Christian Perfection: John Wesley & the Methodist Tradition
Matthew 5:38-48

In late 1735, a ship made its way from England to the New World. On board was a young Anglican minister, John Wesley, who had been invited to serve as a pastor to British colonists in Savannah, Georgia. When the weather went sour, the ship found itself in serious trouble. Wesley, also chaplain of the vessel, feared for his life.

But he noticed that the group of German Moravians, who were on their way to preach to the American Indians, were not afraid at all. In fact, throughout the storm, they sang calmly. When the trip ended, he asked the Moravian leader about his peacefulness, and the Moravian responded with a question: Did he, Wesley, have faith in Christ? Wesley said he did, but later reflected, “I fear they were vain words.”

Wesley was an ordained minister of the gospel, but he had not yet been converted! This lead to a period of soul searching that eventually culminated in one of the most famous conversions in church history.

 

Religious Upbringing

Wesley was born into a strong Anglican home: his father, Samuel, was a minister, and his mother, Susanna, taught religion and morals faithfully to her 19 children. As in many families at the time, Wesley’s parents gave their children their early education. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. They were expected to become proficient in Latin and Greek and to have learned major portions of the New Testament by heart. Susanna Wesley examined each child before the midday meal and before evening prayers. Children were not allowed to eat between meals and were interviewed by their mother one evening each week for intensive spiritual instruction. In 1714, at age 11, John Wesley was sent to the Charterhouse School in London, where he lived the studious, methodical and, for a while, religious life in which he had been trained at home.

Apart from his disciplined upbringing, a rectory fire which occurred on February 9, 1709, when Wesley was five years old, left an permanent impression. Sometime after 11:00p.m., the rectory roof caught on fire. Sparks falling on the children’s beds and cries of “fire” from the street roused the Wesley’s who managed to shepherd all their children out of the house except for John who was left stranded on an upper floor. With stairs aflame and the roof about to collapse, young John was lifted out of a window by a parishioner standing on another man’s shoulders. Wesley later utilized the phrase, “a brand plucked out of the fire”, quoting Zechariah 3:2, to describe the incident. This childhood deliverance became part of the Wesley legend, attesting to his special destiny and extraordinary work.

Wesley attended Oxford, proved to be a fine scholar, and was soon ordained into the Anglican ministry. At Oxford, he joined a society (founded by his brother Charles) whose members took vows to lead holy lives, take Communion once a week, pray daily, and visit prisons regularly. In addition, they spent three hours every afternoon studying the Bible and other devotional material.

From this “holy club” (as fellow students mockingly called it), Wesley sailed to Georgia to pastor. His experience proved to be a failure. A woman he courted in Savannah married another man. When he tried to enforce the disciplines of the “holy club” on his church, the congregation rebelled. A bitter Wesley returned to England.

 

A Heart Strangely Warmed

After speaking with another Moravian, Peter Boehler, Wesley concluded that he lacked saving faith. Though he continued to try to be good, he remained frustrated. But on May 24, 1738, he had an experience that changed everything. He described the event in his journal:

In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. 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 sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

 

Meanwhile, another former member of the “holy club,” George Whitefield, was having remarkable success as a preacher, especially in the city of Bristol. Hundreds of working-class poor, oppressed by industrializing England and neglected by the church, were experiencing emotional conversions under his fiery preaching. So many were responding that Whitefield desperately needed help.

Wesley accepted Whitefield’s plea hesitantly. He distrusted Whitefield’s dramatic style; he questioned the propriety of Whitefield’s outdoor preaching (a radical innovation for the day); he felt uncomfortable with the emotional reactions even his own preaching elicited. But the orderly Wesley soon warmed to the new method of ministry.

With his organizational skills, Wesley quickly became the new leader of the movement. But Whitefield was a firm Calvinist, whereas Wesley couldn’t swallow the doctrine of predestination. Furthermore, Wesley argued (against Reformed doctrine) that Christians could enjoy entire sanctification in this life: loving God and their neighbors, meekness and lowliness of heart, abstaining from all appearance of evil, and doing all for the glory of God. In the end, the two preachers parted ways.

 

From “Methodists” to Methodism

Wesley never intended to establish a new denomination, but historical circumstances and his organizational genius conspired against his desire to remain in the Church of England. His followers first met in private home or “societies,” as they called them. When these societies became too large for members to care for one another, Wesley organized “classes,” each with 11 members and a leader. Classes met weekly to pray, read the Bible, discuss their spiritual lives, and to collect money for charity. Men and women met separately, but anyone could become a class leader.

