One of the things that I cherish most about being a Christian is the rich heritage that I enjoy. When I first came to Christ as a senior in high school, I was attending a Church of God (Anderson, IN) that didn’t really have a comprehensive education program. Much of the doctrine was a hodge-podge (like the congregation) and although the senior pastor did outline broad limits regarding what was and was not acceptable, the church was filled with people from various denominational (and theological) backgrounds and many of them held on to their past beliefs. Not only did they hold them, but in Sunday school classes and small groups, they often advocated for them. Thus, I was born again into a sort of theological melting pot. I had friends who were Calvinists and Arminians. I heard people advocate for Open Theism as well as a more predestinarian view. There were holiness people there along with those who advocate for the ‘we all sin in thought, word, or deed every day’ position. Like I said, it was a hodge-podge filled with people who had once been Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and everything in between; all together and enjoying fellowship. I could easily have gone in one of a hundred different directions. Fortunately, God used both the Bible and a number of historical Christians to direct my theological paths.
Once I came to Christ, I began to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). The desire compelled me to make Scripture a regular part of my daily life. I studied the church’s major theological debates and even got several books on New Testament Greek which I subsequently began devouring. However, along with all of the intellectual exercise I endured, I knew from the beginning that Christianity was immensely practical and that if it didn’t have an effect on the way that I lived and acted and prayed, then it was all vanity. So, like a bee buzzing from one source of nectar to another, I searched out the great devotional works of the Church. The first flower I stopped at was a South African minister named Andrew Murray. I wrote a ‘Getting to Know’ post about him several weeks ago which you can find here. And although God used him to impact my life greatly, it was the next stop that would supply the girders for the rest of my theology.
John Wesley was an Anglican minister whose thought has influenced millions of Christians around the world whether they know it or not. Wesley was born in 1703 to a father and mother who were deeply rooted in the Christian faith. Wesley’s father, Samuel, was a rector for the Church of England and his mother, Susanna, had a father who was a Dissenting minister. Susanna was famous for her parenting methods. She laid down certain rules in her home that she believed would lead to her children being disciplined and faithful. The 16 rules included:
5. To teach a child to pray as soon as he can speak.
7. Give them nothing that they cry for, and only that when asked for politely.
10. Never punish a child twice for a single offense.
15. Require no daughter to work before she can read well.
As a result of his mother’s presence, Wesley’s home was one of strict discipline and piety (As an aside, it seems to have largely worked. Obviously, John turned out pretty well. As did his brother Charles who went on to write thousands of hymns and poems. Wesley also had several other siblings, some of which married ministers, etc.). At the age of 5, Wesley was in an upstairs bedroom when their house caught fire. He nearly lost his life in the ordeal but was miraculously, and at the last possible moment, saved. This left a permanent mark on Wesley’s mind. He would later refer to himself, using the words of Zechariah 3:2, as a “brand plucked from the burning.” He believed that God had saved him for a purpose; a purpose which he was determined to fulfill.
Wesley attended college at Oxford and began meeting with several friends (including his future rival, George Whitefield, and his brother, Charles), to discuss how they might live a more holy life. This ‘Holy Club’, as it was termed, met regularly and gave the young men an opportunity to discuss practical matters. It was also during this time that Wesley came under the influence of three books which would go on to change his life, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and Holy Living and Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor. These books were immensely practical and called the reader to a life of humility and holiness before God.
Although Wesley could’ve enjoyed a rather easy and relaxed life as an Anglican minister to the wealthy, he chose to get into the trenches and minister at the lowest levels. He took on the practice of open-air preaching. He’d announce his intention to preach at a certain place (a field or street in town) and at a certain time. Then, he’d go and preach the gospel to the coal miners and blue-collar workers that so desperately needed the hope of the gospel. It’s been argued before that the preaching of Wesley and the subsequent revival in England prevented a revolution from occurring there as it did in France. There’s no doubt that John Wesley played a major role in the development of modern England and America.
Although he once said that he was merely a “hair’s breadth” from being a Calvinist, there’s no doubt that Wesley leaned heavily towards Arminianism on the theological spectrum. He strongly advocated for a belief in the free-will of man and in a concept that he termed ‘prevenient grace.’ He believed, unlike Calvin, that the first grace we receive is a universal grace that gives us the ability to choose God. He also taught a strong doctrine of sanctification. In his book, ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’, Wesley argues that if we would only allow God’s love to fill us, we would be unable to sin since all sin is borne out of a lack of love. Sanctification, to Wesley, was a complete infilling of God’s Holy Love. Wesley was not a theologian like Calvin or Luther. Although educated and incredibly intelligent, Wesley was a man who understood Christianity to be a practical religion: a religion of love and action. To me, this is the reason that Christians today can still benefit from reading his sermons and books regardless to whether the reader is a theologian or a new Christian. His writings, ultimately, call us to faithful living and a greater understanding of God.
So, here are three of my favorite works by Wesley. I hope you’ll enjoy them and benefit from them as much as I have.
This is the perfect book to start with when approaching Wesley. The first time you read Wesley’s writings, you may be confused by what he means when he talks about sanctification, holiness, and the whole concept of not sinning. In this book, Wesley lays the foundation for much of his theology of salvation. He explains, in layman’s terms, what it means to practically live a holy life. One of my favorite parts is the Q&A that he includes where he addresses the possible questions and issues that people may have with his position. He does a great job at both explaining and defending his position. Also, once you’ve read this book, you’ll have a better understanding of where he’s coming from so you’ll be less likely to misunderstand his other writings.
This is my absolute favorite sermon by Wesley. He described it this way, “‘The Circumcision of the Heart’…contains all that I now teach concerning salvation from all sin, and loving God with an undivided heart.” In this message, Wesley describes what devotion to God looks like in all of its fulness. He makes it abundantly clear that holiness before God requires utter and total devotion. This message also includes one of my favorite quotes from Wesley:
One design you are to pursue to the end of time, — the enjoyment of God in time and in eternity. Desire other things, so far as they tend to this. Love the creature as it leads to the Creator. But in every step you take, be this the glorious point that terminates your view. Let every affection, and thought, and word, and work, be subordinate to this. Whatever ye desire or fear, whatever ye seek or shun, whatever ye think, speak, or do, be it in order to your happiness in God, the sole End, us well as Source, of your being. Have no end, no ultimate end, but God.
Wesley wrote 13 sermons that covered the entire Sermon on the Mount. Unlike some Calvinist ministers, Wesley saw the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ as Jesus’ ultimate explanation of the Christian life. He didn’t believe it was some unattainable ideal that Christ described to make man understand how sinful we are. Instead, he saw it as a call to radical obedience. And not only did Wesley believe the Sermon on the Mount was livable; he believed that its aim was “to assert and prove every branch of gospel obedience as indispensably necessary to eternal salvation.” In other words, living the Sermon on the Mount was necessary. He took Jesus’ phrase, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” as a call to holiness. These sermons outline the Christian life in stark detail and touch on many different aspects of that life. They’re challenging and gospel-oriented, a powerful combination.