An Earnest Appeal: Religion of love

It is much too long to have wide appeal in the church, and its English is 250 years out of date, but John Wesley’s “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” is an interesting peek into a sustained attempt by Wesley to defend and explain Methodism to critics. It is written to outsiders, which means in some ways it is written to us. Methodism in its early form, situated as it was in different culture and century, is an alien thing for most of us.

In a few posts over the next several days, I am going to share some pieces from the pamphlet that I found interesting or helpful. I hope you do as well, but I invite conversation whatever your reactions.

The first thing I notice in reading it is where Wesley starts. He begins by observing the state of people’s souls.

We see, on every side, either men of no religion at all, or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are grieved at the sight; and should greatly rejoice, if by any means we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained, — a religion worthy of God that gave it.

It is easy to hear this as a lament about poor church attendance or weak offering plate collections. But this is not what Wesley means. For him the “better religion” he wrote of is a religion that brings real happiness to people. It is religion that brings real peace and joy. It removes anxiety and doubt. I helps men and women to live lives defined by love and to die in peace. It breaks the power sin has to drive us into self-destructive and other harming behaviors.

This religion, Wesley sums up in the word “love.”

[T]he love of God and of all mankind; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every man on earth as our own soul.

This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men. Where this is, there are virtue and happiness going hand in hand. There is humbleness of mind, gentleness, long-suffering, the whole image of God; and at the same time a peace that passeth all understanding, and joy unspeakable and full of glory.

In subsequent posts, I will dwell a bit on how Wesley says this love comes to abide in us, but it is important to clear up a dangerous false conception even in this post. This love is not something we can will ourselves to have. It is not a matter of setting our will and with clenched teeth forcing ourselves to do it.

As Wesley describes it, Christianity is a religion that creates happiness. It is a religion of peace. That is not to say it is a religion of comfort and ease. He does not argue that Christians do not suffer hardship or tragedy. He argues, though, that the happiness of God is not extinguished by those things.

And he argues that lack of joy or peace or happiness is a sign of trouble. In the pamphlet he asks the question directly: Are you happy?

This religion, which alone is of value before God, is the very thing you want. You want (and wanting this, you want all) the religion of love. You do not love your neighbour as yourself, no more than you love God with all your heart. Ask your own heart if it be not so. It is plain you do not love God. If you did, you would be happy in him. But you know you are not happy.

But how might this happiness be found? This is a topic for a later post.


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