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 Issues | Church History | John Wesley

 

Great Churchmen (No 7)

John Wesley

by W Leathem

Those Fifty Years (part 2 - his distinctive teaching)

(c) The Teacher.We have already noted that Wesley claimed that his teaching contained nothing novel. “I simply described the plain old religion of the Church of England which is now almost everywhere spoken against under the new name of Methodism.”  It is not our present purpose to enter into a discussion of the teaching of John Wesley in general. In the course of his long ministry he expounded the whole gamut of Christian truth with the practical application always uppermost in his thought. But we must turn our thoughts to a brief consideration of some of those aspects of his teaching which certainly were new to the ears of genuinely loyal members of the same Church as Wesley. We shall see that even these distinctive emphases do not invalidate Wesley's claim that his teaching was Church-teaching. It was rather that he threw a new light upon certain aspects of the two main doctrines (Forty-Four Sermons, pp. 49 ff. and 514 ff.) of his Gospel, justification by faith and the new birth.

In his earlier post-conversion ministry Wesley had stressed instantaneous conversion (The Journal, Vol 1, pp. 454-5; Letters, Vol 1, p.290) as of universal application. Maturer judgement convinced him of the untenability of his position and in later life he was content to preach it as the very desirable norm, but not the universal experience, of believers. Like other people in less experienced years Wesley was apt to conform all spiritual experience to the pattern of his own. Perhaps this has always been a danger for exponents of great movements of the Spirit. At any rate it is heartily to be commended above a vagueness that has no bounds to its meaning of conversion. Furthermore, it must be said that it was the preaching of instantaneous conversion which was one of the spearheads of the Revival, and of other revivals since. Indeed, where it falls into neglect, and when the experience which lies behind it is belittled, then the Church of God lays aside a mighty weapon for the conversion of the world. It is a mystery to the writer to understand how a Church which commemorates the great apostle to the Gentiles by “The Conversion of St. Paul” should fail to emphasize that at least one element in that momentous occasion was its suddenness. It is almost too obvious to require mention, but in face of such neglect let us recall again that Paul fell on his face a hater and he rose to his feet a lover!

On even more adequate grounds of direct Scriptural statement, Wesley brought out of obscurity and with great spiritual gain, the doctrine of Christian assurance of salvation  (Forty-Four Sermons, pp 111 ff, and The Journal, Vol 3, p 231.) teaching that with the forgiveness of sins there should also be experienced the inward assurance of the fact. It was only on the foundation of a humble but real confidence in salvation as a present possession that Wesley believed a strong, healthy Christian life could be built up. Assurance was not to be considered a privilege for the few but the birthright of all. He judged that all who had the experience should have the authentication of it too. At the same time he was careful to distinguish (Letters, Vol 1, pp. 255-6, 308; 5. pp. 358-9.)  between assurance of salvation as a present possession and the assurance of salvation as a future certainty. The former was his faith, the latter was not. It was in the recovery of this essential element of Christian experience that Wesley stood closer to the New Testament than certain of his opponents both within and without the Evangelical school.

But the Christian life once entered upon must be pursued with every power in reliance upon the Holy Spirit to perfect the work of grace. Charles expressed John's teaching in scores of hymns on the Christian life.

 

Thou wilt the root remove,

 

And perfect me in love.

 

Wesley believed that his teaching on Christian Perfection (Forty-Four Sermons, pp. 457 ff.; Journal, Vol 8, Index.) (to be carefully distinguished from sinless perfection) lay at the heart of the message entrusted to him. He pursued it relentlessly for himself. It was no mere passive waiting for an exhilarating experience. It involved active pursuit and constant obedience. He always urged it upon others as the necessary complement of the new life. He never claimed to have attained to it himself and he was probably too simple in his acceptance of the claims of others.  For him it meant in its simplest essence loving God with all his heart and mind and will and his neighbour, as himself, and he found it in Bible and Prayer Book alike.

Wesley's teaching on perfection was to become the forerunner of many holiness movements of the past and present centuries, but of his it should be said that it lifts a standard of attainment and reveals a possibility of achievement nobler in their expression than all others.

