We may yet farther observe, that every command in holy writ is only a covered promise.
So John Wesley wrote in his fifth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, which expounds upon the second half of this week’s lectionary reading from the gospel. (Another sermon of Wesley’s concerns itself with the first half of our lectionary gospel.)
The idea that God will give power to do what he commands us to do is fundamental to a Wesleyan reading of the Sermon on the Mount. It is fundamental, really, to his reading of the entire Bible. When God commands us to do a thing, Wesley taught, the Holy Spirit enables us to do it — if not right away then as we grow in grace.
No command of Scripture should be read as an impossible higher work of holiness that is beyond the grasp of “ordinary” Christians.
Some Christians read the Sermon on the Mount as a hammer meant to shatter the pride of men and women. They read it as setting out such an impossibly high standard that it drives us to our knees in despair, for no one could hope to actually follow such teaching.
This is not the Wesleyan reading.
God not only commands us to be holy but also gives us the means to do so.
Of course, this is also an extremely controversial reading. Even in Wesley’s own ministry it was often not received well. He wrote — in what I only interpret as despair — to his brother over the resistance of Methodists and outsiders to the doctrine of Christian perfection, which is the outgrowth of his confidence in the promises of God.
The experience of many Christians refuted rather than confirmed Wesley’s biblical interpretation on this point. The idea that we could actually live in true freedom from sin was always contested and remains so today.
For myself, I have great sympathy for those who resist Wesley’s reading because I often want to resist it as well. But when I look more closely at my resistance, it is nearly always born of a desire to disobey Christ. My resistance to the idea that I can live a life in which sin does not control me is strongest exactly where there are sins tempting me toward disobedience. It is those moments when I start arguing with God.
“Sure, I know this is wrong, but I have all these really good reasons for doing it. In fact, it will be better for people I love and people who depend on me if I do this. Really, the greater good is being served here, and isn’t that what Jesus wants?”
I don’t think Wesley was a utilitarian. And as far as I can tell, neither was Jesus. But I sure am happy to pretend to be one when it serves my sinful inclinations.