What Is Salvation?

John Wesley was consistent in how he understood salvation. In The Scripture Way of Salvation, he asks, “What is salvation. He answers, “The salvation which is spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness …. It is not a blessing that lies on the other side of death ….” “No,” he says, “it is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of” (§I.1).

It is a gift of God in this life, a gift that death cannot take from us. In its broadest sense it is a process that begins with prevenient grace. In “Working out Our Own Salvation,” Wesley says it is then “carried on by ‘convincing grace,’ usually in scripture termed ‘repentance,’ which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a further deliverance from the heart of stone.” Following this is “the proper Christian salvation, whereby ‘through grace’ we ‘are saved by faith,’ consisting of those two grand branches, justification and sanctification. By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God: by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God” (§II.1).

Salvation, then, is the project of God, with the goal of restoring us to the condition in which we were originally created. The heart of this divine renovation is love: God is love, and salvation enables us to love as God loves. We receive this new life as a free gift.

If this gift is what salvation is, and it is so wonderfully life-transforming, why do so many in the church seem to settle for less? I think there are two misunderstandings that keep persons from the fullness of life that God promises. Both have one thing in common: they understand Christianity as fundamentally about the life to come — about what happens when you die.

The most common of these misunderstandings is that most people are basically good enough that a loving God will let them into heaven. Most Americans believe that being good enough is fairly easy — it is simply being a nice person. If someone is a mass murderer, most believe the case is hopeless — God would never forgive such a person. But most of us aren’t mass murderers. We are ordinary people who are not perfect but good enough to make the cut.

The second misunderstanding has been called by Dallas Willard a “bar code faith.” The scanner at the check-out line reads only the bar code on a product. If the bar code for ice cream is placed on dog food, the scanner will read “ice cream.” The content of the package is irrelevant.

Willard says a “bar code faith” operates much the same way. We take some action — we have faith, get baptized, join the church — and that gives us a new bar code. God then pays no attention to our actual sinful content. When we are scanned across the divine scanner, it reads “Christ’s righteousness.” We remain the same, only now we go to heaven. As Willard says, our present life “has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the ‘bar code’ does its job” (The Divine Conspiracy [Harper Collins, 1998], 37).

Wesley faced both misunderstandings. The first was common in his Church of England. For many, “by a religious man is commonly meant, one that is honest, just and fair in his dealings; that is constantly at church and sacrament; and that gives much alms, or (as it is usually termed) does much good” (Journal, 25 November 1739). Persons who met these criteria would go to heaven when they die.

The second was found among preachers in the evangelical awakening who offered forgiveness without new life. Wesley said, let a preacher “bawl out something about Christ, or his blood, or justification by faith, and his hearers cry out, ‘what a fine Gospel sermon!’ Surely the Methodists have not so learned Christ. We know no Gospel without salvation from sin” (Letters to Miss Bishop, 18 October 1778).

For Wesley this was missing the point of salvation. He and his Methodists were “grieved at the sight” of persons with “no religion at all” or with “a lifeless, formal religion.” They sought to convince them “that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. And this we conceived to be no other than love: the love of God and all mankind: the loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made … as our own soul” (An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, §2)

This is the life God wants to give us. It is a life that mends broken relationships, infuses us with hope, has a peace and joy that abides, and motivates us to worship God and serve others. To proclaim the promise of this life was at the heart of Wesley’s Methodism.

Shapers of Early Methodism: Mary Bosanquet Fletcher

Last year I wrote about three significant colleagues of John Wesley who had a major impact on early Methodism: Charles Wesley, William Grimshaw, and John Fletcher. To that list also belongs Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, who among other things was one of the first women preachers in Methodism.

Because having men as lay preachers was highly controversial in the eighteenth century, having women as preachers was almost unthinkable. Certainly, there were women in significant public roles from the early days of the Methodist movement, offering prayers, giving testimonies, leading classes, and sometimes even exhorting listeners following a sermon. But actual preaching was a much more radical step.

Wesley’s reticence was shown in how he responded to Sarah Crosby in 1761. Expecting thirty but finding two hundred in attendance at a meeting, she felt led to publicly exhort the people. She wrote Wesley for guidance, in the meanwhile speaking to yet another large crowd while waiting for a response.

Wesley’s reply sought to reassure her while avoiding what might be technically called preaching: “Hitherto, I think you have not gone too far. You could not well do less …. When you meet again … tell them simply, ‘You lay me under a great difficulty. The Methodists do not allow of women preachers: neither do I take upon me any such character. But I will just nakedly tell you what is in my heart’” (cited in Paul Wesley Chilcote, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism [Scarecrow, 1991], 122).

