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The Epistle to the Romans As Wesley’s Cure for Antinomian and Moralist Alike


(delivered at the Romans Conference, University of Toronto, May 2002)

The Epistle to the Romans As Wesley’s Cure for Antinomian and Moralist Alike

Victor Shepherd

In his Notes on the New Testament Wesley mentions, in his introduction to Romans, that when Paul is writing to churches that he has planted or visited he exemplifies a “familiarity” with them that is either “loving or sharp” depending on their deportment.[1] When he writes to congregations that he has never seen, on the other hand, he “proposes the pure, unmixed gospel in a more general manner.”[2] Plainly Wesley’s sustained exposition of the law of God, a major motif in Romans and a crucial ingredient in the gospel, pertains to the “pure, unmixed gospel.” For Wesley, then, the gospel includes the law, and Romans singularly identifies and amplifies this inclusion.

In order to grasp Wesley’s understanding of gospel and law and the manner of their relationship, however, we must look chiefly not to the Notes but to his Sermons on Several Occasions. Admittedly, Wesley’s single, sustained exposition of Romans is found in his Notes on the New Testament[3]. However the entire exposition here uses only forty-four pages, half of which merely reproduce the English text, leaving but twenty-two pages to probe the sixteen chapters of Paul’s major work. Wesley’s texts for his three major tracts on the law of God are Romans 7:12 and 3:31 : “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good”, as well as “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid! Yea, we establish the law.”[4] Wesley’s exposition of Romans 3:31 in the Sermons requires twenty-four pages of text, while his comment in the Notes is concluded in two lines. Similarly he uses nineteen pages in the Sermons to expound Romans 7:12, but only twenty-six words in the Notes.   Obviously his New Testament Notes are not a major source of his thought concerning the epistle.

Then will ransacking the Romans references throughout the Sermons yield, albeit compositely, Wesley’s convictions concerning this epistle? I submit that it won’t, for at least two reasons. While there are scores of references to Romans in the Sermons, there are only twice as many as there are references to 1st John, one of the briefest New Testament epistles. (This fact alone informs us that Romans doesn’t occupy the place in Wesley that it occupied, for instance, in the Sixteenth Century Protestant Reformers.) Secondly, despite the profusion of references to Romans, many of these references are deployed not exegetically but rather illustratively; i.e., they are adduced to illustrate or support a theological point that Wesley is making apart from the Romans text. In short, ransacking the references to Romans in the Sermons will yield not the singularity of Wesley’s approach to this epistle but rather the singularity of his theology as a whole.

Still, his insistence that the gospel is the substance of the law, together with his insistence that the law is indispensable for the Christian life; his tenacity here is generated by his understanding that two texts in particular (Romans 7:12 and 3:31) go a long way in comprehending the totality of the gospel.


The work of Martin Luther was instrumental in the spiritual awakening of both John and Charles Wesley. Faith in the saving person and work of Jesus Christ was born in Charles as he read Luther’s Commentary on Galatians (21st May 1738), and in John three days later as John heard read the preface to Luther’s Commentary on Romans. Thereupon both men repudiated and forsook the blend of moralism and mysticism they had theretofore regarded as faith. They never looked back from their new understanding and conviction; namely, that Christians are distinguished from unbelievers not by humility, for instance (John had insisted in his pre-Aldersgate sermon, “The Circumcision of the Heart”, that humility gives us “a title” us to the praise of God[5]), but by that faith which grace alone quickens and which embraces Jesus Christ, its author and object. Believers cannot take any credit for faith’s commencement or its continuation. Reflecting Calvin’s “What can a dead man do to attain life?”[6] Wesley adds, “Of yourselves cometh neither your faith nor your salvation. ‘It is the gift of God,’ the free, undeserved gift — the faith through which ye are saved, as well as the salvation which he of his own good pleasure, his mere favour, annexes thereto. That ye believe is one instance of his grace; that believing, ye are saved, another.”[7]

Initially claiming Luther as an ally, Wesley subsequently thought that the German Reformer’s understanding of the relation of law and gospel fostered a cavalier attitude to the specific, concrete obedience that gospel-quickened people are to render God. Thereafter Wesley insisted on the most delicate balance between faith alone and holy living, without thereby turning the former into a pretext for antinomianism (in this having “faith alone” cut the nerve of faith) or turning the latter into moralism (in this depriving “holy living” of the holy.)

The line here, like all the lines in both theology and discipleship, is finer than a hair and harder than diamond. Never cavilling that “the imputed righteousness of Christ” was synonymous with justification, Wesley was dubious when he heard eighteenth century Calvinists speak of sanctification as “the imputed obedience of Christ,”[8] regarding “imputed obedience” as dangerous to Christian integrity if not simply self-contradictory. At the same time he denied any claim to “inherent righteousness”, the notion that whatever righteousness believers possess in themselves, however slight, is the ground of their justification. He knew that confused Christians could correctly recognize and repudiate an outer “works righteousness” (we are deemed righteous on account of what we do) and in the same instant endorse an inner “works righteousness” wherein we are deemed righteous on account of a (so-called) godly disposition. In the “stillness controversy” that threatened the nascent Methodist movement, Moravian dissidents maintained that those who lacked assurance of faith were to gain it by remaining “still” in a deliberate inertia wherein they did nothing, attending upon neither Scripture nor sermon nor sacrament nor service. In other words, they disdained both the ordinances of God and the concrete obedience that distinguishes genuine faith (in Jesus Christ) from mere “beliefism.” Concerning these people Charles Wesley wrote, “They speak largely and well against expecting to be accepted of God for our virtuous actions; and then teach that we are to be accepted for our virtuous habits or tempers. Still the ground of acceptance is placed in ourselves…. Neither our own inward nor outward righteousness is the ground of our justification.”[9]

