Wesley’s two goals in preaching

In my previous post, I ended with a quote from John Wesley’s introduction to his first series of published sermons. Before I turn to those sermons, I am going to dwell a bit longer — this post and the next one — on some other words Wesley shared in that introduction.

In introducing his sermons, Wesley made clear why he was publishing them and what his goals in preaching were. He writes that his goal is lay down what he has found in the Bible concerning the way to heaven and to distinguish carefully between this way of God and the “inventions of men.”

There is a point here that I glossed over in my previous post that is worth pausing to notice. Wesley understood the Bible to have a clear purpose.

We often have conversations in the church about what the Bible is or how we should approach it. In the last 200 years, we have adopted more and more techniques of analysis and interpretation meant to “correct” the Bible. We love our buckets and our lenses and our razor blades. Wesley would have none of that.

For him, the Bible has a clear spiritual purpose — to direct us into a way of life and faith that will lead us to heaven. It is a spiritual book with very practical implications. And it is to be read as the final arbiter of all matters of faith and practice.

In light of this, Wesley set for himself two primary objectives in the sermons he published and preached.

First, to guard those who are just setting their faces toward heaven, (and who, having little acquaintance with the things of God, are the more liable to be turned out of the way,) from formality, from mere outside religion, which has almost driven heart-religion out of the world.

In other words, Wesley is concerned to reach the new or recently converted Christians — many of them no doubt converted by Methodist preaching — who he fears will be led astray into a cold and dead faith that depends on outward ceremony and formality rather than a real and genuine transformation of the heart.

Paired with this concern, his second goal is as follows:

Secondly, to warn those who know the religion of the heart, the faith that worketh by love, lest at any time they make void the law through faith, and so fall back into the snare of the devil.

His second great concern is for those who believe that being saved by Christ means they do not have to pay any attention to the law of God. Some people do this openly and others do so more carefully. They say to themselves, “Well, I am not perfect and never will be, but Jesus loves me so he will forgive me for my ongoing sins. Yes, there are sins I can’t let go of, but Jesus will look the other way.”

Wesley calls this attitude “making the law void through faith.” We say that the law does not really apply or matter any more. What God teaches about the love of money, lying, sexual immorality, hatred of our enemies, and scorn for the poor gets ignored because we wrap ourselves up in a false assurance that somehow since we call Jesus “Lord” our ongoing sins no longer matter.

Wesley would have none of this, as we will see when we look at his preaching.

For me, as a preacher in a tradition that looks to Wesley as a spiritual guide, I find his twin concerns extremely relevant today. We in the church today are often at risk of stumbling into both the pitfalls Wesley sought to warn us about. Most of the people I work with spiritually can be said to fall into one of these two groups — the Christian at risk of attaching the utmost importance to things that are not central to our faith and the Christian who either does not believe Jesus can actually free him or her from sin or who has found comfort in the belief that overcoming our sin is not necessary if we sings praise songs to Jesus. People today are little different from those Wesley encountered. The spiritual challenges and risks remain the same in 2020 as they were in 1740.

As I read Wesley’s sermons and write here in the coming weeks, we will find ample opportunity to consider this further.

As we in the United Methodist Church move toward creating new expressions of the Methodist movement, may we be alert to the goals that were so central to Wesley’s preaching.

Back to the sources

When I started writing this blog many years ago, I was a lay person trying to come to grips with what this person John Wesley had written and taught. I had discovered in our Book of Discipline the important place his sermons and ministry had in the formation of the people called Methodist and wanted to discover the roots from which our movement had sprung.

I’ve not been writing much the last couple of years for a variety of personal and professional reasons.

If the Board of Ordained Ministry agrees this March, I will be ordained an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church – a church that may be formally coming apart at the seams by the time it is my turn to kneel beneath the hands of the bishop in June.

It is a curious time to be a United Methodist.

And so, I find myself needing to return to the foundations of our theology and doctrine. As our church breaks apart around us, now more than ever we Methodists need to remember what the Holy Spirit did when he lifted up and empowered this small band of Christians nearly 300 years ago.

I am not – of course – arguing that Wesley has a more important role in our movement than the Bible. That is the true source and foundation of our belief and practice. But we Methodists are a movement within the larger body of Christ that was lifted up for a reason.

Perhaps that reason has run its course and what Methodism needs to do is recede back, like an island sinking back beneath the sea. That may be the case and it may be our destiny. But I’m not convinced that is so.

Because of this, I am going back to the sources. Over the next few months, I am making a personal commitment to revisit my old mentor and teacher, John Wesley. I want to read those sermons again and see how they speak to me now. I’m not sure exactly what I will discover or if I will have anything interesting to say, but it feels like a fitting thing to be doing as the church is shaking apart and I will be faced with a choice of where and how to carry on this  movement in a new denomination.

I will close this post with the quotation that has given this blog its subtitle for these many years and serves as a touchstone for all that is to come in Wesley’s sermons.

I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no  more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, — the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God!

‘God’ always includes the Son

There is a refrain I hear from some leaders in our churches and teachers in our seminaries about Jesus. It goes something like this.

Jesus Christ is the lens through which we read the Bible.

This notion gets deployed frequently when people are trying to wrestle with the passages in the Bible that depict God calling for blood and unleashing wrath and devastation on the people of God or on other nations.

In broad strokes, I hear people saying that we should use what we know about Jesus Christ to help us interpret these passages, which often means that we should conclude that those passages don’t actually show us a true picture of God but are the creation or projection of the men who wrote those parts of the Bible. In short, we use the lens of Jesus to help us dismiss those passages as not reflecting the true nature and will of God.

This is not the only way that notion of “Jesus as the lens” gets used, but it certainly gets used that way.

This makes no sense to me.

It makes no sense to me because Jesus Christ in the New Testament does not shy away from talk of wrath, fire, and punishment. The “lens” of Jesus that we are offered in this exericse is usually not a complete image of the Jesus of New Testament. The lens itself is an edited view of Jesus. It is not Jesus but our own ideas about who Jesus should be that shapes both the lens and work we do with it in the rest of the Bible.

But it makes no sense to me for an even bigger reason.

It makes no sense to me because I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

Orthodox Christians worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one and one-in three. In other words, there is no mention of God anywhere in the Bible that is not inclusive of the Son. When God unleashes snakes on the people of Israel or demands the blood of entire villages, the Son is doing those things just as much as the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is no Jesus lens through which we can view the God of the Old Testament because the God of the Old Testament is fully present in Jesus. They are the same. If we think that one some how corrects or screens out the other, we misunderstand what we claim to believe when we sing “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” and recite the creeds.

This does not make it easier for us to grapple with God as revealed to us in the Bible, but that is okay. Making it easy for us rarely seems to be God’s primary motivation.