Wesley on Adoption

There’s an interesting irony in the history of the doctrine of adoption. It pertains to the theology and sung praise of the Reformed and Methodist variety.

John Calvin

John Calvin

Whereas the Reformed have, comparatively speaking, made plenty of the theology of adoption (e.g., in Calvin and the Westminster Standards especially), our forefathers generally lost sight of the doctrine in the period from the mid-seventeenth-century through the mid-nineteenth. This is one reason why there has been, until of late, little of the filial and familial feel of the New Testament in Reformed piety and sung praise. Reformed believers have leaned their weight very much on such great features of the faith as the sovereignty of God and the justification of the ungodly, but inadvertently at the expense of the Fatherhood of God and the adoption of sons.

In Methodism, by contrast, there has been little work done on the theology of adoption, but much emphasis on what Paul calls “the Spirit of adoption” (Rom. 8:15). Whereas leading Methodist John Wesley deleted every reference to the doctrine from his revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism ~ either because of its connection to predestination (Eph. 1:5), or in order to set justification and sanctification in sharp relief ~  he nevertheless saw in Paul’s teaching great cause for personal assurance. The Wesleyan Methodists were not alone in this. The same filial emphasis is found in the testimonies of Calvinistic Methodists such as Howell Harris and George Whitefield.

This two-sided irony I have documented elsewhere.* Yet, sorting more recentlyJohn Wesley through my father’s books, I came across John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1876). How it confirms the general picture of his interest in adoption! While indices can be of varying reliability, a cursory glance at the “Index to Texts Prefixed” reveals that his hymns make use of but one of the five adoption texts in Paul’s writings: Romans 8:15-16 (cf. Rom. 8:22-23; 9:4; Gal. 4:4-6; and Eph. 1:5). Two of them are most germane:

Hymn 764

1. Sovereign of all the worlds on high,          3. Come, Holy Spirit, seal the grace
Allow my humble claim;                                 On my expanding heart;
Nor, while unworthy I draw nigh,                    And show that in the Father’s love
Disdain a Father’s name.                               I share a filial part.

2. “My Father God!” that gracious sound     4. Cheered by a witness so divine,
Dispels my guilty fear;                                  Unwavering I believe;
Not all the harmony of heaven                      And, “Abba, Father,” humbly cry;
Could so delight my ear.                               Nor can the sign deceive.

Hymn 765

1. Why should the children of a king           3. Assure my conscience of its part
Go mourning all their days?                       In the Redeemer’s blood;
Great Comforter, descend, and bring         And bear thy witness with my heart,
The tokens of thy grace!                             That I am born of God.

2. Dost thou not dwell in all thy saints,
And seal the heirs of heaven?
When wilt thou banish my complaints,
And show my sins forgiven?

These hymns, standing alone, we can appreciate. We laud Wesley for his commitment to sung praise, and for how his doxological spirit gave rise to so many hymns (1026 in the Collection!). It is nevertheless clear that his interest in adoption was limited to its personal application. Missing is Paul’s grand metanarrative, in which God the Father predestines his people in Christ to adoption (Eph. 1:5), and works out his eternal purposes throughout the history of redemption ~ both in the history of Israel (Rom. 9:4; Gal. 3:23-4:7) and at the end of the age (Rom. 8:22-23).

In today’s endeavors to recover the doctrine, there is an opportunity for the Reformed and the Methodists alike to resolve the parallel ironies of their theological traditions. We Reformed, following the apostle Paul, can do more to set our theology of adoption to songs of relevant praise. The heirs of Wesley are, for their part, called by Scripture to set their assurance of the Father’s love within the context of predestination and the history of God’s people. In these ways we all win, the Reformed and the Methodists alike, but God gets the glory. He always does when we reflect the balance of his Word in doctrine, piety, and practice!

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* For more on the history of the doctrine of adoption in the history of the Reformed faith and of Methodism, see Tim J. R. Trumper, “An Historical Study of the Doctrine of Adoption in the Calvinistic Tradition” (Ph.D., Diss., University of Edinburgh, 2001), and When History Teaches Us Nothing: The Recent Reformed Sonship Debate in Context (Eugene OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008), pp. 1-32.

 

 

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