DID JOHN WESLEY TEACH OR DENY
THE IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST?
A Study Compiled by Jesse Morrell
There has been confusion over whether or not John Wesley actually taught the doctrine of the Imputed Righteousness of Christ. Some allege that he did teach this and others that he did not. I have had discussions with people on My Facebook about this issue and have researched it thoroughly.
Here are some quotes that shed light on this issue:
“We do not find it expressly affirmed in Scripture, that God imputes the righteousness of Christ to any…” John Wesley “The Works of the Rev. John Wesley” page 350, published by J & J Harper in 1826
“The Righteousness of Christ is an expression which I do not find in the Bible…. The righteousness of God is an expression which I do find there. I believe this means, first, The Mercy of God… I believe this expression means, secondly, God’s method of justifying sinners…” “The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley,” Volume Two, page 450, Thoughts on the Imputed Righteousness of Christ, published by J & J Harper in 1828
Regarding the phrase, “The imputed righteousness of Christ” Wesley said,
“I cannot find it in the Bible. If any one can, he has better eyes than I: and I wish he would show me where it is.” “The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley,” Volume Two, page 452, published by J & J Harper in 1828
“It is nowhere stated in Scripture that Christ’s personal righteousness is imputed to us. Not a text can be found which contains any enunciation of the doctrine.” John Wesley “A Right Conception of Sin” by Richard Taylor, published in 1939. And also, (The Student’s Handbook of Christian Theology, Benjamin Field, Page 199) published in 1868.
John Wesley said that the Calvinist doctrine of the Imputed Righteousness of Christ was
“a blow to the root, the root of all holiness, all true religion…Hereby Christ is stabbed in the house of his friends, of those who make the largest professions of loving Him; the whole design of His death, namely, to destroy the work of the devil, being overthrown at a stroke. For wherever this doctrine is cordially received, it makes no place for holiness.” “The Works of the Rev John Wesley”, published in 1841, page 352.
This was John Wesley’s exhortation to preachers after 34 years of ministry:
“I will endeavour to use only such phrases as are strictly Scriptural. And I will advice all my brethren, all who are in connection with me throughout the three kingdoms, to lay aside that ambiguous, unscriptural phrase, (the imputed righteousness of Christ,) which is so liable to be misinterpreted, and speak in all instances, in this particular, as the oracles of God.” “The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A. M. published by J. Emory and B. Waugh, for the Methodist Episcopal Church, J Collard Printer, 1831, page 182.
Wesley was accused of contradicting himself in his own time. This is because Wesley stated that “the imputed righteousness of Christ” is never mentioned in the entire Bible, and yet he elsewhere would state that we are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ. He clarified himself when this supposed contradiction was brought to his attention.
He said that he never uses the phrase, “the imputed righteousness of Christ” because it is not scriptural and because it has done much damage, and that when he has used it, all he meant by it was that we are justified because of what Christ has done and suffered. In other words, we are justified because of Christ’s obedience in suffering and dying on the cross for our sins. But Wesley said that he denied “the imputed righteousness of Christ” in the Antinomian sense, which is the notion that Christ’s obedience to the law is transferred to our account so that we do not need to obey the law of God ourselves. Wesley certainly never taught that Christ’s obedience to the law was transferred to us, so that we are justified by God in light of our account being perfect. That is justification by works, but Wesley taught justification by grace. Wesley taught that our faith was imputed as righteousness.
And Wesley said that in his earlier years he used the phrase, “the imputed righteousness of Christ” but that after thirty four years of ministry, he has made a resolution to not use that phrase anymore because it is ambiguous and unscriptural.
Here is the exact quote from Wesley’s own works on this controversy:
“Of Imputed Righteousness.
24. “Blessed be God, we are not among those who are so dark in their conceptions and expressions. ‘We no more deny,’ says Mr. W., ‘the phrase of imputed righteousness, than the thing.’” (p. 23) It is true: for I continually affirm, to them that believe, faith is imputed for righteousness. And I do not contradict this, in still dying that phrase, “the imputed righteousness of Christ,” to be in the Bible; or in beseeching both Mr. Hervey and you, “not to dispute for that particular phrase.”
But “since Mr. W. blesses God for enlightening him to receive the doctrine, and to adopt the phrase of ‘imputed righteousness:’ how came he to think that clear conceptions of the doctrine were so unnecessary, and that phrase itself so useless, after having so deeply lamented the dark conceptions of those who rejected the term and the thing?”
It was neither this term, “the imputed righteousness of Christ,” nor the thing which Antinomians mean thereby, the rejection of which I supposed to argue any darkness of conception. But those I think dark, in their, who reject either the Scripture phrase, “faith imputed for righteousness,” or the thing it means.
