The spark at Methodism’s heart

John Wesley wrote two fascinating letters to William Law days before and days after his Aldersgate experience. They reveal some of the spiritual transformation that he went through in the that momentous month of May in 1738.

William Law was a spiritual mentor of Wesley’s. He wrote books of practical theology that Wesley read and recommended to others, although Law’s turn to more mystical themes alienated him from Wesley, which we can see in the two letters.

On May 14, Wesley wrote Law an accusatory letter full of pain. Wesley had been following Law’s advice in his preaching — and own life — for two years. He preached the law of God in great depth and detail. When people found they could not follow the law, he exhorted them and stirred himself up to pray for the grace of God and use the means of grace. But, still, the law was too high for him.

Under this heavy yoke, I might have groaned until death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible for thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find.

Wesley turns from sharing his great discovery to a  pointed question to Law: Why had Law never told him this piece of advice while the young Wesley was groaning in misery?

If Law thought Wesley already had faith or was being prepared for it, Wesley wrote that he was mistaken.

If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all. I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not the heart. But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus? the faith that cleanseth from sin; that gives us to have free access to the Father; to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God;” to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” which dwelleth in us; and “the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God?”

In this letter and the follow up answering some of Law’s defense of his conduct, I hear the eruption of a spiritual experience that would shape the entire Methodist movement for the next 50 years.

Wesley the serious priest intent on holiness and mindful of hell was groaning under the pains of his own attempts to achieve his salvation by his own work and effort. He strove with sincerity and earnestness that few Christians ever attempt much less attain. And it was all vanity. He groaned still.

It was the doctrine of salvation by grace that unlocked the torture chamber of his soul. It opened his heart and gave him exceeding joy. It burst the bonds of the law with grace.

The Methodist move in those early decades was built, I am hypothesizing, to nurture that same spiritual experience in others. It was an apparatus for helping others find what John and his brother Charles had experienced.

Over time, we have lost that focus. The apparatus broke down or got used for different purposes. More and more of us carried the name of Methodist but without an knowledge of the experience or inkling that it might be the animating purpose of the movement that became a denomination.

And so, now here we sit.

Gustavo Gutierrez in his book We Drink from Our Own Wells argues that every spirituality within the Church remains a resource for Christians today. Of course, he is Roman Catholic. Identity issues are not quite so fraught for him as they are for ever-fracturing Protestants.

But I wonder how we United Methodists cohere and persevere as a church that no longer is defined by its founding spiritual experience and impetus. So many of our pastors and laity have no identification with the groans that tormented Wesley or the joy that met him in the word of grace.

Can we recenter on that spiritual experience? Should we? If we don’t, how do we remain custodians of it in ways that enrich who we are?

Nothing new under the sun

At a time when I was in great danger of not valuing [the authority of the Bible] enough, you made that important observation: “I see where your mistake lies. You would have a philosophical religion; but there can be no such thing. Religion is the most plain, simple thing in the world. It is only ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’ So far as you add philosophy to religion, just so far you spoil it.” This remark I have never forgotten since; and I trust in God I never shall.

— From a letter John Wesley wrote to William Law, Jan. 6, 1756

We flatter ourselves in the 21st century that we have discovered new spiritual problems. We imagine that our ancestors living in less advanced and blessed ages were mired in darkness, but we see things new and face all manner of new challenges. Chief among these in our day are questions about the reliability of Scripture, questions about the reality of eternal reward and punishment, questions about the necessity of church itself for the salvation of souls. Men such as Rob Bell captivate our attention and the “rise” of the ranks of the spiritual but not religious are seen as harbingers of a new age.

Of course, our fantasy that we live in a unique time when it comes to questions of the spirit would be quickly dissolved if we would read more.

For instance, John Wesley had frequent conversation and correspondence with people who raised the same questions so popular and controversial in our day. There were in 18th century England popular figures who questioned the reality of hell and preached a kind of faith that was all about personal spirituality set free from the trappings of church and Sunday worship. Spiritual but not religious was not invented by us.

William Law was a spiritual writer and teacher who had great influence in England during Wesley’s life. Wesley himself expressed his indebtedness to Law’s works. But Wesley found himself at odds with Law’s mysticism. Law argued against the need for outward means of grace. He wrote that people did not need the trappings of church and organized religion (not his term) to follow the Spirit of Christ that is given to all people. He argued against the doctrine of hell, instead insisting on something like the doctrine of universal purgatory, where the blemishes of our sins would be removed by a time of purging before all are brought to the presence of our Lord in heaven. (When I read such notions, I am reminded quite strongly of Bell’s popular book Love Wins.)

I do not deny that our circumstances are different than Wesley’s. The general “plausibility structure” of our culture is different. The social norms are different. The religious landscape is different. But I resist the idea that we face questions about belief and practice that are all that different. The context in which the questions are raised may be different, but the questions themselves appear to be quite commonplace throughout Christian history.

In his lengthy reply to Law, Wesley tackled questions of the reality of hell with an appeal to Scripture, one that historical-critical methods make problematic for many 21st century clergy, but one that sets issue in exactly the same terms that we discuss it today.

