Wesley (1703-1791): Features of his Spirituality
"If we are going to have two kings then we are going to have two
beds," Samuel Annesley fumed in anger at his wife's intransigence.
He had "heard" her silence when she ought to have voiced her
"Amen" at his suppertime prayer for King William.
"He is no king; he is but a prince," Susannah said of William
of Orange, the Dutchman now married to Mary.
Feted for his military prowess at the
Connubially deprived now, the woman who had already had fourteen children petitioned the Archbishop of York, complaining that her husband had reneged on his marriage vow. The archbishop declined to adjudicate the dispute. Meanwhile her husband, absent from the home for months on account of his attendance in London at Convocation, the highest court of the Church of England, returned home. They reconciled. John was conceived that night.
John's brother, Charles, was to be the eighteenth.
One more daughter would complete the family.
(Susannah had been the last of twenty-five, all born to Dr Samuel
Annesley, a Puritan minister whose spacious
John and Charles would eventually become household names throughout the English-speaking world. John would dominate the theological, ecclesiastical and social landscape of the Eighteenth Century. Charles, possessed of consummate poetical gifts in a family where everyone could write poetry, would become not only the most able hymnwriter in English, but because of this, the vehicle whereby the truth and reality of the gospel migrated from head to heart to hands -- in fact right into the bloodstream of the Methodist people. For as preaching quickened faith in hearers throughout the Evangelical Awakening, hymnody became the means whereby those who now loved Christ "with love undying" (Eph. 6:24) found themselves humming unforgettable tunes whose scripture-laden words seeped so very deeply into them as to effervesce for the rest of their lives.
All of this, however, came within a hair's breadth of not happening at all. A fire in the Wesley family rectory, 1709, found the six-year-old "Jacky" (his mother's lifelong endearment for him) standing alone on a second storey balcony as the structure cracked and tottered. A human pyramid fetched him to safety. Thereafter "a brand plucked from the burning" (Zech. 3:2) embedded itself in Methodist lore.
As a result of this deliverance Susannah deemed
John to be appointed to a special work. Home-schooling
all her children (at least from age three to six), she took particular pains
with John, finding him precocious in a family where she expected all children to
be reading by four. At eleven he
left home for
At Oxford University John landed in an environment that was socially privileged, academically indifferent and blissfully frivolous. Deploring the shallowness and silliness, he and a handful of serious scholars formed a group that mockers quickly labelled the "Holy Club." It survived their contempt, and in fact was marked by many profundities.
For instance, the group zealously consumed the classics, the classics
being a carryover from Renaissance humanism.
It cherished the Church Fathers, Christian thinkers from the close of the
apostolic era to the early middle Ages whose writing was second only to
scripture in the theological and devotional formation of the church.
"Christian Antiquity," as Wesley spoke of Patristics, could be
mined at this time at
The group was equally ardent at recovering the
liturgy of the Church of England. Throughout
his life John would recognize and honour other "modes of worship," as
he called them, but would never abate in esteeming the Book of Common Prayer as
the finest in Christendom and its liturgy as without peer.
Whereas attendance at Holy Communion had declined until three times per
year only (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost) was most common, Wesley and his
friends insisted on a minimum of weekly Eucharist.
(Over his life he would average 4.5 times per week.)
Their recovery of the eucharistic dimension of worship, together with
their zeal for the Fathers, was evident in Wesley's insistence that not wine
only but wine and water be used. The
latter point, in "
Lest their "Holy Club" become self-absorbed, the students visited the poor, attended the sick, and befriended the imprisoned. (Prisons at this time were one large room, its floor straw-covered and its "toilets" a bucket or two. They housed men and women together, young and old, deranged and perverse, social victim and hardened criminal. Years later it was the Methodists who campaigned to reform prisons, insisting on the segregation of male and female convicts in order to protect the latter against sexual molestation.)
Upon graduating from
And then on Sunday evening, May 24th,
1738, the disconsolate man stepped into a Moravian service in
About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sin, even mine, and had saved me from the law of sin and death.
If he now trusted Christ, what had he been trusting? For thirteen years, following a religious "turn" in 1725, Wesley had relied on a not-uncommon compend of mysticism and moralism.
