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John Wesley: A Gift to the Universal Church

 

JOHN WESLEY: A GIFT TO THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH

INTRODUCTION

The most casual glance at Wesley’s Catholic Spirit attests his rejection of doctrinal indifference. Truth matters, and theological truths (statements) that point to and commend Truth (the operative reality of Jesus Christ) are not to be trifled with, let alone traduced. At the same time Wesley was aware that his Shepherd had sheep of other folds. In light of such diverse sheep-folds he gratefully adopted (and zealously adjusted) the work of Eastern Fathers and Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation mystics. His magnanimity is evident in his ‘olive branch,’ A Letter to a Roman Catholic. And when nephew Samuel Jr. became a Roman Catholic, thereby rendering his father, Charles, apoplectic, John calmly wrote Samuel:
Whether of this church or that I care not: you can be saved in either or damned in either…and except you be born again you cannot see the kingdom of God…Let the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God, and let the love of God be shed abroad in your heart….then, if you have no better work, I will talk with you of transubstantiation and purgatory.
Wesley consistently maintained he was Protestant and the Church of England Protestant. Consistently he discountenanced both the “Romish” error and the latitudinarianism that blunted the cutting the edge of the gospel. Still, he wanted the sole stumbling block to faith to be the affront of the gospel, never the affront of a narrow or bigoted spirit. Not least, Wesley insisted on one condition only for those desiring admittance to the Methodist Society: “A desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins.” In many respects, then, Wesley remains a model of gospel catholicity and ecumenical magnanimity.

I: ESCHATOLOGY

In accord with all New Testament writers the apostle Paul maintains that in Jesus Christ “the end of the ages” has come (1 Cor. 10:11). Since the eschaton is upon us now, Christians look not for its arrival but rather for its final, full manifestation.
Different families in the church catholic, however, emphasize different aspects of the eschaton.
The Reformed family emphasizes an eschatology of knowing: we are going to know God in such a way as to render doubt impossible. From John Calvin to Karl Barth the Reformed family has underlined the cruciality of a proper knowledge of God and the conditions of such knowledge; e.g., the truth that since God alone knows God, we can know God only as we are included (by grace) in God’s self-knowing. While at present we know “in part,” the day has been appointed when “in part” will disappear, all noetic distortions remedied.

The Roman Catholic family, on the other hand, emphasizes an eschatology of seeing – no surprise in light of the emphasis that Roman Catholicism customarily places on seeing, the visible accorded a place in Rome’s ethos that Protestants reserve for the audible. In line with the accent on the visual are the visions that Roman Catholics have and whose fruitfulness has appeared in new orders, missions, and educational institutions.
In its eschatology of seeing the Roman Catholic family avers that God’s people have been appointed to the Beatific Vision. We are going to see God; see God in God’s inherent beauty, the beauty of God (according to Scripture) being one aspect of the glory of God.
And the Methodist family? Wesley’s eschatology is an eschatology of loving. We are going to love as we have been loved by a Father who spared not his Son and therein spared not himself in the course of sparing us. Love divine, all other loves excelling, will finally love every last vestige of unlove out of us, and we shall be transported, “lost in wonder, love and praise.”

A major indication of Wesley’s love-eschatology is found in his sermon, “The Almost Christian,” a tract about not the “almost” Christian but the nominal Christian (who may be far from “almost persuaded”). In Part I of the sermon Wesley discusses the spiritual deficits of those who have substituted nominal Christianity for self-abandonment to the Saviour. He concludes, to no one’s surprise, that nominal Christians are marked by lack of faith. In Part II Wesley announces immediately what marks “altogether Christians,” those who cling to the Son and are born of the Spirit. Such people are marked not by faith (what we expect him to say) but by love.

