of Faith in the Holy Trinity,”[21] and finally, The Wesleyan Church’s “Constitution of the North American General Conference” is in complete unison, maintaining a Trinitarian belief.[22]

On the doctrine of Scripture, it would seem most likely that all three would agree on the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, but the difficulty lies in the fact that John Wesley lived prior to the rise of theological liberalism. Wesley’s notes on Second Timothy 3:16 place confidence in the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures:

The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer. Hence it is so profitable for doctrine, for instruction of the ignorant, for the reproof or conviction of them that are in error or sin, for the correction or amendment of whatever is amiss, and for instructing or training up the children of God in all righteousness.[23]

The United Methodist Church’s “Article V” speaks of the great sufficiency of the Bible, though in its historical context (taken from Methodism’s Discipline of 1808) there was not a mention of the word “inerrancy.”[24] With the Wesleyan Church, their relatively recent doctrinal statement includes the words “inspired” and “inerrant” for the sixty-six canonical books.[25]

Regarding the next two major doctrines, sin and the atonement, once again all three are in comfortable agreement. John Wesley never wavered in his teachings on the reality and power of sin, stating, “he [Christ] hath power on earth ‘to save his people from their sins;’ and that his blood ‘cleanses from all sin,’ from the guilt and defilement both of original and actual corruption.”[26] Methodists would concur with “Article VII” from the 1808 Discipline, which speaks on humans as being sinners by nature and choice, contrary to Pelagius or semi-Pelagianism.[27] And finally, The Wesleyan Church is likewise precise in their hamartiology, speaking of “original sin” and sin by “personal choice.”[28] Now, concerning the atonement, John Wesley[29], the United Methodist Church,[30] and The Wesleyan Church[31] would consider Christ’s death as the basis for the efficacy of salvation in those who believe on Him as Savior. Clearly, Wesleyan theology in the many streams of influence would, for the most part, remain accountable to the forerunner of the movement, John Wesley.

While there are still a few more major doctrines that could be considered, suffice it to say that Wesley himself, the United Methodist Church, and The Wesleyan Church have held to what is the standard Orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Therefore, it will be beneficial to bring into account some of the distinctive doctrines found in the tradition of John Wesley and his followers. The first significant contribution to Christian theology is the Wesleyan view of “sanctification.” The Wesleyan Church’s statement on the matter is both clear and congruent with historic Wesleyan teaching which states:

Sanctification is initiated at the moment of justification and regeneration. From that moment there is a gradual or progressive sanctification as the believer walks with God and daily grows in grace and in a more perfect obedience to God. This prepares for the crisis of entire sanctification which is wrought instantaneously when believers present themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, through faith in Jesus Christ, being effected by the baptism with the Holy Spirit who cleanses the heart from all inbred sin.[32]

It is arguable that this aspect of sanctification has been one of the most influential doctrines from the Wesleyan tradition, as such a view was also a major part of the “Holiness Movement” in the 1800s and the charismatic movement, which included the arrival of Pentecostalism in the century afterwards.

If it was not for the vast influence of John Wesley’s followers in North America, it is quite possible that the Calvinism and Arminianism debate could have seen a lopsided push towards a Calvinistic soteriology, though a supposition as this is undoubtedly unknowable. But nevertheless, Wesleyanism’s somewhat distinctive influence on Christian doctrine, especially in the United States, was via the propagation of Arminian theology. Concerning the doctrine of election, Wesley believed in two types, one being conditional and another unconditional. The latter he saw as “a divine appointment of some particular men to do some particular work in the world. And this election I believe to be not only personal, but absolute and unconditional. Thus Cyrus was elected to rebuild the temple and St. Paul, with the twelve, to preach the gospel.”[33] However, Wesley saw the second type of election, which is soteriological, as “a divine appointment of some men to eternal happiness. But [he] believe[d] this election to be conditional, as well as the reprobation opposite to it.”[34] Furthermore, Wesley and historic Wesleyan doctrine is distinguishable from semi-Pelagianism and Pelagianism since Wesleyanism affirms the doctrine of “prevenient grace.”[35] A great amount more could be examined concerning the distinctives of Wesleyan theology, but it has hopefully been made clear that Wesleyanism, in both past and present forms, is in line with the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, yet unique in its contributions to historical theology and ecclesiastical movements.

