Did John Wesley believe in something like purgatory? Something in a letter he wrote in 1770 to an unidentified recipient has me wondering.
The letter appears to be to a Methodist who has flagged in his faith. In the letter, he describes to the man the two ranks of Christians.
I have frequently observed that there are two very different ranks of Christians, both of whom may be in the favour of God, — a higher and a lower rank.
This statement is similar one in his 1787 sermon “The More Excellent Way,” which also describes a higher and lower path that a Christian may walk. It is worth noting, though, that even the lower path is much higher than many people in our churches today even long to journey. Here is how Wesley describes the two paths in his letter.
The [lower rank] avoid all known sin, do much good, use all the means of grace, but have little of the life of God in their souls, and are much conformed to the world. The [higher rank] make the Bible their whole rule, and their soul aim is the will and image of God. This they steadily and uniformly pursue, through honour and dishonour, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; considering one point only, “How may I attain most the mind that was in Christ, and how may I please him most?”
Here Wesley clearly sees a distinction, but let us not ignore the standard by which he marks a “lower rank” Christian. Such Christians avoid “all known sin,” they do good, and use “all the means of grace.”
How many Christians in your congregation would fit this description? I would wager (were it not a sin) that Christians of this rank are considered prodigies of faith by many pastors and laity. Here comes a man or woman who does nothing intentionally that is a sin. What is more, they do seek opportunities to do good works. And on top of this, they pray daily, study Scripture daily, attend worship at every opportunity, fast, and meet in small groups with other Christians regularly.
Are these not the “best” members of nearly every congregation we have? And yet are not many of them, as Wesley describes it, much conformed to the world and often running on will power rather than the life and joy of God gurgling up in their souls?
In in the face of their fatigue we often hold out no vision for them that there is anything more possible in Christianity. Perhaps out of fear of sounding like John Wesley, we do not suggest that such folks are standing on the lower rung of their faith and need to call out for God to raise them to another, higher place.
Of course, the great mass of those who go by the name of Christians do not make it even over Wesley’s lower bar. They have not the faith that breaks the power of sin, and so they sin on and on. They can be sometimes beaten or guilted into good works, but they do not do them with the joy that comes from knowing themselves to be pardoned sinners. They make jokes about not reading their Bibles and approach worship like theater critics who do not expect to find God at worship, but will stay if the show is entertaining and the sermon engaging enough.
But the recipients of this letter have retained hold of the lower rank of Christianity in Wesley estimation. He calls them to the higher rank, however, with the language that got me wondering about purgatory.
I am afraid of your sinking beneath your calling, degenerating into a common Christian, who shall indeed be saved, but saved as by fire.
What does he mean by that phrase “as by fire.” Is he suggesting that there is some testing or purging of souls of the departed lower rank Christians? Or is he here speaking more mundanely of the difficulty of being a Christian of the lower rank without the power of God in your life to sustain you in the face of the world’s trials and troubles?
This entire doctrine of “two ranks” of Christian has no warrant that I know of in Scripture and appears to grow out of Wesley’s experiences. In the end, these issues are not doctrinally binding in any sense on United Methodists as they are not raised in Wesley standard sermons or — so far as I know — in his Notes on the New Testament. But I am still intrigued by what he meant and what he thought about these issues.