Despite Wesley’s caution, he nonetheless continued to support the public speaking of Sarah Crosby and others.

Crosby’s letter was apparently conveyed to Wesley by Mary Bosanquet. Born in 1739, Bonsanquet was the daughter of a banker, and her loyal Anglican parents were dismayed when as a teenager she became involved with the Methodists, especially with her desire to wear plain clothing and avoid attending plays. At age 22 she and her parents mutually decided she should leave home, living on an inheritance from her grandmother.

With her friend and mentor Sarah Ryan, she opened an orphanage and school at Leytonstone. Ryan, who was 18 years older than Bosanquet, had been a domestic servant, a radically different background from the well-to-do Bosanquet. But the two women bonded and became the nucleus of the most important center of women’s ministry in early Methodism.

Joined by Sarah Crosby, the women moved to a farmhouse called Cross Hall in Yorkshire in 1768. That same year Sarah Ryan died. It was during this period that Bosanquet first heard Sarah Crosby preach.

Bosanquet began her public speaking at prayer meetings for orphans and women. As neighbors began attending and the numbers grew, her public speaking increasingly took the form of preaching, and began to evoke criticism.

Writing Wesley for advice in 1771, Bosanquet noted that her peaching had reached hundreds who might never had entered a preaching house. This was followed by a lengthy interpretation of the relevant passages of Scripture. She notes that Scripture is thought by many to permit a woman to speak in public “now and then, if under a peculiar impulse, but never else.” But how many times does this really mean? “Perhaps you will say, two or three times in her life; perhaps God will say two or three times in a week, or a day — and where shall we find the Rule for his?” (cited in Chilcote, 301) She claimed she had received such an “extraordinary call” to preach.

Wesley’s response was a complete endorsement of her preaching as an “extraordinary call,” the same extraordinary call received by the male lay preachers. Soon thereafter the Methodist conference began giving women preachers letters of endorsement for their ministry, signed by John Wesley.

Mary Bosanquet’s work at Yorkshire continued for another decade, until she married John Fletcher and moved to his parish at Madely. Their happy marriage was cut short by his death in 1785.

Mary Fletcher continued her ministry for another thirty years, until she died at age 76. She led the Methodist society at Madely — the only woman to lead a society — and preached regularly at the preaching chapel she and John Fletcher had built at there. In 1814, a year before she died, she was preaching five services a week. The heart of her messages was thoroughly Wesleyan: the promise of a heart perfected in love, grounded in God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. It was to this good news she gave her life, and in which she mentored a new generation of Methodist women leaders.

Shapers of Early Methodism: John Fletcher

Next to his brother Charles, no one played a more significant role in John Wesley’s Methodism than John Fletcher. Although little remembered today, Fletcher’s theological works were read alongside the Wesley brothers by Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic well into the 19th century.

He was born in 1729 near Lake Geneva in Switzerland as Jean Gillaume de la Flѐchére, into a respectable family and a privileged life. A gifted student, Fletcher wanted to enter the ministry, but was opposed to the predestinarian teaching of the Reformed Church. Instead he joined the Dutch army to serve as an engineer, but an accident in which his legs were badly scalded put an abrupt end to this military career in 1749.

Fletcher went to England, and by 1752, he had become a tutor to the two sons of Thomas Hill, an influential member of Parliament. It was during his years with the Hill family that Fletcher discovered the Methodists and joined the London society. There he came to realize his moral striving, as earnest as it was, would not bring him the assurance of salvation he desired. This led in 1755 to an experience in which through the power of God he came to know forgiveness of sins and received a transformed heart and life.

He then returned to his original calling to the ministry and was ordained in the Church of England in 1757. Turning down more lucrative offers, Fletcher felt called to Madely, in the heart of the English iron and coal industry.

As he began his ministry there in 1760, he faced much opposition. Many of his working class parishioners were devoted to drink and rowdiness, while the more well-to-do disliked his Methodist beliefs and practices. But people began to attend his services in increasing numbers, conversions were occurring, and his diligent pastoral care was well-received.

Fletcher’s ties with the leaders of the awakening also began to strengthen. Madely became a place of welcome for the Wesley brothers and their preachers, as well as George Whitefield and others. In 1768, Fletcher became President of the Countess of Huntingdon’s school for preachers at Trevecca, while continuing the serve as priest at Madely.

Then, in 1770, John Wesley published the minutes of the annual conference of his preachers which, to Calvinist ears, seemed to endorse works as necessary for salvation. The Countess demanded her teachers all sign a disavowal, which in the end Fletcher refused to do. Resigning from the college, he put his pen in the service of Wesley and his Arminian theology.

