Yesterday, we left off with John Wesley’s true and powerful conversion of his entire self to Christ and the cause of Christ in 1738. This led to his evangelistic mission that lasted from 1739 until his death in 1791.
This was the year that Wesley the student became Wesley the teacher — although he would never cease to learn as his life continued.* He became a preacher. As I recall, one of his first (if not the first) major evangelistic events was outdoor-air preaching in Bristol. In that city were many people of the working-class who had not heard the Gospel in plain language, people whose lives were lived out in abject poverty both of body and of spirit, alcoholics, wife-beaters, people who, if they did darken the door of the local parish church, had learned to tune out the parish priest.
So Wesley did something different. He brought the Gospel to them. He stood out of doors in their midst and preached to them Christ crucified.** He called them to live lives of holiness, infused by the grace of Almighty God. And John Wesley, the failed missionary of Georgia, aflame with the limitless power of the Holy Ghost, became John Wesley the evangelist of England. He travelled on horseback almost ceaselessly, preaching 15 times a week, bringing the light of Jesus into the darkness of Britain.
And the Holy Spirit did His work in these people. People came to hear Wesley, and they were convicted by his words. These new converts were organised into a system that would enable them to be catechised in what the faith taught and instructed in how to live, being held accountable one to another. On one occasion, when Wesley visited one of the smaller gatherings, a former alcoholic appeared drunk at this believers-only gathering. Wesley expelled him for drunkenness. The Spirit worked on this man’s soul, and by Wesley’s next visit he was living sober, counted among the faithful.
Wesley had a high standard of holiness; yet we see in his sermon “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” that he was aware that we are not saved by holy living, only by Christ. Yet in that sermon he exhorts his listeners to holy living, for Christ who calls us to work out our own salvation also “worketh in us” to bring it about. By grace we are called to obedience; by grace we are enabled to live the obedient life. By faith we respond. This call to holy living was one of the central points of Wesley’s theology, as seen in his Plain Account of Christian Perfection.
More important for Wesley’s theology than Arminius was Perfection. Indeed, whether we are predestined to salvation or can choose it freely, we are called by Christ to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. God is love — He loves you, ungrateful, decadent you. Respond in faith. Live by faith. Thus, live faithfully. Live out holiness. This is, of course, nothing new. Wesley is not out to start something new, though! He is calling the Church, in the 18th century, in the 21st, back to her origins, to her one true Love, the Father Almighty; his is the faith of the Primitive Church, of the Fathers, from the Didache to the Cappadocians to Ephraim the Syrian. His faith is one informed by the Prayer Book and William Law, by the mystics Pascal, Brother Lawrence, Fenelon, Mme. Guyon, Mme. Bourignon, John of Avila, Lopez, Molinos.***
And the faith of this Great Tradition inevitably leads us to live our theology and to proclaim our theology. The Virgin Birth matters, the Ascension is real. These miracles are events of history, and their impact permeates us now, contrary to certain Anglican bishops then (and now) who denied these doctrines. Christ is God; God is Christ. He is ascended on high and He lives in us and through us. By His power, we live holy lives. Thus, Wesley’s theology always grappled with the practical realities around him, including faithless bishops and faithless flocks. These were called back to Jesus, back to the Gospel, back to lives of holiness.
Ah, that we could live holy lives ourselves! The path of holiness is calling us to seek it. Our Guide is reliable. And the End of the path is the most worthy End of all — for He welcomes us with open us, us squandering, prodigal, wastrel children of His.
*See John and Charles Wesley: Selected Prayers, Hymns and Sermons, “Introduction,” by Frank Whaling. HarperCollins, 2004, p. xxiv.
**This technique had been seen in England before, as with George Fox the founding Quaker.
***See Whaling’s “Introduction”, p. xxi.