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?