This led to John Fletcher’s “Checks to Antinomianism,” a series of open letters defending Wesleyan teaching, from prevenient grace to Christian perfection. At the time they helped fuel a five-year controversy between the Calvinist and Arminian wings of the awakening. Soon “Mr. Fletcher’s Checks” became standard reading for generations of Methodist preachers and many laity.

By 1775, Fetcher began to suffer from tuberculosis, and traveled in order to rest and recover, including a return to Switzerland. He returned to Madely in 1781. That same year he proposed marriage to Mary Bonsanquet, who he had been drawn to for 26 years but had hesitated to approach due to his health issues. She too was a highly influential leader among Wesley’s Methodists. They were married in 1781 and happily in ministry together until John Fletcher’s death in 1785.

Fletcher’s other major theological work, A Portrait of Saint Paul, was published after his death in 1790. Written while recuperating in Switzerland, Fletcher developed Wesleyan theology in two ways that would have lasting impact. The first was his identification of the baptism of the holy Spirit with Christian perfection. Although Fletcher himself can speak of one or many “fillings” of the Spirit, his language of Spirit baptism will prove influential as it is passed along from early Methodism to the Holiness movement, and then to Pentecostalism.

The second was his theology of trinitarian dispensations. Fletcher’s description of humanity as now in the dispensation of the Spirit, and his argument that these dispensations are also stages within the way of salvation, would capture the imagination of Methodist and Holiness adherents throughout the 19th century.

Wesley had hoped Fletcher would succeed him and Charles as the leader of Methodism, but he died before either of the two brothers. Many in and out of Methodism thought of Fletcher as a saint. In his short biography of Fletcher, John Wesley said “I have not known one so uniformly and deeply devoted to God…nor do I expect to find another such, on this side of eternity.”

Shapers of Early Methodism: William Grimshaw

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of William Grimshaw’s ministry in northern England. He was one of the most conscientious parish pastors of his day, yet also an itinerant preacher who turned his parish into a center of Wesleyan Methodism. His “catholic spirit” enabled him to embrace all factions of the awakening and his ministry had an impact on the Church of England, dissenting denominations, and Methodism. His fervent piety and Methodist practices led many to call him “Mad Grimshaw.”

None of this could have been predicted during the first half of his life. Born in 1708 in humble circumstances, Grimshaw was a good student and in 1726 was accepted into Christ’s College, Cambridge University. Like the Wesley brothers saw at Oxford, the academic and moral standards at Cambridge were low. But unlike the Wesley’s, after a couple of years of serious study Grimshaw gradually entered into a social life marked by gambling, drinking, and swearing.

This was how he was living when he was ordained deacon in 1731, and elder in 1732. As the pastor at Tedmordon he continued his life of hunting, fishing, and socializing, fulfilling only the required responsibility of leading worship.

It was in 1734 that Grimshaw had a spiritual awakening. He was shaken by his own sinfulness, sought to reform his life, and his change in behavior was noted by those around him.

Grimshaw married Sarah Sutcliff in 1735 and had two infant children when Sarah died in 1739. Her death drove Grimshaw to despair. Now he struggled with doubts about God’s mercy as well as his own sin.

Another minister convinced Grimshaw that he had yet to believe in Jesus Christ. Then in 1741 Grimshaw read the Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677), written by the Puritan John Owen, which showed that salvation was by God’s initiative and received by faith in Jesus Christ. As Grimshaw told Henry Venn, “I was now willing to renounced myself, every degree of fancied merit and ability, and to embrace Christ only for my all in all. O what light and comfort did I now enjoy in my own soul, and what a taste of the pardoning love of God” (Cited in Frank Baker, William Grimshaw [Epworth Press, 1963], 46). Grimshaw became an avid reader of the Bible and the theme of his sermons moved from purely warnings against sin to salvation by faith.

In 1742, Grimshaw was appointed to the parish church in Haworth, where he would live out the rest of his ministry. The people there were largely employed by the textile industry and lived in dire poverty. Death and disease were common, and immorality and violence prevalent.

Grimshaw’s passionate sermons denouncing sin and calling for faith in Christ had an immediate impact on the desperate people of Haworth and beyond. He drew so many listeners that the church had to be enlarged. By 1742, Grimshaw was also visiting each of the three hundred families in his parish annually.

In 1744 Grimshaw had another powerful spiritual experience. Overcome by weakness, he collapsed during Sunday worship and was carried to a nearby inn. When he recovered, he reported a vision of Jesus showing him his wounded hands and feet. The effect was to give him an assurance of salvation that eliminated the doubts that remained after his conversion.

