Chapter OneA Pilgrim
on the Way
Wesley offers a treasure to
the church of tomorrow
that will leave it poorer if ignored.
When you meet John Wesley, you meet someone who
understands you. When you get to know him, you feel as
though you've known him all your life. In the same way that
you are on a journey to know God and to live for Christ, you
find that he is also a pilgrim on the Way. This makes a study of
Wesley much more than an intellectual pursuit or an academic
assignment. It is a conjoining of minds, hearts, and spirits. It is
a sharing of resolve to live life for the glory of God.
For many of us, understanding theology as a "way to heaven"
is a new way to look at it. Many of us were taught to understand
theology in a topical fashion, moving from subject to subject.
And we were almost surely taught to study theology with little
or no understanding of the person who wrote the theology in
the first place. On both accounts, we make a mistake if we try to
study Wesley this way.
For one thing, he was not a topical theologian. While we
find every customary doctrine in his writings, we do not find
them organized by topics or chapters. Instead, we discover a
pilgrimage motif-theology interpreted in relation to the story
of God's grace and in relation to our experience of this grace as
we move through the days of our lives. And for another thing,
we cannot understand the message apart from the messenger.
Wesley's theology flows from his own life and experience of
God. So, in this first chapter, we ask, "Who is John Wesley?
What difference will it make in our Christian lives to come to
know him and the message that comes to us through him?"
On the biographical level it is helpful to mention some basic
facts. John Wesley was born on 17 June 1703, the fifteenth child
and second surviving son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. His
early life in Epworth, England, was largely shaped by the example
of his parents and in particular the educational program
Susanna operated in the rectory.
When he was six, he was rescued from the burning rectory
in so remarkable a fashion that Susanna believed the hand of
God was upon him in a special way. Accordingly, she felt a
particular responsibility to nurture the life of her son. What she
did had its lifelong effects. And even today John Wesley's life at
Epworth is rightly considered the "cradle of Methodism."
In 1713 Wesley moved to London to attend Charterhouse
School. In comparison to other periods in his life, his years at
Charterhouse were of lesser significance. However, while there
he continued to read his Bible and say his prayers daily. After six
years at Charterhouse he matriculated to Christ Church College
at Oxford, where he received the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1726.
Wesley's early Oxford years saw the beginning of his spiritual
pilgrimage. In 1725, after reading Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living
and Thomas à Kempis's The Imitation of Christ, he resolved to
dedicate his life to God. The next thirteen years were an agonizing
attempt to work out the implications of that resolution.
However, it all came together in the now-famous Aldersgate
experience on 24 May 1738. There Wesley found the personal
assurance necessary to give life and power to his faith.
From that point onward Wesley became England's greatest
preacher and organizer; multitudes responded to his preaching,
and he sought to nurture them through the united societies,
which he organized. The last sixty years of his life were a constant
motion of traveling and preaching that took him over 250,000
miles (mostly on horseback) and gave him the opportunity of
preaching more than 44,000 times. Erwin Paul Rudolph has
observed, "In Wesley's work we see the figure of a great preacher,
an untiring worker, and a popular but autocratic leader. He
reveals a mind that is shrewd, but capable of humor, and that is
filled with the sense of divine mission."
Wesley rested from his labors on 2 March 1791. His last words
served not only to capture the quality of life he lived but also the
kind of life he wished for others. He died saying, "The best of all
is, God is with us!"
While these facts are important, they do not fully capture
Wesley, the man. There are other qualities we should be familiar
with if we are to meet John Wesley in these opening pages. For
me, the most appealing thing about him is that he is a fellow
pilgrim in the faith. He was in search of vital faith, just as we are.
When you read his diary, journal, and letters, this comes through
loud and clear. He faced struggles similar to ours. He made his
share of mistakes. He asked questions during times of doubt and
depression. He knew the elation of victory. In a very real sense,
Wesley was one of us.
