Book Review: John Wesley on the Christian Life

I recently finished Fred Sanders’ (@fredfredsanders) John Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. I was doubly drawn to the book: having read Sanders’ The Deep Things of God, I had been acquainted with his rich devotion to the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) and his helpful, clear writing. The subject of the book also appealed to me; I knew very little about Wesley, other than scattered “facts” that were admittedly unverified and likely caricature. Since Sanders comes from a thoughtful Wesleyan perspective, I hoped I was in for a treat.

I was not disappointed.

John Wesley on the Christian Life (hereafter, JWCL), as the title indicates, is not simple biography nor intended to be. The biographical passages of the book illuminate how John and his prolific hymn-writing brother Charles came out of lifeless Anglicanism into fervent passion (or “enthusiasm,” as it was derisively referred to by critics) for Jesus and true religion.

Two features of Wesley stood out to me: (1) Wesley’s “base of operations” in 1 John, and (2) Wesley’s dogged and truly evangelical ecumenism.

Wesley and 1 John

Sanders makes the claim in chapter 4 that “John Wesley should be thought of as the theologian of 1 John.” In answering the question, “what book is the interpretive key for the whole Bible?”, Lutherans gravitate toward Galatians and the Reformed toward Ephesians. Generally, Protestants tip the hat to Romans as “the book that serves as the doctrinal capstone of the whole Bible.”

According to John Wesley, 1 John aims “to confirm the happy and holy communion of the faithful with God and Christ, by describing the marks of that blessed state…to increase the believer’s confidence.” Sanders goes on to explain Wesley’s devotion to the book:

Wesley, then, is the theologian who allowed the epistle of 1 John to be his guide to the whole Christian message, leading to a theology of the Christian life that emphasized walking in the light and having fellowship with God, who is pure light, as well as a recognition that there is such a thing as progress in Christian maturity.

I am one of the typical Protestants who has oriented himself to the gospel and the Bible by way of Paul (in Romans or Ephesians), then working outward to the gospels and Peter and John from there. John Wesley’s approach is to start with John and then move to Paul. Wesley’s own testimony and experience drove him to this approach, and it made him a unique and valuable contributor to evangelicalism generally and to the Methodist revivals in Anglicanism particularly. Two more quotes should suffice:

Paul, in other words, appeared on Wesley’s horizon as the answer to the question posed by 1 John: How is it possible for sinners to live the holy life of fellowship with God, who is light?

He [i.e., Wesley] sought holiness and found it by faith alone. He asked the Johannine question and found the Pauline answer. The resulting approach to the Christian life is what fueled the evangelical awakening and launched the Methodist movement.

Sanders makes clear that Wesley was not pitting Scripture against itself or reading 1 John exclusively. He simply highlights Wesley’s unique perspective and approach to the Scriptures–all of which were the inspired word of God–and how that played into his preaching and ministry.

In particular for me, it’s helpful to read of this approach, because it can have the same effect today that it did for eighteenth-century Anglicans: it can be a remedy for dulled, dead orthodoxy. Wesley devoted his life to promoting “heart religion,” that is, heartfelt joy and wonder and love at the truth of the good news of Jesus. The danger for all Christians, but I think the Reformed particularly, is that we read Romans or Ephesians for the truths within and completely gloss over the exultation in those truths that permeate the books. It is far easier to study theological propositions in a dusty, academic way than it is to exult in them and enjoy the God of them. To put it in terms of the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, I can be very good at glorifying God, but pitifully lacking in enjoying Him now (much less forever). Wesley’s Johannine approach–which fueled his passion for heart religion–is refreshingly different and can help breathe new life into dull hearts.

Wesley’s Ecumenism

The other feature of Wesley’s ministry was his dogged insistence on embracing the work of the gospel in all of the Church, wherever the Spirit was moving. This worked itself out in two ways: he republished (although at times heavily edited according to his own theological positions) the best devotional and expositional literature in the English language at the time. He specifically included those who would be considered theological opponents of his, simply because they were the best at helping people understand the Scriptures and love Jesus in their writings.

The second way his ecumenical spirit worked itself out was in a scheduled monthly meeting in which he would give reports on the advance of the gospel and the Spirit’s blessing among Christians, churches, and denominations that were not Anglican or Methodist. He even especially included Calvinists, Baptists, and Dissenters–all of whom he had significant and substantial theological and ecclesiological differences with.

To read this excites my heart and amazes me. I’ve both seen and been a part of painful divisions that resulted from theological divides. I’ve also seen the great benefit that believers and ministries outside my camps have had on me personally. I’m a Southern Baptist through-and-through, but the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)’s Reformed University Fellowship has a special place in my heart for how the Lord used it to teach me and mature me in college. I thoroughly enjoy Doug Wilson’s writings; he’s as thoroughly Presbyterian as I am Baptist, and yet he makes me think, makes me laugh, and makes me love Jesus. I’ve definitely benefited from reading this about John Wesley and reading the writings of Sanders, neither of whom belong entirely within my theological domains. Personally, I can relate to Wesley’s heart for the big-C Church.

Reading this makes me want more, though. I want to hold particular convictions tightly in private, but be doggedly ecumenical and unflinchingly evangelical as Wesley was. It’s a great encouragement to me to pursue the good and love of the Church broadly, especially beyond those who think mostly like me.

 

I highly recommend the book. It’s very helpful, very stirring, and very interesting.

Tolle lege.

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