As the awakening in Haworth gathered strength, Grimshaw began itinerant preaching outside the bounds of his parish in 1747 and utilizing lay preachers even earlier, in 1745. Charles Wesley visited Grimshaw in 1746 and was impressed by his ministry and the new societies formed by Grimshaw’s lay preacher, William Darney. In 1747, John Wesley went to Haworth, and both Grimshaw and Darney’s societies became part of Wesley’s growing connection.

The “Haworth round” became the northern center of Wesleyan Methodism. While remaining a faithful pastor of his church, Grimshaw threw himself into Methodist work, overseeing lay preachers and societies, and organizing class meetings. Grimshaw was the first to employ circuit-wide Quarterly Meetings, a practice that would spread throughout Methodism.

Grimshaw became known as “the apostle of the north.” John Wesley chose him as his designated successor after brother Charles, but Grimshaw died of typhus in 1763 well before both of them, of typhus. But the impact of his ministry on both Methodism and northern England would be felt well into the nineteenth century.

Grimshaw preached the central emphases of Methodism: original sin, atonement, universal grace, the power of the Holy Spirit, justification, and sanctification. He endeavored to preach in the everyday language of his people, what he termed “market-language.” But he was clear about what mattered most: “A sanctified heart in a minister is better that a silver tongue” (119).

Shapers of Early Methodism: Charles Wesley

John Wesley did not single-handedly lead the Methodist movement, but was assisted by a number of clergy and lay allies. This year I want to look at three of the most significant. We begin by considering another Wesley: John’s younger brother, Charles.

Charles Wesley was born in 1707, the eighteenth of Susanna Wesley’s nineteen (only ten survived infancy) and the youngest of her three sons. Like all of her children, Charles was trained by her in matters educational and spiritual beginning at age five.

In 1716, Charles entered the prestigious Westminster School in London, where his oldest brother Samuel Jr. was head usher. There he lived with his brother and his wife, who were themselves old enough to be Charles’ parents.

He went to Oxford University in 1727, where just the year before his brother John had been elected a Fellow of Lincoln College. On his own for the first time, Charles initially led a spiritually indifferent life. When he was asked about this by a worried John, Charles would reply, “What! Would you have me be a saint all at once?”

But like John before him, Charles soon became serious about religion. It was Charles who actually formed the initial group of students that would derisively be called the “Holy Club,” and would become a model for the societies and classes at the heart of later Methodist practice. John would later call the Holy Club “the first rise of Methodism” (A Short History of the People Called Methodists,¶ 9).

Both John and Charles were seeking holiness of heart and life as well as assurance of salvation, and both were deeply influenced by Peter Böhler, of the Moravian Brethren, who told them faith in Christ comes as a gift of grace. Receiving this ability to trust in Christ for his salvation was at the heart of John’s famous Aldersgate experience.

For Charles it occurred three days earlier, on May 21, 1738, on Pentecost Sunday. Charles was sick in bed, being cared for at the home of John Bray. While lying there he heard a voice say, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, arise, and believe, and thou shalt be healed of all thy infirmities.” The speaker was Mrs. Musgrave, sister of John Bray, who said she was commanded by Christ to say these words. Charles struggled within, but “the Spirit of God strove with my own spirit . . . till by degrees he chased away the darkness of my unbelief. I found myself convinced, I know now how, or when . . . I found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ” (See the complete account in John Tyson, Assist Me to Proclaim [Eerdmans, 2007], 47).

It was the next day, May 22, that Charles wrote his first hymn, which many believe was “Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin.” This would be the first of at least 6,500 hymns Charles would write, of a total of 8,989 hymns and poems together.

A year later, May 21, 1939, Charles wrote a hymn “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion,” based on a comment by Peter Böhler: “Had I a thousand tongues to sing, I would praise him with them all.” The hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” became one of his most well-known.

John edited and published most of his brother’s hymns, although Charles published some on his own. Overall there were 56 collections of hymns published by the Wesleys. John was a bad hymnwriter but a good editor, shortening his brother’s hymns with a keen sense of highlighting stronger verses and maintaining continuity. John also corrected his brother’s theology, which Charles did not always appreciate. But John admired Charles, calling him “the most admirable devotional lyric poet in the English language.”

At this time hymns were not sung in the Church of England—they lined the Psalms instead—so Charles’ hymns were written primarily for the Methodist Societies. The invitational and personal nature of many of the hymns was revolutionary, and their emphasis on God’s universal love made them distinct from hymns by Calvinist writers.

Within their overall agreement were theological tensions between the two brothers. Charles saw himself as an Anglican first and then a Methodist, and worried that John’s commitment to Methodism would lead him to waver in his devotion to the Church of England. This explains Charles’ fury when John ordains Thomas Coke a superintendent for American Methodists after the revolution, as well as ordaining two of his lay preachers.