Theological Similarities and Differences Between Wesleyan Methodists and Dispensational Baptists

Both Wesleyan Methodists and Dispensational Baptists would courageously affirm all fundamental doctrines relative to Orthodoxy such as Trinitarianism, belief in the authority of God’s Word, men are sinners by nature and choice, Christ has vicariously atoned for sin, He literally resurrected, justification is by faith alone, and faith in Christ’s literal second coming.[36] Aside from those who have doctrinally dissented from confessional Wesleyan Methodism or Baptist theology, both denominations would not only adhere to the same fundamental doctrines, but also other significant (but not necessarily “fundamental” and required for salvation) doctrines. For example, both would consider the Lord’s Supper and Baptism the two sacraments/ordinances for the Church to follow but with differences lying in mode and precise meaning.[37] Furthermore, several non-fundamental doctrines would include certain streams within Baptist to be able to align with Wesleyanism, but not of “Baptist” theology as a whole. On the subject of soteriology, most Wesleyans/Methodists would reject the Calvinistic viewpoints of “unconditional election” and “irresistible/efficacious grace,” and instead hold to a “conditional election” view while affirming, “humans are very far gone from original righteousness, and by nature are continually inclined to evil. They cannot of themselves even call upon God or exercise faith for salvation. But through Jesus Christ the prevenient grace of God makes possible what humans in self effort cannot do. It is bestowed freely upon all, enabling all who will to turn and be saved.”[38] This is the traditional “Arminian” view of soteriology, and it would mirror the theology of the “General Baptists” as opposed to the Calvinistic, “Particular Baptists.”[39] Thus, it is quite clear that both Wesleyans and Baptists find themselves in disagreement not only against the opposing denomination, but within each denomination as well, making the job of pinpointing similarities and differences a little more complex.

There is, however, one very noticeable difference between Wesleyan Methodists and Dispensational Baptists: “Entire Sanctification/Christian Perfectionism.” Most Dispensational Baptists would agree with this statement from The Wesleyan Church: “Sanctification is initiated at the moment of justification and regeneration. From that moment there is a gradual or progressive sanctification as the believer walks with God and daily grows in grace and in a more perfect obedience to God.”[40] Where the two denominations diverge is in the sentence that follows:

This prepares for the crisis of entire sanctification which is wrought instantaneously when believers present themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, through faith in Jesus Christ, being effected by the baptism with the Holy Spirit who cleanses the heart from all inbred sin. The crisis of entire sanctification perfects the believer in love and empowers that person for effective service.[41]

Most, if not all, Baptist confessions do not include this “crisis” experience of sanctification, such as the New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1833 which states:

We believe that Sanctification is the process by which, according to the will of God, we are made partakers of his holiness; that it is a progressive work; that it is begun in regeneration; and that it is carried on in the hearts of believers by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Sealer and Comforter, in the continual use of the appointed means—especially the Word of God, self-examination, self-denial, watchfulness, and prayer.[42]

While it is possible that certain Baptists could also affirm the “Entire Sanctification” view of Wesley, according to confessional Baptist theology, this is not a tenable position. Other issues could certainly be selected for critical examination of differences, especially in the area of eschatology, but for the most part it has been identifiable enough that Baptists and Wesleyans differ the mainly in ecclesiology and in views on personal sanctification.[43]

Conclusion

            John Wesley, the young man who was “a brand plucked out of the fire” undoubtedly left a mark on the history of the Church that can never be removed. Some may deviate from confessional Wesleyanism, just as some may wander away from what is truly Dispensational Baptistic theology, but the two have unmistakable statements of faith that, while different in multiple ways, are unambiguous professions of the Gospel of Christ. Therefore, in the present time both Wesleyans and Baptists have the great responsibility of not simply carrying their respective theological distinctives, but also retaining what the Apostle Paul labels the doctrine of “first importance,” that is, the very Gospel itself (First Corinthians 15:3).


[1] See Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012), 15, for biographical information mentioned in this paragraph.