Wesley saw that his people had to be led to see that the law is to be affirmed not as a moral code (such notions he labelled “heathen”) but rather as an implicate of Jesus Christ and therefore of faith in Christ. Neglect of the law would entail antinomianism, and antinomianism would collapse faith. (Wesley, unlike the Calvinists around him in the Church of England, always maintained that believers could “make shipwreck of faith.”) As early as 17th November 1739 his Journal reads

I left Bristol , and on Saturday came to London . The first person I met with there was one whom I had left strong in faith and zealous of good works. But now she told me Mr. Molther had fully convinced her that she ‘never had any faith at all‘, and had advised her, till she received faith, ‘to be still, ceasing from outward works’, which she had accordingly done and did not doubt but in a short time she should find the advantage of it.

In the evening Mr. Bray also was highly commending ‘the being still before the Lord’. He likewise spoke largely of ‘the great danger that attended the doing of outward works’….”[10]


The “stillness” controversy, of course, was one aspect of a twofold problem with respect to the relation of law to faith, the two aspects of the problem belonging to “enthusiasts” and “formalists” in turn. Wesley customarily described those with a defective attitude to the gospel as “enthusiasts” who elevated their experience or opinion above Scripture, while “formalists” were those who claimed to be possessed of saving faith but possessed only a theological ideation. Antinomians clearly belonged among the enthusiasts, and moralists among the formalists. Wesley knew from the outset of the awakening that he would have to address both parties.

While Wesley continued to preach and teach with respect to the dangers of the misuse of the law, he didn’t pen a tract on the topic until 1750. From 1748 to 1750, however, he had published thirteen sermons, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.” He subsequently insisted that the aim of these thirteen was “to assert and prove every branch of gospel obedience as indispensably necessary to gospel salvation.”[11] Now he reckoned it necessary to develop an argument on the relation of law and gospel as a sequel lest the latter suggest either antinomianism to those who thought gospel and faith to eclipse the law or moralism to those who thought the law to be a code against which people measured themselves and preened themselves, aided and abetted in this by the dominant Arian Christology and semi-Pelagian soteriology of Eighteenth Century Anglicanism.

Wesley wrote the three tracts, “The Original, Nature, Properties and Use of the Law”, “The Law Established through Faith (I)”, and “The Law Established through Faith (II)” in the way Luther had written his “occasional” theology; namely, tracts produced to provide immediate assistance for people whom the gospel had brought to faith and whose discipleship was threatened by theological distortions that claimed to reflect “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) but in fact contradicted it, and contradicted it so as to imperil those whom the Wesleyan movement’s evangelism had “brought to the birth” and thereby nullify a grace-wrought testimony through ensuing disgrace. Wesley knew precisely what was at stake here: nothing less than the spiritual well-being of the Methodist converts, the public reputation of the Societies, and the future of the movement. Antinomianism would derail the movement through outer degradation; moralism would derail it as surely through inner enervation.

While Wesley would certainly have preached and taught on these matters between 1738 and 1750, there is no record that the three homilies were ever preached. He wrote the three to be printed, distributed and read.


Without thinking himself at all overstated, Luther had maintained that theologians are defined by their ability to distinguish between law and gospel.[12] Wesley begins his exposition with a statement similarly global: “Perhaps there are few subjects within the whole compass of religion so little understood as this.”[13] Immediately he highlights the nature of the misunderstanding: readers of the Romans epistle assume that the apostle’s reference to the law pertains either to the Jewish law or the old Roman law. As Gentiles they dismiss the law inasmuch as they aren’t Jewish; as moderns they dismiss it inasmuch as they aren’t ancients.

The Mosaic law “inflamed” sin, “showed” sin, but couldn’t remedy sin, and therefore bore fruit unto death as it incited believers to an obedience they couldn’t attain.[14] Believers (i.e., Christians) are wedded to the “body of Christ” (i.e., to Christ himself), and this law is expected to be fruitful unto life. Believers, wedded to Christ, are delivered from “that whole moral as well as ceremonial economy”[15], since Christ’s death has slain this economy and it subsequently has as little claim upon believers as a dead marriage-partner has upon the survivor. The result is that believers are to serve “him who died for us and rose again;”[16] i.e., believers are to serve Jesus Christ as present, living person. Implicitly he is asserting the Mosaic economy to be the Torah abstracted from the gospel, from Christ himself; explicitly he evinces his (mis)understanding when he states that the service believers render the living person of Jesus Christ “in a new spiritual dispensation” is contrasted with the “bare outward service” rendered the Mosaic economy.[17] While the Mosaic dispensation has been set aside, the law as such hasn’t been and can’t be, just because (as will be made plain later) Jesus Christ is the substance of the law. In this regard Wesley’s understanding and Calvin’s are identical.



