From time to time those of us in the Wesleyan tradition pause to remember from whence we have come. From its modest beginnings in the Holy Club at Oxford, a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street, and field preaching in Bristol, we now have a global Wesleyan Methodist family. And, if Frederick Dale Bruner is correct to call Pentecostalism “primitive Methodism’s extended incarnation” (A Theology of the Holy Spirit [Eerdmans, 1973], 37), then the twentieth-century explosion of Pentecostalism across the globe can also find its roots in Wesley. All in all, this is a pretty impressive heritage for one who began his ministry struggling to save his own soul.
Wesley’s place in church history is secure. If I can put this in terms that might be theologically acceptable to him, we can give God thanks for what God accomplished through the ministry of John Wesley.
Wesley has a place of honor in our past. But does he have a role in shaping our future? I believe he does, and in a series of Consider Wesley articles I want to look at one way he might give us direction through a recovery of his emphasis on holiness of heart and life—that is, a life centered in and governed by love.
The centrality of holiness to early Methodism is beyond dispute. John Wesley believed the movement was specifically called to hold before the world the great promise of Christian perfection as attainable in this life. As late as 1790 he wrote, “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appears to have raised us up” (Letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, September 15, 1790, in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson [Baker, 1978], 13:9). Among the four dimensions of doctrine identified by Alister McGrath in The Genesis of Doctrine ([Eerdmans, 1990], 370) is that of “social demarcation”; clearly, holiness served that function for Wesley’s Methodists. It made them a distinctive people.
Of course, holiness was not the whole of Methodist doctrine; that includes such key elements as the Trinity, the incarnation and atonement, original sin, prevenient grace, conviction of sin, justification, and sanctification. But holiness as perfect love was the orienting goal of all the other doctrines, giving them their purpose and direction.
It could not be otherwise for Wesley. Because he believed God’s purpose in salvation is to restore the fallen imago Dei in this life, Christian perfection, which designates that restoration, must be seen as the soteriological capstone. But not only for soteriology; holiness is also the central mark of the Christian community, and hence the goal of ecclesiology as well. But not only ecclesiology; holiness is the shape of redeemed human society, and therefore also the eschatological goal. But not only eschatology, for holiness as perfect love is that which marks the trinitarian life of God itself, in whose image humanity was created.
As all this implies, “doctrine” for Wesley did not simply designate concepts to be cognitively affirmed but promised realities to be experienced and lived out. What McGrath says of Luther and Melanchthon is equally true of Wesley:
Doctrine is not understood as naked intellectual belief, but as a means of generating an atmosphere of expectation, of removing obstacles, of orienting oneself in an appropriate manner, in order that the risen Christ may be encountered and known, and his benefits appreciated. (Genesis of Doctrine, 127)
We can see this in Wesley’s own description of “genuine Christianity” when it is understood “as a scheme or system of doctrine.” Having pictured Christianity as a life of love for God and neighbor, along with other attendant affections and practices—that is, in terms of holiness of heart and life—Wesley then discusses the purpose of Christianity as doctrine:
First, it describes this character in all its parts, and that in the most lively and affecting manner…. Secondly, Christianity promises this character shall be mine if I will not rest till I attain it…. Christianity tells me, in the third place, how I may attain the promise, namely, by faith. (“A Plain Account of Genuine Christianity,” §II/l ]
Doctrine for Wesley was “practical divinity” that served to direct persons to Christ and create in Christians an expectant faith and a hunger for holiness.
Doctrine then was not irrelevant to Christian life and experience. It was instead a pointer to a God who can be encountered and to a new life that can be received. This was the message of early Methodism that seems to be lacking in much of the contemporary church. Without the promise being preached and taught, and affirmed through testimony, it becomes difficult for people to seek to receive this new life. For the early Methodists, it was the promise of sanctification as a lived reality among them that gave their message of holiness authenticity.