It is pointless to say that Wesley has unconscionably jettisoned justification by faith for justification by love. Everywhere he insists on justification by faith (as we shall see shortly), and justification by faith alone, necessarily by faith alone. Along with the Protestant Reformers Wesley insists that while faith includes understanding (or else the deity we worship is an idol) and assent, faith becomes such only at the point of trust as the sinner entrusts herself to the only Saviour she can ever have. To be sure, having contrasted the unbeliever’s lack of faith in God with the believer’s love for God, Wesley immediately goes on to expound the nature of faith. Still, the Wesleyan trajectory is evident.

In his celebrated Catholic Spirit Wesley pleads for a love that is neither spineless sentimentality nor affectionless admonition. In this regard he writes, “Love me with a love that is patient if I am ignorant and out of the way, bearing and not increasing my burden.” And if, continues Wesley, you, a believer, find me, a believer, sinning, love me so as to recognize that I sinned “in sudden stress of temptation.”

Wesley’s eschatological love-orientation is evident in the space he gives to the exposition of his favourite epistle, 1 John. Whereas Reformed Protestants have returned again and again to Paul’s epistle to the Romans whenever the church was staggering and needed to be strengthened and stiffened, Wesley turns to John’s first letter. His exposition of 1 John, a small epistle compared to Romans, is at least half the size of his exposition of Romans.

Always to be remembered in the context of Wesley’s eschatology is his understanding of Christian perfection. Characteristically his ‘Christian perfection’ isn’t utter sinlessness or faultlessness or flawlessness. (He points out in his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection that the godliest never get beyond needing the intercession of the atonement.) Christian perfection is perfection in love (recall the Anglican collect for Holy Communion, “…that we may perfectly love Thee.”). It is the removal of every last impediment to unobstructed loving. He insists that God’s people have been appointed to a single-minded, self-forgetful love of God and neighbour.

Then is Wesley’s eschatology merely one among three (at least), one alongside several others? Or is an eschatology of love the substance, integration and crown of all others? Tirelessly Wesley reminds us that the Great Commandment is that we are to love profligately both God and neighbour. To be sure, faith is a form of knowing, and faith knows God without any weakening of ‘know’ at all. Still, the Great Commandment isn’t that we understand God on the grounds that God is intelligible intelligence. We are to love God on the grounds that God is love (1 John 4:8); love is all God is. Yet since the ‘root commandment’ of Scripture (‘root commandment’ is my idiosyncratic expression) is “You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2), the Great Commandment to love is the content of the ‘root’ commandment to be holy. And since Wesley was Puritan-informed and therefore aware that all God’s commands are ‘covered promises,’ both commandments are fulfilled in what Wesley called “the great, overarching promise of Scripture”; namely, the salvation at God’s hand that is nothing less than the transmogrification of women and men whose knowledge of God is the apprehension of love and whose sight of God is the beholding of love.

In 1770 Wesley was shocked to hear of the premature death of his younger friend and fellow-evangelist, George Whitefield. At a memorial service for Whitefield Wesley commented, tersely and tear-choked, on the love that Whitefield had awakened in him: “Can anything but love beget love?” Only love can beget love. And just as surely, Methodists since Wesley have always known, ultimately love begets love and nothing else.
Wesley’s is an eschatology of love.

II: THEOLOGY

The myth shows no sign of evaporating; the myth, that is, that compared to the Reformed or Lutheran traditions the Methodist tradition is theologically effete.
In fact Wesley expected (unrealistically perhaps) that his lay preachers, like him, would study five hours per day. He maintained the most important subject for the preacher to study was Scripture; and after that, logic – since a self-contradicted preacher will never utter a coherent message, and the preacher’s utterance ought to reflect the consistency of God’s action and speech. All theology has to be logically rigorous or else it doesn’t help the would-be preacher and can’t be communicated in any case.