The mysticism he would hereafter execrate was non-Christological; it substituted psycho-religious inner cultivation for faith in God's provision, provision and faith alike given to us; it denied the depravity of the human heart, content to speak of a less-than-disastrous deprivation or deficit; it advanced absorption of the human into God instead of communion with God; it grounded one's standing with God on an internal works-righteousness rather than on the foundation of justification by faith; it spoke of Jesus Christ as ethical and spiritual exemplar but not as the sole, sufficient Saviour.
The moralism he now rejected was the ever-enervating attempt at gaining favour with God by pleading one's "obedience" (naively misunderstood, of course,) as meriting such favour.
Earlier, in agreement with so very many of the mystics, Wesley had regarded humanly wrought humility as the basis of one's life in Christ. Now he exalted faith, faith forged by Jesus Christ, the object and author of faith, as this One surged over people solely in his longing to bless them. (Never denying faith to be a human event and activity, following Aldersgate Wesley consistently denied it to be a human creation. In his sermon "Salvation by Faith" -- the first in his Sermons On Several Occasions -- Wesley writes, "Of yourselves cometh neither your faith nor your salvation…. That ye believe is one instance of his grace; that believing, ye are saved, another.") Freed from the self-righteousness that the mystic/moralist had recently espoused, Wesley saw, in agreement with the Sixteenth Century Reformers, that Christ (alone) is our righteousness just because he (alone) is the rightly-related covenant keeper who now defines those who are "clothed" with him by faith. Undeterred in his insistence on the rigour of the Christian life, he nonetheless made the seemingly small but actually huge shift from moralism as conformity to a code to the believing person's grateful, from-the-heart obedience to the Person whose Spirit infused and inspired it all. In the same way he changed from inward-looking self-assessment to outward-looking evangelism. And of course his self-preoccupation with religious performance (and putative superiority) gave way to self-forgetfulness in the service of others.
While some Methodists have recently entertained protracted discussion over the nature, scope and significance of "Aldersgate," on balance the event appears to be a watershed. Prior to it he was a seeker; after it he knew himself found. Prior to it had had no objection to the semi-Pelagianism that marked Eighteenth Century Anglican soteriology; after it he endorsed the Reformation insistence that faith is a knowledge of God that arises as grace alone includes us in God's self-knowing. Prior to it he evinced little interest in evangelism; after it he travelled 250,000 miles on horseback to visit good news upon those who either hadn't heard or hadn't responded.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of Aldersgate's
watershed concerns the place he gave to justification by faith.
Prior to 1738 he regularly speaks of humility as our bond with Christ
where the Reformation speaks of faith. After
Aldersgate, however, he never departs from the material principle of the
Reformation. Justification by faith
very foundation of our Church [i.e., Anglican]…and indeed the fundamental
[doctrine] of the Reformed Churches.")
Always suspicious of the Society of Friends for what he perceived to be
their waffling on this issue, he writes, "I have not known ten Quakers in
my life whose experience went so far as justification."
Indeed, where justification isn't upheld, the church doesn't exist.
Wesley believed in justification by faith from the day of his conversion.
"I believe justification by faith alone as much as I believe there
is a God…. I have never varied from it, no, not an hair's breadth from 1738 to
this day." (1766)
Wesley's emphasis here was "book-ended" by the doctrines of original sin and sanctification. These three were non-negotiable. Without them the "faith once for all delivered to the saints' (Jude 3) would be unrecognizable. Always eschewing the theologically novel as heretical (for Wesley the theologically sound had to be locatable in both scripture and Patristics), he upheld the "Vincentian Canon:" quod creditur ubi, semper, ab omnibus. What has been believed by all Christians at all times and in all places remains the irreducible core of the faith. Whereas society in any era tends to be soft on central issues but inflexible on the peripheral, Wesley's approach to Christian understanding and life, like that of apostles before him, was opposite: unyielding at the centre while accommodating on the periphery.