Furthermore, Wesley was a practical theologian. This doesn't
mean he was unfamiliar with theology on a scholarly level, or
that he could not handle himself with the so-called theological
heavyweights of his day. One reading of his Appeals to Men of
Reason and Religion is sufficient to dispel this notion. What it
does mean is that Wesley was primarily concerned about developing
a faith that worked in everyday living. He was in search
of a "scriptural Christianity" that was confirmed by human
experience. The fact that his theology is biblical gives it a timelessness;
the fact that it is confirmed by experience gives it an
authenticity that theology in the ivory tower sometimes lacks.
Wesley's theology has been road tested, and found effective.
To know Wesley is also to know a person of intense and meaningful
discipline. Every day counted; every moment was a "God
moment." Consequently, he gave himself daily to the spiritual
disciplines of prayer, Bible study, and devotion. But discipline was
never an end in itself. It was the means to a vital relationship with
God and the resulting power that comes from that relationship.
As the Methodist movement began to grow, Wesley sought
to instill this same spirit of discipline into his followers. The
bands, classes, and societies were all organized on explicit disciplinary
principles. Members were held accountable for living
up to the disciplines. And through the sense of personal and
corporate discipline, early Methodism had both a vitality and a
stability that contemporary church life sometimes fails to
exhibit. To know Wesley is to know one who echoes the saying,
"The soul and the body make the man; and the spirit and discipline
make a Christian."
As you read this book, keep in mind the word daily. Wesley's
life and theology pulsate with this word. For over sixty years he
faithfully engaged in devotional living. He calls us to do the same.
He challenges us to break out of any compartmentalized concept
of Christianity. Jesus is Lord! Every moment is to be lived in his
presence. While we won't exactly match his methods, we should
strive to imitate his discipline.
Knowing John Wesley requires that we see him in a community
sense. Wesley was a churchman in the highest and best
sense of the term. It's important that we see this early in this
book. Too often he is cast in the light of a malcontent just looking
for a good reason to start a new church. Never forget that he
lived and died an Anglican. He did not inaugurate a new denomination,
and he discouraged his followers from doing so. In the
very first annual conference that Wesley held in 1744, he
declared his allegiance to the Anglican Church and exhorted the
Methodists to constant attendance of "both the word preached
and the sacraments administered therein." And throughout his
lifetime, Methodism was a renewal movement within the larger
Having said this, it is equally important to stress that Wesley's
ultimate loyalty was to God. As much as he loved the Anglican
Church, he loved God more. Where he felt the church had
strayed, he stood against it. He was a true "son of the Reformation."
The point to be stressed is that his disagreements with the
Church of England were not institutional, they were scriptural.
He felt that eighteenth-century Anglicanism had drifted from
important scriptural norms, and he viewed the Methodist movement
as simply describing "the plain, old religion of the Church
of England." His goal was not defection, but rather renewal. His
constant prayer was that the renewal could take place within
Anglicanism. That it did not is a fact of church history, not a fact
by Wesley's design. To know Wesley is to know a churchman.
Because his churchmanship was based on Scripture rather
than on contemporary doctrinal formulations, his theology has
a dynamism. He abhorred stagnant orthodoxy. He sought a
scriptural Christianity energized by the ongoing presence of the
Holy Spirit. While his theology comes from the eighteenth century,
it is not bound by it. Furthermore, it moves in harmony with
Christian experience. In his preface to the Standard Sermons, he
wrote, "I want to know one thing-the way to heaven." For
Wesley, that "way" was dynamic, moving from sin to glorification.
In this book I have tried to capture this feature of Wesley's theology
by basing the chapters on the "order of salvation" that emerges in
his writings. Wesley never produced a systematic theology in the
formal sense, but what he did produce is systematic and consistent.
My goal is that the organization of this book will help you
know Wesley in that light.
