In the midst of his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley shares with his reader an example of his typical manner of preaching to sinners. It is too long to reproduce in whole here (and my fingers would get too weary), but here is my take on the gist of it.
He starts with the experiences — might we say “felt needs” — of the sinner. He speaks of the restless heart and the heaviness that even laughter cannot mask. He speaks of the twinges of guilt and fear the sinner feels when his or her mind turns to eternity. And for those who insist there is no “hereafter” he broods upon the awful significance of oblivion at the end of life. By these and other means he seeks to stir up anxiety about death and dissatisfaction with life lived without any thought of eternity.
And then the message turns.
O let not the poor wisdom of man any longer exalt itself before the wisdom of God! You have fled from him long enough; at length, suffer your eyes to be opened by Him that made them. You want rest to your soul. Ask it of Him who giveth to all men liberally …
The moves are obvious and even predictable, but this makes them no less effective. Wesley certainly was the means by which many sinners were converted. His method, as I see it here, was to zero in on the unsettled souls of the hearers and to unsettle them even more. He tried to cut through the defenses we have against the big questions of life and existence. And once he had stirred up fear and anxiety — which are the natural outcome of talking about death to those doomed to die — he offered Christ. Having explained the disease, he provided the cure.
The first move strikes me as the pivotal one. In my own preaching, at least, I find stirring up anxiety and fear of God a trial. Even in general terms, people don’t like to hear that they are not inside the kingdom. And in our culture that has made “comfort” its hallmark, getting people to experience anxiety of any kind is both difficult and unwelcome.
Nonetheless, I want to take a lesson from Wesley here. I certainly want to preach and teach in ways that lead to life. Maybe his methods do not fit our day, but I know I could learn to do this better.