25. However, to prove his point, Mr. Hill goes on:-
“This doctrine” (of the “imputed righteousness of Christ”) “I have constantly believed and taught for nearly eight-and-twenty years.”
“The use of the term” (the “imputed righteousness of Christ”) “is not Scriptural; it is not necessary; it has done immense hurt.”
“It has done immense hurt,” says Mr. W.; ‘but here is no contradiction.’ Whethere there be or not, there is a plain concession from Mr. W. himself, that he has been preaching a doctrine for eighty-and-twenty years together, or which has done immense hurt.”
Let this (one instance out of a hundred) be a specimen of Mr. Hill’s fairness! The whole strength o the argument depends on the artful jumbling o two sentences together, and inserting two or three little words into the latter of them.
My words are: “We no more deny the phrase” (of “imputed righteousness”) “than the thing.” (Remarks p. 150)
“This doctrine I have believed and taught for near eight-and-twenty years.” (Ib.)
These distinct sentences Mr. Hill is pleased to thrust together into one, and to men thus:-
“This doctrine (of the imputed righteousness of Christ) I have constantly believed and taught for near eight-and-twenty years.”
And here, says Mr. H., is a “plain concession from Mr W. himself, that he has been preaching a doctrine for twenty-eight years together, which has done immense hurt.”
No, the doctrine which I believe has done immense hurt, is that of the imputed righteousness of Christ in the Antinomian sense. The doctrine which I have constantly held and preached is, that faith is imputed for righteousness.
And when I have either in that sermon or elsewhere said, that “the righteousness of Christ is imputed to every believer,” I mean, every believer is justified for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered. Yet still I think, “there is no use in contending for that particular phrase.” And I say still, “I dare not instant upon it, because I cannot find it in the Bible.”
To contradict this, Mr. H. cites these words: “This is fully consistent with our being justified, through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.’ Mr. W.’s notes on Romans iv,9.” Mr. H. adds: “These words, taken together, produce the following conclusion, that it is perfectly consistent to say, that we are justified by that which cannot be found in the Bible.” (Farrago, p. 24.)
The note runs thus: “’Faith was imputed to Abraham for righteousness.’ This is fully consistent with our being justified through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ: that is, our being pardoned, and accepted of God, for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered. For though this, and this alone, be the meritorious cause of our acceptance with God, yet faith may be said to be ‘imputed to us for righteousness,’ as it is the sole condition of our acceptance.”
Now, is there any shadow of contradiction in this? Or of our being justified by that which cannot be found in the Bible?
26. “Mr. W. frequently puts the expression, ‘imputed righteousness,’ in the mouth of a whole congregation. Yet he says, “I dare not require any to use it.’” Hence Mr. Hill deduces these two conclusions:-
(1.) “That Mr. W. gives out such doctrines as he dares not require any others to believe.” (p. 25.)
By what logic is this deduced? We are not speaking of doctrines at all, but simply of a particular expression. And that expression is not “imputed righteousness,” but “the imputed righteousness of Christ.”
(2.) “That a whole congregation may have words in their mouth, and yet be all silent.”
Well inferred again! But did I say, “W whole congregation had those words in their mouths?” I did not either say or suppose it; any more than that they were all silent.
“Will Mr. W. be ingenuous enough to tell me, whether he did not write this when he was last in a certain country, which abounds with crassa ingenia?” [numskulls?] I will. I did not write this in the fogs of Ireland, but in the clear air of Yorkshire.
27. The two next propositions Mr. Hill quotes, are, “They to whom the righteousness of Christ is imputed,” (I mean, who truly believe,) “are made righteous by the Spirit of Christ; are renewed in the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness.”
“The nice, metaphysical doctrine of imputed righteousness” (if it is not carefully guarded) “leads not to repentance, but to licentiousness. I have known a thousand instances of this.”
And where is this contradiction between these propositions? “It is just this,” says Mr. Hill, “that the doctrine of imputed righteousness makes those who believe it both holy and unholy.” (p. 26.)
Unfold the propositions a little more, and then let any man judge.
The First means just this: They whom God justifies, for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered, (whether they ever heard of that phrase, “imputing the righteousness of Christ,” or not,) are sanctified by His Spirit; are renewed in the image o God, in righteousness and true holiness.
The Second means: I have known very many who so rested in the doctrine of the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, that they were quite satisfied without any holiness at all.
Now, where is the contradiction?
