“To be Wesleyan,” wrote Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, “is to be committed to a theology of love” (A Theology of Love [Beacon Hill, 1972], 101] Although John Wesley does not deviate from the Protestant reformers in insisting that salvation is by grace through faith, more than anything else his emphasis on love gives his theology its distinctive character. Love describes both the heart of God and the content and goal of salvation.
Although the Reformed tradition held that sovereignty was most central to the nature of God, Wesley argued instead that “God is often styled holy, righteous, wise but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as He is said to be love: intimating that this is…His reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all His other perfections” (Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, 1 John 4:8). For Wesley, all that God is and does is motivated and governed by love. Divine sovereignty, and even God’s judgment and wrath were not apart from but necessarily manifestations of God’s love.
But what exactly is God’s love? Kenneth Collins insightfully argues “that for Wesley divine love is holy love”; holiness and love are not equivalent but mutually qualify one another. Holiness entails separation and purity, while “love is outgoing, embracing, and inclusive.” Holiness apart from love could lead to a “dour religion” in which separation would be manifested in legalism and cultural prohibitions. Love apart from holiness “is soft, naively wishful, and likely self-indulgent.” Thus the two must be held in “an artful balance” in describing both God and the Christian life (The Theology of John Wesley [Abingdon, 2007], 8–9]
For John Wesley, God’s love is most fully revealed in the life and especially the death of Jesus Christ. Charles Wesley expresses the heart of God’s love this way:
O Love divine, what hast thou done! / The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son bore all my / sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died: / My Lord, my Love, is crucified.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, #287)
It is this that most profoundly defines the meaning of “God is love.”
Humanity was created in God’s image, that is, to love as God loves. Our fall into sin meant the loss of that image and with it our ability to love God and our neighbor. Salvation is God’s plan to restore us to that image in which we were created through renewing our hearts in love. This occurs through what God does for us in Jesus Christ and in us through the Holy Spirit.
For Wesley, the goal of salvation was not justification (or pardon) but sanctification. Sanctification begins with the new birth, wherein “we are inwardly renewed by the power of God,” experiencing “the love of God’s shed abroad in our hearts” by the Holy Spirit, producing love for God and neighbor (“The Scripture Way of Salvation,” §I.4). As we gradually grow in sanctification, we wait for entire sanctification or Christian perfection, which “means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul” (“The Scripture way of Salvation,” §1.9). It is “loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength,” implying “no wrong temper, none contrary to love, remains in the soul; and that all the thoughts, words, and actions are governed by pure love” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, §19).
But for Wesley Christian perfection was not simply a return to the image humanity bore before the fall. In “God’s Love to Fallen Man” Wesley argues that salvation through Jesus Christ enables us to be more fully in the image of God than was possible prior to the fall. Although Adam certainly knew God’s love, he did not know the depth of that love given through Jesus’ death on a cross. Because we know God’s love for us in Christ and his cross, salvation enables us to love one another even as Christ has loved us (§5).
On his deathbed John Wesley is reported to have said, “Where is my sermon on the Love of God? Take it and spread it abroad, give it to everyone.” Ten thousand copies of “God’s Love to Fallen Man” were printed and distributed (The Works of John Wesley [vol. 2; ed. A.C. Outler; Abingdon, 1985], 433). His dying wish was the same as the passion of his life, namely, that everyone might come to know God’s love for them in Christ.