As Joanna Cruickshank has shown in Pain, Passion and Faith (Scarecrow, 2009), Charles also emphasized the necessity of suffering for Christian growth in a way John thought both excessive and lacking proper nuance. Charles conflated enduring everyday hardships with taking up our cross to follow Jesus, while John distinguished them. Charles also defined Christian perfection in such absolute terms that John thought his brother made it impossible to attain in this life.

Methodism is a product of both Wesleys, not John alone. While Charles was known to be an excellent preacher, it is his hymns that have had the greatest impact. Vastly more Christians have sung the words of Charles than have read the words of John. That influence continues today, in hymnals all across the world.

Staying on the Path of Salvation

Wesley’s life was forever changed when in 1735 he was convinced salvation was at its heart about fully and unreservedly loving God and neighbor. Then in 1738 he found through his own experience and the testimonies of others that salvation is a gift of grace, and we enter into it by faith. We are forgiven our sins and reconciled to God (justification), are born anew and grow in love (sanctification) until we attain Christian perfection, in which we love God and neighbor with all our hearts.

A year later he reluctantly followed George Whitefield in preaching outside the walls of church buildings, providing a way to bring this message of salvation to the people of England without the restraint of church authorities or the limitations of a parish. After recognizing that God was calling laity to preach, he organized a connection of lay preachers to spread this message even more widely. This was significantly augmented by other Methodists who shared their faith with their neighbors.

Historically, religious awakenings like the one of which Wesley was a part, often have had a strong initial impact but limited lasting effect. Lives were changed, but only some persevered. Wesley was aware of this and took several steps to counteract this tendency. He gathered Methodists into societies centered in cities and towns. He designed a spiritual discipline (“The Rules of the United Societies”) to aid their growth, consisting of three rules: (1) do no harm, (2) do good to the bodies and souls of others, and (3) attend the ordinances of God, both in their daily devotions and Sunday worship. Wesley also created smaller groups called “bands.” Borrowed from the Moravian Brethren, Wesley refashioned his bands to be an aid for those who were growing in sanctification.

But as the success of Wesleyan preaching and testimony brought ever-increasing numbers of both seekers of salvation and newly reborn Christians into his movement, the societies grew rapidly. They were too large to enable conversation and sharing, and the bands were not designed for these newer members. Many were not keeping to the rules of discipline; some had fallen back into sinful habits. With the societies so large, and their members widely dispersed, how could Wesley assist these “disorderly walkers” to return to the way of salvation?

The solution came in Bristol in 1740 when a member named Captain Foy suggested the society be divided into classes of 12 members each, to enable a leader to weekly collect a penny from each member of his or her class to pay off the debt for the building of a preaching chapel. As the leaders visited, they discovered those who were struggling to keep to the spiritual disciplines, and hence maintain their relationship with God. Wesley quickly realized that having these classes was the solution to the problem of how to maintain spiritual oversight over his growing movement. The difficulties of visiting each member led to having a weekly class meeting instead, whose main purpose was accountability to the discipline and spiritual counsel from the leader to its members. Persons now entered Wesley’s societies through enrollment in a class meeting, and regular attendance became requisite to continue as one of his Methodists.

It was the combination of society, class, band, and spiritual discipline that enabled his Methodists to grow toward that goal of perfect love. Wesley later speaks of their importance in this way: “I was more convinced than ever, that the peaching like an Apostle, without joining together those that are awakened, and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer” (Journal, August 25, 1763). Wesley now had an organizational structure not only designed to spread the gospel but to enable those who respond to remain on the way of salvation.

This structure, along with his connection of lay preachers, was Wesley’s remedy to what he believed was lacking in the church of England. When criticized in 1746 for violating the order of the church Wesley asks in response, “What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth” (Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746). Wesley had found a structure that did meet those ends, enabling thousands to hear, believe, and grow in the knowledge and love of God.

Proclaiming the Good News of Salvation

This year we are looking at some of the key turning points in Wesley’s theology and ministry. We have seen that in 1725 he became convinced the goal of salvation was to restore us to the image of God in which we were created, such that we wholeheartedly love God and our neighbor — what he called holiness of heart and life, or Christian perfection. Then in 1738, by way of the Moravian Brethren and the meeting on Aldersgate Street, he recognized that salvation is a gift of grace received by faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, he also learned that justification (the forgiveness of sins) is the doorway to sanctification (the new life in Christ centered in love).

Wesley now had a message to proclaim but limited opportunity to do it. He did not pastor a church, and was not often welcome in the pulpits of others — his preaching justification was thought to undercut moral accountability, and his talk of the heart sounded too experiential for many. His preaching, then, was limited to a few friendly churches and smaller groups of willing listeners. But all this would soon change, and the catalyst would be George Whitefield.

