The Methodist way of preaching

By 1751, John Wesley had become concerned about a new kind of preaching that was taking hold in some Methodist societies. The men who were preaching this new way called themselves “gospel” preachers. The preached only the promises of Christ and none of the law. In Wesley’s account, indeed, they even mocked the original style of Methodist preaching that was careful to preach both law and gospel as warranted by the state of the hearers.

In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” Wesley describes both the methods by which law and gospel were to be preached and decries the damaging effects of the gospel preaching. He points out that in several cities that once had thriving societies, the numbers had been seriously eroded by the gospel preachers. Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.

In contrast, Wesley highlighted the contrary example of a society in Yorkshire, which under the continued preaching of law and gospel had grown from 1,900 members to 3,000 even as other societies withered under pure gospel preaching.

Wesley described the Yorkshire preaching this way:

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for you; 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 that we never turn therefrom, to the right hand or the left.

I notice that in each of these statements the good news comes first. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him.” This is the way that Wesley said he would preach to established Christians, those who have already had an experience of conviction and justification. The law is preached here as a pattern for a life that bears the fruit of faith. To the unconverted, Wesley wrote earlier in the letter, he would counsel leading with law to break up the complacency of those who have not yet felt the true forgiveness of Christ.

As always, I’m struck in reading Wesley by how aware he was that the state of his audience should determine the shape of his preaching. This is not “felt needs” preaching. It is much more like a medical diagnosis. Wesley had a clear idea what spiritual health and wholeness looked like. He had strong opinions about the various maladies of the soul and the phases a person must pass through to be “cured.” His observations about the spiritual state of his hearers then shaped his approach in preaching and teaching.

The Methodist cure was not for everyone, of course. At the height of the Methodist movement, it accounted only for a small fraction of the population of England. Not even Wesley would have argued that non-Methodists were necessarily out of step with Christ. But for many people, the Methodist way was the true way to Christ.

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9 thoughts on “The Methodist way of preaching

  1. “Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.”

    That seems to be pretty much what is happening now in The United Methodist Church in the USA, and some other places, mostly “Western world”.

    Those who spout the “Jesus says to love God and love your neighbor” mantra to excuse sin need to realize that Jesus also said “21 He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) *said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. 24 He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.” (Jn 14); “You are My friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn 15:14); “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 Jn 5:1-3).

  2. I think one of the tricky things as a preacher today is figuring out what perspective to take in our churches – because they are a mix of those who are new to the faith and those who have been on the path to discipleship for some time. As we look out at the pews, we do need to adjust the order of “law and gospel” accordingly – but it is not always clear which should come first depending on who is in attendance that day.

    I find that a mix is probably best in many of our communities today. Some days, we need the law to hit us in the face and then remind folks of the grace. Other days, the proclaiming of grace empowers us to live into the law.

    1. I share your observations and your puzzle of how best to do this. I suspect — and this may or may not matter — that Wesley would lean harder on law even in an established congregation until he felt that the way had been paved for convicting and justifying grace. He seems to say as much in his letter on preaching Christ.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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