Wesley’s two goals in preaching

In my previous post, I ended with a quote from John Wesley’s introduction to his first series of published sermons. Before I turn to those sermons, I am going to dwell a bit longer — this post and the next one — on some other words Wesley shared in that introduction.

In introducing his sermons, Wesley made clear why he was publishing them and what his goals in preaching were. He writes that his goal is lay down what he has found in the Bible concerning the way to heaven and to distinguish carefully between this way of God and the “inventions of men.”

There is a point here that I glossed over in my previous post that is worth pausing to notice. Wesley understood the Bible to have a clear purpose.

We often have conversations in the church about what the Bible is or how we should approach it. In the last 200 years, we have adopted more and more techniques of analysis and interpretation meant to “correct” the Bible. We love our buckets and our lenses and our razor blades. Wesley would have none of that.

For him, the Bible has a clear spiritual purpose — to direct us into a way of life and faith that will lead us to heaven. It is a spiritual book with very practical implications. And it is to be read as the final arbiter of all matters of faith and practice.

In light of this, Wesley set for himself two primary objectives in the sermons he published and preached.

First, to guard those who are just setting their faces toward heaven, (and who, having little acquaintance with the things of God, are the more liable to be turned out of the way,) from formality, from mere outside religion, which has almost driven heart-religion out of the world.

In other words, Wesley is concerned to reach the new or recently converted Christians — many of them no doubt converted by Methodist preaching — who he fears will be led astray into a cold and dead faith that depends on outward ceremony and formality rather than a real and genuine transformation of the heart.

Paired with this concern, his second goal is as follows:

Secondly, to warn those who know the religion of the heart, the faith that worketh by love, lest at any time they make void the law through faith, and so fall back into the snare of the devil.

His second great concern is for those who believe that being saved by Christ means they do not have to pay any attention to the law of God. Some people do this openly and others do so more carefully. They say to themselves, “Well, I am not perfect and never will be, but Jesus loves me so he will forgive me for my ongoing sins. Yes, there are sins I can’t let go of, but Jesus will look the other way.”

Wesley calls this attitude “making the law void through faith.” We say that the law does not really apply or matter any more. What God teaches about the love of money, lying, sexual immorality, hatred of our enemies, and scorn for the poor gets ignored because we wrap ourselves up in a false assurance that somehow since we call Jesus “Lord” our ongoing sins no longer matter.

Wesley would have none of this, as we will see when we look at his preaching.

For me, as a preacher in a tradition that looks to Wesley as a spiritual guide, I find his twin concerns extremely relevant today. We in the church today are often at risk of stumbling into both the pitfalls Wesley sought to warn us about. Most of the people I work with spiritually can be said to fall into one of these two groups — the Christian at risk of attaching the utmost importance to things that are not central to our faith and the Christian who either does not believe Jesus can actually free him or her from sin or who has found comfort in the belief that overcoming our sin is not necessary if we sings praise songs to Jesus. People today are little different from those Wesley encountered. The spiritual challenges and risks remain the same in 2020 as they were in 1740.

As I read Wesley’s sermons and write here in the coming weeks, we will find ample opportunity to consider this further.

As we in the United Methodist Church move toward creating new expressions of the Methodist movement, may we be alert to the goals that were so central to Wesley’s preaching.

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