Whitefield had been a member of the Holy Club at Oxford. His poor background led many there to look down on him, but the Wesley brothers welcomed him as a friend and fellow seeker of salvation. Before becoming a Christian Whitefield had been an aspiring actor, and it was that training he now brought to his preaching. In both England and America, he electrified audiences, drawing enormous crowds of eager listeners. In March of 1739 Whitefield was preaching in Bristol, but was soon to leave England and return to America. Whitefield urged John Wesley to come and continue the work he had begun. Though reluctant, Wesley finally agreed.

What he found when he arrived was unsettling: Whitefield was preaching outdoors. The accepted practice in the Church of England was for peaching to only occur within a building consecrated for that purpose by a bishop. What Whitefield was doing was highly irregular. Nor was he seeking the prior permission of the parish priest for his open-air preaching. Arriving on March 31, Wesley wrote, “I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church” (Journal).

Sunday night (April 1) he spoke at society meeting on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “one pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching….” Then on April 2, he “submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining the city, to about three thousand people…” (Journal). The response to his preaching was unlike any he had seen before. John Wesley continued the practice of field preaching throughout his life, and within a month after John’s sermon in Bristol his brother Charles began doing it as well.

It was in 1740 that a layperson in one of Wesley’s societies, Thomas Maxfield, began preaching. This was another turning point for John Wesley. His initial reluctance turned to an embrace of lay preachers, believing they had an extraordinary call of God. In time, Wesley had around a hundred lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout England. Now Wesley had a connection of preachers devoted to the mission which he believed God had given to them all: “to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and spread scriptural holiness over the land” (“The Revised Disciplinary Minutes 1753–89” [Works 10:845]).

The Gift of Faith

In this year’s Consider Wesley we are looking at some key turning points in John Wesley’s life and theology. In the first article we examined his 1725 commitment to holiness of heart and life, or perfection in love, which governed his theological vision throughout his entire life. At that time, he also believed that attaining Christian perfection was the precondition for having an assurance that he was accepted by God. In this he was mistaken, but for the decade following 1725 it gave urgency to his quest for holiness.

Wesley experimented with a number of strategies designed to help him attain holiness. Spiritual writers he had read emphasized the need for intentionality, to aim for holiness with singleness of heart. Then in 1730 he became involved in a group begun at Oxford by his younger brother Charles, called by its detractors the “Holy Club,” or the “Methodists.” There they participated in a pattern of discipline including prayer, reading Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, study, and service to others. Although neither desire nor discipline were sufficient in themselves to enable Wesley to reach perfect love, he came to view them as necessary, and they were core features of later Methodist spirituality.

This was not true of mystical detachment, another strategy Wesley tried. The idea was to detach oneself from all else to enable one to focus only on God. Wesley came to see the passivity and the turning away from others that accompanied detachment actually to endanger the Christian life.

The critical event for Wesley in his search for holiness was his encounter with the Moravian Brethren in 1736. The Moravians were a branch of the Pietist movement based in Germany. Although their concern for a changed heart was similar to Wesley’s, their way of attaining it was quite different.

Wesley was attracted to them initially through witnessing their calm assurance during a dangerous storm as he and they crossed the Atlantic to the Georgia Colony. Because they had the assurance Wesley lacked, he began conversing with them both in Georgia and when he had returned to London. There Peter Böhler told him that forgiveness and assurance could only be received by faith, a trusting in what God had done for him through the cross of Jesus Christ. That faith, he said, comes as a gift of grace. One cannot attain it through effort; it comes at God’s initiative to those who desire it and are open to receive it.

This is what Wesley received at the meeting on Aldersgate Street in 1738, the most well-known event in Wesley’s life. Of this he wrote in his Journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ and Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

To use Wesley’s own theological language, Wesley was enabled to trust in Christ (have faith) for his salvation, received an assurance of forgiveness of sins (justification), and was given a new birth (the beginning of sanctification). Although not all the theological implications of this event were evident at the time, Aldersgate had an enduring impact of Wesley’s theology and practice.

First, he gained a new awareness of the transforming power of God. He came to understand grace as not only divine favor but divine power, and to develop a more dynamic understanding of the Holy Spirit and a robust Trinitarian theology.

Second, his realization that he had assurance while not yet attaining perfection in love led him to distinguish more clearly between the new birth as the beginning of the process of sanctification, and Christian perfection as its goal.

Third, he came to understand salvation as both instantaneous and gradual. Justification and new birth were the result of an instantaneous work of grace, as was Christian perfection. Both were preceded and followed by gradual growth, also the work of grace. It was the instantaneous works that laid the foundation for the subsequent gradual works that followed.