Then what theology informed Wesley, and will continue to inform those who bear his name? He was thoroughly acquainted with seventeenth-century Anglican thought; he read the sixteenth-century continental Reformers; he cherished the English Reformers (Ridley, Latimer, Tyndale and Cranmer, the lattermost’s Book of Common Prayer being, Wesley insisted, the finest liturgical vehicle the church catholic had ever seen.)
Regularly I point out to my students passages in Wesley where the vocabulary and word-patterns come straight out of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. (It should be noted here that Wesley always insisted he agreed without reservation with the Genevan Reformer’s understanding of Total Depravity, and was only a “hair’s breadth” from Calvin on several other matters.) It was while Wesley heard read at worship the preface to Luther’s commentary on Romans that he came to faith; it was while Charles was reading the text of Luther’s commentary on Galatians that Methodism’s major poet came to faith.
When Wesley published his Christian Library, a fifty-book collection he edited and expected Methodists to read, thirty-two of the fifty volumes were by Puritan divines.

Wesley’s studies at Oxford found him meticulously apprised in the Patristic scholarship for which the University was reputed. Wesley knew the Church Fathers thoroughly, and while a son of the Western church he was critical of Augustine, the chief Western thinker, always preferring the Eastern fathers whose outstanding representative was Athanasius.

While Wesley was sharp in his criticism of what he observed concerning the Eastern Orthodox congregation in London, he remained indebted to outstanding Eastern Fathers such as Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373) and Macarius (ca. 300-391), Macarius being the Eastern thinker whose Spiritual Homilies underlie Wesley’s understanding of sanctification.

Then is Wesley’s theology a hodgepodge, little more than a grab-bag through which he runs his fingers, retaining whatever his hand happens to grasp? On the contrary there is a profound, coherent theology that Christians who bear his name have found compelling; a theology that admits many ingredients just because it disdains no one yet is stamped ultimately by Wesley’s genius as he forged a theology that, he maintained and those after him have acknowledged, is formed, informed and normed by the substance and logic of “the general tenor of Scripture,” as he customarily put it. For instance, while admitting that some bible texts might be read as supporting predestination, the “general tenor” of Scripture may not be read in this way; neither does the “general tenor” permit us to deny that God’s mercy is over all his works, an eternal decree of reprobation thereby ruled out. The “general tenor of Scripture” forbids us to narrow “God desires all to be saved” into an under-one’s-breath “God desires some.”

Wesley’s theology is catholic (i.e., non-sectarian). At its centre he upholds the three “grand doctrines,” without which the gospel is neither needed nor effective: original sin, justification by faith, and holiness (“present, inward salvation”). He endorses the Vincentian Canon: what has been believed by all Christians, at all times, in all places.

To be sure, Wesley wrote no tome of systematic theology. Neither did Luther, however, and no one disputes Luther’s theological singularity and profundity. Nevertheless, Wesley thought systematically, as an examination of his corpus on any topic shows.

III: TRADITION

Amnesia, G. K. Chesterton has written, is distressing not because someone can’t remember where she left her umbrella; amnesia is distressing because the amnesiac, lacking all memory, doesn’t know who she is; i.e., the person devoid of memory lacks an identity. Lacking an identity, she doesn’t know how she ought to behave and therefore can’t be trusted. Wesley was aware that a denomination or a congregation without Christian memory is a denomination or congregation that can never be trusted.

Christian memory the church more commonly calls tradition. Yet tradition, the received wisdom of the church, is never to be confused with traditionalism, the mindless absorption of all aspects of Christian history, many of which contradict the gospel and therefore should be jettisoned. Tradition, said Chesterton once again, is simply enfranchising the departed: the dead are permitted to vote. Wesley too insisted that the dead are permitted to vote; at the same time he insisted no less emphatically that the dead mustn’t be permitted to veto. For this reason he cherished Christian memory without sacralizing it so as to elevate it above Scripture and therein denature the gospel.

