My Indiana colleague Adam Roe wrote an interesting post a few days ago about the way reading Augustine helps us understand John Wesley. (I find reading the church fathers always helps me understand Wesley.)
Roe is concerned in his post that starting our exposure to Wesley with his first standard sermon “Salvation by Faith” sets the wrong tone for understanding Wesley’s theology. It obscures the degree to which Wesley’s theology starts and as built upon a foundation of joy in God.
The key to tying all this together is “glory and joy.” Wesley and Augustine share a sense that the heart is involved in a loving, glorious, joy-filled relationship both individually and within the context of the City of God, the church. This, for me, fundamentally changes Wesley. Rather than a call to severe works-righteousness, it places the emphasis back on being loved by God, and responding in love.
I found Roe’s point interesting because it brought back to my mind the first exposure I had to Wesley. The first sermons of his I remember reading — maybe not actually the the first ones I read but the first ones I remember — were “A Caution Against Bigotry” and “Catholic Spirit.” Although I find those two sermons are often mis-read by 21st century readers, they do set a different tone for me than if I had started with “Salvation by Faith” and “Almost Christian” and “Awake, Thou That Sleepest.”
That may be, in part, why when I read “Salvation by Faith” now, I notice that even there Wesley speaks of salvation as being about joy and love and peace.
They are also saved from the fear, though not from the possibility, of falling away from the grace of God, and coming short of the great and precious promises. Thus have they “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. They rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And the love of God is shed abroad in their hearts, through the Holy Ghost, which is given unto them.” And hereby they are persuaded (though perhaps not at all times, nor with the same fullness of persuasion), that “neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate them from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It would be an interesting inquiry. Does the way in which we first encounter Wesley change how we experience his theology?