[2] In using the phrase “Wesleyan Methodists,” it is a reference to the general influence of John Wesley’s theology and the churches that identify themselves with Wesley, whether they be denominated with the term “Methodist,” “Wesleyan,” or another similar title. Also, it would be beneficial to insert at this time that much more information will be considered from Wesleyan theology as compared to Baptist theology since the audience in mind is primarily for Dispensational Baptists who would benefit from looking outside of their theological circles to gain insight from the Wesleyan heritage of Christianity.

[3] Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, 17-18.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rupert E. Davies, Methodism (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1963), 48-49. From observing biographical history of John Wesley, the date of his conversion was most likely on May 24, 1738, at a small group meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. See Black and Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, 16-17.

[6] Davies, Methodism, 50.

[7] Black and Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, 16.

[8] See Davies, Methodism, 50.

[9] Black and Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, 19.

[10] Armstrong, Chris R., and John H Wigger. 2009. “Indelible marker: Methodist Francis Asbury left his fingerprints all over American Christianity.” Christianity Today 53, no. 12: 65. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 22, 2013).

[11] Black and Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, 20. It is also helpful to note that John Wesley was not very comfortable with the title, “bishop,” due to poor experiences with the Church of England’s clergy. In less than a century later, the authority of bishops would become a major topic within Methodism when the “Wesleyan Methodist Connection” would split away from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the view of slavery. See Ibid., 23-45.

[12] F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 779.

[13] Cross and Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, 779.

[14] Black and Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church, 139-140.

[15] The Wesleyan Church, “Our History,” www.wesleyan.org/history (accessed on June 23, 2013).

[16] The United Methodist Church, “World War and More Change, 1914-1939,” http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5399351&ct=6470783&notoc=1 (accessed June 23, 2013). It is also quite intriguing to note that at this time in history, the Methodist Church had a substantial 7.7 million members.

[17] Jack M. Tuell, The Organization of the United Methodist Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1970), 19.

[18] Ben Witherington III, The Problem With Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical  Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2005), 172.

[19] To be somewhat brief, simply the three listed will be analyzed for study: John Wesley, the Wesleyan Church, and the United Methodist Church.

[20] John Wesley, “Sermon 55 – On the Trinity,” www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-55-On-the-Trinity (accessed June 24, 2013).

[21] The United Methodist Church, “Our Doctrinal Standards,” www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.4846073/k.6B5F/Our_Doctrinal_Standards.htm (accessed June 24, 2013).

[22] The Wesleyan Church, “Our Beliefs,” http://www.wesleyan.org/beliefs (accessed June 24, 2013).

[23] John Wesley, “Wesley’s Notes on the Bible,” www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.xvii.iv.html (accessed June 24, 2013). His words, “continually inspires,” probably could have been better worded if indeed he was speaking of the doctrine of illumination or of the generic idea of something being stimulating. “Inspiration” means “God-breathed.”

[24] The United Methodist Church, “Our Doctrinal Standards,” www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.4846073/k.6B5F/Our_Doctrinal_Standards.htm (accessed June 24, 2013).

[25] The Wesleyan Church, “Our Beliefs,” http://www.wesleyan.org/beliefs (accessed June 24, 2013).

[26] Quoted in Thomas A. Langford, Wesleyan Theology: A Sourcebook (Durham, NC: The Labyrinth Press, 1984), 26. As it will be discussed in the following pages, Wesley had a view of “entire sanctification” that dealt with the present power of sin in the believer’s life, and being much different from a Dispensational, Baptistic view of sanctification.

[27] Quoted in Dennis Bratcher, ed., “The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion,” http://www.crivoice.org/creed25.html (accessed June 24, 2013).

[28] The Wesleyan Church, “Our Beliefs,” http://www.wesleyan.org/beliefs (accessed June 24, 2013).

[29] Thomas A. Langford, Wesleyan Theology: A Sourcebook, 6.

[30] Bratcher, “The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion,” http://www.crivoice.org/creed25.html (accessed June 24, 2013). However, as Witherington III mentioned above, there have been distortions of Wesley’s theology. Daniel M. Bell Jr., and ordained UMC elder, spoke against the vicarious atonement view in 2009 in The Christian Century. See Riley B. Case, “COMMENTARY: Does God Require Blood?,” http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=5100 (accessed June 25, 2013).

[31] The Wesleyan Church, “Our Beliefs,” http://www.wesleyan.org/beliefs (accessed June 24, 2013).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 469-470.

