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Our Wesleyan Heritage

Statue of John Wesley by Paul Raphael Montford, in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of John Wesley by Paul Raphael Montford, in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Adam Carr, Wikimedia Commons.

Distinctive Emphases

Methodism began because of John Wesley, his brother Charles, and others’ desire to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. Together they pursued “holiness of heart and life,” which Wesley described as “universal love filling the heart, and governing the life” (Advice to a People Called Methodist). The dual emphasis on both what we believe and how we live, is essential to United Methodism today.


Scripture teaches that we are incapable of achieving holiness under our own power. Instead, we receive it as a gift because of God’s great love for each and every one of us. Christians use the word grace to describe the gift of God doing for us what we cannot do on our own. Read more from The Book of Discipline.

Wesley taught that God’s grace is with each of us throughout our lives. By grace God prepares us, justifies us, and then continues grow us as followers of Jesus Christ.

Prevenient Grace prepares us

Wesley taught that God loves everyone, and invites all of us to be in right relationship with him. Because we are unable to do this on our own, God prepares our hearts and minds to accept Jesus’s invitation to follow him before we are even aware of it. As we read in the Bible, “But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

By God’s grace, we recognize our brokenness, long for something more, and learn from Christians who show us God’s love by word and example. Wesley called this prevenient grace, which simply means the grace that “comes before” we know or love God.

Justifying Grace restores us

The Bible teaches, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith” (Ephesians 2:8). This means salvation is not something we deserve or earn, but something that God has done for us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When we recognize our sinfulness (which Wesley taught happens by God’s “convicting grace”) and repent, we receive God’s forgiveness and are called to live a new life of following Jesus by loving God and our neighbors. We receive this gift out of what Wesley called God’s justifying grace, because we are “made right” with God. Our relationship is restored.

Sanctifying Grace grows us

The moment of justification is the beginning of a wonderful journey with Jesus toward holiness of heart and life. As we participate in God’s work in the world through acts of piety like worship and prayer and acts of mercy like serving others and working for justice for our neighbors, we make ourselves available to God who forms us into the likeness of Jesus.

Wesley sometimes said that God “perfects” us by his grace, but he never intended that to mean we would never make a mistake. Instead, Wesley taught that by God’s grace we would stop sinning intentionally when made perfect in both our love of God and neighbor. We do not wish to harm either of those relationships. 

This process, which we might call spiritual growth today, is not something we do. Instead, it is God who lovingly works in us and for us. Wesley called this sanctifying grace—the grace by which God makes us holy in heart and life.

Living our faith

Following this teaching, United Methodists believe our faith is demonstrated in the way we live. Jesus used the metaphor of a tree. He taught, “Every good tree produces good fruit… Therefore, you will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:15-20). The book of James similarly states, “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (James 2:17).

Wesley offered the early Methodists three General Rules to help us live out our faith. Do no harm is the first rule, followed by do good. The final rule is to attend upon “all the ordinances of God,” for which Wesley explains are things like worship, prayer, and fasting.

United Methodists today also have The General Rule of Discipleship stated in the Book of Discipline: “To witness to Jesus Christ in the world, and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (2016 ¶1117.2). We do these things as individual Christians, as congregations, and as a globally-connected denomination, not to earn something from God, but to participate in God’s ongoing work in the world, in our lives, and in the lives of others.

Nurture and Mission of the Church

Our pursuit of holiness of heart and life is something we are expected to do together. For John Wesley there was such thing as “solitary religion.” He wrote, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness.” In other words, our faith is not private. It is to be lived and shared.

Early Methodists lived into this understanding of faith by opening schools, feeding the hungry, healing those who could not afford to see a doctor, speaking out against slavery, and so much more. Today, United Methodist remain connected not only to the people in their small groups and congregations, but also to a church of millions around the world. Together we tell people about Jesus, protect people’s health, assist victims of disaster, stand up for those living on life’s margins, and watch over one another in love.

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