Thoughts on preaching Christ

John Wesley held that a preacher needed to offer people both law and gospel.

In a 1751 “Letter on Preaching Christ” he wrote that preaching gospel means “preaching the love of God to sinners, preaching the life, death, resurrection, and intercession of Christ, with all the blessings which, in consequence thereof, are freely given to true believers.”

Preaching law means “explaining and enforcing the commands of Christ, briefly comprised in the Sermon on the Mount. I took note when I read this that he said to preach the commands of Christ. He did not instruct us to call people sinners or get them to focus on wrath, but to recount the commands in the Sermon on the Mount. That alone, he seems to argue, will convict where conviction is necessary.

Wesley wrote that he believed the best method of aiding and nurturing belief was to preach a mix of law and gospel “in every place, if not in every sermon.”

I think, the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel in order to ‘beget faith,’ to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconviced; but becasue otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel.

Wesley wrote that the commands of Christ (the law) are food for the soul just as much as the gospel and should not be omitted. But he lamented that many preachers had turned to gospel preaching – leaving out the law entirely – which caused havoc in the Methodist societies. (Note: A cordial is a strong, usually alcoholic, drink with sweet or spicy flavors.)

Why this is the very thing I assert: That the gospel Preachers, so called, corrupt their hearers; they vitiate their taste, so that they cannot relish sound doctrine; and spoil their appetite, so they cannot turn it to nourishment; they, as it were, feed them with sweetmeats, till the genuine wine of the kingdom seems quite insipid to them. They give them cordial upon cordial, which make them all life and spirit of the present …. As soon as that flow of spirits goes off, they are without life, without power, without any strength or vigour of soul; and it is extremely difficult to recover them, because they still cry out, ‘Cordials! Cordials!” of which they have had too much already, and have no taste for food which is convenient for them.

Wesley closes the letter with a recounting of a congregation destroyed by gospel preaching contrasted with societies invorgated by law and gospel preaching.

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.

As often happens when I read Wesley, I find him speaking to our current problems and conditions.

NOTE: This is a republication of a blog post I wrote in 2009. I was re-reading this letter this morning and thought I might write about it, but when I discovered I had written about it before, I thought my previous post summed up what I wanted to share quite well.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on preaching Christ

  1. Great post, John! I used Wesley’s summary of the law and the gospel from your last quote as part of my youth bible study tonight.

    One quibble: From my reading of this letter (and from Wesley’s sermons in general), I don’t think that Wesley is arguing against including God’s wrath towards sin; if we focus only on Christ’s commands without discussing the severe negative consequences, we aren’t presenting the full picture. Throughout Wesley’s writings, he doesn’t shy away from discussing our responsibility for obedience out of our love for Christ as well as how God views our disobedience. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive on this point since I see antinomianism as the most serious problem in theologically conservative churches today.

    By the way, do you know if the letter Wesley was responding to still exists? (There were a few places in Wesley’s letter where I wasn’t clear on the context of his statements.)

    1. Thanks, Paul. I need to read the post again more carefully. I agree that Wesley shares your aversion to antinomianism. If I wrote otherwise, it was an oversight. I do not know if the other half of this correspondence can be found anywhere.

      Thanks for taking time to write.

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