Insisting on the necessity of Christian memory, Wesley eschewed theological novelty. The theologically novel is ipso facto heretical. Since God has never left himself without witnesses, Wesley finds salvifically memorable many aspects of Christian history contemporary evangelicals set aside too readily. Evangelicals frequently assume they are the first generation of Christians to face the challenges they have recently identified, not realising that little is new in church history and the challenges besetting the church today have been faced and fought several times already in the centuries between antiquity and contemporaneity.
To be sure, Wesley never uses the word ‘tradition,’ since the first of the Edwardian Homilies (one of Anglicanism’s theological benchmarks) speaks of “the stinking puddles of men’s traditions.” He prefers “Christian Antiquity.” In this connection Wesley always sees Patristics as amplifying Scripture and resolving ambiguities in Scripture. To this end he writes, “The esteeming of the first three centuries, not equally with but next to the Scriptures, never carried any man (sic) into dangerous errors, nor probably ever will.”

There are other aspects of tradition that Wesley, a Protestant who never hesitated to speak of “the Romish delusion,” nonetheless finds in Rome. For instance, eight of the books listed in his Christian Library are by Roman Catholic mystics of the Counter Reformation, the Counter Reformation being Rome’s implacable opposition to the ‘Lutheranism’ claiming vast tracts of Europe in the Sixteenth Century. Admittedly, he read Roman Catholic mystics critically, red pen poised at all times (the way he read everyone). Nevertheless, always honouring God’s command to “plunder the Egyptians” (Exod. 3:22) he recognized in them an immersion in God whose experience and vocabulary were one with a biblical mysticism unashamed to speak of transport, rapture, vision, audition; unashamed to speak of revelations, visitations, hearing and seeing what may not be uttered; unashamed of Daniel’s trance and Paul’s man from Macedonia and Isaiah’s lip-seared prostration in the temple. Wesley knows that the Christian tradition has never lacked people for whom God’s Mediated immediacy is intimate and intense in equal measure.

Wesley is always aware that there is nothing more pathetic, useless and dangerous than individual or congregation or denomination devoid of Christian memory.

IV: PROTESTANT CONVICTIONS

Lest anyone think that Wesley was in truth what he was often accused of being, a crypto-Jesuit, it must be added immediately that Wesley upholds both the formal and material principles of the Magisterial Reformation.

Wesley’s endorsement of the formal principle, sola scriptura, is evident explicitly and implicitly throughout the thirty-five volumes of his Works. Characteristically he asserts he is homo unius libri, a man of one book. He never means he reads one book only. (Five paragraphs after describing himself as homo unius libri he quotes Homer’s Iliad in Greek.) ‘One-book-only’ bibliolatry he pronounces “rank enthusiasm; you are then above St. Paul” (who asked Timothy to bring him books). He means rather that one book is the unmodified norm of Christian faith and conduct. In a letter to a critic he maintains, “I receive the written Word as the whole and sole rule of my faith.” The four young men who birthed Methodism at Oxford “had one, and only one rule of judgement with regard to all their tempers, words and actions; namely, the oracles of God” (“oracles” being a term he borrowed from Calvin). On the matter of Scripture Wesley is incontrovertibly Reformational.

Similarly Wesley insists on the material principle of the Reformation, justification by faith. In a sermon he expostulates that justification by faith is the “the very foundation of our Church [i.e., Anglican]…and indeed the fundamental [doctrine] of the Reformed Churches.” In the Minutes of the second Methodist Conference (1745) he states categorically that where justification isn’t upheld the church doesn’t exist. In the face of detractors he maintains he has extolled justification by faith from the day of his evangelical awakening: “I believe justification by faith alone as much as I believe there is a God….I have never varied from it, no, not an hair’s breadth from 1738 to this day.” Always suspicious of Quakerism for several reasons, he declares, “I have not known ten Quakers in my life whose experience went so far as justification.” (He means he hasn’t met any.)

Wesley’s elaboration of justification sufficiently attests his agreement with the Reformers. He concurs with them concerning “the imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (while noting that Scripture nowhere uses the expression).

V: ZEAL FOR EVANGELISM

While Wesley was a gifted Patristics scholar and the most important Anglican thinker in the Eighteenth Century, we remember him today primarily because he was an evangelist.