It would be out of harmony with the aim and spirit of these booklets to enter upon a controversy far removed from us, and practically moribund, as the bitter disputation which raged between Wesley and the extreme Calvinists, Augustus Toplady and Rowland Hill. The spirit in which it was conducted is a credit to neither party. But this being a study of Wesley we may be allowed to say something in support of his conduct. First, Wesley was attacking an extreme form of Calvinism, a form in which the central tenet, the sovereignty of God, was dethroned by a lesser though important truth, predestination, stated perhaps more in terms of logic than Scripture. It should be remembered that Charles Simeon, (Charles Simeon by  H.C.G. Moule, pp. 100-1) himself a wise Calvinist, could find nothing to cavil at in Wesley's main position. Second, Wesley feared, rightly or wrongly, that such teaching as he opposed struck a deadly blow at the universality of the Gospel, and in a true concern for a lost world's salvation the evangelist in Wesley outstripped the theologian. His mistake, if such it was, was a pardonable one, for it was the mistake of a lover!

(d) Leader and Organizer. Next to Wesley the Evangelist, nothing is more marked than his gifts of leadership and organization. His passionate zeal for God and man reveals the saint. The ability which displayed itself in the build-up of Methodism reveals the genius. For he was both a saint of God and a genius among men. (F.J. McConnell, John Wesley, p. 9.)

It has been said that John Wesley was an improviser, that he had no far-seeing policy before his mind. How could he?  Revivals can be neither planned nor canalized in advance. Furthermore, Wesley's view of Methodism was that it should last for thirty, or at the most, fifty years. After that he believed it could be entirely absorbed into the Church, its work completed. He never conceived of his work as other than that of the handmaid of the Church of God. But apart from this weighty consideration it should not be allowed that improvization is contrary to genius. It is genius pursuing a short term policy. It is also probably right to say that Wesley created nothing in matters of organization. (See J.H. Overton John Wesley (pp. 120 ff.) for a sketch of Wesley as an organizer.) was an adapter, and his Conference and Societies and Classes were adaptations of what already existed. But it was genius that enabled him to use the old containers for the new wine. It speaks volumes for his powers of improvisation and adaptation that they have remained the efficient framework of the largest Church of Reformed Christendom until this day. It was erected to offer temporary shelter to thousands; it has proved capable of providing permanent accomodation for millions. To give the illustration a modern twist we might say that Wesley built his air-raid shelters so well that they solved his post-war housing problem!

It was the same with his leadership. So central was Wesley's leadership in the success that attended the mighty movement of the Spirit that any attempt to write the history of the Revival which ignored his dominance would fail to make historical sense. If tradition had not preserved him we should be compelled to invent him. His leadership gave it direction as his organizing ability gave it stability. He knew where he was going, and he impressed others that he knew.

Of course he had the weaknesses of his strength. The only terms on which men could work with him were his terms. It would appear that he was even prepared to let Charles go rather than alter his plans. In two respects his leadership fell short-he trained no understudy and he did not delegate authority. What Paul said to one of the churches of Macedon, John Wesley repeatedly said to all the churches of Methodism - “and the rest I will put in order when I come!”

But it should be remembered that the circumstances were without parallel. Wesley's task was comparable to that of Moses when he brought Israel out of Egypt. Moses had to weld a slave-rabble into a nation. Wesley had to create a Christian community out of the ignorant and cultureless town-dwellers of eighteenth-century England. The testimony of history is that they both succeeded.

This is not the place to enlarge on Wesley's contribution to hymnology. It is more appropriately dealt with in the corresponding booklet on Charles Wesley; but it should be remembered that John's contribution is by no means negligible. He not only-contributed some fine hymns, translations and original compositions, but he appointed himself editor of the Hymn-book!

It is unfortunate, however, that space will not permit of more than mention of Wesley's work as a public benefactor (See whole sections (pp.331-451) in J.W.Bready’s England before and after Wesley.)  - the scores of books of all kinds that he published; the institutions that he reared for all types of people, the inspiration arid aid he gave to all sorts of social reform, the impetus which was given to societies for the spread of the Gospel overseas and at home. It is not always realized that the founders of these latter agencies were the younger contemporaries of Wesley and their hearts had been warmed at the fires of the Revival.

It is necessary, however, to attempt a brief picture of the man himself, the man who stood behind, and gave colour to, all the varied aspects of his labours.

