John Wesley On What Every Methodist Preacher Should Preach #UMC

What did John Wesley expect his preachers to preach about? What should be the heart of their message? Near the end of his short book, A Plain Account of  Christian Perfection, the father of the Methodist movement said this:
Therefore, all our preachers should make a point of preaching perfection to believers constantly, strongly, and explicitly; and all believers should mind this one thing, and continually agonize for it (Seedbed, 2014, p. 109).
Wesley’s desire was to be “a man of one book” – the Bible – and he neither apologized for nor shied away from the language in the Bible, including the language of “perfection” and “entire sanctification.” If you are wondering how that language is used in scripture, take a look at Matthew 5:48, where Jesus issues the command: “Be perfect.” Then flip over to Philippians 3:15, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:23, and 1 Peter 1:15-16. You’ll also want to reflect on Romans 6:1-2 where Paul asks: “Shall we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” He quickly answers his own question with an emphatic: “No!” That’s right; Paul said believers should not continue in sin. Wesley read these and many other passages and realized that the call to holiness pervades scripture. It’s everywhere.
God’s Purpose for Methodists
Wesley also believed with his whole being that God had called him and the Methodists to be a reviving and revitalizing presence in the Church of England in the 18th century. At the heart of that call was the proclamation of the biblical doctrine of holiness (or entire sanctification or Christian perfection). And he insisted that every Methodist preacher preach this doctrine. That’s what it meant to be Methodist. Wesley identity was so shaped by this call that he persevered through suffering and persecution. His preaching of holiness was strongly opposed, and sometimes he was in physical danger only because he insisted on a commitment to the language of scripture. Nevertheless, Wesley was called by God to this vocation. No opposition would make him waver.
What is Christian Perfection

Given the importance of the doctrine of Christian perfection to Methodist identity, it is exceedingly important to understand Wesley’s definition of Christian perfection. All too often people hear the word “perfection” and reject the doctrine outright never taking the time to get clear on what it means. If you asked Mr. Wesley what he meant by entire sanctification or Christian perfection, he would tell you that he simply means a heart filled to overflowing with love of God and love of neighbor. Holiness is what happens when you love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is being happy in God and having the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the joy of one’s heart. When you are filled with God’s perfect love, Wesley would suggest, you cannot at the same time be sinning against God. We have to resist the love of God to start sinning against God. If we are loving Christ with all our energy, then we won’t be stealing, lying coveting, deceiving, etc. We have to stop loving Jesus to start sinning against him.
Wesley was also insistent on what Christian perfection is not. In his sermon on “Christian Perfection” he said that it is not freedom from (1) mistake, (2) infirmity, (3) ignorance, or (4) temptation. Scripture is not calling for the absolute and unqualified perfection that belongs to God alone. Instead, the call to holiness is the call to keep the two greatest commandments: love God and neighbor with everything you’ve got. You may make a mistake, call someone by the wrong name, for example But that’s not outright rebellion, and that’s not the sort of thing we’re talking about when it comes to Christian perfection. You may have some handicap that’s not moral in nature; that’s what Wesley meant by infirmity. You can love God and not have perfect knowledge of all things. You can even be tempted and not sin (see Hebrews 4:15). So, when Wesley talks about Christian perfection, he is not offering an unqualified expectation for absolute perfection in every possible way. Don’t think that he is. He is calling for passionate giving of the self to Jesus with nothing held back. Wesley was convinced from scripture that when we release ourselves to Christ in that way the Holy Spirit is able to set us free from inward and outward sin. 
The Heart of a New Revival
The heart of the Wesleyan revival was the preaching of Christian perfection. Sadly, however, this doctrine no longer appears to characterize the landscape of Methodist preaching. I am encouraged, however, that there is renewed interest and attention in some corners of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement to preaching the gospel with a Wesleyan accent; that is, preaching the cross and resurrection of Christ as the means of grace not only to forgive sin but to bear the fruit of holiness in the people of God. More and more of our clergy and laity are rediscovering Wesley and following his example with regard to taking the words of Jesus seriously, the language of perfection and holiness not least. More and more are catching Wesley’s vision and following his instruction to preach entire sanctification “constantly, strongly, and explicitly.” Perhaps God is not yet finished with the people called Methodist.
What do you think of Wesley’s instructions? Have you ever preached or heard a sermon on Christian perfection? When was the last time you heard a sermon on holiness? 

Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues

Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:

  1. We don’t speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper’s discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don’t really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism. 
  2. Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways – indeed, the primary way! – that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point. 
  3. Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper’s discussion unfolded, I couldn’t help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I’m not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: “All Ten Commandments of God pertain to…the realization of prudence…every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent.” To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, “impulses and instincts for right acting.”
  4. The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as “the true myth.” He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn’t get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us. 

What can St. Patrick teach us about Christian Perfection?

Whether using a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity or running the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick is known for many legendary and even fanciful acts. But as Philip Freeman observes in his biography St. Patrick of Ireland, “The true story of Patrick is far more compelling than the medieval legends” (xvii). Patrick left us two documents – one letter and a short autobiography – that shed a great deal of light on his life and his passion for the gospel, missions, and the people of Ireland. Patrick’s missionary zeal is particularly remarkable when the trauma of his childhood is taken into account. 

Some may be surprised to find that Patrick was not originally from Ireland. He was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. Kidnapped at the age of fifteen, he was ripped from his bed in the middle of the night, bound, and taken by ship to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. Though his father and grandfather were members of the clergy, Patrick himself was not a believer. He found, however, that captivity transformed him into a praying man. He further found that the more he prayed, the more he believed in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. After six years of grueling slave labor, Patrick managed to escape and survived the perilous journey home to Britain where he was reunited with his parents. There is a strong sense of divine providence that governed Patrick’s life. According to Freeman, “No one taken by Irish raiders had been known to return alive. No one had ever escaped from Ireland” (44).

A Surprising Call

Perhaps the single most striking thing about Patrick’s life is his eagerness to return to the land of his captivity in order to preach the gospel and plant churches there. This is where I think Patrick’s life is of particularly helpful as we reflect on the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Once home, Patrick began to discern through a series of dreams that God was leading him to seek religious orders and return to Ireland as a missionary and pastor to the very people who had consigned him to a life of slavery. When you read Patrick’s account of his calling and his commitment to return in ministry to Ireland, the strength of his single-minded commitment is clear, especially in light of the opposition he received from his family, friends, and other clergy. He would offer his life in obedience motivated by love for God in love for the Irish. Patrick’s singular focus resonates strongly with Wesley’s formulation of holiness.

Christian Perfection as Enemy Love

When Jesus commanded his followers to “be perfect”, he did so in the context of his teaching on love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In fact, Jesus’ exhortation to be perfect is not referring to some sort of absolute perfectionism. Instead, the perfect command is specifically an imperative to love enemies and pray for persecutors. In short, when Jesus says be perfect, he means love your enemies. Jesus illustrates the point by saying that God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. In the agrarian society of first century Palestine, the point was clear that God gives what is necessary for life to all without regard to their relative goodness or wickedness. When the people of God express love to those who would do them harm, they are obeying Jesus’ command to be perfect.

A Perfect Model

Patrick’s desire to love his former captors out of obedient love to God was a shock to his contemporaries. He wrote in his Confession that his fellow clergy did not understand why he wanted “to put himself in such danger among his enemies who do not know God” (§ 46). Nevertheless, Patrick was unreservedly set apart to his calling. He writes: 

“Now I was able to hand over the freedom of my birth for the benefit of others. And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name…There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would so grant it me, because I am so much in God’s debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God” (§§ 37-38). 

If you want a model of obedience to Jesus’ command to be perfect by loving enemies, you need look no further than St. Patrick of  Ireland.

Contemporary discussions of Christian perfection digress all too often into debates over whether one can stop sinning and be truly perfect, though we forget that John Wesley rejected any language of “sinless perfection”. If you could ask Wesley what he meant by Christian perfection, he would tell you that it is a heart of pure intention overflowing in love for God and others. Patrick’s singular devotion to the call of God to love his enemies provides a concrete example of Wesley’s doctrine. Nothing would stand in Patrick’s way as he put all his energy into fulfilling the law of love, not only for his friends, especially for his enemies.