“Moral” Law

Like the Magisterial Reformers before him, Wesley first identifies the moral law as that law which antedates Moses[18]; antedates, in fact, the creation of the terrestrial world, but not the creation as such, since the “morning stars” of the creation were angelic intelligences with a capacity to know God.[19] These angelic intelligences were created with understanding to discern truth from falsehood and goodness from evil, and “as necessary result of this, with liberty, a capacity of choosing the one and refusing the other.”[20]

Several matters call for comment here. While Wesley’s vocabulary might suggest he is adopting the moralism he eschews, it must be understood that liberty isn’t that freedom wherewith only Jesus Christ can set us free. Liberty is the pre-fallen creature’s uncoerced response to the truth and reality and goodness of God. In mentioning “liberty” Wesley wishes to emphasize that these intelligences are agents, not automatons, and neither an aspect of God nor an emanation from God. Their uncoerced affirmation of God is essential to them as creatures. Freedom, to be distinguished from liberty, will be the Christ-wrought capacity to obey Jesus Christ as believers, now redeemed and reconciled, find restored in them that imago Dei that the Fall has defaced. In the second place Wesley maintains that the end of “moral” law, for these unfallen intelligences, is knowing God. Then plainly “moral” isn’t the word he wants in his discussion of “moral law.” In the third place, moral law is that by which these creatures could serve God and therein find their service “rewardable in itself.”[21] The service of God (by means of the “moral” law) is such a delight, a fulfilment, that it is inconceivable because inherently inappropriate that “something” be granted as the law’s reward. In other words, the moral law (plainly mis-named) is that by which the living God invites creatures to know him and enjoy him. Their knowledge of God, indistinguishable from their service of God (here the force of law is retained) is inherently the reward of God. In saying that the law which gave these intelligences is “a complete model of all truth so far as was intelligible to a finite being”[22] Wesley is plainly borrowing from his coming pronouncements concerning Jesus Christ as the substance of the law.

When God created humankind he gave it the same law, inscribed on humankind’s heart as on angels’, “to the intent that it might never be far off, never hard to be understood; but always at hand, and always shining with clear light….”[23] While the law was “well-nigh” (i.e., almost) effaced in the Fall, it was never obliterated. Undeniably, then, the law of God inscribed on the heart is identical with the imago Dei in Wesley’s understanding. In the wake of the Fall the imago is defaced but never effaced, or else the sinner wouldn’t be human. For exactly the same reason Wesley maintains that the inscribed law can’t be obliterated. Law as the imago Dei is the irreducible, indefeasible humanness in which we are created, regardless of the extent to which we contradict it as fallen creatures.

Then Wesley adds that through the reconciliation which God fashioned “through the Son of his love” God “in some measure re-inscribed the law on the heart of his dark, sinful creature.”[24] “In some measure” indicates that Wesley doesn’t want to predicate of the atonement as such what the church catholic reserves for incorporation in Christ; namely, that the imago Dei is restored only as we “put on” Christ through faith, as he is “formed” in us. On the other hand, Wesley insists on a Christological determination of that work of God whereby God gives up on no one, abandons no one, but rather re-asserts his blessing and claim. The “re-inscription” of the law, effected through the atonement, is of course a work of Christ. Wesley isn’t speaking here of the person united to Christ in faith; he’s insisting, nevertheless, that in the act of God extra nos, pro nobis, but not yet in nobis, there has been re-engraved that which the Fall had well-nigh effaced. The question can always be asked, “If ‘well-nigh’ means “not entirely’, then is re-inscription necessary?” Wesley would argue, in sound theological fashion, that we ought always to argue from actuality to necessity (i.e., God’s act forestalls all speculation as to its necessity.) Re-inscription, then, is the claim of Jesus Christ specifically, the reassertion of his ownership in the reclamation of the sinner. The re-inscription effected through the atonement means that what is re-inscribed (the law) is nothing less than the claim of the Son who has come to fallen creatures as Salvager. This action of the Salvager upon all humankind entails the following:

[1] His claim, while admittedly authoritative (or else his claim is hollow), is never authoritarian, authoritarianism meaning here the assertion of a demand which is arbitrary since the demander isn’t entitled to it, and compliance with which demand is therefore coerced. Instead, because the claim is one with God’s mercy (“the Son of God’s love”) rather than extraneous to that mercy and unrelated to it, the claim is an implicate of this mercy and therefore not alien to the fallen creature.

[2] This claim pertains to the essence of humankind’s humanness. To be human is to be made by the Son for the Son, and, in the wake of the Fall, to be cherished by the Son, sought by him, and reconfirmed as the one upon whom the Son’s mercy-wrought ownership is restated.

[3] The grace that is God’s action and provision in his Son is also that grace now at work preveniently in all people everywhere, preparing them for the day when their hearing the gospel of grace resonates within them on account of the grace with which they are graced now unknowingly. In other words, while I am not aware that Wesley ever speaks formally of Jesus Christ as the substance of prevenient grace, plainly “the Son of his love” is this as he forges himself within all men and women everywhere, apart from which the explicit declaration of the gospel would be pointless. While Wesley agrees entirely with the Magisterial Reformers in their understanding of “total depravity”[25], and therefore agrees that in the wake of the Fall humankind is dead of itself coram Deo, he insists that all fallen people are beneficiaries of that re-inscription which is nothing less and nothing other than the action of the crucified upon them.