Contemporary ‘evangelism,’ however, appears to differ from his in several respects. Our concern with evangelistic techniques, programs and “Ten Effective Steps” he would regard as manipulation at best and unbelief at worst. Wesley’s evangelism presupposes three pillars: predicament, penalty and provision.
Humankind’s predicament is bleak: the unrepentant sinner “abides in death…lost, dead, damned already” (emphasis Wesley’s). There is nothing in Wesley of modernity’s psychologizing of the human predicament; namely, we feel guilty (without being guilty), feel anxious, feel nervous, feel frustrated. Neither is there any existentializing of the human predicament: through our sin we have alienated ourselves from God, others and self. Wesley insists, rather, that we are alienated from God, others and self not on account of our sin but on account of God’s judgement on our sin. We haven’t sashayed or wandered out of Eden; we have been expelled by a judicial act of God.

The penalty for our primal disobedience is God’s condemnation. Such condemnation isn’t reserved for the future; it’s operative now. The Day of Judgement will merely render undeniable that truth of which the condemned are now culpably ignorant.
In light of the foregoing predicament and penalty the divinely-wrought provision is the atonement. Before sinners can repent and “return home,” provision must be made for them wherein the barricade to their return is removed. Before we can be reconciled to God, God must be reconciled to us.
It is little wonder Charles Wesley exults:

My God is reconciled,
His pard’ning voice I hear.
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.

Neither is it surprising that Charles characteristically speaks of someone’s coming to faith as “She received the atonement.” He typically gathers up predicament, penalty and provision in his pithy hymn:

Who hath done the dreadful deed,
Hath crucified my God?
Curses on his guilty head,
Who spilt that precious blood.
Worthy is the wretch to die;
Self-condemned, alas, is he! –
I have sold my Saviour, I
Have nailed him to the tree.

Yet thy wrath I cannot fear,
Thou gentle, bleeding Lamb!
By thy judgement I am clear,
Healed by stripes I am:
Thou for me a curse wast made,
That I might in thee be blest;
Thou hast my full ransom paid,
And in thy wounds I rest.

Methodist hymnody sings about the atonement more than about anything else.

VI: PASSION FOR HOLINESS

The ‘predestination/election’ word-group occurs approximately fifteen times in Scripture, and Christians have fought fiercely over its meaning. The ‘holy/sanctity’ word-group occurs 833 times, yet Christians have paid far less attention to it. Wesley, however, insists that holiness or final, full salvation is the grand promise of Scripture and the overarching theme of Scripture; it is the raison d’être of Methodism, the latter raised up by God “to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” (In every class I tell my students that Scripture is preoccupied with holiness. In the wake of our denial of God’s, he re-affirms it; in the wake of our contradiction of ours, he re-establishes it. The ultimate purpose of the cross isn’t that we are forgiven but that we are rendered holy, forgiveness being necessary to the restoration of our holiness.)

In addressing this topic Wesley characteristically speaks of “holiness of heart and life.” By “heart” Wesley means our inner intent, attitude, disposition; by “life” he means our behaviour, conduct, visibility. He insists that inner intent unmatched by outer manifestation is useless posturing, while an attempt at outer manifestation not rooted in inner transformation is crass self-righteousness. Supposed holiness of heart alone dishonours God in that it is feeble. Supposed holiness of life alone dishonours God in that it is arrogant. Holiness of heart and life are one as Spirit-quickened intention is fulfilled in Spirit-generated conduct.
Every day in his public ministry Wesley interacted with people whose addictions had held them fast for years. In the face of their enslavement he insisted, in effect, that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it. Specifically, God could not only release them from sin’s guilt (justification, forgiveness); God could release them from sin’s grip (sanctification, holiness). Beyond being pardoned his people needed to be delivered.
And lest we forget Wesley’s eschatological orientation we need to hear him say again, “Justification gives us the right to heaven; holiness makes us fit for heaven.” A ticket gives someone the right to the symphony concert; her musicality, however, renders her fit for the concert. What’s the point of being admitted to the concert if one is tone-deaf and finds the world-class violinist a screechy scourge? What’s the point of being admitted to that realm where God’s will is done perfectly if one has never relished doing it at all?