Finally, Wesley learned that his desire for holiness had been compromised by his need for assurance. One does not attain holiness by making it a means to an end. After Aldersgate, Wesley’s motivation changed from seeking to get God’s acceptance to gratitude for having received that acceptance. It is gratitude as a response to God’s gracious love that enables us to truly grow in love for God and our neighbor.

The Religion of the Heart

For John Wesley there were a number of turning points by which he gained new insight that decisively shaped not only his theology but his life. This year in Consider Wesley I want to describe four of those life-changing events.

The first of these rivals his famous attendance at the meeting on Aldersgate Street in significance if not in drama. It occurred when as a student at Oxford in 1725 the twenty-two-year-old Wesley read two books that changed his life: The Imitation of Christ by the medieval mystic Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471) and Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying by Church of England Bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667).

In his A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766) Wesley describes the impact these two books had on him. Reading Taylor, “I was exceedingly affected; that part in particular that relates to purity of intention. Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and words, and actions …” (§2). Kempis confirmed and deepened that resolve: “The nature and extent of inward religion, the religion of the heart, now appeared to me in a stronger light than ever it had done before. I saw, that giving even all my life to God … would profit me nothing, unless I gave my heart, yea, all my heart, to him” (§3).

Without “‘simplicity of intention, and purity of affection,’ one design in all we speak or do, and one desire ruling our tempers,” Wesley believes our souls can never ascend to God (§3). The language of “purity of intention” or “one desire ruling our tempers” refers to the dispositions of the heart. Another way Wesley will speak of this is holiness of heart, which, because it governs our motives and desires, leads to holiness of life.

Wesley delves more deeply into the Scriptures as well as continues reading more “holy living” writers, looking for advice on how to shape and discipline his life to attain this goal. In particular, he highlights a third author as especially contributing to his search for purity of heart, his older contemporary Willian Law (1686–1761). The books were Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life and A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection. “These convinced me, more than ever,” wrote Wesley, “of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian, and I determined, through this grace, (the absolute necessity of which I was deeply sensible of,) to be all-devoted to God …” (§4).

These are the roots of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, easily his most controversial teaching but also the one more than any other that governs his understanding of Christian salvation. In Wesley’s mature theology, to attain Christian perfection is to be renewed in the divine image; it is to love God wholly and unreservedly, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Wesley develops the most theologically developed, thoroughly Protestant version of this Christian perfection tradition.

To do this Wesley will come to define Christian perfection not as absolute perfection but, in accordance with its Greek linguistic roots, as perfection with regard to a goal, which in this case is love. He will further distinguish between intentional sin, which has to do with the dispositions of the heart, and involuntary transgressions, in which through ignorance or other limitations our actions fail to fulfill the will of Good. Christian perfection purifies the intentions of the heart but does not prevent us from actions that unintentionally violate God’s will.

His more immediate problem from 1725 to 1738 is that he believes attaining purity of heart is necessary to have assurance of salvation. To resolve this issue, he will need to distinguish more clearly justification from sanctification, and new birth from Christian perfection, as well as make room for a much more robust understanding of the divine initiative in the cross of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.

But he will never abandon the centrality of Christian perfection in his theology. In September 1790, less than a year from his death, Wesley says of Christian perfection: “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appears to have raised us up” (Letter to Robert Carr Brackenberry, 15 September 1790). It was and remains at the very heart of Wesleyan Christianity.

Great Commandment Evangelism

Evangelism today is often described as done in obedience to the Great Commission of Matt 28:16–20. This passage is widely appealed to as our motivation for evangelism, and analyzed in depth for clues regarding the content and method of evangelism. It is arguably one key influence on the United Methodist mission statement in the Book of Discipline.

Given its enormous impact on the language of evangelism today, it is remarkable that there is virtually no mention of the Great Commission in the writings of John Wesley and his Methodists. Indeed, there is almost nothing said about it by the Calvinists or Moravians of his day either. How is it that there was a great religious awakening in the eighteenth century fueled by widespread evangelistic preaching and personal testimony without any reference to the Great Commission as it foundation? If not the Great Commission, what was their motivation?

Although Wesley makes little reference to the Great Commission, his writings are filled with references and allusions to the two Great Commandments. Loving God and one’s neighbor were at the heart of his theology and practice. To put it simply, Wesley and his people called Methodists were not motivated by obedience to a command but by love in their hearts for God and their neighbor. It was not obligation that drove their evangelism, but a yearning to share the good news of God’s life-transforming love with others.

