It is commonly thought that John Wesley denied the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness, and, it might be thought, for good reason. It would seem that Wesley said just as much. The argument is usually made from his sermon: "Justification by Faith" in which he says:
"Least of all does justification imply, that God is deceived in those whom he justifies; that he thinks them to be what, in fact, they are not; that he accounts them to be otherwise than they are. It does by no means imply, that God judges concerning us contrary to the real nature of things; that he esteems us better than we really are, or believes us righteous when we are unrighteous. Surely no. The judgment of the all-wise God is always according to truth. Neither can it ever consist with his unerring wisdom, to think that I am innocent, to judge that I am righteous or holy, because another is so. He can no more, in this manner, confound me with Christ, than with David or Abraham. Let any man to whom God hath given understanding, weigh this without prejudice; and he cannot but perceive, that such a notion of justification is neither reconcilable to reason nor Scripture" (II.4, emphasis mine).
The clearest rejection of imputation comes in the italicized portion of the paragraph. Wesley, rather strongly, claims that God's inerrant wisdom is incapable of seeing a sinner as justified on the basis of someone else's righteousness. This is where the term "legal fiction" is usually wielded against the doctrine of imputation. If the righteousness of another is credited to me, then my righteousness is a sham, or so it is said (see this post for why this is not actually the case). So, the short answer to our question as to whether Wesley denied imputation is clearly: "Yes." The problem is that the short answer is insufficient and misleading.
The simple claim that Wesley denied imputation is insufficient because our question is an historical theological one, and historical theology requires the use of a certain methodology. Wesley was not a systematician, and the above sermon was not his final word on either justification or imputation. The careful historical theologian will understand that the best answer that can be given to our question is not merely, "Yes," but, "Yes, at the time he wrote his sermon on "Justification by Faith." The careful historical theologian will also realize that this raises a further question: Was there development in Wesley's view of imputation prior to or after the writing of this sermon? And it is to that question we now turn.
Wesley's sermon on "Justification by Faith" is usually dated no earlier than 1739 and no later than 1746. Those familiar with Wesley's life will immediately recognize that this is within one to seven years of his evangelical conversion on May 24, 1738. The point is that this sermon was written early in Wesley's ministerial career and may not be his final word. Indeed, it was not the final word for Wesley, because he later penned his sermon "The Lord our Righteousness", typically dated between 1758 and 1765, in which he wrote:
It was the least part of his external righteousness, that he did nothing amiss; that he knew no outward sin of any kind, neither was "guile found in his mouth;" that he never spoke one improper word, nor did one improper action. Thus far it is only a negative righteousness, though such an one as never did, nor ever can, belong to anyone that is born of a woman, save himself alone. But even his outward righteousness was positive too: He did all things well: In every word of his tongue, in every work of his hands, he did precisely the "will of Him that sent him." In the whole course of his life, he did the will of God on earth, as the angels do it in heaven. All he acted and spoke was exactly right in every circumstance. The whole and every part of his obedience was complete. "He fulfilled all righteousness."
But his obedience implied more than all this: It implied not only doing, but suffering; suffering the whole will of God, from the time he came into the world, till "he bore our sins in his own body upon the tree;" yea, till having made a full atonement for them, "he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost." This is usually termed the passive righteousness of Christ; the former, his active righteousness. But as the active and passive righteousness of Christ were never, in fact, separated from each other, so we never need separate them at all, either in speaking or even in thinking. And it is with regard to both these conjointly that Jesus is called "the Lord our righteousness" (I.3-4, emphasis mine).
Here Wesley describes the historic Reformed understanding of the active and passive obedience of Christ, that is, Christ's active lifelong fulfilling of the law and his passive suffering on the cross, both of which were done on behalf of sinners. In answering the question as to what is the righteousness of Christ, Wesley affirms quite clearly that the active and passive righteousness of Christ is what is meant by the phrase: "the Lord our Righteousness."
But did Wesley believe this righteousness is imputed to believers? In the second part of that sermon he takes up the question: When is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us? There he says, "To all believers the righteousness of Christ is imputed; to unbelievers it is not" (II.1). He answers the question further by saying:
But when is it imputed? When they believe. In that very hour the righteousness of Christ is theirs. It is imputed to every one that believes, as soon as he believes: Faith and the righteousness of Christ are inseparable. For if he believes according to Scripture, he believes in the righteousness of Christ. There is no true faith, that is, justifying faith, which hath not the righteousness of Christ for its object (II.1).
This evidence clearly indicates that Wesley's view of imputation and justification developed between the writing of these two sermons. At some point in the twenty or so years between these sermons Wesley changed his mind with regard to his denial of imputation. He went from saying that the righteousness of another could not count in the place of sinners to affirming that both the active and passive righteousness of Christ are imputed to the believer at moment of faith. It should be noted that Wesley's later view is entirely consistent with the Reformed view of imputation. Wesley even goes so far as to quote Calvin later in the sermon making certain his readers are not mistaken as to where he stands on the matter. Wesley writes:
So Calvin: (Institut. 1.2, c.17) `Christ by his obedience, procured and merited for us grace or favour with God the Father.' Again: `Christ, by his obedience, procured or purchased righteousness for us.' And yet again: `All such expressions as these, -- that we are justified by the grace of God, that Christ is our righteousness, that righteousness was procured for us by the death and resurrection of Christ, import the same thing; namely, that the righteousness of Christ, both his active and passive righteousness, is the meritorious cause of our justification, and has procured for us at God's hand, that, upon our believing, we should be accounted righteous by him'" (II.9).
Now some of my Wesley scholar friends may come along and scold me for missing some other crucial piece of evidence elsewhere in Wesley's writings, and they are most welcome to do so. But as far as I can tell from these sermons, Wesley changed his mind. So, our historical theological question as to whether Wesley maintained his denial of imputation sheds much more light on the issue than the bare question as to whether Wesley denied imputation. Indeed, Wesley may have denied imputation earlier in life, but he later on firmly stated his agreement with Calvin and the Reformed understanding of the doctrine.* Did Wesley believe in the imputation of the righteousness of Christ? At the time of his sermon "The Lord our Righteousness," he most certainly did.
Let me finish by saying that Wesley's journey on this is important to me because it parallels my own. I struggled rather deeply in earlier years to understand the doctrine of imputation. I was influenced by the apparent denial of imputation in Wesley's sermon on "Justification by Faith" and Wesleyan teachers who also denied the Reformed doctrine. As I studied the doctrine of imputation more carefully and over an extended period of time, I found myself being persuaded of its veracity. This, of course, may be cause for concern among some of my Methodist brothers and sisters. As a result, I am deeply comforted and reassured that Wesley himself came to affirm wholeheartedly and with conviction the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.
* I say Wesley may have denied imputation because he actually claims that his later view as articulated in "The Lord our Righteousness" was consistent with what he wrote earlier in "Justification by Faith" (see "The Lord our Righteousness" II.8). This raises more issues than can be dealt with in a post that is already too long.