Wesley was anything but naïve as to the grip wherewith sin throttles people. We need the company and wisdom of fellow-believers, especially of those whose present deliverance will spare us paralyzing discouragement. In this context Wesley utters his famous “No holiness but social holiness.” By ‘social’ he doesn’t mean, contrary to the misunderstanding of liberal churchmanship, that ‘social holiness’ is another term for a programme of leftist social transmutation. He means, rather, precisely what the para-church groups that have arisen from his ethos and exist to facilitate a great deliverance (the “Anonymous” groups assisting the addicted of all sorts) have long known: the habituated (all sinners are such) need each other in order to escape their prison.

VII: KINGDOM VISIBILITY

Repeatedly Wesley asked whether Britain could be called “Christian” in light of social inequities so extreme as to be iniquities. Repeatedly he challenged distillers on account of the damage their “liquid fire” fostered; rich horse moguls whose grain-devouring steeds deprived the needy of bread; even tea-drinkers whose carriage-trade habit left them with insufficient funds for the poor. (See his “A Letter To A Friend Concerning Tea,” 1748.) “I love the poor,” Wesley reminded sobered, industrious, thrifty Methodists whose social ascendancy distressed him.

Aware that the disadvantaged are more frequently ill than the privileged, are more seriously ill, and are more remote from medical intervention, Wesley scrounged money to employ a surgeon and an apothecary. (In the first five months alone drugs were distributed to 500 people.) In 1746 he established London’s first free pharmacy. Haunted by the banks’ refusal to lend his people money for start-up business loans, he scrabbled fifty pounds for the first wave of entrepreneurs, these people in turn lending to others so that 250 were helped in the first year. The school he developed for the children of Kingswood coal miners operates to this day.

While some Christian advocates of a quasi-Marxist “social justice” like to claim Wesley as progenitor,he never vested confidence in a putative proletarian wisdom or virtue. Always concerned with the Kingdom of God, he regarded a philosophically-defined ‘justice’ as no better, no more God-honouring, and not least, no more just than the privilege it attempted to replace, as the French Revolution would shortly make plain. The scars he bore on his face and forehead reminded him every day of what Methodists could expect from mobs whose passions had not yet been reoriented by the gospel. If anyone needed to be informed, a survivor of the Wednesbury riots (1743) could help. For at Wednesbury Methodists had been assaulted, their services violated, their homes torched and their women raped. (Wesley’s non-vindictiveness attests his Lord’s triumph within him, for he visited the town thirty-three times and preached there at age 87, in 1790.)

An able Hebraist, Wesley knew that the primary meaning of mishpat is ‘judgement’; secondarily it means ‘justice’ as that human act quickened by God’s judgement, which judgement aims at restoration (shalom) and is therefore replete with mercy. ‘Justice’ in the Aristotelian (philosophical) sense – one gets what one deserves (and no more) – was not a determination of Wesley’s understanding or ethos. Always nervous about the clamour for social justice in Revolutionary France where unjust savagery of the right would soon give way to unjust savagery of the left, Wesley-the-Tory held up the reign of God, not politically correct ideology, as the operative reality whereby a fallen creation is assimilated to the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

VIII: EUCHARISTIC WORSHIP

Anglicans in Wesley’s era received Holy Communion three times per year: Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Throughout his adult life Wesley received Holy Communion on average 4.5 times per week. The Lord’s Supper is an “instituted” means of grace, “instituted” signifying that in this Christ-mandated rite Jesus has pledged himself to his people unfailingly.

