When the Methodist movement in America became a church in 1784, John Wesley provided the American Methodists with a liturgy and a doctrinal statement, which contained twenty-four “Articles of Religion” or basic statements of belief. These Articles of Religion were taken from the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England—the church out of which the Methodism movement began—and had been the standards for preaching within the Methodist movement. When these articles were voted on by the American conference, an additional article was added regarding the American context, bringing the total number of articles to 25.
These articles became the basic standards for Christian belief in the Methodist church in North America. First published in the church's Book of Discipline in 1790, the Articles of Religion have continued to be part of the church's official statement of belief.
The basic beliefs of The United Methodist Church include:
- Triune God. God is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
- Scripture. The writings in the Old Testament and New Testament are the inspired word of God.
- Sin. While human beings were intended to bear the image of God, all humans are sinners for whom that image is distorted. Sin estranges people from God and corrupts human nature such that we cannot heal or save ourselves.
- Salvation through Jesus Christ. God's redeeming love is active to save sinners through Jesus’ incarnate life and teachings, through his atoning death, his resurrection, his sovereign presence through history, and his promised return.
- Sanctification. The grace of sanctification draws one toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
- Sacraments. The UMC recognizes two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Other rites such as Confirmation, Ordination, Holy Matrimony, Funerals, and Anointing of the Sick are performed but are not considered sacraments. In Holy Baptism, the Church believes that “Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. We believe that Baptism is a sacrament in which God initiates a covenant with individuals, people become a part of the Church, it is not to be repeated, and is a means of grace. The United Methodist Church generally practices Baptism by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion and recognizes Trinitarian formula baptisms from other Christian denominations. The United Methodist Church affirms the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion, but does not hold to transubstantiation. The church believes that the bread is an effectual sign of His body crucified on the cross and the cup is an effectual sign of His blood shed for humanity. Through the outward and visible signs of bread and wine, the inward and spiritual reality of the Body and Blood of Christ are offered to believers. The church holds that the celebration of the Eucharist is an anamnesis of Jesus’ death, and believes the sacrament to be a means of grace, and practices open communion.
- Free will. The UMC believes that people, while corrupted by sin, are free to make their own choices because of God's divine grace enabling them, and that people are truly accountable before God for their choices.
- Social Justice. The church opposes evils such as slavery, inhumane prison conditions, capital punishment, economic injustice, child labor, racism, and inequality.
- Grace. The UMC believes that God gives unmerited favor freely to all people, though it may be resisted.
The key emphasis of Wesley's theology relates to how Divine grace operates within the individual. Wesley defined the Way of Salvation as the operation of grace in at least three parts: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace, and Sanctifying Grace.
Prevenient grace, or the grace that “goes before” us, is given to all people. It is that power which enables us to love and motivates us to seek a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This grace is the present work of God to turn us from our sin-corrupted human will to the loving will of the Father. In this work, God desires that we might sense both our sinfulness before God and God’s offer of salvation. Prevenient grace allows those tainted by sin to nevertheless make a truly free choice to accept or reject God's salvation in Christ.
Justifying Grace or Accepting Grace is that grace, offered by God to all people, that receive by faith and trust in Christ, through which God pardons the believer of sin. It is in justifying grace we are received by God, in spite of our sin. In this reception, we are forgiven through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross. The justifying grace cancels our guilt and empowers us to resist the power of sin and to fully love God and neighbor. Today, justifying grace is also known as conversion, “accepting Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior,” or being “born again”. John Wesley originally called this experience the New Birth. This experience can occur in different ways; it can be one transforming moment, such as an altar call experience, or it may involve a series of decisions across a period of time.
Sanctifying Grace is that grace of God, which sustains the believers in the journey toward Christian Perfection: a genuine love of God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and a genuine love of our neighbors as ourselves. Sanctifying grace enables us to respond to God by leading a Spirit-filled and Christ-like life aimed toward love.
Wesleyan theology maintains that salvation is the act of God's grace entirely, from invitation, to pardon, to growth in holiness. Furthermore, God's prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace interact dynamically in the lives of Christians from birth to death.
According to Wesleyan understanding, good works were the fruit of one's salvation, not the way in which that salvation was earned. Faith and good works go hand in hand in Methodist theology: a living tree naturally and inevitably bears fruit. Wesleyan theology rejects the doctrine of eternal security, believing that salvation can be rejected because God created us as free moral agents to make our own choices in life. Wesley emphasized that believers must continue to grow in their relationship with Christ, through the process of Sanctification.