Preaching like a Methodist

In 1751, John Wesley put to paper his thoughts about the proper way of preaching Christ. I will here summarize the content of the letter he wrote and include some extracts that I have found thought provoking or challenging to my own preaching.

He opens with definitions. He contrasts “preaching the gospel” with “preaching the law.” The gospel is the love of God to sinners and the blessing offer to all through the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Jesus Christ. Preaching the law means “explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ,” which Wesley writes are best located in the Sermon on the Mount.

Wesley urges us to preach both law and gospel, as opposed to choosing either one or the other.

I think the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

(I wish I had an example to compare with Wesley’s description)

He goes on to explain that as people become convinced of sin, the plan is to mix in more and more gospel to help raise up those who “the law hath slain.” Wesley argues that the law must always remain in preaching, even where all of a congregation is believed to be justified. Even as people grow in sanctification, the law is preached not as a command but as a privilege. Those in whom God has destroyed the power of sin have power to obey the law. It becomes a guide rather than a gavel.

The remarkable thing about reading Wesley — and my summary does not do this aspect of his writing justice — is how nuanced and complex was the way he fitted his preaching to the spiritual needs of his audience. He was quite sophisticated in his reading of the various stages and troubles a Christian might face and modulated his preaching and advice to preachers to fit the conditions.

Wesley wraps up his general outline thusly:

I advise him to declare, explain, and enforce every command of God; but, meantime, to declare, in every sermon, (and the more explicitly the better,) that the first and great command to a Christian is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ;” that Christ is all in all, our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption;” that all life, love, strength, are from him alone, and all freely given to us through faith. And it will ever be found, that the law thus preached both enlightens and strengthens the soul; that it both nourishes and teaches; that it is the guide, “food, medicine, and stay,” of the believing soul.

Wesley writes that this was the preaching of the Apostles and of the Methodists in the earliest days. This preaching had great effect, Wesley writes, until James Wheatly rose to popularity as a Methodist preacher.

Wheatly is blamed for spreading the contagion of gospel preaching without the law. His “soft words” seduced many Methodist preachers and harmed rank-and-file Methodists in Wesley’s estimation. Once they became accustomed to preaching that neglected the law, he writes, they soon became unable to stomach “the pure milk of the word.”

[T]he gospel Preachers, so called, corrupt their hearers; they vitiate their taste, so that they cannot relish sound doctrine; and spoil their appetite so they cannot turn it into nourishment; they as it were, feed them with sweetmeats, till the genuine wine of the kingdom seems quite insipid to them.

The effect of such preaching, Wesley writes, is always at first a surge of life among the people, but it soon passes and they are left weaker and resistant to the only medicine that would strengthen them. Wesley recounts the record of Methodist societies crippled by such gospel preaching, but closes with a happy report of a part of the connection that was not infected by gospel preachers. There the societies were alive and strong.

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for your; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore, live to God, till you live with him in glory.”

So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant we may never turn therefrom, to the right hand or to the left!

Notice again that the law is not only useful to confront unawakened sinners. It is also a guide for Christian living and working out our salvation. It remains a positive necessity for holiness. This was, I think, Wesley’s primary concern — that Methodists who heard the gospel preachers slipped into lives that did not conform to the commands of Christ.

As I read this letter, I find myself thinking about the needs of the congregations where I preach. How many are there that need to be convinced? How many are justified? How many are going on to perfection? How many have slid or stagnated?

I also find myself wondering how Wesley’s law and gospel preaching accords with the preaching that I do. Would I have been part of the problem about which he wrote if I were preaching back then?

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9 thoughts on “Preaching like a Methodist

  1. This is a very timely post for me, John. I just completed a reading of “The Hammer of God” by Bo Giertz, which is a Lutheran take on the pastoral responsibility of properly weaving law with gospel. I am often confronted with the difficulty of trying to soft-sell the demands of the law because I fear that the weight will be too great. It is of course, a weight, and we certainly want to do the weaving responsibly, but it is a weight that we must deliver for the purpose of helping people understand the depths of our reliance upon the grace and goodness of God. There can be no real experience of gospel grace if there has been no reckoning of transgressions.

    • You can take the man out of the Lutheran church, but you can’t take the Lutheran out of the man.

      Seriously, it sounds like a good book, and, I hear the points you are making and feel them in my own ministry. The rewards of preaching the sweetmeats only are so high that it takes real focus for a people-pleaser like me to remember to preach the full message.

  2. What I’ve always been told is that there has to be good news in every sermon. My instinct is to go for prophecy more than good news, so I often get criticized for not having enough good news. It’s helpful to remember that not everybody there is necessarily a believer, which is perhaps a presumption that I’m making without thinking about it. I guess I just always want to know what way I need to live to enjoy God the most deeply and I perhaps presume that everybody else is seeking the same thing.

  3. I think Tim Keller is a great example of Wesley’s exhortation for modern times. I find that he does a good job of demonstrating the requirements of the law and the good news of the Gospel in almost every message he preaches. I know he is Calvinist, but sometimes I think more people outside of our denomination are aligned with Wesley in practice, if not in theology.

    • There is a reason that the staunch Calvinist George Whitefield and John Wesley worked together and admired each other so much, even if they disagreed strongly on predestination, limited atonement, and perseverance of the saints.

      • Indeed. We modern Methodists have far too often defined ourselves by what we aren’t. We’re not Calvinists, we’re not baptists, etc.

        Imagine a United Methodist leader working hand in hand for the gospel with a staunch Calvinist today, in spite of disagreement on those matters you list above. I believe that kind of spirit would contribute greatly to renewal within the boundaries of our denomination.

        • As long as its preaching the Sermon on the Mount which is very contrary to the suburban American ethos rather than talking about the total depravity of everybody else and the mean pit bull God we have who’s going to take out all the people we look down on. There is a pseudo-tough gospel that is very prevalent in American evangelicalism. I worry that those of us who think Methodism is like powder puff football are attracted to a gospel that channels Nietzsche’s will to power more than it does the Sermon on the Mount.

  4. During my sabbatical some 12 years ago, now, I attended a seminar for pastors led by a non-Methodist mega-church super-star. I came away believing that what I had experienced in that congregation was a bit cultish. The pastor told us that in preaching we should “keep the Good News good.” One of the main responsibilities of the church leadership was to “protect the pastor and his family” from criticism. If they heard negative comments about the pastor, they were instructed to deflect it; and if it could not be deflected, they were told they should encourage the critic to find a different congregation. This particular pastor has published numerous books, and trained many United Methodist clergy. I say his church is cultish and those who emulate him are not being faithful to the scripture.

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