[4] A corollary of the foregoing is the truth that no human is God-forsaken. God’s act of reconciliation, the heart of which is the Son’s utter and actual forsakenness at the hands of the Father, means that for the Son’s sake no one is God-forsaken now or can be.

[5] Since only by grace can grace be discerned, and since only by grace can anyone respond to grace, then the action of the Son in the cross is an instance of a visitation of God’s grace vouchsafed to all humankind apart from which fallen people would be neither response-able nor response-ible. In a word, apart from the re-inscription of the law (the substance of which the is the atonement wrought in the Son), fallen humankind would find the gospel of grace inherently incomprehensible.

[6] Since the re-inscription of the law arises from the cross, the crown and climax of God’s work, and presupposes Incarnation and atonement, the (so-called) natural law is never merely natural but is always graced, such grace always being constitutive of humankind. This grace, it must be noted, is not an outer structure whose inner content is human achievement. Wesley bears no resemblance to Gabriel Biel and other mediaeval scholastics akin to Biel . This grace, rather, means that those who hear the gospel do not add to or bring to the proclamation of the gospel a “faith” which is their self-fashioned “contribution” (as it were.) Faith ever remains God’s gift.[26] At the same time, the gift has to be exercised; faith is always a human affirmation and activity or else it isn’t a human who responds. Here Wesley is strong where the Magisterial Reformers were weak in their insufficient recognition that faith, even as God’s gift, must ever be a human activity. Wesley’s understanding of re-inscription (i.e., tantamount to prevenient grace) means that what God wills for people (faith in Jesus Christ) God must also will in them, or else faith is a human invention; at the same time, what God wills in them God must will in them not so as to coerce them but rather so as to have them now will for themselves in a genuinely human act what he has already willed for them and in them — or else they simply haven’t responded.

The so-called natural law is thoroughly Christological.


Notwithstanding the discussion just concluded Wesley maintains that humankind’s flight from God finds God choosing a “peculiar people” (Genesis 6:12 ) “to whom he gave a more perfect knowledge of his law.”[27] What is the force of “more perfect?” Does Wesley mean here a psycho-religious intensity — i.e., Israel ‘s awareness of the law of God is extraordinarily vivid? Or does he mean not increased vividness but rather greater subtlety and specificity concerning the details of the law? He indicates that he has neither in mind in view of the fact that the Ten Commandments are but the “heads” of the law, the law being much more extensive than the heads. Moreover, these “heads” were given to Israel because the people were “slow of understanding;” i.e., they lacked familiarity with subtle details. I submit he means a deeper understanding of God’s self-sacrificing love for his people. Since it is the Son’s sacrifice that re-inscribes the law, a “more perfect” knowledge of the law must pertain to that sacrifice willed and enacted by the Godhead in concert on behalf of sinners. In virtue of God’s election Israel is made aware of God’s self-sacrificing love (albeit by anticipation of the death of the Nazarene.) Gentiles, on the other hand, who are taught the Ten Commandments, have only the “heads” of the law.

Wesley’s conclusion to his discussion in this part of his tract — “And thus it is that the law of God made known to them that know not God” — may appear to contradict the argument I have advanced. After all, if they know the law of God without knowing God, what do they know? A moral code? They know something other than a moral code, however, for “moral code” operates in the orbit of an ethic rooted in metaphysics; Wesley’s insistence that they are aware of a claim upon them operates in the orbit of the presence and power of the living God. In short, they are aware of a claim upon them without knowing precisely who has claimed them. For this reason, says Wesley, their knowing the law of God “does not suffice.”[28] Why not? He adds, “They cannot by this means comprehend the height and length and breadth thereof.”[29] Thereof? Of what? Obviously of the law. Yet the indisputable reference to Ephesians 3:18 speaks of Christ’s love for us. Wesley’s next sentence, “Plainly God alone can reveal this by his Spirit”[30] grants readers a greater glimpse of what he has in mind as he renders “this” explicit by quoting Jeremiah 31:31-33, where God promises to write the law on the hearts of his people. It can only be concluded that for Wesley the law of God written on the heart and the love of Christ are identical.

Earlier Wesley had said that knowing the law of God doesn’t suffice. It is evident now that what doesn’t suffice is that love of Christ which is pro nobis but not yet in nobis in the absence of faith. As Jesus Christ is embraced in faith the love of Christ takes root in us; as this occurs the law of God comes to be written on the heart. Plainly Jesus Christ, the gospel, and the substance of the law are the same.


The Nature of the Law

Having discussed the “original” of the law at length, and having hinted many times over at the nature of the law in its Christological substance, Wesley now discusses the nature of the law in terms that permit no other interpretation than that Christ is Torah incarnate.

The law is “an incorruptible picture of the high and holy One that inhabiteth eternity.”[31] Here, it must be noted, “picture” doesn’t mean “illustration only” in the sense that a picture of an object isn’t the object itself. The language Wesley uses throughout his discussion of the nature of the law indicates that by “picture” he means exactly what Calvin means by “mirror.” Mirror, for Calvin, is never mirror only or mirror-image only in the sense that the reflection lacks the ontic status of what is reflected. When Calvin says that Jesus Christ mirrors the Father or the Son mirrors our election, he means that Jesus Christ is our effectual election, is the electing God electing us, and this truth and reality is both operative and known to be operative in Christ alone. “Mirror” for Calvin never implies that “image” lacks substance. For Calvin the purpose of the mirror is to render substance accessible and knowable.