But my inserting in my own sentence those explanatory words, “I mean, who truly believe,” Mr. H. calls an interpolation; and supposes I “mean to make a distinction between faith in Christ, and faith in the righteousness of Christ.” I mean just what I have said again and again, particularly in the note above cited. And this is the very thing which John Goodwin means, as he declares over and over.
Mr. W. “winds up this point of imputed righteousness with a resolution which astonishes me, that ‘he will never more use the phrase, the imputed righteousness of Christ, unless it occurred to him in a hymn, or steal upon him unawares.’” This is my resolution. I repeat once more what I said in the “Remarks:” “The thing, that we are justified merely for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered, I have constantly and earnestly maintained above four-and-thirty years. And I have frequently used the phrase, hoping thereby to please others ‘for their good to edification.’ But it has had a contrary effect, since so many improve it into an objection. There I will use it no more.” (I mean, the phrase imputed righteousness: that phrase, the imputed righteousness of Christ, I never did use.) “I will endeavour to use only such phrases as are strictly Scriptural. And I will advice all my brethren, all who are in connection with me throughout the three kingdoms, to lay asie that ambiguous, unscriptural phrase, (the imputed righteousness of Christ,) which is so liable to be misinterpreted, and speak in all instances, in this particular, as the oracles of God.”
“The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A. M. published by J. Emory and B. Waugh, for the Methodist Episcopal Church, J Collard Printer, 1831, Page 179-182
Here are some quotes that show that John Wesley taught the same as Charles Finney and other moral government theology teachers on this particular issue:
John Wesley said:
“2. The Righteousness of Christ is an expression which I do not find in the Bible. The Righteousness of God is an expression which I do find there. I believe this means, first, The Mercy of God, as 2 Pet. i.1: “Them that have obtained like precious faith with us, through the righteousness of God.” How does it appear, that the righteousness o God here means either more or less than his mercy? Psalm lxxi. 15 &c. “My mouth shall show forth thy righteousness and thy salvation:” thy mercy in delivering me. “I will make mention of thy righteousness only.” “Thy righteousness, O God, is very high.” Here the righteousness of God is expressly mentioned. But I will not take upon me to say, that it means the righteousness or mercy of the Son, any more than of the Holy Ghost.
3. I believe this expression means, Secondly, God’s method of justifying sinners. So Rom. i. 17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for therein is the righteousness of God, (his way of justifying sinners,) revealed.” Chap. Iii. 21, &c. “ Now the righteousness of God is manifested: even the righteousness of God which is by faith:” (unless righteousness here also means mercy.) “Jesus Christ, whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood; to declare his righteousness, for the remission of sins that are past: that he might be just, and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” Chap. x. 3. “They being ignorant of God’s righteousness,” his method of justifying sinners, “and going about to establish their own righteousness,” a method of their own, opposite to his, “have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”
4. Perhaps it has a peculiar meaning in 2 Cor. V. 21: “He made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God, in or through him:” that we might be justified and sanctified, might receive the whole blessing of God through him.
5. And is not this the most natural meaning of Phil. Iii. 8,9? That I may win Christ, and be found in him,” grafted into the true Vine, “not having my own righteousness,” the method of justification which I so long chose for myself, “which is of the law, but the righteousness which is of God,” the method of justification which God hath chosen, “by faith.”
6. “But is not Christ termed, our Righteousness?” He is, Jer. Xxii.6: “This is the name whereby he shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness.” And is not the plain, indisputable meaning of this scripture, He shall be what he is called, the sole purchaser, the sole meritorious cause, both of our justification and sanctification?
7. Nearly related to this is the following text: 1 Cor. i. 30, “Jesus Christ is made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” And what does this prove, but that he is made unto us righteousness or justification, just as he is made unto us sanctification? In what sense? He is the sole author of our one, as well as o the other, the Author of our whole salvation.
8. There seems to be something more implied in Romans x. 4; does it not imply thus much: “Christ is the end of the law,” not only of the Mosaic dispensation, but of the law of works, which was given to Adam in his original perfection, “for righteousness to every one that believeth:” to the end that every one who believeth in him, though he has not kept, and cannot keep that law, may be both accounted and made righteous?
9. Accordingly, frequent mentioned is made in Scripture, of “faith counted for righteousness.” So Gen. xv. 6: “He (Abraham) believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness:’ a text repeated, with but little variation, over and over in the New Testament. Rom. iv. 5: “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him who justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Thus it was that “Noah became heir of the righteousness,” the justification, “which is by faith.” Heb. xi. 7. Thus also “the Gentiles,” when the Jews fell short, “attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith.” Rom. ix. 30. But that expression, The Righteousness of Christ, does not occur in any of these text.