In An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion John Wesley offers this account of what motivates his Methodists:

We see — and who does not? — the numberless follies and miseries of our fellow creatures. We see on every side either men of no religion at all or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight, and should greatly rejoice if, by any means, we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained, a religion worthy of God that gave it. (¶ 2)

There is a gift they have received, freely given through Jesus Christ, which they long to share with others. And what is this gift, this religion worthy of God?

And this we conceive to be no other than love: the love of God and of all mankind the loving God with all our heart and soul and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made … as our own soul. (¶ 2)

How, then, did they go about convincing others of this “better religion” which is “no other than love”? They did not, by and large, rely on rational arguments to persuade the intellect. The credibility of their preaching and testimony rested in the visible effects of the gospel in their own lives, community, and service to others.

When Wesley does comment on the Great Commission in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament he completely ignores Jesus’s words, “Go therefore” to all the nations, which might seem odd for someone who saw the whole world as his parish. His focus instead was on the words “disciple all nations.” The goal of salvation was to make disciples, but as Wesley makes clear throughout his writings, salvation produces not just persons who are obedient to external commands but whose motivations, desires and dispositions are rooted in and governed by love.

In his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” Wesley paints a breathtakingly radical picture of a global Christian church — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — renewed in holiness, or love. He models this on the church portrayed at the end of Acts 2. With the church renewed in holiness, he then describes the spread of the gospel to non-Christians in this way: “The grand stumbling-block being thus happily removed out of the way, namely, the lives of Christians,” non-Christians “will look upon them with other eyes, and begin to give attention to their words” (¶ 21).

Wesley is not proposing a moratorium on sharing the gospel with non-Christians until the entire church is renewed in holiness. What he is saying is that the primary argument for the gospel is lives and churches who in their relationships, their life together, and their outreach to others is motivated and characterized by love. It is both the reason for and the result of evangelism.

Joining Together the Awakened

Evangelism in America has long been focused on eliciting an individual decision to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The decision one makes determines whether one’s sins are forgiven, and thereby one’s eternal destiny. This call to decision has been an explicit goal of much of evangelism and revivalism since the late nineteenth century, but its roots are in the second great awakening. Since the 1970s there has been much written that calls this model of evangelism into question and offers many creative, biblically grounded alternatives, but the fact that new books still come out criticizing it is a sign of how dominant it has been.

Some would find this decisionist individualism even earlier, in the eighteenth century. And it is true that figures like Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys emphasized the new birth as a transformation of the heart, addressing the message to individuals. But there are two major differences between them and their nineteenth-century successors that lead me to describe their approach as personal and relational rather than individualistic.

First, they all emphasized divine initiative. They were all, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, theologians of the Holy Spirit. The Wesleys in particular depicted God not as waiting for our decision as an act of our free will but graciously enabling and inviting our response. For them God’s initiative was universal, through prevenient grace. The goal was to enter a relationship with God that is transformative, such that we grow in love for God and neighbor. In other words, our entry into a relationship with God enables us to become relational in a particular way: to love as God loves, especially as God has loved us in Jesus Christ.

Second, this relationship with God is sustained and strengthened through community focused on spiritual disciplines. John Wesley learned early on that when people came together to share what God is doing in their lives, discuss what it means to serve God in the world, and hold one another accountable to a spiritual discipline, they tended to grow in love and deepen relationships. When they did not, they tended to fall away.

No wonder Wesley was so emphatic on the necessity of community. After describing the “solitary religion” of some mystics, Wesley states: “Directly opposite of this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel then holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness” (Preface to Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739, §§4-6).

The implications for evangelism are profound. As Wesley notes in his Journal for August 1763, “I was more convinced than ever that the preaching like an apostle, without joining together those that are awakened and training them up in the ways of God, is only begetting children for the murderer. How much preaching has there been for these twenty years all over Pembrokeshire? But no regular societies, no discipline, no order or connection. And the consequence is that nine in ten of the once awakened are now faster asleep than ever.”

Thus when persons responded to preaching or personal witness, they were enrolled in a probationary class in which they began to keep the Methodist discipline of do no harm, do good, and attend the ordinances of God. They met weekly to hold one another accountable to that discipline but also to discuss ways to keep it more faithfully. These classes were a form of Christian initiation.

But community was as essential for growth as it was for initiation. Every Methodist was in a class, both awakened sinners and those who had experienced forgiveness of sins. For those growing in sanctification there were bands, which also had weekly meetings. And the entirety of the Methodists in a city or town met quarterly as a society, where among other things they shared testimonies of mutual encouragement.

Through these groups persons helped one another along the way of salvation. They encouraged one another to remain open and receptive to grace even as they served as means to both clarify and urge faithful discipleship. Wesleyan evangelism enables persons to begin the way of salvation by placing them in a community that initiates and sustains them in a transforming relationship with God and with one another.

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