In the same vein “picture” for Wesley is the effectual presence of substance. This is evident when he speaks in the same paragraph of the law as “the face of God unveiled.”[32] Admittedly, in his homily on the law Wesley doesn’t link explicitly the law as the face of God unveiled with 2nd Corinthians 4:3-6 (where Jesus Christ is spoken of in this manner.) Still, in his New Testament Notes on 2nd Corinthians 4 he does, and his exegetical comments are as profound as they are subtle. In commenting on “But if our gospel also is veiled” Wesley adds parenthetically, “As well as the law of Moses”, and then goes on to say, “The gospel is clear, open and simple, except to the wilfully blind and unbelievers…[the gospel itself] has no veil upon it”[33], and by implication, neither has the law of Moses. Wesley avers that there was a veil on the face of Moses, while the law of Moses is as transparent as the gospel of Christ. Lest anyone think the foregoing comment strained Wesley underlines it in his discussion of 2nd Corinthians 4:6. Here he states that the glory of God (which shines in the face of Christ) is God’s glorious love and God’s glorious image, and the face of Christ reflects this glory “more resplendently than the face of Moses.”[34] Once again, however, “more” is predicated of the face of Christ compared to the face of Moses, but not compared to the law of Moses. In his Notes Wesley points out by way of illustration that God is not merely the author of light but is light itself[35], and this light shines in the face of Christ; i.e., God manifests himself in the face of Christ.

To recapitulate: Wesley says that the law is the face of God unveiled. Paul says Jesus Christ is this. For Wesley, Jesus Christ is plainly the substance of the law.

My interpretation of Wesley here is supported by his remark (still in the same paragraph of his homily) that the law is “God manifested to his creatures as they are able to bear it.”[36] Wesley’s unqualified assertion here must be allowed its full weight: the law isn’t a message from God or truth of God but is rather God himself disclosing himself; i.e., God is both the author and object of revelation, and all of this in such a manner as to preserve us, as Wesley once again echoes John Calvin’s ubiquitous notion that God “accommodates” himself to us finite, frail creatures lest his glorious self-disclosure annihilate us.[37] Wesley then adds with limpid simplicity, “[The law] is the heart of God disclosed to man”[38], when the heart of God, in light of the Incarnation, can only be the gospel. Temporarily puzzling, then, is Wesley’s comment, “Yea, in some sense we may apply to the law what the Apostle says of his [i.e., God’s] Son — it is the ‘streaming forth’ or the outbeaming ‘of his glory’, the express image of his person.”[39] Does “in some sense” mean that Wesley is now retracting what he has stated concerning the relationship of the law to Christ? Bewilderment vanishes, however, with Wesley’s commentary on Hebrews 1:3. Here he declares without qualification that glory is “the nature of God revealed in its brightness”[40]; i.e., the law can only be God’s nature shining compellingly. Concerning Hebrews’ “the express image of his [God’s] person” Wesley adds, “Whatever the Father is, is exhibited in the Son.”[41] Insisting in his commentary that “person” and “substance” are synonyms, Wesley states that the Son as express image of God’s person means that the Son is possessed of “the unchangeable perpetuity of divine life and power.”[42]

Clearly Wesley is predicating of the law what has been predicated of the Son. This is possible only if the Son is the substance of the law. Then what does he mean by his caution, “in some sense”? He gives no indication. In light of his understanding of the relation of law to God and to the gospel, it appears he hesitated with the same hesitation that dogged Calvin before him; viz., if gospel and law are identical in essence, wherein do they differ? Calvin resorted to such expressions as “less clear”, “more brightly”, etc.[43] Wesley reflects Calvin’s vocabulary in the speaking of the law as “these faint pictures to shadow out the deep things of God.”[44]

Still expounding the first of his three homilies on the law (Romans 7:12), Wesley circles back to 2nd Corinthians 4:3-6, referring once again to the “unveiled face” of God, albeit this time through a seemingly circuitous reference to Cicero. Cicero had said, “If virtue could assume such a shape as that we could behold her with our eyes, what wonderful love she would excite in us.”[45] Wesley immediately adds, “It is done already. The law of God is all virtues in one, in such a shape as to be beheld with open face by all those whose eyes God hath enlightened.”[46] His summary comment here is “What is the law except divine virtue and wisdom assuming a visible form?”[47] Does “virtue” take Wesley back to the moralism he seeks to avoid? It might if “virtue” were to be understood in a classical sense. The context of Wesley’s reference to Cicero , however, makes it plain that “virtue” here with respect to the law is the claim of God. And the claim of God, whose unveiled face is seen in the Son, reinterprets all such expressions as “virtue.” Additionally, lying behind the Ciceronian reference to “virtue” is Wesley’s insistence on the substantial identity of Christ and the law. His point in the reference to Cicero (virtue, once beheld, quickens love in the beholder) is amplified in his 1745 tract, A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part II. Here he speaks of God’s opening the eyes of our understanding, only to add that the immediate consequence of such “seeing” is loving God.[48] And we can’t love God, he continues, without “a tender love to the whole of human kind.”[49] The law of God, then, is “virtue” only in the sense that the law grants us understanding of the nature of God in such wise that our understanding unfailingly gives rise to love for God and neighbour. The (perhaps dubious) reference to Cicero , then, merely highlights Wesley’s insistence that to “see” the law (i.e., understand it) is invariably to love it; better, love him whose face and heart the law is. Wesley’s Christological understanding of the law contradicts any putative moralism, however dangerous it may have been for him to adduce a reference to Cicero when Eighteenth Century Anglicanism was only too ready to think of law in terms of moralism.