(e) The Christian Man.  (See W.H. Fitchett’s Wesley and His Century (pp. 445 ff.) on this theme.)  John Wesley was a man of outstanding presence. He was small of stature, under five feet five inches, and barely exceeded one hundred and twenty pounds in weight. He was a man trained down to the bone, the personification of vigour and alertness. “A human gamecock,” was Sir Leslie Stephen's graphic, if irreverent, description. A contemporary describes him: “He possessed a dear smooth forehead, an aquiline nose, eyes the brightest and most piercing imaginable, and a fresh complexion expressive of perfect health. His whole aspect, crowned with a head as white as snow and clothed with an air of neatness and cleanliness, gave an idea of something primitive and apostolic.”

Behind his physical appearance there lay a mental and moral effectiveness which made him one of the greatest workers of all time. Lord Rosebery's description of Cromwell is a perfect portrait of Wesley- “a practical mystic, the most formidable and terrible of all combinations.”  His tastes were simple and refined. He never spent more than twelve shillings on himself in any one week. This enabled him to be prodigally generous. He lived on twenty-eight pounds a year for nearly all his life, yet when occasion required it he could subscribe a thousand pounds to a worthy cause.

Wesley remained, as of course everybody must, a child of his age in many things; for instance, he believed in ghosts and witches. He had some very real weaknesses. He was not always a good judge of character, which allowed him to be the prey of some men who could repeat shibboleths but had little else. He frequently, and sometimes calamitously, misunderstood women. His expressions of religious truth were sometimes inadequate and distorted. But behind all else was the “practical mystic”, combining sainthood and genius; the saint, ever conscious that he was a sinner, whose constant utterance in life as in death was:

 

To serve the present age,

 

My calling to fulfil,

 

Oh may it all my powers engage

 

To do my Master's will!

 

Someone, who it matters not, was reclining quietly when in imagination a vista of green countryside opened up before him. Across the undulating fields was scattered what seemed like a small army of white-clad runners. Far ahead of all the rest he noticed two figures who were covering the ground with easy strides and an air of quiet confidence. As they drew nearer he noted that they were men of small but striking appearance. They were men trained to the last ounce. He also noted that one was a Jew and the other an Englishman, and that the Jew was numbered “One” and his companion “Eighteen”. They seemed to be on intimate terms and chatted as they ran.

“How is the going, Paul?”  asked the Englishman.

“Quite good, thank you, John,” was the ready reply.

“This pressing towards the mark for the prize is grand work.”

“I agree,” said John, “I feel fitter in body and brighter in spirit every day I live.”

“That's as it should be,” said the friendly Jew. “The secret is keeping the body under, and I find a healthy dread of becoming a castaway to be good medicine. How terrible to be a mere spectator.”

“Yes, and it's so unnecessary. The rules of health and fitness are so simple. My plan is, up at four, out to work in the open air at five, with thirty to forty miles in the saddle most days. The rest is equally simple, a matter of sparing diet with little but water to drink.”

They had now passed on and were almost out of hearing, but just as they reached a sharp incline in front of the winning-post, Paul said, “Let's make the last lap the best, John!”

Up the slope they sped in a strong finish and as they breasted the tape together the great gate of the mansion opened to receive them, and a glistening light, ne'er seen on sea or land, enveloped them. Immediately all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.

When the noise had subsided and the light was subdued, the onlooker quietly commented to himself - “They were great warriors, those two, for the Kingdom of God - glorious Paul and wonderful John. Shall we ever see their like again? They are bound to be pretty well together, and right at the top, I should think.”

Now if our observer's comment was correct - and who would deny it? - there must be some adequate explanation forthcoming. Such things do not “just happen” any more than the life and beauty of spring just burst through the cold, hard crust of winter. The open secret was a transforming experience of God in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. The one found it in a blinding flash of light; the other discovered it in a strangely-warmed heart. The one is for ever associated with Straight Street, Damascus; the other took place in Aldersgate Street, London ; and though they were separated by seventeen centuries it was the same essential experience - They had “received the reconciliation” and ever after they went up and down the world crying, “Be ye reconciled to God.”

It is to the second of these happenings we must now give our attention, though we will not forget that the former may prove our best teacher as we seek to understand John Wesley.

>>That Night of NIghts

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