Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?

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6 thoughts on “Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

  1. Wow, John! You’ve hit the nail on the head – dead center. Regaining the fire of Wesley’s faith is the crux of my D.Min. project. I believe (or I wouldn’t be presenting the project) that going back to our roots in Wesley (and Asbury for that matter) can bring renewal to the Wesleyan movement (UMC). A quote from Wesley pretty much sums up what has/is happening “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

    1. great for you Ed! I’d (we, I’m sure) would love to see your finished project. I am working my way through Wesley’s Sermon on the Mount and is feeling and thinking the exact same things!

  2. Spot on post. For more on Wesley and his protege, Francis Asbury, please visit the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych series. The trilogy opens with the book, Black Country, detailing the early preaching circuits in England of a young Francis Asbury before he departs for the American colonies in 1771. The capturing for the first time of Asbury’s early ministry features the amazing work of John Wesley, Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and many of the early circuit preachers in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The website for the book series is http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Again, thank you for the article.

  3. Thank you for asking the question! It deserves an answer. There has been much talk about Wesley and what he did, but very little internalizing. After a lifetime of being a “good Methodist”, it has been a long hard journey to embrace that the UMC has become the form without the power. It is why it is in the mess it is in now. Strong, inspired teaching of basic orthodox Christianity has been absent in the church for a very long time. I know because it was only in abandoning church that I discovered what all I did not know/understand about orthodox Christianity which went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable. Unfortunately, my start came with the Calvinist leaning Heidelberg catechism and three modern books about it. I now have a favorite young Calvinist,Kevin deYoung, because of his passion for the faith as well as his ability to write about it in very modern language without losing any of the “Wow” in “The Good News We Almost Forgot. I just wish I could have found comparable teaching from within the UMC.

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