Wesley was always astounded that some people who genuinely (claim to) fear God are indifferent concerning Holy Communion. For him the grounds of “constant communion” (his unaltered vocabulary in 1732 and fifty-five years later in 1787) were twofold: one, God commands it; two, we need it. Since Holy Communion is God’s command and is therefore to be obeyed, neglecting it means we have “no piety.” Since Holy Communion is God’s provision and is therein a mercy, neglecting it means we have “no wisdom.” Not surprisingly, then, Wesley’s realism concerning the nature and efficacy of the Lord’s Supper is notable: “What better way of procuring pardon?…You have an opportunity of receiving his mercy” (emphasis mine). The Eucharist conveys the mercy it attests.

When absentees advanced ‘reasons’ why they shouldn’t communicate, Wesley’s stern response was that they shouldn’t add disobedience to disobedience, no ‘reason,’ however piously cherished, overturning God’s precept and provision.
Those who proffered “We don’t feel any different for having been to the Lord’s Table” Wesley dealt with at greater length. Drawing on his pastoral wisdom, he averred that if evaders simply obeyed they would find affect catching up with act. Not finished with those who claim to be affect-deficient Wesley maintained that at the Lord’s Table Christ meets them in person with a fivefold “benefit”: they are strengthened “insensibly”, made more fit for the service of God, made more constant in the service of God, kept from backsliding, and spared many temptations. Undeniably it is Wesley’s conviction – together with that of the church catholic – that at the Lord’s Table one receives Christ himself.

Not relenting at all Wesley warns, “No man (sic) who does not receive it as often as he can has any pretence to prudence”; and such a person, Wesley insists, lacks self-perception. In short, unless we frequent the Lord’s Table we are deficient in piety, prudence, obedience, and perception of our need of mercy.
One more aspect of Wesley’s understanding must be highlighted. Whereas the Reformed tradition maintains that Holy Communion is a “confirming” sacrament, ever since June, 1740, Wesley maintained it to be “converting” as well. The Lord’s Supper not merely confirms and strengthens in faith those already possessed of faith; it may also bring to faith the unbeliever whose dark night ends at the communion rail.

EPILOGUE

We shouldn’t equate Wesley’s contribution with his theological legacy, with “our doctrines” (as he liked to say) or even with his broader intellectual influence. The gift of John Wesley is given anew, rather, as the people who name him embody his spirit; given again as his descendents exemplify the ethos of those whose work and witness fuelled the conflagration spreading throughout England and the New World. While it would be unfair to restrict ‘descendents’ to Methodist preachers, it remains that Methodism, then and now, is conveyed not by a liturgy or a curia or a bureaucracy or even a hymnody but chiefly, as Methodist icon Hugh Price Hughes (1847–1902) insisted, by its preachers. Concerning these preachers historian Dee Andrews has written that their service to the gospel, in early-day American Methodism, required “not only a gambler’s nerves and a dancer’s endurance but also the cunning of a hunter and the courage of a soldier.” She doesn’t exaggerate, for of the first 737 Methodist ministers in America, one-half died before they were thirty years old. Two-thirds didn’t live long enough to serve twelve years. Vocation meant immolation.

Not the least of Wesley’s gifts to the wider church is selfless service to the Master, voiced by the apostle Peter and offered up by Methodist preachers, “We have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28 RSV).

