“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV)
John Wesley interpreted the phrase “kingdom of God” by citing Romans 14:17.
For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,
For Wesley this use of scripture to interpret scripture allowed him to focus on the kingdom as holiness of heart and life. The kingdom is not a political arrangement but something that emerges within us. The kingdom that came near, Wesley would argue, is the emergence of righteousness, peace, and joy in the life of those who believe in Christ.
This is the worst kind of Pietism, of course, to those theologians who find Pietism contemptible. (I’m thinking first and foremost of Stanley Hauerwas here.) Read the Wikipedia page for a fuller account of Pietism, but some of its key elements as far as I understand the movement are a concern with practical Christianity over and above doctrinal formulations, concern with a living faith springing up from the inner soul of the Christian, and cultivation of devotional practices. It is Christianity that is most concerned with a change of heart as the center of Christian life.
United Methodists read Wesley’s sermons as doctrinal standards. At the very least, we are committed to giving a generous hearing to the preacher who declares that the reality of kingdom of God is found in the hearts of believers. That does not preclude us listening to other preachers, of course, but scoffing at Pietism seems quite out of character with our history and heritage. We are Pietists, or at least our ancestors were.
When we talk about the kingdom of God, if we still regard Wesley as a teacher or example, we need to keep at least one ear open to hear the way he would describe it:
This holiness and happiness, joined in one, are sometimes styled, in the inspired writings, “the kingdom of God,” (as by our Lord in the text,) and sometimes, “the kingdom of heaven.” It is termed “the kingdom of God,” because it is the immediate fruit of God’s reigning in the soul. So soon as ever he takes unto himself his mighty power, and sets up his throne in our hearts, they are instantly filled with this “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” It is called “the kingdom of heaven” because it is (in a degree) heaven opened in the soul.
Perhaps this is why Stanley Hauerwas decided, at last, that he could no longer be one of us. Whatever the case with Hauerwas, I’m fairly certain Wesley would have done poorly in my New Testament exegesis class.