John Wesley 2

… In the past, some have critiqued the Wesleyan movement for not being much of a “thinking” tradition.  Wesley left no systematic theology for his heirs.  He remained an Anglican his entire life and was largely satisfied with the Thirty-nine articles that serve as the basis for the Anglican Church.  What he did leave were a standard set of sermons that set rough boundaries for what he expected “the people called Methodist” to preach. [4]

In this regard, Wesleyans have sometimes tried a little too hard to be respectable by demonstrating their intellectual proficiency.  Perhaps a little jealous of the heavy emphasis on cognitive things in the Calvinist tradition, we have sometimes forgotten that a focus on heart and life is actually intellectually defensible as the right set of priorities.  So we need not be embarrassed by the fact that Wesley left sermons rather than theological tomes.  It is a good time for such an emphasis, as we will discuss in chapter 2.

The second feature of Wesley’s thought that we want to emphasize is his optimism about what God wanted to do to change the human heart.  In later life, he would call the notion of “sanctification” the “grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodist.” [5]  The core notion here is not only that God wants to empower his people to resist temptation, but that God wants so to remake our hearts that it is a delight to do so.

Calvin also believed in sanctification.  Unlike the Lutheran tradition, that would rather not speak of “works” and “righteousness” for fear we will be tempted to boast, Calvin did in fact teach that God actually begins to make us righteous after we come to Christ.  But Wesley was far more optimistic about what God wanted to do than Calvin.  Wesley did not only think that we would have moments of victory or righteousness in some areas.  Wesley did not even take what would be the view of the Keswick movement in the 1800s, that we might be able to resist sin although it would always be a great struggle.  Wesley was optimistic that we might actually be transformed in our hearts to love the good truly and do the good because we love the good.

A life that did not show change was not a truly converted life for Wesley.  And thus it is that in some traditions you will mainly run into difficulty if your ideas do not conform exactly to the rest of the group.  But Wesleyans are far more likely to be troubled by your life than your passing ideas.  It is not that ideas do not matter.  It is rather a matter of priority.  We believe these were also the priorities of the New Testament and that certain developments especially in the study of Paul fit very nicely with this element of Wesleyanism.  We will explore these “new perspectives” in chapter 3.

The third element of Wesley’s thought that we believe is ripe for the current generation is his emphasis on what we might call social justice today.  No one who knows Wesley can question the emphasis he placed on personal salvation.  In the first preface to his standard sermons, he wrote, “I want to know one thing, the way to heaven.” [6]  But he also saw the gospel as something that should transform society as well.  He cared no less for the oppressed coal miner as for the lost aristocrat, and many would say that his ministry helped effect child labor laws and the eventual abolition of slavery in England.  In chapter 5 we recognize that it is a great time to bring forth this heritage today as well.  

[4] The first edition in 1746 had 44 sermons, but some would argue Wesley later expanded the number of standard sermons to 53.

[5] In a letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury dated September 15, 1790 (Works 13:9).

[6] As a child of his age, Wesley thought of eternity being in heaven.  It is just as easily argued biblically and from church history, of course, that our eternity is on a transformed earth.