Original sin he regarded as glaringly undeniable. His single largest tract explored it from every angle and adduced evidence for it that rendered indisputable the church catholic's profundity in maintaining that the root human predicament is its control centre now gone awry. Wesley maintained that while he was "but a hair's breadth from Mr. Calvin" on several issues (e.g., predestination and the atonement as formal cause rather than instrumental cause of justification,) concerning the doctrine of Total Depravity there wasn't so much as a hair's breadth. Wesley's laconic pronouncement here was that those who upheld the doctrine of Total Depravity might be Christians, while those who didn't most certainly weren't. To deny the fact, nature and reach of original son, he maintained, would render all Christian doctrine incoherent. Wesley knew that when the doctrine of the Fall is compromised then the human condition -- deep-dyed sinnership, a systemic infection like blood poisoning which warps everything about us and of which we cannot rid ourselves -- is denied. The human condition in turn is reduced to a bland if not benign human situation where people fancy themselves limitlessly plastic, able to re-mould themselves however misshapen they might appear at present, thereby remedying whatever might seem unsightly in the light of social convention.
In one sermon alone Wesley brings forward five words that attest his conviction here. First is "supine," without exertion or energy. Next is "indolent," culpable sloth. The third is "stupid." Here he has in mind the Eighteenth Century understanding of the adjective arising from "stupor," abysmal unawareness of the fact that sin has eroded reason's integrity (without, of course, eroding the structure of reason, apart from which the sinner would no longer be human,) even as reason lends itself to endless rationalization. The fourth is "insensible [of his real condition"], for the worst consequence of humankind's sinnership is its blindness to its condition (and hence the impossibility of any repentance except that born of grace.) What the "natural" person can do, then, in the wake of the Fall is merely perpetuate its rebellion against God and perpetrate its self-destruction. "Full of disease" rounds out Wesley's diagnosis on page one of one sermon alone. Everywhere in his work "disease" implies not only pathology but putrefaction; the human condition is not only a sickness-unto-death but repugnantly so as God finds sin nothing less than loathsome.
Justification by faith, the middle item between the two "book-ends," restored believers to God's favour. After Aldersgate Wesley always regarded justification by faith as the inception of the Christian life and the stable basis for it. He agreed with Calvin, "Justification is the hinge on which religion turns" and with Loescher, "Justification is the article on which the church stands or falls."
Still, Wesley's overwhelming emphasis falls on sanctification or holiness or "perfection." Tirelessly he insisted that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it; namely, God could deliver people from its power. Justification relieved people of sin's guilt; sanctification released them from sin's grip. Wesley knew that justification or forgiveness, undeniably glorious, would be little more than a counsel of despair, leaving people pardoned yet imprisoned, unless a grace-wrought, faith-affirmed sanctification or new birth released them from the habituations that haunted them in light of sin's characteristic addictiveness.
Sanctification or holiness, then, was their possession (albeit not their property) just because they "clothed" themselves by faith with the Ruler whose rightful reign broke the power of the "usurper" who held them in thrall.
While the Protestant Reformation had contended for relief, Wesley took this up and contended for release. Without deliverance from sin's grip Methodism would have appeared stillborn as degraded people despaired. Wesley's gospel galloped ahead not (merely) because it told imprisoned people they had been pardoned; more to the point, it opened prison doors and told them they now could and must walk out and never look back. His gospel introduced people to a future under God and in God, such a future alone being genuine, all other "futures" remaining no more than a disguised repetition of a dreary past.
In all of this it must be remembered that Wesley, an English Protestant and therefore undeniably a son of the Western Church, positioned himself as a westerner more attuned to the Eastern Church than anyone else in Christendom.
Wesley had come to know the Eastern Church through his reading of Patristics, always preferring the East to the West. The West's giants had been Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory the Great, and the favourite of both Thomas Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers, Augustine of Hippo. The East's notables had been Basil the Great, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasisus (the thinker whose gospel-preserving homoousion -- the Father and the Son are of the same nature not merely similar nature-- Karl Barth would later pronounce as the most important theological assertion since the apostles.)
Always upholding the doctrine of original sin, as was seen above, Wesley nevertheless distances himself from the West's characteristic emphasis on original guilt and its transmission to posterity (thanks to Augustine.) He prefers the East's emphasis on original sin as the introduction of death and corruption, together with the loss of the Spirit's immediate presence. Wesley maintains that Augustine's insistence on original guilt and its transmission has fostered fruitless dispute as to how such transmission occurs (not to mention the unfruitful Augustinian disdain for sex), the preoccupation here obscuring what is much more soteriologically and evangelically significant for Wesley; namely, the innermost spiritual distortion that gives rise to outermost disfigurement.
