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 Issues | Church History | John Wesley


Great Churchmen (No 7)

John Wesley

by W Leathem

Those Fifty Years (part 1 - his general teaching)

Whatever way we look at that period it astounds us. It is a miracle of planned achievement. It is perhaps the illustration of continuance in well-doing. It is above all else the record of a life in which the Spirit burned with unquenchable fire. Whether we assess it in miles travelled, in sermons preached, in books published, in letters written, in converts won, in societies formed, or in institutions supported, we are compelled to exclaim,  “Never man worked like this man.”  Mr. Stanley Baldwin, when Prime Minister of England, said: “I am supposed to be a busy man, but by the side of John Wesley I join the ranks of the unemployed.”  But all that Wesley would say .of himself was, “I am much too busy to be in a hurry” (The Journal, Vol 1, pp. 475-6.)

Wesley's life was a glorious whole. In all the diversity of operations there was a controlling unity. The threads were many but there was one pattern. His long life was like a carefully adjusted and perfectly tuned machine under the control of the Master Craftsman. To examine it we must attempt an analysis ; but we must remember to restore the synthesis, for the man was greater than the sum of his parts.

(a) The Evangelist. Wesley was above all else an evangelist. Every other gift was subservient to this. The evangelistic passion blazed forth from the heart-warming experience in Aldersgate Street on the night of May 24th, 1738. “I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine.”  There is something intensely personal about this confession of new-born faith and experience.  A religion that is not real to the preacher is not likely to live in the pew. Second-hand religion is not infectious. But personal religion is not selfish religion. John Wesley was quick to recognize that it was “not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world”: a conviction that was never better expressed than in his retort to a certain ecclesiastic, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

The evangel which burned in his soul and flamed in his utterances was no novel message. Wesley frequently declared that he preached “only the fundamental principles of Christianity”; and when pressed to define what he meant by the fundamental principles of Christianity he said: “If any doctrines within the whole compass of Christianity may be properly termed fundamental they are these two-the doctrine of justification by faith, and that of the new birth; the former relating to the great work which God does for us in forgiving our sins ; the latter to the great work of God in us in removing our fallen nature.” (Forty-Four Sermons by John Wesley, p.514.)  But the difference between Wesley's preaching of these truths and the formal acceptance of them as part of the Church's doctrine was in the power of the Holy Spirit which quickened them into living necessities for the soul.

The dynamic of the Gospel drove him unto the highways of England and kept him there to the end. Having discovered the heart of the Gospel he was to discover both the hearts of the people, and a simple, direct and powerful mode of utterance which proved itself an ideal vehicle of the truth to their souls. The date (The Journal, Vol 2, pp. 172-3.) on which he went forth as an open-air preacher - April 2nd 1739 - is scarcely less momentous for the Revival than May 24th of the previous year.

Of the results of those labours it is safe to generalize, but difficult to particularize. Wesley himself was under no delusions concerning the defects of the movement which brought so much blessing to the multitudes. His sober estimate was that about one third of those who made profession of one kind or another remained constant Christians and linked up with the Societies and the Churches. At the time of his death the membership of the Societies, carefully scrutinized and ruthlessly pruned (F.J. McConnell; John Wesley, p.113.) was nearly 150,000 (Report of Methodist Conference, 1791).  besides many thousands in all the churches who were not linked up with Methodism.

(b) The Churchman. “About this time a serious man said to him (Wesley): ‘Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven? Remember you cannot serve Him alone. You must, therefore find companions or make them; the Bible knows nothing of a solitary religion.’” (The Journal, Vol 1, p.469.)  Wesley never forgot this.

The effect of this advice to Wesley left its mark upon all his future labours. He was constant in urging upon his followers to hold fast by the Church, and his precept was enforced by his example. Wesley was emphatic in his loyalty to the Church because he recognized that the Christian Fellowship was an essential part of the Gospel committed to him, and also because he saw the two sides of man's need as met in that Gospel-his need for a personal experience of salvation, and his need for a progressive sanctification of the whole man only made possible in the body corporate. This led to the formation of the Class-Meetings (The Journal, Vol 2 pp.528 & 535.) for fellowship and instruction in the Christian life.

