In my previous post, we looked at the ways in which John Wesley named the work of the devil in his setting. I noted in that post that his description of the devil’s work still seems relevant and suggested that the contemporary American church would be wise to take up again the spiritual language that has fallen out of fashion in the last hundred years.
As we go further with Wesley into his sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry,” we turn to his description of what it means to say we cast out devils or demons.
For Wesley, there was a bright line division between those who are in Christ and those who are still children of the devil. Those who do not have a vital, living faith in Christ are still held by the power of darkness. They are blind to the gospel and therefore robbed of all its benefits.
It is important to remember as we read these words that this did not mean Wesley thought non-Christians were incapable of good or were without any kind of moral compass. Far from it. Because we are created by a good God and God’s grace is active in our lives, even when we do not believe in Him, we are capable of goodness and kindness and all manner of virtues. Our problem is that without grace we are prone to slide into the darkness of greed, selfishness, jealousy, spite, and lust. We might fight the devil who has dominion in our hearts, but we cannot overcome him on our own.
For Wesley, to cast out demons is to bring people to repentance and to faith in Christ. We often call such work the “saving of souls.” Wesley grounds this work squarely as a spiritual struggle between the kingdom of darkness and the God of light. To bring a person to faith is to drive out the evil one who had previously bound them to his ways.
Wesley’s description of this takes up a fairly short portion of his sermon, but it is crucial for everything that comes in the rest of the sermon. He understood the work of preaching the gospel and building people up in holiness as work of a same kind as the casting out of demons that we read about in the gospels. It is the work of casting out Satan from the places where he reigns in the hearts of men and women. It is Christ, not preachers who do this. The devil is too strong for us to dislodge, but he flees before Christ. And yet, God has used human beings as the instruments of this work.
As I consider these crucial paragraphs in this sermon, I am struck by a couple of thoughts.
First, we in the contemporary church talk much more about shades of gray than Wesley did. Wesley took seriously the line from 1 John 5 that says God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. His ministry was not about helping people cope better with a difficult world or making mostly nice people a little nicer and more service oriented. He understood himself to be in the midst of a titanic spiritual struggle between Satan and God for the souls of men, women, and children. We can understand both his incredible passion and his sometimes grim attitude if we see his work as he saw it. People in the midst of battles are often somewhat determined and grim.
Second, this work is something that mere humans such as myself simply cannot do on our own. I can give counsel and comfort to people. I can teach them a lot about the Bible and church history. I can help order the life of the church I serve. On my best weeks, I can string together words in a sermon that touch the head and heart. But I cannot save souls. I cannot bring life to a dead soul any more than I can bring life to a dead body. Only God can do this. To the extent that I define my ministry in terms of what I can do, I will fall short of my calling. The key for me is to seek to live out my vocation in such a way that God chooses to use me to do what only God can do. I have no control over that. I can only seek to be faithful to my call and hope that in my imperfect faithfulness God chooses to act through me.
As John Wesley always does, he challenges me in this sermon. He challenges me not to take too lightly and not to misunderstand my role. One strain of my training as a pastor places a lot of emphasis on using the tools of secular helping professions and secular politics to meet the needs of the people I serve. When I read Wesley, I encounter a very different view.
It is one that runs at odds with some aspects of my personality. Like many clergy, I tend to be pretty good at the soft skills of empathy and listening. I do not relish conflict or confrontation. I am quite capable of seeing multiple sides to many issues. You don’t have to push me hard to acknowledge shades of gray.
But there is another part of me that Wesley speaks to. It is the part that has become convinced first in the truth of the gospel — that Jesus Christ came to save sinners and that we require saving. What I see in Wesley is a man who understood this truth and did not flinch from living out the implications of it in his ministry, even when that set him at odds with others.
If the gospel is true, if Wesley is correct, then I don’t want to be serving as a chaplain to the damned, helping to comfort them in their chains and darkness. I don’t want to do that because I love them. I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to fail God who has called me to this work.
I need encouragement in this. That is why I value Wesley so much. He is a constant challenge and encourager to me in my vocation.