10. It seems, righteousness, in the following texts, means neither more or less than justification. Gal. ii. 21; “If righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” Chap. iii. 21; “If there had been a law which could have given life, (spiritual life, or a title to lite eternal) then it here includes sanctification also: which it appears to do, Rev. xix. 8: “The fine linen is the righteousness of the saints.”
11. “But when St. Paul says, Rom. v. 18, ‘By the righteousness of one, (called in the following verse, the obedience of one, even his obedience unto death, his dying for us,) the free gift came,’ does he not mean the righteousness of Christ?” Undoubtedly he does: but this is not the question. We are not inquiring, what he means, but what he says. We are all agreed as to the meaning, but not as to the expression, The imputing the righteousness of Christ, which I still say, I dare not insist upon, neither require any one to use; because I cannot find it in the Bible. If any one can, he has better eyes than I: and I wish he would show me where it is.
12. Now, if by the righteousness of Christ we mean any thing which the Scripture does not mean, it is certain we put darkness for light. If we mean the same which the Scripture means by different expressions, why do we prefer this expression to the scriptural? Is not this correcting the wisdom of the Holy Ghost, and opposing our own to be the perfect knowledge of God?
13. I am myself the more sparing in the use of it; because it has been so frequently and so dreadfully abused: and because the Antinomians use it at this day to justify the grossest abominations. And it is great pity those who love, who preach, and follow after holiness, should, under the notion of honouring Christ, give any countenance to those who continually make him the Minister of sin, and so build on his righteousness, as to live in such ungodliness and unrighteousness as is scarcely named even among the heathens.
14. And does not this way of speaking naturally tend to make Christ the Minister of sin? For if the very personal obedience of Christ (as those expressions directly lead me to think,) be mine, the moment I believe, can any thing be added thereto? Does my obeying God add any value to the perfect obedience of Christ? On this scheme then, are not the holy and unholy on the very same footing?
“The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Volume 2, published by J. & J. Harper, 1828, Page 450-452
Compare this to what Charles Finney said:
“The doctrine of a literal imputation of Christ’s obedience or righteousness is supported by those who hold it, by such passages as the following: Rom. iv. 5-8.—”But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputed righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” But here justification is represented only as consisting in forgiveness of sin, or in pardon and acceptance. Again, 2 Cor. v. 19, 21. “To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Here again the apostle is teaching only his much-loved doctrine of justification by faith, in the sense that upon condition or in consideration of the death and mediatorial interference and work of Christ, penitent believers in Christ are forgiven and rewarded as if they were righteous.” (Lectures on Systematic Theology, Published by BRCCD, p. 473)
And to what Albert Barnes said:
“It is not that his righteousness becomes ours. This is not true; and there is no intelligible sense in which that can be understood. But it is God’s plan for pardoning sin, and for treating us as if we had not committed it; that is, adopting us as his children, and admitting us to heaven, on the ground of what the Lord Jesus has done in our stead… But if the doctrine of the Scripture was, that the entire righteousness of Christ was set over to them, was really and truly theirs, and was transferred to them in any sense, with what propriety could the apostle say, that God justified the ungodly?… the whole scope and design of the Psalm is to show the blessedness of the man who is forgiven, and those sins are not charged on him, but who is freed from the punishment due to his sins. Being thus pardoned, he is treated as a righteous man.” (The Way of Salvation: A Sermon, Delivered at Morristown, New Jersey, Together with Mr. Barnes Defense of the Sermon , Read Before the Synod of Philadelphia, and his Defense before the second Presbytery of Philadelphia, 1836 Edition, p. 254-255)
And to what Asbury Lowrey said:
“This passage [Rom. 4:5-8] deserves special attention, as it explains all those text that seem to favor, and have been construed to support the theory of the imputation of Christ’s active and passive righteousness to the sinner. Here it is manifest that justification, imputation of righteousness, forgiving iniquities, covering sins, and the non-imputation of sin, are phrases substantially of the same import, and decide positively that the Scripture view of the great doctrine under consideration, is an actual deliverance from the guilt and penalty of sin: from which it follows, that the phrases so often occurring in the writings of Paul – the righteousness of God and of Christ – must mean God’s righteous method of justifying the ungodly, through the atonement and by the instrumentality of faith – a method that upholds the rectitude of the Divine character, at the same time that it offers a full and free pardon to the sinner.” (Positive Theology, Published by R. P. Thompson, 1854, p. 211-212)
Clearly, Wesley is in agreement with various moral government theologians, that the phrase “imputed righteousness” means pardon and acceptance from God when we put our faith in Christ, that our faith is imputed as righteousness and we are henceforth treated as righteous because of that faith (by which faith we will live righteousness and produce good works), and not that Christ’s personal obedience to the Torah being transferred to our account. And that the phrase “righteousness of God” refers to God’s method of justifying sinners, not the obedience that the Son rendered to the law during his earthly life.