Now, thus much cannot be denied, that these texts speak as if there were really such a place as hell, as if there were a real fire there, and as if it would remain forever. I would then asked but one plain question: If the case is not so, why did God speak as if it was?

In our day, we would halt Wesley here with questions about inspiration and revelation, but I am reminded in reading his words of people who stand up at annual conference when we debate contentious issues and raise the simple question: What does the Bible say? They are putting the question much as Wesley did.

Say you, “To affright men from sin?” What, by guile, by dissimulation, by hanging out false colours? Can you believe it of Him? Can you conceive the Most High dressing up a scarecrow, as we do to fright children? Far be it from him! If there be then any such fraud in the Bible, the Bible is not of God. And indeed this must be the result of all: If there be “no unquenchable fire, no everlasting burnings,” there is no dependence on those writings wherein they are so expressly asserted, nor of the eternity of heaven, any more than of hell. So that if we give up the one, we must give up the other. No hell, no heaven, no revelation!

We might today engage in more layers of debate and argument, but the dispute between Law and Wesley captures in its fundamentals so many of the disputes we have today. Like Wesley, many contemporary Christians cannot fathom how they should be called to find the Bible both the final authority in matters of faith and practice and a book full of errors, lies, and cynical manipulations designed to play upon the credulity of simple folk.

As I read the words of Law and Wesley, I hear so many of the conversations and debates we still have today. I am reminded of that other writer of some fame who wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Why did you keep this from me?

A Pentecostal friend once teased me that Methodist teaching on salvation was two words: “Try harder.”

I thought of that when I read a remarkable letter John Wesley wrote May 14, 1738, just 10 days before Aldersgate. The letter was to the Rev. William Law, who had been something of a spiritual mentor and teacher to the young Wesley. In the letter, Wesley recounted how law’s teaching had led him to preach the law.

For two years (more especially) I have been preaching after the model of your two practical treatises; and all that heard have allowed, that the law is great, wonderful, and holy. But no sooner than did they attempt to fulfill it, but they found that it is too high for man: And that by doing “the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified.”

To remedy this, I exhorted them, and stirred up myself, to pray earnestly for the grace of God, and to use all the other means of obtaining that grace, which the all-wise God hath appointed. But still, both they and I were more and more convinced, that this is a law by which a man cannot live: the law in our members continually warring against it, and bringing us into deeper captivity to the law of sin.

Here is the “try harder” Christianity that my friend spoke of. If we cannot be good and holy and loving people, the solution is to redouble our efforts. Hunker down. Put your back into it. Try harder.

But here is what Wesley wrote to Law.

Under this heavy yoke I might have groaned till death, had not a holy man, to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once, “Believe, and thou shalt be saved. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all they heart, and nothing shall be impossible to thee. This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God. But seek, and thou shalt find. Strip thyself naked of they own works, and thy own righteousness, and fly to him. For whosoever cometh unto him, he will in no wise cast out.”

And I love what Wesley wrote next, the young disciple to the mentor and teacher.

Now, Sir, suffer me to ask, How will you answer it to our common Lord, that you never gave me this advice?

I my mind’s ear, I hear the sound of one who had struggled and strained terribly. He had despaired of relief. And then one day someone offered him a key to unlock the chains that bound him down. It was liberating and exciting, but in a moment the thought occurred to him. “If this was so easy to do, why did no one do it before? Why was I forced to toil in such darkness when the light was so close at hand?”

Part of the goal of the letter, so it appears to me, is to challenge Law’s own faith, so the tone is not so innocent as I suggest here. There are barbs aplenty.

And yet, I wonder how many people sitting in our pews might throw the same question up at us. How many people who have heard the ungospel of “try harder” from our pulpits might ask us “why have you never told us this before” if we were to preach more faithfully the gospel of, as Wesley puts it, “the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus”?

How many of our people stumble onward with the kind of faith Wesley had: “that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not in the heart”?

Other books Wesley read

John Wesley famously called himself a man of one book, but he read quite widely.

Some of the writers who informed his spirituality include:

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Jeremy Taylor, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living

Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest

Three movements of Methodism

Anglican cleric William Law had a profound influence on John and Charles Wesley. Reading a modern English update of Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, you see many of the ideas that run throughout the life and writing of John Wesley.

It also reminds me how little of Wesley’s Methodism arose with Wesley. More than one writer has pointed out that Wesley did or thought little that was original. Of course, even he claimed not to be doing anything novel. He viewed himself and the Methodist movement as reclaiming the old, apostolic faith.

It causes me to wonder whether the true heart of Methodism has little to do with particular practices or even particular theological emphases. I wonder if the heart of Methodism isn’t found elsewhere.

This is just a hypothesis. It may not be true or even plausible. But, for the sake of argument, let me offer three movements as keys to Methodism.

First, a movement back to plain, simple, apostolic religion.

Second, a movement outward to meet people where they are.

Third, a movement together into a fellowship of disciples.

More to come.