Last fall I made a commitment with some other pastors to read through all of the standard sermons of John Wesley. Before the end of December I had far exceeded our goal. I had read through all of his published sermons in The Works of John Wesley, all three volumes. I just couldn’t stop when I started. I found myself wanting to get into as much of his thought as I could. In addition to wondering whether Wesley would be welcomed to preach in most of our churches or seminaries, I noticed that several of the same themes came up quite frequently: salvation, justification, new birth, holiness, assurance, and faith working through love as the foundation to all of the above, after the grace of God itself of course, to name a few. There were two themes in particular that seemed, explicitly and implicitly, to bookend and run like a thread all the way through his sermons, namely the doctrine of original sin and the truth of Scripture. While Wesley certainly grew and became more nuanced in his theology, he never wavered from his view that original sin, which he often referred to as “inbred corruption”, completely incapacitates human nature to desire and to do the will of God. Neither did he ever waver from his belief in the truth of Scripture. Let me address the second theme first, because it is actually foundational to the first.
Wesley stood firmly in the stream of tradition dating back to the church fathers and to the early church as attested in the New Testament that claimed the Bible to be inspired by God and consequently true in the highest sense of the word, even without error. According to Church historian J.N.D Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978), “it goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired”(p. 61), and consequently this led to the general view among them that it was also “without error.” For some this meant that nothing therein, not even a “jot or title” according to Origen or a “syllable, accent, or point” according to Jerome, is superfluous ( both as cited in Kelly, p. 61-62). For the fathers and especially for the believers in the apostolic age before them, this belief included the Old Testament, which is most often referred to by skeptics and even progressive Christians to dismiss or undermine the overall authority of Scripture.
The New Testament church clearly saw itself as being, and needing to be, in harmony with the trajectory of the law, the prophets, and the writings, what we call the Old Testament, as its fulfillment in Christ. In other words, Scripture was the authenticator of the veracity of their proclamation and teaching. Hence Acts 17:11 tells us of the nobility of the Bereans who upon hearing the claims of Paul and Silas examined the Scriptures to verify the claims, undoubtedly as they were encouraged to do so by Paul and Silas themselves. And of course 2 Timothy 3:16-17 expresses the belief in Divine inspiration of Scripture and its usefulness as a standard for doctrine, reproof, and correction.
Christian faith and practice has always come with the expectation of being in harmony with Scripture to be authentic. This was not the invention of supposedly simple-minded, shallow “fundamentalists” in the 1920’s. Wesley stood firmly within this tradition and I would say even kicked it up a notch to emphasize how the word of God should shape our whole being and all of our actions. To read John Wesley’s sermons is a good way to test one’s ability to recognize Bible verses and match them to their respective book, chapter and verse. In his sermons, and other writings for that matter, Wesley prolifically quotes or alludes to Scripture without reference to formulate his arguments and shape his rhetoric. At times it seems that every other sentence is a direct quote or definite allusion to Scripture. Even a cursory reading of Wesley’s sermons reveal that he clearly believed Scripture to be the guiding rule for the entirety of a person’s life, thoughts, emotional/attitudinal dispositions (what he referred to as tempers), words, and behavior. In fact, according to Wesley scholar Randy Maddox (Responsible Grace, 1994), John Wesley believed that Christians should adopt the very language of Scripture as much as possible in all their conversations (p. 37), hence, the stark way that the language of the Bible was so intimately and intricately interwoven into his own speaking and writing. In addition to the prolifically profuse way that Wesley quoted and alluded to the Bible, which in itself reveals his incredibly high regard for it, he also made it crystal clear that for him the Bible was true in the highest sense of the term. In one sermon, where he was actually referring to the true propositions that even demons acknowledge, but that still do not make a person a genuine disciple of Christ, Wesley says, referring to the demons, “They, trembling, believe, both that Jesus is the Christ and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is as true as God is true” (Wesley, vol. 1, p. 213, emphasis mine). He trusted the witness of Scripture to be a reliable and true account of the saving work of the Triune God, although like those in this stream of tradition before him he was aware of the difficulty of proper interpretation.
Nonetheless he also trusted Scriptures witness to the depravity of human nature resulting from original sin. In a sermon originally published in 1759, he defended the doctrine against those who insisted that human nature isn’t as bad as the Church had taught. In his sermon, which specifically focuses on Genesis 6:5 “And God saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (KJV), while as his manner was, illuminating it with reference to many New Testament texts, he lays out a case from Scripture that he describes as God’s very own account (Sermon 44). Likewise, over sixty years later in a 1790 sermon titled “The Deceitfulness of Man’s Heart”, against skeptic philosopher David Hume and “enlightened” clergy, he reiterated the Biblical indictment of humanity’s depravity. This time his focus was Jeremiah 17:9, which says, “The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?” (KJV). This too he declared was God’s very own account. For Wesley, humans without grace are helplessly and hopelessly lost, period! To him this was a truth revealed in Scripture that was confirmed by tradition, reason, and experience. Yet, even in 1759 this doctrine was not all that fashionable. In 1790 it was even less so. Neither is it at all fashionable today, and it never has been. Really it’s not all that fashionable within the United Methodist Church. A robust doctrine and belief in the doctrine of original sin, however, is required for a robust doctrine and fervent belief in the necessity and urgency of salvation.
A few years ago I was in a study group (we called it precept) for a worship class in seminary. By the way, there was a guy by the name of Chad Holtz in that class. You may have heard of him. Anyway, we were discussing baptism and whether or not someone had to be baptized to be saved because the question had come up in the church that I served at the time (not a question that I’m going to deal with here). Nevertheless, at least one person in the group, a United Methodist, was clearly disgusted with the whole idea of someone needing “to be saved” at all. A few years later a long time pastor shared that someone in a confirmation class asked whether we United Methodists believe that people need “to be saved” like her Baptist friends insisted!
How much Scripture does one have to ignore or dismiss to get rid of the language regarding being and needing “to be saved?!!! How could a church in the Wesleyan tradition give young people the impression that they aren’t really concerned about people being saved? Other than the fact that they really aren’t. Of course we traditionally have a different understanding of salvation in comparison to our Baptist brothers and sisters, but if anything it has been a much more robust understanding of salvation with an emphasis on the new birth and sanctification. Yet our emphasis on salvation today is apparently not even equal to that of our Baptist friends! How did we get here?
Try a rejection of the reliability and veracity of Scripture for starters. Then it’s easy to dismiss what Scripture has to say about the depravity of human nature. Of course you have all those people promoting the doctrine that doctrine isn’t all it’s cracked up to be when what they really mean is that we need to replace old doctrines with new ones, which are really just old ones, pagan ones, anyway. Many are leading people to believe that they really aren’t that bad off after all and that sin is really not a big deal. A prevailing presumption seems to be the philosophy of “I’m ok, you’re ok, we’re all ok” unless of course you suggest that we may not be. But this presumption, as reassuring as it may be, according to Wesley is dangerous, and a statement of his regarding it touches the issues I have highlighted here.
“Presumption is one grand snare of the devil, in which many of the children of men are taken. They so presume upon the mercy of God as utterly to forget his justice. Although he has expressly declared, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” yet they flatter themselves, that in the end God will be better than his word. They imagine they may live and die in their sins, and nevertheless “escape the damnation of hell” (Sermon 86, “A Call to Backsliders”).
The bad news of Scripture is clear and it is true, but thank God that it also reliably and truthfully bears witness to the Good News!
Ephesians 2:1-10 (NRSV)
“2You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.
4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”