Wesley's 'Liberalism' vs. Modern Liberalism
The modern term 'liberal' is often used to categorize a person by their choice of dress, music, politics, etc. In a theological sense, Wesley would have been considered a liberal in his day because he promoted human participation in the salvation process as opposed to the more 'conservative' and Calvinistic view that any participation of man diminishes the sovereignty of God. In this sense, there are many 'conservatives' today who would be categorized as theological liberals because most of them believe strongly that man's free will is essential to salvation. Although Wesley promoted free will adamantly he refused to minimize the function of free grace.
The dangers of overemphasizing free will at the expense of free grace is the belief that great rewards are in store for those who make many and consistent choices for righteousness. This can lead to legalism, a problem many in the holiness movement struggled with in its formative years. Modern day liberals seem to place an overemphasis on Wesley's teaching of perfection and fail to see his sincere and passionate desire for true righteousness. Modern day conservatives seem still to turn Wesley's admonition toward righteousness and perfect love into a set of do's and don'ts. Wesley was actually hesitant to use the word "perfection" and tried to shift the emphasis of his teaching toward perfect love.
Wesley embraced a liberal idea in his time called Latitudinarianism, the idea that Catholics and members of the Church of England could co-exist in the Anglican Church. Wesley opened his arms to people of diverse theological beliefs but he continually magnified the essential beliefs and deemphasized the non-essentials. Modern followers of Wesley are very wary of embracing those of other creeds for fear of promoting interfaithism. Modern day liberals have leaned so far toward inclusivism that they have compromised the very teaching of Christ himself who declare that he and he alone is the way to salvation. Christ was very exclusive in his teaching. No man can come to the father unless he comes through the Son. Although Wesley was openly advocating love and tolerance towards those of differing beliefs he would never encourage a compromise of the exclusive teaching of Christ.
The liberals of Wesley's day were enthusiastic about meeting the physical needs of non-Christians rather than evangelizing them. The conservatives of his day believed the conversion of their souls was of greater importance lest they be condemned to hell. Wesley primary emphasis was to meet the spiritual needs of those within Christendom and to purge sin from their congregations. His experience as a missionary to American Indians ended as less than successful.
Modern liberals seem to think that truth in the Bible evolves as human knowledge expands and the culture changes. Fundamentalists believe all the authors in the Bible were inspired and its truth is unchanging. Wesley strongly ascertained the inspiration of the scripture but he also believed in the application of scientific knowledge and he was open as to how this secular knowledge might clarify our understanding of God.
The primary split in Wesley's day was the disagreement about the second work of grace. Conservatives embraced Wesley's view that purity is found in the motives and the primary aspect of this work of grace is love for God and our fellow man. Liberals broke with Wesley on this teaching because they felt this kind of 'perfection' was unattainable in this life. The biblical support for Wesley's teaching on sanctification is less than the biblical support for the teaching of predestination. Wesley found adequate biblical support for his teaching but he also found convincing testimony among other Christians who had arrived at this state of perfect love. He was also aware of many who fell short and even traveled to the brink of insanity because of their failed efforts. There doesn't seem to be any strong, affirmative evidence that Wesley himself testified to attaining this experience but even if he had his humble spirit may have prevented him from declaring it.
Wesley was very much concerned that Christians avoid apathy. His fervent teaching on sanctification was his attempt to address and offer a solution to this issue. Unfortunately, liberals began to resist his teaching when they observed many who pursued it but ended up off track into their own self delusion and in many cases, self-righteousness.
Modern followers of Wesley are doing him a disservice when they de-emphasize the place of grace in the salvation of men. Wesley never made the grace of God secondary to the free will of man. Contemporary liberals have moved far away from Wesley. Wesley did entertain an openness toward other religions but he never abandoned or compromised his biblical beliefs. He had a great respect for the great thinkers of his day but he did not sacrifice absolute truth for their relativism. It is only the strong willed who can have great admiration for another without adopting his beliefs or being influence by his ideas. Wesley proved over and over again that he could love another without compromising his love for Christ and the truth of his word. Perhaps, instead of verbalizing his experience in sanctification he chose rather to simply demonstrate it.