I have a deep love for Wesleyan Christianity. There are several reasons for this.
First, one of the great advantages which Wesley had was that he was born in the 18th century, a full two centuries after the Protestant Reformation. This gave him the ability to look back and see first-hand the strengths and weaknesses of the Reformation. The resulting expansion and deepening of the Reformation which the Wesleyan revivals brought is truly a marvel to behold.
Five quick examples will suffice: (1) Starting with the Reformation recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, Wesley developed a full-orbed doctrine of grace which included prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace and glorifying grace. (2) Starting with the Reformation recovery of a Christ centered gospel, Wesley developed a more thorough Trinitarian doctrine of salvation which emphasized the Father’s role in electing, the Son’s role in justifying and the Spirit’s role in sanctifying. (3) Starting with the Reformation tension between “grace” and “law,” Wesley had profound insights into Christ not merely “fulfilling” the Law though His own obedience, but actually becoming the new Law Giver empowering us through the Holy Spirit for a deeper obedience than the Law ever imagined. (4) Starting with the Reformation emphasis on the four solas (grace alone, Christ alone, faith alone and Scripture alone), Wesley saw the long term problem with the loss of ecclesiology and instituted, in effect, sola ecclesia, the church alone. The resulting emphasis on church discipline, church discipleship, church accountability and the corporate witness of the church in society (no ‘holy solitaires’ for Wesley!) were hallmarks of the Wesleyan movement. (5) Starting with the Reformation emphasis on God’s grace, Wesley developed a powerful understanding of how grace is conveyed into the life of the believer, the so-called “means of grace.” Prayer, Bible study, the Eucharist and serving the poor were filled with new dimensions because Christ joined us in each of these!
Every one of these examples could easily be an entire blog post, but you can begin to see some of the wonderful contours of the Wesleyan movements which today number approximately 80 million around the world. It is fairly obvious that these five themes (and many others which could be named) have been lost in much of the Western expressions of Wesleyan Christianity. Indeed, we are probably at least two generations away from the restoration of the Wesleyan message, because this next generation will be absorbed with fighting for our basic Christian identity. Nevertheless, we should not forget the insights of the 18th century, because the time will come when the church will be eager to be re-taught these great truths.
The second great advantage which Wesley had was that he was not a sectarian Christian. He saw the church from a truly global and historical frame. This is the great “catholic spirit” which Wesley embodied. He both loved and debated with all the major traditions of the church in his day. Wesley borrowed from Puritans, Pietists, Calvinists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, to name a few. This, of course, had nothing to do with the contemporary trend to fall down and bow before false doctrines and novel teachings and call it being “ecumenical.” For Wesley it meant a deep embrace of the catholic tradition, i.e. the universal tradition, the great semper, ubique et ab omnibus (always, everywhere, by everyone) of the church through the ages.
Wesley was a thoroughly Christian man. He could say with Luther, “I am baptized.” He was a “man of One Book.” Today, the global church is finding their voice and they are re-introducing and re-presenting biblical, holiness Christianity back into our lifeblood. We would do well to listen to and heed their faith and their faithfulness.
The third great advantage is that the Methodist pastors were linked together into a common covenant, which was relational, theological and experiential. The itineracy system was rooted in this shared covenant to ensure consistency in both message and ministry. The earliest preachers were required to preach Wesley’s canonical sermons and show a deep knowledge of Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament. The UMC covenant has been broken since 2013 and the Discipline is now openly defied.
Francis Asbury, the great pioneer of Methodism in America once noted in his journal how on April 28, 1772 he was criticized for causing such offense among some of the Methodist leaders for shutting out several people from a society meeting. But, Asbury wrote, “this does not trouble me…I cannot suffer myself to be guided by half-hearted Methodists.” The broken covenant has made us all “half-hearted Methodists” and we long for the day when our covenant will be restored and we can, once again, be the great force for Scriptural holiness throughout the world.