John Wesley said:
“No, the doctrine which I believe has done immense hurt, is that of the imputed righteousness of Christ in the Antinomian sense. The doctrine which I have constantly held and preached is, that faith is imputed for righteousness.” The Miscellaneous Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Volume 2, published by J. & J. Harper, 1828,
The word “imputed” in the Greek does not mean “transferred” but “reckoned” or considered” as it is translated elsewhere in many places in the Bible. And the Bible teaches that faith, not Christ’s obedience to the Torah, is imputed to believers as righteousness. That is, it is our faith that God reckons or considers as righteousness.
“And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it [believing the Lord] to him for righteousness.” Gen. 15:6
“And therefore it [faith] was imputed to him for righteousness.” Rom. 4:22
“Even as Abraham believed God, and it [believing God] was accounted to him for righteousness.” Gal. 3:6
“And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it [believing God] was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.” James 2:23
Abraham was justified by His faith in God and His promises, not by obedience to the Torah, as the Torah had not yet been given through Moses. So Paul argued that Gentile believers, who are uncircumcised and do not observe the Torah, are also justified by their faith. It is their faith in Christ which God imputes, reckons, or considers as righteousness.
The Antinomian doctrine that Christ’s works of the law are transferred to the account of the believer, so that they are justified by perfect works of the law, and they do not need to repent of their sins and live holy lives, and that they are righteous in God’s eyes even while they are sinning, has done great damage and hurt to Church.
“The theological doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ has been grossly distorted in our day. We are told that God looks at us through the blood of Christ and see’s us as righteous, regardless of our actual state… Let’s stop kidding ourselves. God sees us exactly the way we are. If we are living in obedience, He sees it. If we are living selfish, unholy lives, we can be sure he sees that too.” George Otis Jr. (The God They Never Knew, Published by Mott Media, p. 40)
Backsliders in Israel were saying “The Lord seeth us not” (Eze. 8:12), and backsliders in the Church are saying the same thing today. I have heard many people say, “When God looks at me, He doesn’t see my sin. He sees the righteousness of Christ instead.” This type of talk, which ought to be shocking to our ears, is common place within the Church. This type of theological nonsense, which is a blatant denial of God’s omniscience, is refuted all throughout the Bible (Ps. 33:13-15; Prov. 15:3; Eze. 8:12; 9:9; Jer. 32:19; Job 34:21; Mal. 2:17; Heb. 4:13; Rev 2:2, 2:9; 2:13; 2:19; 3:1; 3:8; 3:15). “The Lord looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men. From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth. He fashioneth their hearts alike; he considereth all their works” (Ps. 33:13-15). “For the eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3). “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the ways of man, and he seeth all his goings” (Job 34:21). “Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and open unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).
God repeatedly said in Revelation, “I know thy works” and “be zealous therefore and repent” (Rev. 2:2; 2:9; 2:13; 2:9; 3:1; 2:8; 2:15). When he looked at the churches He didn’t say, “I see the righteousness of Christ.” Therefore, nobody should try to comfort themselves in impenitence by appealing to imputed righteousness. The solution is to simply repent. People use the imputed righteousness of Christ as a replacement for repentance unto holiness.
Calvinists often ask the question, “Are you saved by the imputed righteousness of Christ or by your own righteousness?”
This is how John Wesley answered that question:
“Do we read it [this question] in the Bible? Either in the Old Testament or the New? I doubt; it is an unscriptural, awkward phrase, which has no determinate meaning. If you mean by that odd, uncouth question: ‘In whose righteousness are you to stand at the last day,’- for whose sake, or by whose merit do you expect to enter into the glory of God? I answer, without the least hesitation, for the sake of Jesus Christ, the righteous. It is through his merits alone that all believers are saved; that is, justified, saved from the guilt, sanctified, saved from the nature of sin, and glorified, taken into heaven… It may be worth our while, to spend a few more words on this important point. Is it possible to devise a more unintelligible expression than this: “In what righteousness are we to stand before God at the last day?” Why do you not speak plainly, and say, “For whose sake do you look to be saved?” Any plain peasant would then readily answer, “For the sake of Jesus Christ.” But all those dark, ambiguous phrases, tend only to puzzle the cause, and open a way for unwary hearers to slide into Antinomianism.” “The Works of the Rev. John Wesley”, Volume 7, published by J. & J. Harper, 1826, Page 281
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