Within North American Christianity today, Wesley is most prominently remembered for his contribution to the theology of sanctification. These teachings were important to Methodist groups, and served as the basis for the American holiness movement, which spread like wildfire in late nineteenth century America and led to the establishment of a number of new denominations, like the Church of the Nazarene and the Free Methodist Church. Scholars have identified this movement as a radically egalitarian ethical tradition.
Wesley taught that sanctification was obtainable after justification by faith, between justification and death. He did not contend for “sinless perfection”; rather, he believed that a Christian could be made “perfect in love” through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Wesley taught that through such perfect-ing, a believer’s motives — rather than being self-centred — would be guided by the deep desire to please God. One would be able to keep from committing what Wesley called “sin rightly so-called” (a conscious or intentional breach of God’s will or laws). In effect, Wesley preached, a Christian could still be able to sin, but intentional or willful sin could be avoided.
Read more about the patron saint of Christian holiness and his continuing relevance to the Brethren in Christ, after the jump.
My church, Circle of Hope, celebrated Wesley on the 308th anniversary of his death back in March. Here’s what someone from our community had to say about him:
Wesley’s call to personal and social holiness continues to challenge and inform Christians who are serious about being living participants in the Kingdom of God.
Wesley was an abolitionist. He spoke out and wrote against the slave trade. He published a pamphlet on slavery titled, “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” (1774) saying, “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature.”
Read more of Circle of Hope’s celebration of Wesley.
Terry Brensinger, a Brethren in Christ educator and the international preacher/teacher for the International Brethren in Christ Association, has written thusly about Wesley and his early followers in regards to worship:
In an age marked in part by religious indifference, John Wesley and his early followers found themselves on a stage in many ways similar to our own. Likewise, Wesley himself wrestled with various issues taken directly from recent issues of Leadership and Christianity Today. Wesley made no apparent effort to hide his appreciation for the more formal Anglican tradition with which he was familiar, yet he cared deeply about the unchurched commoners living in and around London. This tension between what we might call “maintaining the tradition” and “reaching the masses” led to what James White has aptly called Wesley’s “pragmatic traditionalism.”
With respect to tradition, Wesley and the early Methodists took the Church calendar seriously, used written prayers, and saw hymns as an avenue for teaching sound theology. Yet the crying needs of London’s urban poor prevented these pragmatic Methodists from merely performing their rituals in some cold and outdated fashion. What resulted was a fresh and expanding sense of enthusiasm, an uninhibited and expressive form of worship marked by joy and, at times, spontaneity.
As Wesley’s influence spread to North America, however, the delicate balance between tradition and pragmatics eventually led to the almost total dismissal of all tradition. In a series of developments clearly outlined by White in Protestant Worship, Methodism increasingly sacrificed all traditional forms of worship in order to reach the unchurched on the frontier. Prayer books were discarded, and only the simplest of songs were sung. Clearly, spontaneity and excitement won the day. Corporate worship was now little more than an evangelistic device for reaching the lost. When the dust finally settled, what remained were relatively full churches with little if any theological foundation. During much of the present century, many of Wesley’s descendants have been seeking to rediscover at least some of what was lost.
Read Brensinger’s entire reflection here.
On John Wesley’s Day, we should think about the influence of this preacher, theologian, and teacher — and how his words, hymns, and interpretations of Scripture may continue to guide our church today.