While the West, especially since the Reformation, had accented juridical concerns in the work of Christ for us, left-handedly giving rise to internecine disputes over the doctrine of justification, the Reformational and Roman Catholic Churches of the West had had virtually no disagreement over the doctrine of sanctification, content to subordinate it to their concern for the former. In the relation, then, of transaction and transformation, the churches of the West had massively highlighted transaction (What Christ has done extra nos, pro nobis, "outside us, for us") while admitting transformation (what Christ must do in nobis, "within us.") The churches of the East had always maintained the opposite: transaction exists for the sake of transformation, every aspect and activity of grace subserving God's ultimate purpose for God's people: their appointment to stand before God restored to that glory in which they were created, now relieved of the tarnish and defacements that the Fall had brought even as the Fall had never been able to efface the splendour. Sanctification, Wesley insisted everywhere, was nothing more and nothing less than the restoration of God's image. Here Wesley continues to be the figure who singularly bridges East and West ecclesially, the one Christian thinker whose work can be the substance of conversations that may yet lead to the healing of the East/West fissure of 1054.
Still reflecting the spirit of the East Wesley remained suspicious of all talk about a "state of grace." For centuries the church had spoken of believers as those who were living in a "state of grace," to which state they were admitted either by baptism or by the implementation of a decree of election, depending on one's place on the theological spectrum. Wesley objected to "state of grace" in that it exudes the mechanical rather than the personal, grace being the possession (but never the property) of believers as they continue to embrace the One who has first embraced them. Furthermore, "state of grace" suggested the static, when the Christian life is inherently dynamic. As Protestant Scholasticism ascended after the Reformation and displaced the Reformation's characteristic emphasis on Christology, intellectual apprehension of doctrine became the mark of Christian existence instead of that "heart seizure" at the hands of the One to whom doctrine points and of whom it speaks. The result was that "formalism" which Wesley came to execrate as the polar opposite of "fanaticism" or "enthusiasm." While the latter was a mindless subjectivism that disdained truth in favour of emotional self-indulgence, the former was an intellectual abstraction that re-shuffled mental furniture and forfeited the concreteness of person-with-Person encounter.
This is not to say that Wesley was indifferent to doctrine. Indifference to doctrine merely advertised those were "of a muddy understanding" because their "mind was all in a mist." Exalting neither mist nor mud, Wesley insisted on the place of doctrine but not its pre-eminence. The latter belonged to the One who filled the horizon of Wesley's life, reflected in his comments on his preaching at day's end, "I offered them Christ."
When early-day Methodists sang, "Moment by moments I'm kept in his grace," their understanding of "moment" was never spasmodic or episodic or spastic or fitful or ephemeral. Wesley had simply schooled them in the fact that grace's self-giving was a boon for which they could only stammer their gratitude even as they knew that grace was the gracious presence of Jesus Christ rather than something which they could domesticate or control, let alone trade on or trifle with. Wesley always knew that where faith is concerned the reality isn't a doctrine of faith or the vocabulary of faith or the concept of faith; the reality is relationship. The relationship was not at risk. Believers were kept by the power of God, not having to rely on their own resources to remain bound to Jesus Christ. At the same time, since the relationship could erode as surely as any marriage can, faith ever remained a future-oriented venture that precluded cavalier or self-serving indulgence.
Yet there remained one issue, money, where Wesley
was utterly out of step with the rising affluence the Industrial Revolution had
Wesley concluded that only as the Methodist people adopted something closely allied to the Roman Catholic notion of "evangelical poverty" could they spare themselves that spiritual unravelling that wouldn't even stop short of outright apostasy. Unlike so many others who maintained that how money was used determined whether it was a spiritual threat, Wesley insisted it was the fact that money was retained. Soon his three-fold "Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can" became a household aphorism among his people -- even as he concluded sadly that many of his people were commendably good at the first two and lamentably deficient concerning the last.
Still, he pressed ahead, ceaselessly warning his people of their spiritual vulnerability in this regard. He told his people that money was the talent that "contains all other talents." (Does not what we do with our money gather up and express what we have done with our education or our natural talents by which we have acquired our money?) It is the temptation that fosters and foments all other temptations. It is the snare, "a steel trap that crushes the bones." It is the poison whose lethal toxicity kills our discipleship.