Finally, to know Wesley is to know someone you can read
and understand. By his own design he avoided complex theological
terminology. He wrote, "I desire plain truth for plain
people; therefore, of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and
philosophical speculations." As previously noted, he could
deal with theology on a sophisticated level when needed. But in
the general course of his ministry he desired to communicate
with ordinary people in understandable ways. If you've previously
shied away from reading theology, you're in for a pleasant
surprise in Wesley. His simplicity will not insult your intelligence,
it will increase it. His life-centeredness will touch you
where you live and cause you to consider your own beliefs and
actions. This is the kind of experience I hope you will have as
you read this book. It is the kind of experience Wesley would
wish for you.
I trust that this chapter has helped you sense something of
a kinship with John Wesley. Such a kinship will enrich your
reading of the following pages. In fact, the following chapters
cannot be read in a detached manner. Wesley would not only
want you to understand his message, he would want you to be
affected by it. He would want you to experience the Christ to
whom it points. Time and time again Wesley wrote that he
"offered Christ." Through this reconstruction of Wesley's message,
he is offering Christ to you yet again!
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Does your experience confirm (or deny) the author's
assertion that even people in the Wesleyan tradition do
not know Wesley very well? If you are not in the Wesleyan
tradition, how well do people in your tradition
2. Among the various features of Wesley's life and theology,
which is the most attractive to you? Why?
3. What are your desires and dreams as you begin this
book? What do you hope it will do for you?
For Further Reading
Outler, Albert. John Wesley. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964; reprint edition, 1981.
Wood, Skevington. John Wesley, The Burning Heart. Kansas City, Mo.: Beacon Hill, 1977.
Chapter TwoThe Root of
The doctrine of universal sinfulness,
concludes Wesley, constitutes the fundamental
difference between Christianity and Heathenism.
You don't have to be a Christian to realize that something is
wrong with the human race. Our most brilliant social analysts
stand amazed in the presence of radical, often unpredictable
experiences of man's inhumanity to man. Politicians all over the
world are calling for the upholding of basic human rights. All
the while an ominous nuclear cloud hangs overhead, reminding
us that the entire destruction of this planet is possible. Everyone
seems to be asking, "What is wrong?"
When John Wesley looked at his century, he asked the same
question. He understood the original creation to have been good
(see Genesis 1:31)-the result of an all-loving God expressing
that love through everything that was made. The opening pages
of the Bible clearly show that God made a beautiful world, one
that would reflect God's glory and serve God's purposes. But, in
fact, this was not the world Wesley saw around him or experienced
within himself. Something had gone radically wrong.
He concluded that the fundamental problem was human
sinfulness. Interestingly, this side of Wesley is often overshadowed
by his emphasis on love. While it is true that he stressed God's
love as a major plank in his theology, it's also true that he was
aware of the dangers of emphasizing love to the neglect of other
things. In a letter to Joseph Cownley Wesley made the point clear:
Is it not most pleasing to me as well as to you to be always
preaching of the love of God? . But yet it would be
utterly wrong and unscriptural to preach of nothing
else The bulk of our hearers must be purged before
they are fed; else we only feed the disease. Beware of all
honey. It is the best extreme, but it is an extreme.
This statement makes it clear that Wesley's theology of love
was not sentimentalism. It was love based on at least two primary
considerations. First, Wesley believed that God loved man as the
supreme object of his creation. Wesley believed in the original
righteousness of man. He expressed this belief using the words
of Thomas Boston: "With the same breath that God breathed into
him a living soul, he breathed into him a righteous soul. This
righteousness was the conformity of all the faculties and powers
of his soul to the moral law." A belief in original righteousness
gave Wesley his primary reason to believe in God's love.
Furthermore, original righteousness explained why people
have to be saved-why redemption is the only option. Redemption
only makes sense if there is prior value. If something is
worthless, it can be thrown away and replaced. But if it has prior
value, it must be found and restored. Redemption means that
people have prior value (eternal value), and God's love will not
permit anyone to be discarded.