John Wesley & ‘non-Imputation’ Revisited


Over the last couple of months I’ve posted a few times on imputation and non-imputation in relationship to the doctrine of justification. As part of that I was trying to understand how Wesley’s theology of non-imputation influenced his view of the atonement.

Just to recap, instead of adopting the language of imputation, where Jesus becomes legally culpable for our sin without being inherently sinful (see Hebrews 4:15; 2 Corinthians 5:21), Wesley opted for the language of non-imputation. In other words our sins are no longer held against us on the basis of Christ’s work of atonement. Justification is proclaimed on the basis of pardon alone.

I postulated that since Wesley preferred to understand justification in terms of non-imputation then he would have to reject a theory of penal substitution. How could it be just for God to punish someone who wasn’t legally culpable for sins (which can only take place through imputation)? I took this to mean that Wesley would adopt an Anselmian satisfaction theory of atonement whereby Jesus life of righteousness and obedient death acted to propitiate God’s wrath and satisfy the demands of divine justice.

But this isn’t entirely accurate. Neither is it entirely accurate to say that Wesley adopted a theory of non-penal substitution. It isn’t totally false, but it’s not totally true either. Wesley agrees that sin demands punishment, but this punishment isn’t wholly averted on the basis of Christ’s righteous life, or life of merit (a la Anselm). Instead, Wesley would seem to say that God’s justice is satisfied, not by punishing Christ in our place, but by Christ suffering the penalty that we deserved. There is a distinction to be made between punishment and penalty. For example, someone deserves to be punished for stealing, perhaps the penalty is that they have to pay a fine. Someone who didn’t steal offers to pay the penalty in the thief’s place. That doesn’t mean that they are punished for stealing, rather they pay the penalty that is the thief’s punishment.

In this way, Wesley’s account of atonement wouldn’t be totally non-penal, in contrast to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. Rather, we deserve punishment and that punishment is averted justly by Jesus’ payment of the penalty that we would have had to pay. In this way Wesley can retain a form of penal substitution while using the language of non-imputation.

It also wasn’t entirely accurate to say that Wesley rejects the language of imputation or the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In actual fact, on a number of occasions Wesley refers positively to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, but with some subtle caveats. Collins in Justification: What’s at Stake in Current Debates writes,

“…in his sermon “The Lord Our Righteousness,” produced in 1765, Wesley contends that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers in the sense that they are now accepted by God not for the sake of anything that they have done, whether it be works of charity, mercy or the like, but solely because of what Christ has accomplished through his life and death on their behalf.” (187).

Collins sums up Wesley’s view of positive imputation in the following,

“2. Justification includes the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to sinners with the result that they are declared righteous. Imputation, however, must never be viewed as a “cloak” for ongoing unrighteousness.” (194-195).

Clearly Wesley was critical of the traditional understanding of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, fearing that this doctrine would lead to antinomianism. But he still retained the ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ language while changing its definition. Instead of the phrase referring to a positive righteousness in addition to pardon, the ‘imputation of Christ’s righteousness’ simply indicates the fact that we are justified on the basis of a work external to us. We are justified by Christ alone.

In sum then, Wesley seems to hold to a view of the atonement that falls in between a traditional account of penal substitution and an Anselmian satisfaction theory while rejecting the traditional understanding of double imputation.



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