Victor A. Shepherd,   March, 2012

John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (bicentennial ed.; vol. 1; Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), pp. 79–95.
John Wesley, “A Letter to a Roman Catholic,” in John Wesley (ed. Albert C. Outler, ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 493 ff.
Kenneth G. Newport and Ted A. Campbell, eds., Charles Wesley: Life, Literature & Legacy (Peterborough, U.K.: Epworth, 2007), p. 134.
Not infrequently Wesley speaks of the “Romish delusion.” See, e.g., his Works, vol. 1, pp.128–129.
Wesley, Works, vol. 9, p. 70.
Charles Wesley, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” in John Wesley, Works, vol. 7, p. 546.
Wesley, Works, vol. 1, pp. 131–141.
Wesley, Works, vol. 2, p. 91.
John Wesley, Notes on the New Testament (Wakefield: William Nicholson and Sons, 1972).
John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (London: Epworth Press, 1952), p. 43.
Wesley, Works, vol. 2, p. 338.
Wesley, Works, vol. 2, p. 184.
Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of John Wesley (vol. IX; reprint; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1958–1959), pp. 216–217.
Wesley, Notes on the New Testament (Wakefield: William Nicholson and Sons, 1872), Romans 12:6.
Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. XII, p. 246. Wesley insisted that the denial of original sin renders all Christian doctrine incoherent. He makes this point repeatedly in his tract, “The Doctrine of Original Sin, according to Scripture, Reason and Experience,” in Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. IX. It is Wesley’s single largest tract.
While Chesterton makes similar points in many works, for a protracted discussion of the place of tradition see Orthodoxy (New York: Dover Publications, 2004) and The Everlasting Man (New York: Dover Publications, 2007).
For an amplification of Wesley’s understanding here see Ted A. Campbell, John Wesley and Christian Antiquity (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991).
Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. X, p. 14.
Wesley, Works, vol. 1, p. 105.
Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. VIII, p. 315.
For a cogent discussion of Wesley’s understanding of Scripture see Scott J. Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), as well as Jones, “The Rule of Scripture,” in Wesley and the Quadrilateral (W. Stephen Gunter et al.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997).
Jones, John Wesley’s Conception and Use of Scripture.
Wesley, Works, vol. 4, p. 395.
Wesley, Works, vol. 10, pp. 126–127.
Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. X, p. 349. Wesley makes the same point in his Works, vol. 4, p. 147. For Wesley’s single most sustained treatment of justification see his Works, vol. 1, pp. 182-199.
John Wesley, The Letters of John Wesley (ed. John Telford; vol. 7; London: Epworth, 1931), p. 26. For a more sustained discussion of Wesley’s assessment of Quakerism see his “A Letter to a Person Lately Joined with the People Called Quakers,” in Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. X, pp. 177–188.
Wesley, Works, vol. 1, p. 458.
Wesley, Works, vol. 1, p. 151.
Charles Wesley, “Arise, my soul, arise,” in John Wesley, Works, vol. 7, pp. 324–325.
Charles Wesley. “Glorious Saviour of my soul,” in John Wesley, Works, vol. 7, pp. 337–338.
For an exposition of this programmatic term see Wesley, Works, vol. 1, pp. 159–182.
This expression is found passim in Wesley. For an amplification of his “holiness of life arising from holiness of heart” see his Works, vol. 3, p. 75.
Holiness of heart and life is intimately related to freedom from sin’s guilt and grip. For an amplification of the latter see, e.g., Wesley, Works, vol. 1, pp. 122–124; vol. 2, p. 120.
Wesley, Christian Perfection, p. 31. Wesley makes the same point in “On the Wedding Garment,” in his Works, vol. 4, p. 144. He expected this written sermon (March, 1790) to be his last, his pronouncement here concerning the relationship of justification to holiness being his final word to the Methodist people. (He lived another year and penned another five sermons.)
In this connexion Wesley averred, “‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers.” In Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. XIV, p. 321. For the same point see Wesley, Works, vol. 1, pp. 533–534.
In Jackson, Works of John Wesley, vol. XI, chap. LI.
John Wesley, The Letters of John Wesley, (ed. John Telford; vol. 3; London, Epworth, 1931), p.229.
For a depiction of the incidents referred to above and a comprehensive exploration of this assault on the Methodist people see J. Leonard Waddy, The Bitter Sacred Cup: The Wednesbury Riots 1743-44, (Madison, N.J.: World Methodist Historical Society, 1976).
See, e.g., Wesley, Works, vol. 1, pp. 378–397.
Wesley, Works, vol. 3, p. 428.
Wesley, Works, vol. 3, p. 428.
Wesley, Works, vol. 3, p. 435.
Wesley, Works, vol. 3, p. 437.
Wesley, Works, vol. 3, p. 439.
Wesley, Works, vol. 19, p. 158.
Dee Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760–1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 234.