Wesley knows that no language is adequate to the wonder, glory and magnificence of the law, aware as he is of the “shortness, even impropriety, there is in these and all other human expressions.”[50] Still, he resorts to them just because they are the only expressions humans have. Therefore he circles around the law again, approaching it now from a different angle of vision, declaring it to be “supreme, unchangeable reason; it is unalterable rectitude; it is the everlasting fitness of all things are or ever were created.” It must be noted once more that by “unchangeable reason” and “everlasting fitness” Wesley is not departing from Christology and migrating towards moralism. As early as 1733 in The Circumcision of the Heart he deplored all attempts at “grounding religion in ‘the eternal fitness of things’, or ‘the intrinsic excellence of virtue’, and the beauty of actions flowing from it — on the reasons, as they term them, of good and evil, and the relations of beings to each other.”[51] Wesley denounces all efforts at grounding “religion” in moralism of any sort, even moralism supplemented by rationalism and aesthetics, all such moralism aiming at a righteousness other than that which believers receive through faith in Christ. It must be noted that Wesley penned even this criticism before the Aldersgate episode of 1738, after which he never failed to declare justification by faith.

If, then, the foregoing is what Wesley can’t mean by “unchanging reason” and “everlasting fitness”, what does he mean? It appears that “reason” has to be understood as “logos”, where “logos” means “word, reason, rationality, intelligibility.” The logos of God is unchangeable in that God is unchangeable. The logos of God is the outer expression of God’s “innerness”, now imprinted indelibly on creaturely actuality in its entirety. In other words, since the Son of God is the logos of God, and since the Son of God and the law of God are substantially identical, then the law of God is the logos of God now rendered Incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth.

And the “fitness of all things?” Wesley appears to have in mind here the “fitting-ness” of all things in the sense of Colossians 1:17: “In him [i.e., Christ] all things hold together.” In his commentary on this text Wesley writes, “And by him all things consist — the original expression not only implies that he sustains all things in being, but more directly, All things were and are compacted in him, into one system. He is the cement and support of the universe. And is he less than the supreme God?”[52]

In fact Wesley’s Notes on Colossians 1:15-18 predicate of Christ what his homilies on the law predicate of the law; e.g., “the glorious pre-eminence of Christ over the highest angels” means that Christ is “begotten before every creature; subsisting before all worlds, before all time, from all eternity.”[53] This is precisely how he spoke of the law in the early part of his homily.   Now in the same homily Wesley brings forward a concatenation of English expressions even as, regrettably, he doesn’t supply the Greek he has in mind. He describes the law as “a copy of the eternal mind”, “a transcript of the divine nature”, “the fairest offspring of the everlasting Father”, the brightest efflux of his eternal wisdom, and “the visible beauty of the most high.”[54]

Once again, then, while some expressions Wesley uses concerning the law might be read, at first sight, as turning obedience to Christ into moralism, “first sight” can never be “last word:” Wesley’s anti-moralistic rigour remains undiluted.

In his final comment on the nature of the law Wesley says that the angels delight in the law and marvel at it, as will “every wise believer, every well-instructed child of God upon earth.”[55] Surely angels and humans, recognizing the Christoform nature of the law, marvel at it because it is the God-authored vehicle of God himself; they delight in it because God himself is their consummate blessing. It is little wonder Wesley pronounces the law “ever blessed”[56], “ever” denying any suggesting that the law of God might be provisional only, to be honoured in one era but not in another. “Ever” suggests instead “eternal”, pertaining to the Godhead itself.


The Properties of the Law

A: Holy

Having discussed the nature of God’s law Wesley attends to its properties, first among which, following Romans 7:12 , the text of his homily, the law is holy; even “…internally and essentially holy.”[57] By “internally” Wesley intends “inherently.”[58] Since God alone is inherently holy, Wesley understands the law of God to be God himself in his inherent holiness, fostering in his people the holiness he purposes for them. When the law is “transcribed”[59] into “life” and into “the soul”, the result is the “pure, clean, unpolluted worship of God”, when by “worship” Wesley characteristically has in mind a godliness that is the sanctification of all of life.[60]

Wesley maintains that the law must be holy, otherwise “it could not be the immediate offspring, and much less the express resemblance of God, who is essential holiness.”[61] This statement is rich. Plainly the law can be holy only because it is substantially identical with the God who is essentially holy. To forfend any suggestion of subordinationism or even Arianism, Wesley maintains that the law isn’t merely the immediate offspring of God (allowing the interpretation “made not begotten”) but is rather the “express resemblance.” Again, without citing either the Scripture passage or the Greek word he has in mind, he evidently means “eikon”, identity not similarity. The law as holy is the “eikon” or image of God who is essentially holy; i.e., the law isn’t merely functionally holy, an instrument or tool that God deploys to effect holiness (of some sort) in his people. (“Of some sort” must be added, since only if the law is one with the God who is essentially holy is God-in-his-holiness forging holiness in his people by means of the law.) Since the law is essentially holy, Wesley reminds us, it is blasphemous to speak of it as sin or the cause of sin, even though the law, upon meeting sin, exposes sin.[62]