[34] Ibid., 470. This “election” was based on “foreknowledge” in the sense of foreknowing who would be saved.

[35] See Leo G. Cox, “Prevenient Grace – A Wesleyan View,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 12:3 (Summer 1969).

[36] A defense for the Orthodoxy of Wesleyan theology has already been made previously, whereas Baptist theology would correlate with the same foundational adherence to such doctrines from confessional documents like the “London Confession of Faith” (1689), the “Philadelphia Confession of Faith” (1742), and the “New Hampshire Confession of Faith” (1833). See George J. Carlson, “Baptists and Confessions,” Central Bible Quarterly, 3:1 (Spring 1960), 22-23.

[37] See for example, Gregg Allison, Historical Theology, 490, and his discussion on John Wesley’s view of “baptismal regeneration.” On the one hand Wesley said, “By water…we are regenerated or born again” upon infant baptism, but on the other hand, Allison also commented by saying that, according to Wesley, “each and every infant eventually grows up to commit personal sin and reject the grace of God. As a result, they lose the eternal life given to them at baptism. This desperate situation calls for them to be born again through an adult conversion to Jesus Christ.” Baptists, however, are “credobaptists” and take no part in infant baptism.

[38] The Wesleyan Church, “Our Beliefs,” http://www.wesleyan.org/beliefs (accessed June 24, 2013).

[39] See H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage (Knoxville, TN: Broadman Press, 1987), 21-22.

[40] The Wesleyan Church, “Our Beliefs,” http://www.wesleyan.org/beliefs (accessed June 24, 2013).

[41] Ibid.

[42] Quoted in Phillip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom: Volume 3, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977).

[43] Dispensational Baptists hold to a Pre-Tribulational, Premillennial view of eschatology while John Wesley was rather ambiguous to the degree that Kenneth Brown, “John Wesley – Post or Premillenialist?,” Methodist History 28:1 (October 1989), 41, once stated, “Was he premillennial or postmillennial? The answer lies with the interpreter.” If anything, Wesley was not as detailed as modern-day Dispensational Baptists.

4 thoughts on “Comparisons and Contrasts Between Confessional Wesleyan Methodism and Dispensational Baptistic Doctrine

  1. Good paper John! I appreciated the delineations you made in your writing. For example, you correctly asserted that adherence to those fundamentals is true of historic, confessional Methodists. Unfortunately, the United Methodist Church today is quite a mixed bag of theology, with many in the far left of theological liberalism, but with some still holding to more “traditional” Methodist theology.

    As a side note, I did a paper on 18th century Moravians – focusing on what influenced them and how they, in turn, influenced other groups. The latter part was largely on how they influenced John Wesley, which is one of my favorite stories from later Church History.

    • Thank you, Greg! This was such a fascinating topic to cover, I learned a lot from it. This was a Graduate School paper, and so I was actually instructed to study the “confessional” theology rather than modern-day deviations (which happens in both Methodists and Baptists), so the genius of looking back to the original sources wasn’t quite my idea 🙂 Regarding the Moravians, that’s a massively important study I’m sure, they influenced so many streams in Christianity. It’s too bad that the study of Moravians is kind of hidden topic in church history, the world would probably look a lot different without a converted John Wesley.

  2. Prof Drury, Could you please help me I am a student in South Africa and would like to know the difference between Atonement, Reconciliation, Propitiation and expiation. The Wesleyan view. I find the different views especially holiness people quite confusing (although I am Wesleyan) especially the view of Dunning and Wynkoop. Thank you Nardus

    • Thank you for reading the post, Nardus! Just for clarification though, my name is John Wiley (author of the blog) and I was simply quoting Professor Drury at times in the article. While I’m not a Wesleyan by conviction, I would redirect your inquiry to this website: http://www.wesleyan.org/979/articles-of-religion. While it may not answer everything you’re looking for, I think it would be a good start. Keep in mind too, my research was on “Confessional” Wesleyan Methodism, so I tried to be faithful to confessional documents rather than simply a general consensus of modern-day Wesleyanism. I would also recommend looking up the writings of John Wesley, particularly the passages that speak to these doctrines most directly: http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/wesleys-explanatory-notes/. Hope that helps!

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