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.

The path of true peace

He that sleeps in death, has a false peace; he that is awakened, has no peace at all; he that believes, has true peace …

— John Wesley, “The Spirit of Bondage and Adoption

When I first started to read John Wesley’s works, one of the things that I found most helpful was his attention to the spiritual condition of individuals. He writes much like a physician describing various forms of disease and illness, and often times even makes that comparison himself. To be a caretaker of souls, he writes, you must understand the causes of symptoms before you can administer the proper medicines.

In the sermon quoted above, Wesley discerns three spiritual states, each with its own characteristics and needs.

The sleeper or “natural man” is one who is either not aware of the things of God or imagines themselves to be in good stead with God when they are not. The first group we might call non-believers. The second group includes both those who worship a god other than the Trinity or who worship in the Christian manner but mistakenly think that mere outward worship and adherence to formal practices such as attending church semi-regularly and praying from time-to-time mean they are on good terms with God.

Such folks are at peace but it is the false peace we read warnings about in the prophets. Like the kings of the Old Testament, they can find no shortage of people to tell them that they have the approval of God, but such comfort and peace is difficult or impossible to square with careful attention to the Bible.

The sleepers are many. The awakened are few. These are persons who have come honestly face-to-face with their sin. They see and therefore grieve the fact that they are out of line with God, damned justly, and unable by their own power to do anything about it. This is why, as Wesley says, they have no peace at all.

The awakened are tormented and troubled. They know they deserve to suffer. Like the prodigal son, their unworthiness is the only plea on their lips.

As terrible as this state is, it is a huge spiritual achievement. Nothing is more difficult in the work of ministry — I have found — than helping sleepers shake off their slumber. Nothing is more emotionally and spiritual draining than walking through the daylight with an awakened sleeper who sees God and — like the disciples and prophets before them — is struck with terror.

An awakened sinner who cries out to Jesus and who does not relent until they have found him is the one who truly believes. They have a belief grounded on a deep assurance that Jesus Christ has forgiven them and that they are beloved not because they are worthy but because God is great. And the fruit of this faith — which is a gift given to us by God — is peace, true peace.

The believer requires continual encouragement and support as they grow in Christian maturity — we Methodists call this “going on to perfection.” And they need the watchful love of fellow Christians to help them along the way and help them avoid slipping backward or away from their faith. The grace of God will bring to full flower what he has started within them, if the believer continues to be a co-worker with God in their own spiritual growth.

Pastoral Challenge
Such is the landscape of the spirit that Wesley saw as he did his work long ago in England. The map he left us remains useful to those of us working in different fields. I find that pastoral work requires a great deal of attention to such things because there is so much temptation to let sleepers rest in comfort and so much difficulty in helping people through this process to a place of real peace.

The work is hard and the rewards are few. It should never be forgotten that Wesley was tossed out of many churches for disturbing the slumber of those who were used to lullabys rather than gospel preaching.

As tempted as I am to let sleepers lie, I am regularly in my pastoral work brought face-to-face with those who have been permitted to sleep and have found the bedtime faith that they have spent a lifetime in provides no comfort or peace in the day of trouble. They come to the edge of their mortality and they try to lean on their faith and discover it has nothing to give them but empty words.

I am not very skilled at helping people navigate this spiritual terrain. I am trying to do it better as I go. But I am grateful to those who have left me guidance, Wesley and others, so I might help the souls in my care find what God has promised.


How to love our neighbor

Christians are called to love God and love their neighbor.

This is the command of Christ.

When I hear or read these words, my thoughts go something like this.

As a Christian who looks to John Wesley as a spiritual teacher, I know that the commands of Christ serve many functions, each one beneficial and fitted to the needs of individuals at different places in their spiritual life.

For the non-spiritual, non-believing person, these commands are rocks to break up our pride and self-confidence. We no more contemplate them before we begin to squirm under their heavy burden. We know that in our heart we are selfish, self-indulgent, full of pride, and hungry for praise. We can no more make these commands a rule of our life from moment to moment than we could make a command to grow wings and fly to the moon a plan for tomorrow.

The person in a state of nature will experience these commands as unpleasant and either put them out of mind or justify their disobedience in some way — often by denying the very notion that obedience to the one who gave the command is required.

For the one who does not dismiss of self-justify their way out of the fetters of this double command of Christ, these words bring us by painful degrees to the recognition that we are the problem, not the giver of the command, and that we are equally powerless to obey as we are to break free of our rebellion. We come to understand that we need salvation — not from an external enemy but from ourselves. Our sin runs deep.

Whether we wrestle with these truths for a few moments for for years, we come at last to know the saving faith of Jesus Christ. We come to know that he won the victory we could not and will pardon us for all our wicked and rebellious ways. He will set us free from the chain of sin, which until recently we treasured as our most cherished possession. He will make us new by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And the fruit of this spiritual process, often painful and always transforming, is that we discover we have, by the grace of God, the ability to truly love God and neighbor. We become capable of love that is not tainted by our selfishness and neediness. We become capable of love that is not just another form of self-justification or another way to prop up our own self-esteem. We have overcome the need to regard ourselves highly, and thus by Christ won the great prize of being able to actually love. With this prize in hand, we discover that these commands of Christ confirm and guide us, teaching us again and again what it is to follow our Lord, which we are able to do now thanks to his grace.

As I write these words, I am aware this is not what the world means when it says love is the answer to the world’s problems. I know that the way I write about love here is not what many of my Christian brothers and sisters mean when they say “love wins” or something similar.

I do believe it is how Christians should speak of such things. I believe it is in keeping with what the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church enjoin upon its preachers to preach. To the best of my ability, I hope I do so.