B: Just

The law is also just: “It renders all their due. It prescribes exactly what is right, precisely what ought to be done, said or thought, both with regard to the author of our being, with regard to ourselves, and with regard to every creature which he has made. It is adapted in all respects to the nature of things, of the whole universe and every individual. It is suited to all the circumstances of each, and to all their mutual relations, whether such as have exited from the beginning, or such as commenced in any following period. It is exactly agreeable to the fitness of things, whether essential or accidental. It clashes with none of these in any degree, nor is ever unconnected with them. If the word be taken in that sense, there is nothing arbitrary in the law of God: although still the whole and every part thereof is totally dependent on his will, so that ‘Thy will be done’ is the supreme universal law in earth and heaven.”[63]

Many aspects of this extended passage invite comment.

[a] God’s law is equated with God’s will, and God’s will is God himself in the act of willing.[64]

[b] God’s law is his intention for every aspect of the creation.

[c] The law pertains to the creature as created or the creature as found, to the creature as intended or the creature as instantiated, in the wake of the distortions of the Fall and the complexities of world-occurrence.

[d] The law befits “exactly” all things, whether essential or accidental; i.e., the law of God comprehends the totality of the creaturely order: original, fallen, essential, accidental. There is nothing, no one, no situation, development or circumstance that is law-exempt. The ground of this, of course, is that there is nothing that hasn’t been made through the Son for the Son.

[e] The law cannot clash with “any of these” for the same reason that it cannot be unconnected with them: the “connection” and the “fit” are rooted in the fact that the law, characterized by God’s essence, cannot be the contradiction of anything that has been made but can only be its “whence,” its “whither,” its fulfillment, its blessing.

[f] There is nothing arbitrary in the law of God. (i) There couldn’t be, since the law is the “transcript” or “efflux” of God. (ii) No one can repudiate the law on the ground that the law is arbitrary and therein a surd element whose imposition on humankind renders human existence ultimately absurd. If the law were arbitrary it would never subserve the human good but would at best be “unconnected” with that good and at worst contradict it.

Wesley underlines once more that all things, together with their “essential relations to each other”, are the work of God’s hands; and for this reason there arises the “fitness” of all things. The law as “the immutable rule of right and wrong” depends on this “fitness.”[65] All of this — the nature of all that exists, its interconnectedness or “fitted-ness”, occurs through the will of God, by which they “‘are and were created.'”[66] With this last statement Wesley has adduced Revelation 4:11. While he doesn’t amplify the Scriptural text, he plainly has it in mind. Revelation 4:11 states that by God’s will there has been created all that exists. The immediate context of the passage informs us that the seer looks into heaven and sees the throne and the exalted Lord Jesus seated upon the throne. Lightning, voices and peals of thunder issue from the throne — a reminder of Sinai, and an especially pointed reminder that the throne of God is essentially related to the promulgation of the law at Sinai, even as the Trisagion of the worshipper recognizes in God the holiness that characterizes God, throne and law. [67] And of course Revelation 11:15 insists that the one seated on the throne is none other than Christ, for to him there has passed sovereignty over the world.   The antinomians, then, are without excuse: the law can no more cease to be good than can God. In the same way, antinomians who claim to have embraced Christ yet disdain the law have embraced only a chimera.

If the antinomians are self-contradicted, what about the moralists? Wesley immediately adds, “…it may be granted…that in every particular case God wills this or this (suppose that men should honour their parents) because it is right, agreeable to the fitness of things, to the relation wherein they stand.”[68] In other words, the law of God comprehends all of creaturely existence in its multidimensionality and its interconnectedness. Obviously the law can’t be a moral code, notwithstanding the reference to the Fifth Commandment, since no code comprehends what Wesley says the law comprehends. The law comprehends what it does in that the substance of the law is Christ, through whom and for whom all things have been made and in whom all things hold together or “fit.”

C: Good

Not only is the law holy and just, it is also good, and good in that it flows from the goodness of God, which goodness inclined God “to impart that divine copy of himself to the holy angels.”[69] Here Wesley reinforces his point against the antinomians, that the law is good because a “copy” of God, only to strengthen the case for the law by adding that God’s motive in supplying the law was his “tender love” in manifesting his will “afresh to fallen man.”[70] In fact, Wesley insists, love alone moved God to publish the law in the wake of the Fall, to send prophets to declare the self-same law to the sin-hardened, and finally to send the only-begotten Son to “confirm every jot and tittle” of the law with a view to writing it in the hearts of all his children; and all of this with the eschatological result that the Son can deliver his “mediatorial function” to the Father.[71] Plainly Wesley sees the promulgation of the law comprehended in the one-and-only Mediator himself; i.e., the law is the Mediator claiming those whom he has visited and acted for in light of his “tender love.”   Not surprisingly, then, Wesley climaxes the accolades he heaps upon the law (e.g., “sweeter than honey in the honeycomb”) with “mild and kind” and “wherein are hid all the treasures of divine knowledge and love.”[72] “Mild and kind” points unambiguously to Matthew 11:29-30 where Jesus insists that his yoke (a common metaphor for the Torah in the Old Testament) is “easy” and “light” just because he himself is gentle. The second reference is Colossians 2:3, a passage in which Paul refers to Christ alone. For Wesley, then, “law” and “Jesus Christ” imply each other.