To hoard money rendered the hoarder "vain," for who possesses more than most without feeling superior and therein becoming prideful? To be sure Wesley's people, now grace-equipped to avoid gluttony and drunkenness, would invariably succumb to that "elegant epicureanism" which, he insisted, "…does not immediately disorder the stomach, nor (sensibly, at least) impair the understanding." Wesley knew, however, that it disordered one's heart and vitiated one's understanding. For the erstwhile gluttonous drunkard, now savouring the dainties of the coffeehouse echelon, cherished his inclusion among the socially enviable more than his inclusion in "the household of faith." (Gal. 6:10)
Wesley's perception was remarkable. For he correctedly noted that as we become more affluent we acquire self-importance. In turn we become more easily affronted, supersensitivity being related to snobbishness. The more prone we are to being affronted, he noted with aching heart, the more prone we are to revenge.
Wesley was aware, in his tracing of spiritual decline, that increasing affluence spelled decreasing zeal for "works of mercy." He reminded his people that when they were newly quickened and recovering from horrific habituations they had never hesitated to head out, at any hour and in any weather, to bring the relief and release of the gospel to fellow-sufferers whose pain they knew only too well. Now, however, in their new-found frippery they didn't want to inconvenience themselves, especially in inclement weather. "What hinders?", cried the seventy-eight year old man bitingly in the wake of forty years' frustration on this issue, "Do you fear spoiling your silken coat?" The caustic irony, meant to burn its way into his readers, was that it was the gospel that had ultimately brought them a silken coat when they had had no coat of any sort. Protecting it now threatened them with ultimate spiritual loss, for "Gold hath steeled your hearts." Spiritual vitality (including self-forgetful service of others) and hoarded money were mutually exclusive. Only "…give all you can" would keep faith throbbing.
Even before the Aldersgate awakening of 1738 he had taken to heart his oft-repeated text, "…that holiness without which no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14) According to him holiness or "Christian perfection" wasn't neurotic perfectionism or fussy trivialism; it was simply love, self-forgetful love of God and neighbour. Such self-forgetful love of God and neighbour was God's fulfilment of God's earlier promise, "You shall be holy as I the Lord your God am holy." (Leviticus 19:2) While justification, he had always insisted, gave us the right to heaven, holiness alone made us fit for heaven. Right and fitness were not the same. A ticket to a symphony concert gives us the right to attend, but only our musical ear makes us fit to attend. (Plainly apart from fitness, right would issue in torment.) Everything Wesley had proposed and proved concerning the Christian life pertained to spiritual fitness. He knew there was nothing arbitrary about Christ's promise that only the pure in heart will see God. For Wesley was aware that only the pure in heart want to, their aspiration being qualification enough.
Wesley, The Works of John Wesley [Bicentennial Edition], Vol. 18, pp.
 Wesley, WJW, Vol.1, p. 126.
 Wesley, WJW , Vol. 4, p.395. Plainly Wesley understood justification by faith to be the fundamental doctrine of the Church of England (Anglican), and he understood said church to be "Reformed."
Letter, 1780; The Works of John Wesley, Vol. X [ed.,
"Allow this, and you are so far a Christian.
Deny it , and you are but an heathen still."
WJW, Vol. 2. p.184.
Wesley makes this point repeatedly in his tract, "The Doctrine of
Original Sin, according to Scripture, Reason, and Experience," The
Works of John Wesley, Vol. IX, [ed.,
 Wesley, WJW, Vol. 3, p. 142.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.1 (J.T. McNeil, ed.; F.L. Battles, transl.; Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1960.)
 Valentius Loescher (1673-1749), "Timotheus Venius", quoted in First Things R.J. Neuhaus, ed., August/September, 1995, p.80. (New York: 1995)
 Wesley, WJW, Vol. 1, p. 331.
 Randy Maddox, Responsible Grace, p.66 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.)
 Wesley, WJW, Vol. 2, p. 93.
For the source of quotations in the next several paragraphs see WJW, "The
Use of Money" (Vol.2) and "The Danger of Riches" (Vol. 3.)
 Wesley, WJW, Vol. 3, p. 244.