The moral and spiritual fervor of the meetings is expressed in one of Wesley’s most famous aphorisms: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” The movement grew rapidly, as did its critics, who called Wesley and his followers “Methodists,” a label they wore proudly. It got worse than name calling at times: Methodists were frequently met with violence as paid ruffians broke up meetings and threatened Wesley’s life.

Although Wesley scheduled his itinerant preaching so that it wouldn’t disrupt local Anglican services, the bishop of Bristol still objected. Wesley responded, “The world is my parish”—a phrase that later became a slogan of Methodist missionaries. Wesley, in fact, never slowed down, and during his ministry he traveled over 4,000 miles annually, preaching some 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.

A few Anglican priests, such as his hymn-writing brother Charles, joined these Methodists, but the bulk of the preaching burden rested on John. He was eventually forced to employ lay preachers, who were not allowed to serve Communion but merely served to complement the ordained ministry of the Church of England.

Wesley then organized his followers into a “connection,” and several societies into a “circuit” under the leadership of a “superintendent.” Periodic meetings of Methodist clergy and lay preachers eventually evolved into the “annual conference,” where those who were to serve each circuit were appointed, usually for three-year terms.

In 1787, Wesley was required to register his lay preachers as non-Anglicans. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the American Revolution isolated Yankee Methodists from their Anglican connections. To support the American movement, Wesley independently ordained two lay preachers and appointed Thomas Coke as superintendent. With these and other actions, Methodism gradually moved out of the Church of England—though Wesley himself remained an Anglican until his death.

Wesley’s health declined sharply towards the end of his life and he ceased preaching. On 28 June 1790, less than a year before his death, he wrote:

This day I enter into my eighty-eighth year. For above eighty-six years, I found none of the infirmities of old age: my eyes did not wax dim, neither was my natural strength abated. But last August, I found almost a sudden change. My eyes were so dim that no glasses would help me. My strength likewise now quite forsook me and probably will not return in this world.

 

Wesley died on 2 March 1791, at the age of 87. As he lay dying, his friends gathered around him, Wesley grasped their hands and said repeatedly, “Farewell, farewell.” At the end, he said, “The best of all is, God is with us”, lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, “The best of all is, God is with us.” He was entombed at his chapel on City Road in London.

An indication of his organizational genius, we know exactly how many followers Wesley had when he died: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations), and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers. Today Methodists number about 30 million worldwide.

(adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/denominationalfounders/john-wesley.html)

 

Christian Perfection (Matthew 5:38-48)

John Wesley and the Methodist tradition’s most important contribution to the Christian church is its emphasis on pietism and holy living. After all, the term “Methodist” refers to the methodical approach to the Christian life. Wesley himself, embodied this belief that Christians are called to live a life of spiritual fervor and impeccable morality. He even developed the controversial doctrine dubbed “Christian Perfection,” which insists that that it is not only possible but should also be the goal for all Christians to live a perfect life. He based this doctrine on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:48—“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

Wesley concluded that since Jesus gave the command to be perfect, that perfection in this life must be possible. Unfortunately, he did not notice that the verb “to be” is in the future indicative rather than a present imperative tense. If the verb was present imperative, it would have the force of “keep being perfect” or “be continually perfect” which would place an impossible moral demand on Jesus’ disciples. Instead, the future tense holds out the emphatic goal that is to shape the disciple’s entire life—they are to set nothing less than the perfection of God as the ultimate standard of their behavior, thoughts, and will. (Wilkins p. 254) This goal is set amid the broader biblical context that all humans, even after they are born again, retain their sinful nature and continue to struggle with sin until the day we die.

Although I believe Wesley’s interpretation of this verse went too far toward actually achieving Christian perfection in this life, his emphasis on personal holiness became a hallmark of the Methodist movement. The Methodists became champions of moral courage, ethical excellence, and spiritual passion. Their leaders preached on the importance of living out Jesus’ teachings, especially the difficult issues outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found here in Matthew 5—issues like overcoming anger (22), reconciling rifted relationships (23-26), avoiding lustful looks and thoughts (27-30), dodging divorce (31-32), keeping our promises (33-37), refusing to retaliate against those who hurt us (38-42), and genuinely loving our enemies (43-47), which I think is the most difficult one of all.

 

            I am not a Methodist, but I am deeply grateful for John Wesley’s ministry and we all have much to learn from the Methodist tradition.  Here is the key idea I would like for us to take away from this sermon: Although we will never be perfect in this life, it shouldn’t stop us from trying!

            When we think about Christ suffering on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and opening heaven’s doors to those who would follow him, what can we offer as a gift of gratitude? How about a life of holiness?

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