The result of this impression was very marked in his own ministry. Whilst he was pre-eminently the evangelist, Wesley would have been strong in his emphasis that he was the evangelist of the Church. There was nothing of the modern “free-lance preacher” about him, nor like so many of this “order” of ministry did he despise the Church of God. The truly disciplined servant of the Lord was also, and gladly, the servant of the Church. The motto of the Christian Endeavour Movement - “For Christ and the Church” - would have appealed to Wesley's sound common-sense. Equally abhorrent to him were a Christless Churchianity and a Churchless Christianity. Like John Calvin, John Wesley held “high” views of the Church, not indeed in connection with the incidentals and externals of worship, but with reference to its true nature as the Body of Christ, the earthly home of the Holy Spirit, the Ark of God outside of which there is no salvation.

Wesley was loyal to the doctrine of the Church of his choice. “When a serious clergyman desired to know in what points we differed from the Church of England, I answered, ‘To the best of my knowledge, in none. The doctrines we preach are the doctrines of the Church of England, indeed the fundamental doctrines of the Church, clearly laid down both in her Prayers, Articles, and Homilies.’”  On another occasion, when answering a question as to the source of the authority by which he spoke, he replied, “But I have greater authority (i.e. than those already adduced) and such as I reverence only less than the oracles of God; I mean that of our own Church.” (The Journal, Vol 2 pp.274-6; Vol 3, p41; Vol 7, p. 486.)  In Wesley's mind there was no contradiction between the authority of the Bible and the authority of the Church. They were complementary in a recognized order of precedence.

He was equally emphatic in his doctrine of the Sacraments. Sometimes indeed this emphasis can be made to teach beyond what was in his own mind, and on this score he has been severely criticized by some able Protestant protagonists. (E.g. Bishop Knox of Manchester.)  Nowhere is this sacramental stress more evident than in the section of the Hymn Book devoted to the Lord's Supper, wherein we read:


The signs transmit the signified,

The grace is by the means applied.

Wesley went so far as to claim the Lord's Supper as a converting ordinance. He appealed to the experience of his converts: “Ye are witnesses. For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion to God (perhaps in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord's Supper.”  Had not his own mother, after wandering in a “legal wilderness” most of her life, knelt at the Table, and


The Father there revealed His Son,

Him in the broken bread made known.

Like loyalty to the Church of God reveals itself in his conception of the Christian Ministry. Here it may be well to remind ourselves that his presbyterian idea of the episcopate, the belief that he was ii bishop after the N.T. pattern, is the best corrective to false opinions which may arise concerning his sacramental teaching. John Wesley's conception of the ministry was emphatically that which stresses the prophetic and pastoral office. It was essentially the view so ably expressed by Bishop Lightfoot a century later. But nothing he said or did, even the affair of the American ordinations, can fairly be construed to express a low view of ministerial commission. It should be remembered that he maintained a dear distinction between his preachers and the ordained ministry, in spite of great pressure. He was exceedingly jealous for the good name of the ministry.  Nothing upset him more than Francis Asbury's display of episcopal powers in America. With indignation he wrote (Letters, Vol 8, p. 91):  “In one point, my brother, I am a little afraid you differ from me.  I study to be little, you study to be great. I creep, you strut.  I found a school, you must found a college. Oh beware, do not seek to be something. Let me be nothing and Christ be all in all. One instance of your greatness gives me great concern. How dare you, how can you, suffer yourself to be a bishop?  I shudder, I start at the very thought.  Men may call me a knave, or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me a bishop. For my sake, for God's sake, for Christ's sake, put a full end to this.”  Wesley believed that the truly “high” view of the ministry did not express itself in unbecoming airs but in lowly service. The Chief Shepherd had been among them as one that serveth. He was jealous that in all things the ministry be not blamed.

In all this, and in spite of some slight evidence to the contrary, he showed himself a sincere Protestant; not, however, the Protestantism of a later period which was individualism run wild, but an understanding Protestantism in the succession of the Reformers.  If any are disposed to doubt this let them examine the Book of Common Prayer with Wesley's revision of it for his people's use, and note the excision of every expression which might be given a sacerdotal interpretation.  His jealousy for the doctrine of the sovereign, untrammelled action of the Holy Spirit on the heart made him willing to sacrifice much otherwise dear to him.


>>Those 50 years (part 2 - his teaching on Christian perfection)

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