The enthusiast-antinomians think they can be the beneficiaries of Christ while disdaining the law. The formalist-moralists, on the other hand, think they can benefit from the law while disdaining Christ. Both are wrong, and wrong not because the antinomians lack morals while the moralists lack religion. Morals added to antinominans and religion added to moralists would still leave both sunk alike in unbelief and condemnation. Both groups fail to understand that the law is good in itself because it is God-authored and Son (substance)-informed, and that it effects good (i.e., godliness) in those who honour it. Failing here, they fail to understand that a fruit of the law in believers is that righteousness of which Isaiah 32:17 (“And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever” RSV) speaks. Their ignorance is only highlighted when Wesley, eschewing both antinomianism and moralism, maintains that righteousness isn’t merely an effect of the law (this might lend itself to a moralistic misinterpretation); rather, “the law itself is righteousness”, even as he glories in the truth that Christ alone is ever our righteousness.[73]



Many New Testament exegetes have maintained that “Christ our righteousness” is the central theme of Romans, while others have insisted chapters 9-11 are the pivot of the epistle, and with it the relation of Torah to Jesus Christ. Wesley would spend little time adjudicating this issue. For in the introduction to Romans found in his New Testament Notes Wesley maintains that in the Romans epistle in particular Paul “labours…to produce in those to whom he writes a deep sense of the excellency of the gospel, and [labours] to engage them to act suitably to it.”[74] Wesley’s exposition of the constellation of gospel, law, Christ, righteousness, faith; his exposition in the Sermons supports what he insists in the Notes is Paul’s intention in Romans; viz., a magnification of the beauty, attractiveness, winsomeness of the gospel, and therein of believers’ self-abandonment to its claim upon them, which of course is nothing other than their self-abandonment to the one who is their life, their comfort, and their eternal blessing.


[1]Wesley, Notes on the New Testament (Wakefield, William Nicholson and Sons, 1872); p. 355. (Hereafter cited as NT Notes.)

[2] op.cit

[3] loc.cit.

[4] Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition): Nashville , Abingdon, 1984. Volume 2, pp. 4,20.23. Hereinafter cited as WJW 2:4,20,23

[5] WJW 1:409

[6] Calvin, Commentary John 11:26

[7] WJW 1:126.

[8] see Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, Abingdon, 1994) chapt. 7.

[9] Charles Wesley, “Preface” to Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739.     Quoted in Tyson, J.; Charles Wesley: A Reader; Oxford , Oxford University Press, 1989.

[10] WJW 19:119.

[11] Letter, Nov. 17, 1759 (emphasis his). WJW 1:466

[12] see Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to his Thought (London, Collins, 1994) 111.

[13] WJW 2:4

[14] Wesley’s understanding of the logic of Torah is now recognized as highly questionable.

[15] WJW 2:5

[16] ibid.

[17] ibid. Wesley failed to see that the Torah never enjoins “bare outward service.”

[18] J.T. McNeill, “Natural Law in the Teaching of the Reformers”, Journal of Religion, #26 (1946), 168-82.

[19] WJW 2:6

[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] WJW 2:6.

[23] WJW 2:7.

[24] ibid.

[25] WJW 1:118.

[26] WJW 1:126.

[27] WJW 2:7.

[28] WJW 2:8.

[29] ibid.

[30] ibid.

[31] WJW 2:9.

[32] ibid.

[33] NT Notes, 2nd Cor. 4:3-6.

[34] ibid.

[35] ibid.

[36] WJW 2:9.

[37] see Battles, F.L., “God was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity” in Interpreting John Calvin (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1996.)

[38] WJW 2:9.

[39] ibid.

[40] NT Notes Hebrews 1:3

[41] ibid.

[42] ibid.

[43] See Shepherd, Victor A.; The Nature and Function of Faith in the Theology of John Calvin, pp. 129-178. (Mercer University Press, Macon, 1983.)

[44] WJW 2:10.

[45] WJW 2:9.

[46] ibid.

[47] ibid.

[48] WJW 11:269.

[49] ibid.

[50] WJW 2:10.

[51] WJW 1:410 (emphasis his.)

[52] NT Notes Colossians 1:17.

[53] op.cit., Colossians 1:15.

[54] WJW 2:10. Note here the similarity with respect to the reference in Cicero , where Wesley discussed the force of “beauty” and “visible.”

[55] WJW 2:10.

[56] ibid. (emphasis mine.)

[57] WJW 2:11

[58] See footnote # 30, WJW 2:11 where the editor comments on this meaning throughout all the editions of this homily in Wesley’s lifetime.

[59] See above where Wesley speaks of the law as “transcript.”

[60] WJW 2:11.

[61] ibid.

[62] ibid.

[63] WJW 2:12 (emphasis his.)

[64] “The will of God is God himself.”     WJW 2:13.

[65] WJW 2:13.

[66] ibid.

[67] See G.B. Caird, The Revelation of St John the Divine (A. and C. Black Limited, London, 1966.)

[68] WJW 2:13.

[69] ibid.

[70] ibid.

[71] WJW 2:14.

[72] ibid.

[73] WJW 2:14.

[74] NT Notes, 355.